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Reconceptualizing Knowledge and Narratives

Session XII-08, 2022 Annual Meeting

On Sunday, December 4 at 11:00 am

Panel Description
  • Zaghlul's memoirs were transcribed into legible Arabic script in the 1980s and 1990s by a team of scholars led by Abd al-Athim Ramadan. Yet, they have not been used very extensively in literature in English. Ramadan suggested that the memoirs were significant in revising the narrative of the 1919 revolution, notably the origin of party divisions and the involvement of militant activists from an early stage. These conclusions revise the Nasirist era critques of Zaghlul's collaboration with colonial authorities, his colonial liberal orientation. These critiques point to typical characteristics of the bourgeois revolutionary type. My reading of the memoirs suggests that we should see him as a bourgeois revolutionary. He was a reformist who sought a constitutional revolution of the type typical of the era from 1789 to 1917. It highlights his commitment to liberal constitutionalism, far short of what the Nasirist socialists or 1919 Watani nationalists envisaged, but far more than what colonial authorities and their 'liberal' partners were willing to conuntenance. British observers were haunted by the spectre of the 1917 revolution, some Egyptian radicals might have fouond inspiration in that revolution. It was not part of Zaghlul's calculations. He spoke not of 'revolution' but of a 'movement'. Conventional narratives that point to his autorcratic style of leadership and his resort to political violence are influenced by colonial critques, more fantasy than reality. The paper seeks a middle ground appreciation of Zaghlul's politics in fidelity with the evidence and the historical period, indicating that the various stages and processes of the revolution were determined by his liberal constitutionalism.
  • This paper explores the political production of the Moroccan Marxist Leninist Movement (MMLM) following the end of the Cold War. Few studies have paid attention to that section of the Moroccan Left, and those that did have mostly focused their attention on the memoirs of key figures (El Guabli 2020), and on the cultural productions associated with the movement (Sefrioui 2013). This study proposes to focus on the oft-overlooked political production of these groups in the post-Cold War era. Through an analysis of the primary documents published and circulated by the MMLM groups/factions, this study identifies the narratives produced by these groups to make sense of the rapid and significant political transformations occurring at the global and regional level. It then traces the evolution of these narratives over time and across the newly emerged boundaries within the MMLM. The study also contextualizes that process of production and evolution, by situating it in relation to the struggles within the Moroccan Left field, as well as the position vis-à-vis the wider Political Field (Bourdieu 2000). This study of the MMLM contributes to the recent renewal of academic interest in the Arab Lefts (Bardawil 2020, Guirguis 2020). Firstly, it engages with the experience of the movement on its own terms, through its political production and the social dynamics and internal struggles that it reflects. Secondly, it expands the scope of analysis by going beyond the movement’s heyday in the Long Sixties and engaging with its experience and production in the era of triumphant neoliberalism, increasing schisms, and faltering belief in socialist projects.
  • Lebanon is experiencing the third most severe economic and financial crisis in the world since the mid-nineteenth century, according to a recent World Bank (2021) report. ‘Crises’ (‘azamat) have long been defining features of everyday life, political discourses as well as scholarly framings of Lebanon. So much so that the term ‘crisis’ itself has become a historical ‘super-concept,’ so self-evident and self-referential that it is taken as a priori rather than examined. Mediating between institutional and structural breakdown and crisis action, lies an essential yet undertheorized dimension of crisis: ‘the struggle over interpretation’. The interpretation of crises is a fraught terrain of power, caught between well-established interests and regimes of power on the one hand, and alternative forces for change, on the other (Reed 2016). A given construal of a crisis can either displace and misconstrue the sources of structural breakdown, or contribute in focusing those causes. Rather than take ‘crisis’ as a starting point for sociological analysis, this research seeks to bypass the epistemological impasse crisis narratives reproduce by unpacking how competing narrativizations of crisis can either enable or preclude protest and critique. Through a combination of ethnographic and archival research methods, this research explores how structurings of interpretations of reality as ‘crises’ alter perceptions of civic choices and actions. Archival research examines political discourses and media coverage of the economic and financial crisis. Ethnographic fieldwork consists of semi-structured interviews and participant observation to get to the heart of the everyday experiences of ‘crises’ and shifting modes of political participation in exceptional times. The goal is a tracing of everyday discursive and non-discursive patterns and experiences, to better conceptualize the relationship between epoch-shaping crises and the opening and foreclosure of liminal spaces of political contestation. Contributing to interdisciplinary debates from across social movement studies, political economy, and economic sociology, this research unsettle the veneer of objectivity that surrounds classical economic accounts of ‘crisis’ that naturalize and externalize market economy as a realm separate from political, social and historic construal and contention. Instead, I seek to advance a less deterministic, and more substantive understanding of ‘crises,’ not merely as ‘objective realities,’ but also as ‘subjective historical processes.’ Seeking to complicate the temporal and epistemic framework of crises that have come to characterize the human condition and everyday material realities under late capitalism, this research highlights the centrality of interpretive power struggles within which crises gain meanings and are lived.
  • This paper addresses methodological issues of conducting research with communities that have been subjected to colonial rule in different forms and, as a result, have been excluded from knowledge production processes. In particular, I explore the ways in which the Kurdish and Zapatista movements have pursued a project of decolonizing knowledge by engaging in critique of modern Western science and by developing alternative approaches to knowledge production. The two movements can help us challenge the basic assumptions about what constitutes the legitimate spaces for knowledge production and who are the legitimate agents of this process: Do we as academics take seriously analytical categories and theories developed by movements and communities in struggle? Does the knowledge produced by these actors stand on equal footing with the knowledge produced by academia? What agency should those who are researched upon have in setting the terms of research and formulating its conclusions? Whom and what goals does research serve? I argue that the intellectual contributions developed by these two movements provide us with some ways forward towards decolonizing and transforming conventional methodological approaches and epistemological underpinnings of academic research. I explore in particular how the two movements have challenged three features of mainstream research in social sciences – Western-centrism, positivism and academia-centrism – which have enabled persisting exclusion and marginalization of oppressed communities in struggle within the institutions of knowledge production. In addition, I discuss three features of alternative knowledge production which can be identified from the two movements’ discourse and practice, namely transcending separation between theory and practice; producing situated knowledge; and collectivizing and democratizing knowledge production. In the process, I make a case that social movements do produce knowledge; yet, this knowledge differs from the one produced purely within academia in that there is no separation between theory and practice. As such the type of knowledge produced and advocated by the Kurdish and Zapatista movements echoes what Boaventura de Sousa Santos calls “epistemologies of South,” that is, knowledge produced through involvement in a social and political struggle. Finally, in seeking ways forward for social science research, the paper explores the potential of collaborative or participatory research for “decolonizing” the relationship between researchers and their interlocutors and engaging with the movements as legitimate knowledge producers. I draw primarily on texts, speeches, and interviews by the members and representatives of the two movements which address questions of knowledge production.
  • In 1933, one year after Iraq gained its independence, the Iraqi army massacred Christian Assyrians at the village of Simele. Accounts of this tragedy have problematically anchored it in Iraq’s allegedly inherent sectarian tendencies, framing it as a hegemonic Muslim ‘majority’ against an oppressed ‘minority’ – a narrative prevalent in the Orientalist approach towards the Middle East. Instead, I reframe the Simele massacre within the modern nation state-building processes by analyzing the developments leading up to this tragedy. Through this framework, I posit that the structure, mobilizing efforts, and forms of resistance of a specific group of Assyrians (the Mar Sham’un Party), adhere to the paradigm of nationalism and nationalist movements. To gain concessions from the government, the party employed forms of contentious politics, such as engaging in active propaganda, undertaking a policy of non-cooperation, and influencing dissident actions of the Levies (British-led military consisting of Assyrian men) against the local population. The party utilized a nationalist framing to recruit members, and laboured efforts to consolidate the Assyrian identity through claims of indigeneity, using this rhetoric to demand secession from the nascent Iraqi state. The party’s ideology and activities, however, stood in direct opposition to Iraq’s state-building process, prompting a swift reaction by the Iraqi military. By recasting the massacre in a modern state-building paradigm, we find that Iraq’s response of violence and repression was not exclusive to the Assyrians. Rather, it was a typical reaction to any movement rooted in political opposition. This is mirrored in the Iraqi military’s ruthless suppression of Arab tribal rebellions and Kurdish movements during the same time-period of the Simele massacre, which suggests that the narratives of sectarianism and majority/minority antagonisms are misleading. My analysis is based on the models developed by nationalism theorists, including Anthony D. Smith, Ernest Gellner, and Benedict Anderson. On Iraq and the Assyrians, I employ government documents from the National Archives of the United Kingdom and the League of Nations Archives, as well as Assyrian nationalist journal publications, and sources written by contemporary figures. This research will therefore serve to deconstruct the reductive narrative available on the Simele massacre and will reframe the Assyrians as active actors in Iraq’s history rather than as passive agents. It will furthermore shift the occurrence from being written exclusively under Genocide Studies genre and will insert it into Iraq’s political history, reconciling the political dissidence leading up to the massacre with modernity and state-building processes.
  • In illustrated royal manuscripts, often the only name securely attached to a book is that of the patron. While a patron’s name provides valuable information, the dearth of other evidence sometimes leads scholars to reduce a complex work of art to the rubric of its patron’s liking. A manuscript that Shah Tahmasb of Safavid Iran copied at the age of eleven is no exception. Modern scholars’ attention to the young age of the book’s scribe has obscured the deliberate movement of power that the book engendered. In the present paper, I turn to this manuscript, a 1524-25 copy of the Timurid poet ‘Arifi’s Guy wa Chawgan, to consider two bodies of evidence. The first is the dedicatory inscription of the book, which highlights the embodied gift-giving practices in the Safavid context; the second is the book’s illustrations, which encourage a personal bond between courtiers and the shah. In doing so, I chart a social history for this manuscript, and argue that the book was instrumental in forging a new social tie between the young king and his newly appointed vizier. These findings show us that the critical reception of manuscripts in Safavid Iran was predicated on their viewers’ willingness to be shaped by the book’s lessons, which created an ecosystem of meaning that was collectively constituted by audiences, rather than singularly by the patron.