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In search of Zomia: Non-State Politics in the Middle East and North Africa

Session I-12, 2022 Annual Meeting

On Thursday, December 1 at 3:00 pm

Panel Description
The framework for understanding the process of state evasion as developed by the anarchist and political scientist James Scott (The Art of Not Being Governed, 2009), has established itself as a solid decolonized approach to marginalized communities. As such, it has helped rewrite the histories of groups from within the margins, usually with a special focus on Southeast Asia, or in the words of Scott: Zomia. However, Scott himself does not effectively concern himself with non-state communities in the Middle East and North Africa, even though some references to non-state communities in the MENA region and North Africa can be discerned in his work. In this panel, we aim to enrich his theory of non-state politics by shifting the focus to the Middle East and North Africa. Our case studies, which draw on contemporary Berber/Amazigh, Kurdish and Jewish history, will discuss different ways how non-state politics continue to shape majority/minority relations, political mobilization and state formation in the region.
Political Science
  • Modern Berber/Amazigh identity has been deeply shaped by the political and epistemological interventions of French colonialism, ranging from the fantasy of “our loyal Berbers” to the misconception of a strict dualism between bilad al-Makhzen (in the language of Scott: the space of state-making) and bilad al-siba (or for Scott: the space of state evasion). This paper explores how modern Amazigh nationalism deals with this contested legacy: While modern Amazigh nationalism mirrors certain colonial ideas (not least in terms of Amazigh indigeneity), the symbolic repertoire of the Amazigh cultural movement clearly reflects core notions of anti-colonial nation-building. Based on the case study of the Berber Academy, the paper explores how this site of intellectual production integrated both colonial motifs and anti-colonial patterns of resistance, reflecting its historical setting in Paris in the 1960s and 1970s. The paper discusses how the scholarly output of the Berber Academy discussed Amazigh history in terms of state evasion and state-making, frequently with a focus on reinventing an Amazigh past that lived up to the state-focused expectations of anti-national liberation movements of the time.
  • Theories of civic culture tried to analyze democratization, however, often did not specifically look at stateless nations like the Kurds. This brings up the question of what civic culture looks like for them and whether the status of statelessness has influenced the civic culture of Kurds in Iran, Iraq, and Turkey. Analyzing the first merged large-N dataset including Kurds from Turkey, Iran, and Iraq, this paper shows that the last hundred years of Kurdish political movements have influenced the civic culture of Kurds highly. Being Kurdish in Turkey, Iran, and Iraq has a significant effect on levels of various indicators of political trust and support as well as the correlation of these indicators with levels of support for a democratic political system. Overall, this paper finds that being Kurdish has a strong positive effect on support for democracy versus autocracy in all three countries.
  • While James Scott’s theory of state evasion (The Art of Not Being Governed, 2009) contains numerous references to non-state communities in the Middle East and North Africa, the approach has not been applied systematically to the region itself. As a contribution to the theory-building on non-state politics, this paper compares the political geography of state evasion in Southeast Asia to the Middle East and North Africa. Based on case studies from Druze, Berber/Amazigh and Kurdish history, the paper discusses three differences in particular – the institutional legacy of large Islamic empires, the historical rupture of the colonial “minority policy” and the successful political mobilization of non-state communities after decolonization, especially in the case of Kurdish and Berber/Amazigh nationalism. In its conclusion, the paper discusses the research agenda of non-state politics in the Middle East and North Africa, arguing that the analysis of material practices of state evasion (physical withdrawal) should be integrated more closely with immaterial practices of state evasion (spiritual withdrawal), ranging from patterns of theological dissimulation to formally recognized enclaves of legal autonomy.
  • Under Ba’athist rule, orality was used in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) as a vehicle to process and represent atrocities and suffering. Sharing stories and news orally was a way to resist, since doing this in writing could be regarded as an act of civil disobedience and treason. For James Scott, the absence of literacy constitutes a form of flexibility, and oral traditions should therefore, from his perspective, not be understood as a deficiency. Instead, it could be argued that they have several advantages over written traditions. Orality in the war torn Iraq, even though forced, was indeed a powerful tool to evade the power of the state. After the fall of Saddam Hussein, as part of nation-building efforts, the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in the KRI has systematically engaged in the construction of museums and memorial sites that concern traumatic events that took place under Ba'athist rule. These sites have taken over the functions that older oral histories used to have, especially in the context of constructing a shared sense of community. However, these processes of monumentalization also embeds Kurdish victimization into a larger historical context. In this way, the memories of traumatic events are explicitly politicized and revolve around the attempt to legitimize the constitution of an independent Kurdish nation. Simultaneously, this paper argues, non-state actors, mostly victims of the former regime, are demanding a different historical narrative. One that acknowledges their individual and particular experiences of suffering. In these narratives, memory is used not to create a sense of nationhood, but to build a community based on shared understandings of suffering and pain. In this paper, these arguments will be substantiated with help of the discussion of several memory sites in the KRI.