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Borders and Borderlands: The New Politics of the Middle East

Panel II-28, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Thursday, November 2 at 5:30 pm

Panel Description
  • Borders and borderlands are political spaces that have their own logic and dynamics, which are usually unique to the context. In the literature, borderlands are often known as the zones that may intensify the effects of violence during conflict (Korf and Raeymaekers, 2013; Idler, 2019; Brenner 2019) because, in these remote areas, the porosity of borderlands become an enabler for the infiltration of goods and people, including armed militants, letting to the clashes between state and non-state actors. Due to increased security threats, states are likely to increase their presence in those contested areas through several practices. Meanwhile, as noted above, state authority is severely challenged in borderlands, particularly as the inhabitants of these areas often have complex self-identities and recognizably different national or political identities than the ethnic majority. Despite the complex dynamics of borderlands, and the plurality of policies and experiences, a lack of a theoretically sophisticated and empirically rich approach to the study of violence in borderlands continues to be a challenge in political science. Because of that, it is also hard to trace local patterns and variations in terms of state’s border policies from a comparative perspective. All these contradictory factors lead to the following question: why does the state’s ‘border work’ contain violence in some cases but may increase it in others? Based on a novel dataset that includes information about state policies of border control along the Kurdish borderlands between Turkey, Iraq, and Iran and people’s lived experiences from semi-structured interviews and archival sources in the last two decades, I argue that borders are drawn at the official/national level but (re)made as a product of everyday interactions between multiple actors at the local level. This study is important given that a comparative understanding of border dynamics helps us understand the complex relationship between state, territory, and people in war-torn contexts. Thereby, with this research, I aim to fill a gap in the literature and contribute to the scholarship on critical security studies, MENA politics, peace and conflict studies as well as (comparative) territorial and border studies.
  • Based on eighteen months of ethnographic fieldwork in war-torn Syria and Lebanon, this paper shows how a human rights discourse (HRD) became part of daily narratives of ordinary Syrians beginning in 2011. I show how the “universal” hegemonic human rights discourse traveled to Syria, got sectarianized, and was deployed by the warring parties across the board. I ask how ordinary Syrians made sense of the human rights discourse before and during the revolution, and then throughout the war, to analyze how most warring and non-warring parties adopted some aspects of the human rights “field” to justify their positions. I show how, under the war conditions, sect habitus transformed based on an ambiguous human rights discourse which in turn got sectarianized and hardened sect identities into sectarian divisions. This chapter traces the evolution of a Syrian HRD that was deployed across the political spectrum and shows that under the war conditions sect habitus transformed based on an ambiguous HRD, which in turn became sectarianized.
  • This research explores the relationship between the international community and the sovereign state in alleviating human suffering in the Syrian civil war. It investigates the spatial configuration of international humanitarian assistance created through everyday practices, negotiations, and violence in Syria's civil war through Lefebvre's critical theory of space. By doing so, it aims to understand the meanings and forms of sovereignty and its impact on the provision of humanitarian assistance in the conflict. I argue that as the Syrian regime struggles to maintain its grip across the country, violence directed toward humanitarian space has become a feature of the regime as the most visible articulation of sovereign power. Such violence of the sovereign as a means is closely linked to the function of sovereign power that strives to preserve its autonomy in times of crisis. This reconfigures power relations between the state, aid organizations, and vulnerable people in the provision of humanitarian assistance in the conflict. Through a qualitative method, I show that the practice of humanitarian assistance provides a deeper understanding of state sovereignty and its interaction with international humanitarian norms and principles. Specifically, I offer insight on the spatial articulations of sovereign power and its effects on the humanitarian community in the provision of humanitarian assistance. In response to the increasing role of the international community tasked with upholding the fundamental principle of humanity in the conflict, the Syrian regime asserts itself in every possible space, including humanitarian space. Violence, here, becomes an instrument the state employs in an attempt to maintain the effective exercise and application of state power. Also, rather than being unitary and coherent, global governance of humanity that is oriented towards a specific goal of saving lives and alleviating human suffering is rather diverse and actor specific. As an effect of the assertive sovereignty, meanings and practices of humanitarian aid are constantly negotiated and constructed differently by humanitarian relief organizations, despite one common goal.
  • Negotiating Death: Hadi Jumaans’ Successful Humanitarian Missions in Yemen—A Strategic Analysis In this presentation I explore the negotiation techniques of Hadi Jumaan, a local Yemeni mediator and negotiator who facilitates the exchange of prisoners of war in Yemen and the retrieval of human remains from the frontlines of the ongoing civil and sectarian war engulfing Yemen. Jumaan has had incredible success crossing sectarian divides where political consensus, common ground, and sustained conflict resolution have consistently failed. Hadi Jumaan is a welcome exception to the general rule of political deadlocks suffocating the Yemeni population suffering since the Arab Spring. Jumaans’ negotiations are analyzed through his interactions with four distinct sets of actors in Yemen: (1) tribal entities, (2) non-state actors (3) government and quasi-government agents, and (4) foreign governments. In a unique Yemeni context, I argue Jumaan has achieved successful resolution of hundreds of negotiations and mediations through attaining a neutral status among most of the stakeholders he interacts with—a truly singular achievement for a conflict where no actors have been able to continuously maintain neutrality and effectively work inside Yemen for sustained periods of time. Despite this turbulent environment, Jumaan has been able to maintain this status. While instances exist of successful conflict resolution achievements at a grassroots level on a case-by-case basis, Jumaan stands alone in his perpetual ability to continue achieving results in the hostile environments in which he works transiting shifting borders and political alliances throughout Yemen. Although national and international entities have generally failed to achieve lasting political and military solutions in Yemen, grassroots negotiators by contrast have achieved solutions throughout the conflict. Hadi Jumaan best represents these local negotiators. This paper further extrapolates that Jumaans’ successes are unable to be scaled up to a national level in Yemen for a likely inability to maintain his neutral status on a wider stage with more complicated negotiating partners. This paper conducts its research using Howard Raiffa’s synthesized approach to decision making— an interconnection of decision analysis, behavioral decision making, game theory, and negotiation analysis— with a particular focus in scholarship on crisis and hostage negotiating. This presentation’s research is derived from interviews with Jumaan and questionnaires of his interlocutors analyzing the decision-making characteristics of his negotiations and mediations conducted since 2011. This presentation builds on research of humanitarian negotiators in a Syrian from 2011 comparing lessons learned from that context with Hadi Jumaan in Yemen.
  • Capturing Complexity: A New Key to (Ottoman and Turkish) Politics The study of Turkey and the Middle East has long been informed by binary logics which pit groups like “Islamists vs. secularists”, “Turks vs. Kurds”, or “Sunnis vs. Alevis”. Binary reasoning, moreover, has been internalized by many people across the region, contributing to intensive polarization today across ethnic, religious, sectarian, and other identity lines. Yet, Turkey, like the region, is also a site of remarkable diversity and persistent mobilization for pluralistic politics. (Pluralism here is defined in an analytical-descriptive sense—unencumbered by the Eurocentric assumptions of liberal political theory—as amenability to sharing spaces with people unlike oneself). How then to reconcile the power of binary frames with actually existing diversity? This paper, which presents the main findings of a forthcoming monograph with Cambridge University Press, proposes an answer. Drawing on complex systems thinking in conversation with historical institutionalism in political science, it proposes an original framework with which to read political contests. The argument is that contestation is driven not by binary conflicts between monolithic identity groups, but by the dynamic interplay of agential, ideational, and structural factors. This interplay generates emergent properties which, at times of heightened tension, can culminate in critical junctures that propel a political system in more or less open directions. Using process-tracing based on extensive, historical and contemporary source triangulation—including some 60 interviews—it pinpoints the causal interplay of agents, ideas, and structures across a dozen critical junctures in late Ottoman and republican Turkey. This evidence points to a powerful but widely overlooked pattern: that political outcomes are driven not by inter-camp conflict, but by inter-camp coalitions. In other words, moderates across groups tend to coalesce into formal or informal alliances against hardliners who likewise come together across identity camps. Thus, advocates of various forms of pluralism (e.g. religious, ethnic, gender) are intermittently able to impel pluralizing change (even as the real differences across their respective takes on pluralism render such alliances fragile). On other occasions, however, advocates of unitary identities across camps, e.g. ethno- and ethno-religious nationalists, cooperate successfully to keep the pluralists out. This novel and timely key to (Ottoman and Turkish) politics thus challenges Orientalist readings of Middle Eastern politics as driven by primordial hostilities, opening the eye to analytical and practical possibilities for building alliances for pluralism across political camps.
  • Turkey’s international politics and its political, financial, and cultural investments in South Eastern Europe, known as the Balkans, are often referred to as “Soft Power” in the European media. It is argued that Erdoğan-led Turkey’s Islamist imperial dreams started gaining political currency amongst Sunni Muslims in the former Ottoman lands during the last decade. Indeed, a series of neo-Ottomanist cultural projects of the Turkish state is observed across post-Ottoman geographies. These include media projects, period dramas followed closely in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, social activities held at Yunus Emre culture centers, and philanthropy projects. Turkey presents the boldest and most focused case in imperial revivalist formations of (multiple) Islamisms. However, a large proportion of such analytical narratives demonstrate a limited understanding of the minority Muslims in Eastern Europe. By focusing specifically on the fieldwork in North Macedonia with Albanian, Torbeshi, and Turkish Muslims, this paper traces the imaginative encounters, where the political dreams, longings, aspirations, and desires of local native Muslims and the Turkish state have met and conversed with each other. How do various Muslim groups perceive the presence of the Turkish state in North Macedonia? This is part of a broader research that studies Turkey’s various enterprise in post-Ottoman geographies that ethnographically studies how notions of the past are recalibrated for futuristic projects.