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Rethinking nations in the Middle East

- June 2, 2015

Two youths carrying a large Jordanian flag are among thousands of Islamic Action Front supporters gathered to demand constitutional reforms during an opposition rally described as the biggest in the kingdom since the Arab Spring uprisings started in late 2010, in Amman, Jordan, Friday, Oct. 5, 2012. (AP Photo/Raad Adayleh)
You couldn’t swing a dead imperialist last summer without hitting an essay about the unraveling of the Sykes-Picot system in the Middle East. The bloody disintegration of Iraq and Syria seemed to have finally ripped apart the borders created by the British and French governments in the aftermath of World War I (even if the borders in question were actually forged at San Remo).
It wasn’t just the rise of the so-called Islamic State spanning and erasing the Syrian-Iraqi border. The unprecedented, synchronized popular mobilization across borders during the early Arab uprisings of 2011 gave potent form to the ideals of transnational Arab political community supplanting the limits of nation-states. As the uprisings turned darker and most of the democratic transitions failed, new challengers to nation-states in the Middle East rose to the forefront: the Islamic State; the growing de facto independence of Kurds across Iraq and Syria, with ramifications extending into Turkey and Iran; the rise of sub-regional identities carried by heavily armed militias in failing states such as Yemen and Libya; unprecedented forced displacement moving millions of people within and across borders; and raging sectarianism dividing Sunnis and Shiites.
These developments have not had a singular effect on national identities, however. While some states have collapsed, creating space for new subnational identities to challenge national cohesion, most have retrenched into a fiercer form of authoritarianism. Egypt’s military coup, for instance, has been sustained by the heavy-handed promotion of extreme nationalism. Many states in the Gulf have drawn upon sectarianism to consolidate support for their regimes in ways that could have an enduring impact on popular conceptions of national identity. Battles over the proper role of Islam in public life have reshaped political discourse from Egypt and Turkey (see Senem Aslan and Kristin Fabbe in this collection) and Tunisia (Elizabeth Young). Kurds imagine new political possibilities in very different contexts, as Nicole Watts demonstrates from Halabja and Serhun Al demonstrates through the historical experience of Turkey and Iraq.
In February, therefore, I convened a Project on Middle East Political Science symposium with Laurie A. Brand at the University of Southern California to examine national identity in the face of such challenges. Their essays have now been released as Rethinking Nation and Nationalism, a special issue of POMEPS Studies, available for free download here.
The “Sykes-Picot” framing of recent events has not been completely fruitless. The recent deluge of fascinating books timed to the centenary of World War I (including Eugene Rogan’s “Fall of the Ottomans”, Leila Fawaz’s “A Land of Aching Hearts” and Kristian Ulrichsen’s “The First World War in the Middle East”) make clear how profoundly those epochal events reshaped every dimension of the society, economy and state of what became the Middle East. However, as Meghan Tinsley recounts, Sykes-Picot itself is remembered and invoked very differently by competing political constituencies. This framing also tells us little about the formation of states beyond the Levant. National struggles against French settler-colonialism shaped North African nationalism in ways deeply divergent from the experience of the Levant or, for that matter, from the process of state and nation formation in the Gulf. Even in the Levant, those “artificial” states are nearly a hundred years old. They have engaged in ambitious, if never perfectly successful, efforts to socialize their citizens into national identities through educational systems, the media, national service, museums, festivals, public space and official rhetoric. No wonder that, as Nadav Shelf shows, states are less likely to fight for land which has not been fully incorporated into ideas of the national homeland.
The invocation of national identity might be taken to imply a singular identification with the nation, but this has never been so simple. There has never been a shortage of challengers to regional nation-states, and a vast academic literature has examined national and transnational identity debates in the region. My first book detailed the complex ways in which Jordan’s national identity had been publicly contested both at home and in the broader Arab public arena, a theme that has run through much of my writing. National identities are typically only one of multiple identities. There is no necessary contradiction between identifying as a Sunni Muslim, a member of a tribe, an Arab, a Jordanian, a university professor and a mother, with each component of identity taking priority at different times and for different reasons. Thus, it should not be surprising that the early Arab uprisings were both national and transnational, local and regional. The first months of 2011 witnessed extraordinary levels of transnational identification and mobilization, with Yemenis taking inspiration from Tunisians as part of a shared Arab narrative. But even during such moments of pan-Arab sentiment, the potency of national identity could be seen in the ostentatious waving of national flags and chanting of national slogans by Egyptian and Jordanian protesters.
National identity also offered material for the demonization of the protesters, whether in regime discourse warning darkly of “foreign hands” behind the demonstrations or in the aggressive response of “honorable citizens” to the protesters. Whether or not patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel, it certainly proves useful for embattled regimes determined to rally popular support against enemies at home and abroad. It should be no surprise, then, that the authoritarian backlash against the Arab uprisings involved the appropriation of nationalist symbols and the attempt to define popular challengers as aliens beyond the pale of the national community. Unreformed state-dominated media sectors, so central to earlier state efforts to cultivate and promote national identities, proved especially effective in countries such as Egypt and Tunisia at mobilizing this nationalist resurgence.
One new way to research such questions of nation and nationalism is to use online behavior to evaluate the intensity and the terms by which Arabs relate to one another. When Arabs talk politics online, do state borders constitute meaningful national communities? Deen Freelon, Sean Aday and I offer some intriguing new evidence about these interconnections in a recent article in the open access journal Research and Politics. Using a dataset of every tweet including the word “Syria” in English or Arabic over nearly three years—nearly 58 million tweets composed by almost 7 million unique users—we constructed an index of “Arab Springiness” by extracting every mention of other Arab countries. During 2011, roughly 30 percent of these tweets included at least one other Arab country, with references spiking to an astonishing 41.5 percent in November. An additional 8 percent named two or more countries (increasing to 15.5 percent in November), often linked together through shared hashtags. However, after 2011, the “Arab Springiness” of Syria tweets sharply declined, with other countries rarely being named more than 20 percent of the time and the number of multi-country tweets dropping dramatically.
Using a similar dataset, Freelon, Aday and I trace persistent national clusters in the online discourse about Syria and Egypt for a forthcoming study. Egyptians, Kuwaitis and Tunisians were indeed tweeting about Syria, Yemen or Libya, but they were still mostly interacting with fellow nationals. Especially in the early months of 2011, online citizens would identify with, closely observe, and draw lessons from the experiences of other Arab countries, but they still mostly engaged with fellow-nationals on the issues confronting their own state. In later years, sectarian and religious identities became more prominent, in line with events on the ground. For example, Kuwaitis still tweeted often about Syria in 2012 and 2013, but the framing of those tweets shifted from politics to fundraising for Syrian rebels. The data reveals not only cross-border networks linking together ideological, sectarian or political groupings (Egyptian anti-Islamists and UAE politicians, Sunni Islamists around the Gulf, Shiites across the Gulf and the Levant), but also persistent patterns of national conversation. Such network analysis of the actual online behavior during and after the Arab uprisings helps to illustrate the dynamic interaction between the national and the transnational.
Nations, then, are evolving and adapting under the pressures of the post-Arab uprisings but have hardly faded. The intensity and depth of the challenge to these states drives both intense new manifestations of nationalism and the emergence of intense new forms of subnational and transnational identities. Thus, sectarianism surges in a shattered Syria or Iraq, while hypernationalism flourishes in a post-coup Egypt. This could well lead to the creation of new national identities or to the resurrection of national identities from the dead and forgotten would-be states of which David Patel reminds us. Either way, these new identity projects are refracted through national communities that, after decades of institutionalization, continue to structure politics, anchor networks and shape the political imaginary.
For more, download the essays collected in POMEPS Studies #14, Rethinking Nation and Nationalism.