The fragments imagine the nation?
Minorities in the colonial and postcolonial Middle East
Place and date: The Graduate Institute International and Development Studies, Geneva, Switzerland, November 8–9, 2013.
Organizers: The International History Department at Graduate Institute International and Development Studies, Geneva, and the History Department at the University of Birmingham, UK.
Almost a century after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, scholarship on minorities in the Middle East shows a remarkable continuity. Minority politics have traditionally been considered as a problem, indeed as one of the main reasons for the “unsuccessful” consolidation of the nation-state in the region; they now appear, to many, as an obstacle to broader processes of democratization and liberalization within the context of the so-called “Arab Spring”. As Egypt struggles to elaborate a new constitution that would pave the way for the integration of all segments of its society, Turkey, Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon have witnessed an awakening of ethnic and religious tensions since 2011. Other states such as Iraq seem to be stunned by sectarian conflicts. In the face of these huge challenges, the Middle East is once more portrayed as a region doomed to endless ethnic and religious turmoil and, more importantly, their elites as incapable of getting rid of this “fatality”. And yet perceptions like these assume that such turmoil is primordial: a cause, rather than a symptom, of troubled times. They also, perhaps deliberately, elide the role of any external actors in fostering division and conflict.
The rationale of this understanding is based on two complementary premises. First, Middle Eastern societies are perceived as deeply divided by kin group. Second, from the 1920s onwards, the League of Nations fostered a system that, on the one hand, accepted the nation-state as the norm in international relations and, on the other, opened the door to the protection of minority groups in the “less civilized” societies and “new” states. Consequently, the Mandatory system and the international “protection of minorities” in countries such as Iraq, Syria and Lebanon by European powers led many local political actors to view minority politics as a colonialist tool intended to hamper full national independence of the newly established states.
However, reality was, as in most cases, more complex than these interpretations might suggest. Minority claims were neither the “natural” outcome of a historic conflict between religious and ethnic groups nor the consequence of imperialist designs in the Middle East. “Minority” and “majority” groups, international as well as transnational actors interplayed in a triangular relationship for decades prior to the First World War, when the multiethnic and multi-religious dynastic empires collapsed. Thereafter, and historically, two diverging constitutional choices – either the choice of government of the demographic majority (Turkey, Egypt, Israel, Iran, etc) or the choice of “consensus democracy” (Lebanon; Iraq since 2005) – shaped state-society relations differently in each country in the postcolonial Middle East. The former came to dominate the political engineering in the Middle East in the aftermath of the Second World War, when support for legal guarantees of ‘minority rights’ – never popular with indigenous elites – diminished among the international community. The Cold War put minority politics into a deep freeze, so to speak; but its end, and the effects of the globalization process that affect every state without exception, paved the way for a new crisis of identity in the Middle East.
This general overview neglects other significant issues that deserve further attention. Whilst lawmakers and state elites envisioned either “demographic majority” or “consensus democracy” as the two main viable political arrangements in order to meet “national” challenges, diverse indigenous actors (e.g. intellectuals, ulema, political parties, state
officials, minority members) at different times sought to put forward alternative solutions to the “minority issue”, drawing from a wide range of schools of thought; from Islamic and Ottomanist to liberal and socialist. Furthermore, as in Europe, from the 1960s onwards identity politics in the Middle East (e.g. Kurdish, Palestinian, Berber, and diverse Islamist as well as diasporic movements) witnessed a revival, compelling state actors and oppositional forces to redefine official state ideologies over the twentieth century. After all, political claims on behalf of minorities have frequently been claims not for separation (administrative or territorial) but for a more liberal politics—with implications for the majority as well. The debate on how the “fragments” of the Middle Eastern societies would fit within the respective “nations” did not close with the accession to political independence of their countries: it remains open today.
Aims of the workshop
We aim to set out a new, historically-aware research agenda on minority politics in the colonial and postcolonial Middle East. We encourage scholars of all levels, from doctoral students to established researchers, to submit abstracts addressing one or more of the following questions: What have been the local political, intellectual, or cultural endeavors to come up with a political contract or a sort of pluralism that would pave the way for a peaceful and egalitarian relationship between “majorities” and “minorities” in the colonial and postcolonial Middle East? To what extent were these endeavors fostered or, on the contrary, undermined by transnational and global dynamics? Can we clearly categorize the main defenders of a smooth accommodation of minority rights within broader nation-states? How did the minorities participate in the political debates about citizenship in their respective countries – or, in other words, how and to what extent did the minorities contribute to imagining the nation? What was the impact of “minority politics” on the “majority” discourse about citizenship? What have been the main obstacles to the peaceful accommodation between “minority” and “majority” groups in the postcolonial Middle East? How have the increasingly powerful transnational lobbies for the protection of minority rights affected both minority and state narratives in the last twenty years? What do other cases in the global south or Eastern Europe tell us about the Middle East experience? And what new sources, archival or other, can lead us to a deeper understanding of these questions?
Please send 250-word abstracts to Jordi Tejel (Jordi.Tejel@graduateinstitute.ch), and Benjamin Thomas White (firstname.lastname@example.org) by 28 February 2013.
We plan to publish selected essays arising out of the workshop as an edited volume or special journal issue. The language of the conference will be English. Please note that travel and accommodation costs will be covered by the organizers.