Hivos International

Beyond Frontiers: The Implosion of the Middle East

Lecture and Discussion at University of Amsterdam, 25 October 2014

On the occasion of the 12.5 years anniversary of its exchange programs with the Middle East and North Africa, the College of Social Sciences of the University of Amsterdam and Zeytun in collaboration with Hivos held a debate on the fast--changing strategic landscape of the Middle East entitled Beyond Frontiers: The Implosion of the Middle East. Professor Anoush Ehteshami, professor of International Relations at University of Durham talked about catalytic events and new realities that are reshaping the region. Hivos' and Carnegie's Kawa Hassan highlighted the need for conceptual innovation, academic and activism imagination that rise to the challenge of the transforming Middle East.

Main Arguments of Professor Ehteshami: 

  • Today, the Middle East as a regional system is in deep crisis. States are fracturing and are, in some instances, close to fragmentation. Some even seem to be teetering on the verge of collapse. 
  • The Middle East of today is a complex place to understand, and this is not helped by the fact that it is a regional system apparently at odds with itself and the rest of the world. 
  • Furthermore, the MENA region is suffering from an imbalance in the forces pushing for change – the peaceful mass mobilizations and the violent nihilistic ones. This is a region which is at once both post-modern and pre-modern. Both post- and pre-modern forces compete for a voice, if not levers of power, across the Arab world.  
  • The real tension now is between the post- and pre-modern forces. Which is which and how do we classify them?
  • These post-modern tendencies sit uncomfortably with the pre-modern forces now active on the scene in the Middle East. The pre-modern forces too are proactively recruiting supporters and members and are challenging the state narrative, if not the state itself.
  • State structures in the Middle East are too weak and vulnerable to provide a robust defence against the pre- and post-modern challenges facing it.
  • As a consequence, the region exhibits signs of deep social trauma and crisis of identity at the state and society levels. Sub-communalization is taking place across the region, thus gradually eroding the hard-won century-old national societies that independent states forcefully but carefully put together. These ‘contested’ states seem to be unravelling into smaller communities of sects, religious affiliations, tribal groups and ethnicities.  

Core Comments of Kawa Hassan:

  • How we react to and engage with the transforming Middle East? And by ‘we’ I mean the global communities of academics, activists, think tanks and policymakers. Given the fact that the region is fast-changing in ways and at speeds that challenge conventional wisdom and knowledge on the Middle East, my question is: are we witnessing the emergence of new and innovative concepts, analytical tools and theories that are capable of rising to the challenge and can capture the complexities of the transformations and transitions in state-society relations and regional and international geopolitics? Or are we simply tinkering at the margins? 
  • While the state is becoming weaker and vulnerable, are traditional international relations theories, which focus on the state as a central analytical unit, still relevant for understanding the changes in the Middle East? Who is the state and who are non-state actors and what are the implications for international relations theories and the core issue of knowledge production in relation to the new Middle East?
  • A related and hotly debated issue is the ‘Sykes-Pico’ order. As we know, this colonial agreement shaped the borders of states and state-society relations. Some say the borders defined by this agreement are being redrawn, others disagree. According to one expert, only the internal borders of states such as Syria and Iraq are being redrawn and not the external borders.
  • In the midst of the barbaric and sectarian acts and policies of ISIS, the Assad regime, regional actors and the overall violence in the region, it is tempting and easy to reduce conflicts to sectarianism. Yet, I think, even during these dark days, we should not lose sight of the real battle; that is, the battle of ideas that is unfolding in the region. All major state-building and ideological projects in the Middle East have failed: colonialism, the post-colonial state, communism, Ba'athism, Nasserism, Islamism and neoliberalism. We live in an ideologyless world, a globe without ideology, so to speak: it is either neoliberalism or the ‘Caliphate’ of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. But of course, much more is happening in the region. There are intense, heated and lively debates in the Middle East on secularism, on the so-called civil state, and the role of religion in politics and in private life. The Middle East of today is a paradoxical place. Radicalism, individualism and authoritarianism live side by side and are engaged in a fierce ‒ sometimes visible, sometimes invisible ‒ battle of ideas for the future of the region. To understand the multiple dimensions of this battle we need to know more about the emerging economic, social and political cleavages and we need to make use of multi-disciplinary approaches. 

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