The Relation of Politics in the Middle East to Identity Issues

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All politics in the Middle East is closely connected with issues of identity, though this is not unique to the region. The nature of politics as an inherently social process, and identity as both a personal and social expression of affiliation, keeps the two inseparable. Because identity informs a person’s or community’s ideas, perspectives, and morals, it will shape the ways in which different people or different communities interact with each other and organize among themselves.

Certain identities have proved to be particularly salient in the Middle East as societies have undergone substantial shifts in political structures: tribal and religious affiliations. The extent to which they shape people’s political interactions explain why efforts to construct nation-states have encountered opposition. Scholars have observed that these identities have persevered where states have created unfavorable conditions for their survival, and continued contestation over which identities take precedence illuminates the difficulty for Middle Eastern states to conduct politics without considering how identity both impacts and is impacted by it.

The alignment of people and communities with these two identities impede a linear development of most political units in the Middle East toward the European model of the secular nation-state that has been imposed upon the region over the last century. Consequently, political units in the Middle East continue to grapple with the idea of moving towards a secular nation-state model, and this conversation plays out through the politics of the everyday and the persistence of long-term movements to organize the region by identities that transcend the nation-state.

In order to explore how tribal and religious identity interacts with politics in the Middle East, it is helpful to examine what “politics” entails and how it impacts political institutions. In this context, politics is understood as the way in which people, communities, and institutions interact through processes of organization and decision-making. Politics, defined broadly, occurs at every level of society—in the everyday among people and in the long term or between organizational institutions. Politics is inherently social and dependent on the ideas, perspectives, and ethics of the people who engage in it.

However, the claim that all politics are social dismisses the notion that political organizations or institutions such as states can be understood as distinct and defined entities—that decisions can be made at a state level without an identifiable person driving such decision-making. Several scholars have concluded that because “the edges of the state are uncertain” in the sense that the “boundary between state and society is difficult to determine,” a state must be understood as a distinct “policy-making actor”. Yet others such as Mitchell criticize this statist view because it takes the “essential unity of the state” for granted and treats conflicts as “secondary phenomena integral to this larger unity,” when really, “conflicts within the state reflect the penetration of wider social forces”. A state can therefore be more accurately regarded as an amalgamation of social forces driven by people’s and communities’ interests. Understanding any political institution, such as the state, as social, allows people to explore how such an institution is constructed, changes, and can be influenced by hierarchy and relations of power, which Bayat recognizes as key features of any society.

Such hierarchy and relations of power represent ways in which different identities inform how people organize and understand themselves politically. These identities can be understood as the complex interactions of ideas, perspectives, and morals that are shaped by a person’s or community’s historical, cultural, religious, tribal, or other affiliations. People and communities often have overlapping, intersecting, and at times even contradictory identities that can be both self-ascriptive and externally imposed. Issues of identity are expressed in individuals’ beliefs as well as in the public sphere through the consolidation of communities around lines of shared history, culture, religion, and so on. Similarly, identities can serve to separate people or communities along lines of differences. Mandaville extends an understanding of identity to also be a function of context, in which “particular sociopolitical circumstances” influence which identities are most visible or important within a specific political moment or conversation.

The implication of understanding identities in this sense is that people and communities cannot be separated from their identities as they are intrinsic to human interaction and expression. Indeed, identities serve both personal and social functions as vehicles through which ideas, perspectives, and morals are formulated and communicated, and therefore also exhibit an inherent bias derived from the position of the identity-holder. Furthermore, the rejection of an identity can be practically understood as an assumption of a negative identity: someone may reject an identity as a follower of Islam, and in doing so, assumes an areligious, or non-Muslim religious identity. While some may claim that it is possible to reject an identity without assuming the opposite or converse of that identity, it is useful to conceptualize identities as something which every person or community holds. Being areligious or following a religion other than Islam shapes and informs a person’s perspective in the same sense that following Islam does.

Additionally, identities are integral in explaining how people draw together to form communities or push each other apart in conflicts. As Bayat observes, the more different a group perceives another group to be, the more violent or intense any conflict that breaks out between the groups is. Politics must then be closely linked to issues of identity, as identity describes the positions from which people make decisions and view other people within a society. How identities intersect or challenge other identities is expressed in the social sphere, and by extension, politically.

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This is especially true in the Middle East, in which unifying, intersecting, or conflicting identities shape and guide conversations about politics and political institutions. The salience of identities that connect people and communities in the Middle East to loyalties and authorities other than the nation or state under which they live continue to persevere even where oppressive regimes attempt to quell them. The Middle East is considerably less uniform and more complex in terms of identity than scholars generally approach it as. Under both the Safavid and Ottoman Empires, regions in the Middle East experienced shifting power between tribal or ethnic groups and bureaucratic institutions; the central imperial authorities constantly accommodated and negotiated with different religions, familial groups, and ethnic communities.

The transition from empire with internal diversity to autonomous statehood in the Middle East can be understood as an imposition of a European model of the secular nation-state that presupposes a common allegiance to or respect of one central authority—the state—along with a national identity strong enough to supersede other identities. These other identities, especially tribal and religious, have been seen as obstacles to state-building, thus challenging such a European model of political organization. The following analyses of affiliations with tribalism and religion as key identities among people in the Middle East indicate that the respect for sovereign power and national identity that is expected in a nation-state is not attainable when it comes at the cost of other identities. Tribal affiliations and Islam have proven to be identities so salient that “the seeds of truly territorial national states have yet to be planted” and fully realized in the region.

Although tribal identity has undergone transformation in how it is expressed politically, tribal loyalties have survived the breakdown of tribal power, reflecting how political systems may change easily while fundamental identities remain intact. Tribes in the Middle East are large kin groups organized by familial structures or lineage.

While tribes were the dominant form of political organization prior to the 20th century, they lost grounding to the advent of the imposed model of the nation-state. Although tribal authority structures are not necessarily institutionalized anymore, tribal social structures have not been fully integrated into national communities under the state. Tribal loyalties are largely seen as incompatible with a European model of the nation-state because they represent affiliation with a local social authority that is more familiar to people than the central authority of the state and a shared national identity through citizenship. State-based citizenship presupposes a superiority to all other allegiances as well as a monopoly on power that strips local authorities of their legitimacy. As Tibi emphasizes, “any state structure, being a centralized monopoly of power, runs counter to all kinds of segmentary tribal social organization” because distinctiveness and autonomy are integral to every tribe. The nation-state as a political institution claiming legitimacy therefore lacks any social authority, as affiliation with tribes on local levels has both continued to be a stronger and more welcomed identity as well as proven to be integral to local and national political organization.

While tribal identity retained its social meaning on a local level, religion—primarily Islam—became a “binding identity for a coalition of tribes” across the Middle East. And while some scholars deny the ability of Islam to supersede tribal identity, it has offered people and communities an alternate social identity through which they navigate their relationship with the nation-state.

Eickelman and Piscatori view any religion as integral to society and therefore politics anywhere, exemplified by the ways in which religion is woven into the fabric of everyday life. In the Muslim world, for example, institutions such as mosques and madrasas share purposes as both religious and social spaces. This becomes even more true among Muslims in areas where they are in the minority—their religious spaces become their shared social, and even political, spaces as well. Religion can thus be understood as both personal and social, and “functions to provide a framework of familiarity and a sense of identity” across time and space.

Islam is particularly salient as a social identity because it as it spreads across the world and changes, unifying structures emerge. This is because, under the unifying umbrella of Islam, “no one group… possesses a ‘monopoly on the management of the sacred’'. As a sense of “sacred authority”—who and what has religious and political legitimacy—is reinterpreted and renegotiated, the expression of religiosity as political changes; such political activity becomes a “contest over the interpretation of symbols and as the setting of and negotiation over boundaries between spheres of social activity and institutions”.

Amidst its mutability, Islam becomes a unifying force when confronted with change. When competing institutions—such as the state—contest the social authority Islam holds, it “begins to be seen as something that needs to be protected”. Such unity can travel across sectarian divides or other markers of identity: “when Muslims perceive themselves to be facing a common threat,” they unite under Islam, even if they do not uniformly agree with the implications of the institution they are defending. Affiliation with Islam remains a salient identity precisely because it is understood differently throughout the Muslim world. It is flexible and can fulfill a variety of “extended sociopolitical functions”.

Islam has been “integral to the experience of state formation” in the Middle East precisely because it can serve such diverse social and political functions. Where the European model of the nation-state is based on a unifying central authority vested in the power of a secular political institution, Islam presents a unifying identity with no central authority and power vested in an array of sociopolitical institutions. The nation-state in the Middle East has therefore encountered considerable opposition. It does not represent the “single, monolithic entity that exercises the ultimate monopoly of power” because Islam, as a religious institution with social and political meaning, offers an alternate understanding of identity and affiliation. And where Islam offers a unifying identity across the world, tribalism offers a unifying identity within smaller regions. Tribal and religious identity is integral to life in the Middle East, and the secular nation-state gives neither one room to be integrated or considered in politics.

Nation-state-formation is based on empowering one dominant identity over other ones, and in a region where tribal and religious identities serve social and political functions along lines that do not fall neatly within the borders of nation-states, conflict easily arises. This may explain the development of censorship and oppression under some regimes in the region who try to quiet dissidents to force an artificial sense of unity, as is the case in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. Imposing any form of an identity “from above” is characteristic of the Middle Eastern state, but fails for those who cannot realign their identities under new sociopolitical structures, or for those for whom more salient sociopolitical identities exist. In these cases, people and communities fall back on prenational identities, such as their tribal or religious affiliations

Tribal and religious identity is integral to life and politics in the Middle East and explains why the region has struggled in building nation-states peacefully. Yet while contesting the secular nation-state through tribal and religious identity was the key project of the 20th century (through movements such as Arab nationalism or pan-Islamism), navigating the emergence of new identities and social structures in the digital age may be the Middle East’s (and the world’s) challenge in the 21st. Increased literacy and mass communication allows people to develop virtual communities in ways never anticipated, and facilitates a reformulation of identities under structures generally free from national-state authority. The Middle East is thus confronted by this new age of cosmopolitanism: one in which it becomes increasingly difficult to force national or state identities on people whose sociopolitical affiliations may be more salient than ever, while also less centrally governed than ever. In this sense, it will continue to be difficult to separate political organization and interactions from how people identify themselves. Identities that existed before the advent of the nation-state still exist today, and are likely to continue to exist, though they might take different shapes in response to societal changes.

Bibliography

  • Bayat, A. (2010). Life as Politics: How Ordinary People Change the Middle East. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.
  • Christie, K. and Masad M. (2014). State Formation and Identity in the Middle East and North Africa. New York: Palgrave.
  • Eickelman, D. F. and Piscatori, J. (1996). Muslim Politics. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  • Khoury, P. and Kostiner, J. (1992). Tribes and State Formation in the Middle East. London: IB Tauris.
  • Mandaville, P. (2001). Transnational Muslim Politics: Reimagining the Umma. London: Routledge.
  • Mitchell, T. (1991). The Limits of the State: Beyond Statist Approaches and their Critics. The American Political Science Review, 85(1) pp. 77-96.
  • Tibi, B. (1992). The Simultaneity of the Unsimultaneous: Old Tribes and Imposed Nation-States in the Modern Middle East. In P. Khoury and J. Kostiner, ed., Tribes and State Formation in the Middle East. London: IB Tauris, pp 127-149. 
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