From The Editors
Fall 2015 (Vol. XXIII No. 1)
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The rapid changes that the people of the Arab world have witnessed in the last four and a half years have been revolutionary. In its initial instances this wave of change was a euphoric experience. From the far east of the Arabian Peninsula to the far west of Morocco, many transgressed generational, sectarian, gender, and class divides to break the barrier of fear. They unified to publically and collectively call for popular sovereignty. They marched on various squares, neighborhoods, and roads demanding bread, freedom, and social justice. They led us to the unknown territory of hope. As the bids for popular sovereignty became louder and stronger, and people placed their lives and bodies in the line of fire, these Arabs posed a fundamental challenge to what observers had admonished as apathetic and moribund. Politics outside the confines of a militant Islamism and a calcified authoritarianism seemed possible. Perhaps at last, Arabs could step out of the identity debate on authenticity, to demand the basics: economic redistribution and freedom from state brutality. Perhaps at last, observers could finally step out of the closed circle of debate that 11 September 2001 and the war on terror escalated to new heights: essentialism on the one hand and apologetics on the other. In a sense, the ontological non-choice between militant Islamism and militant authoritarianism mirrors the epistemological trap that can do little more than eulogize politics.
Yet four years later, we are again squarely lodged between authoritarianism and militant Islamism, between essentialism and apologetics, between foreign intervention and local despotism. Far from the experiments with hope, the people of the Arab world are mired in unprecedented catastrophe, dispossession, loss, and repression. In Egypt, military authoritarianism has reconstituted itself through the tools of hypernationalism and violent political exclusion of any and all opposition. In Syria, revolutionary impetus has shattered into multiple shards of violence, sectarian strife, and foreign intervention. In Bahrain and Libya, regional and national forces have aborted aspirations for democracy amid global silence. Yemen suffers the brute force and destruction of a war at the hands of regional consensus. Iraq bears the burden of US occupation as well as the ongoing legacies of authoritarianism, sanctions, and oil wealth. Palestine continues its century-long confrontation of an expansive settler colonial enterprise, whose most recent iteration was Israel’s 2014 assault on Gaza. This latest assault left unprecedented dispossession and despair in its wake. All this while regimes in Jordan, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere take ever bolder steps to punish individuals and groups inspiring reverberations of the uprisings at home. But with all of its eerily familiarity, evident in claims that Syria is the new Iraq, or Iraq is the larger Lebanon, there is a lot that is new in this landscape. Even Tunisia’s experiment with postrevolutionary rule has been exceptionalized to render it the outlier case rather than a possible alternative. When popular mobilization persists, regimes are completely blindsided, and external actors care too little or act too late.
Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Iran vie in newly consolidated strategies and constantly shifting alliances to shape developments in their favor. These regional powers, as well as their sometimes allies, the United States and Britain, pretend to be surprised in the face of a brutally crystallized sectarianism. All of these parties have for the last decade laid the groundwork for an entirely new expression of Sunni/Shi‘a strife. Perhaps the best indication of this new articulation was when for the first time in decades the countries of the Arab League were in unprecedented consensus. This was the moment when the sad remnants of a pan-Arab project delivered impunity to the pan-authoritarian projects as they made examples of what the cost of change would be for the Arabian Peninsula and beyond. In the meantime, the millenarian movement that makes Al Qaeda blush, the Islamic State, has gained control of broad swaths of territory and resources. In its wake, cities like Mosul have for the first time in thousands of years become empty of Christian people. The people of the Arab world and its students face unprecedented and horrific articulations of brutal violence from multiple venues, the Syrian’s regime vulgar but brutal “barrel bombs,” the repression of newly outfitted military regimes, the US administration’s precisely cruel drones, and sectarian vigilantism’s fetishization of beheadings, immolation, and drowning. The multifarious ubiquity of violence and brutality has become most clear in the scenes of thousands of Syrians and Iraqis fleeing their homeland and of the Mediterranean’s new status as a graveyard for thousands searching for refuge.
How do we make sense of this rapid shift from a landscape of hope to one of relentless despair? How do we return once again to the potential of human talent, aspiration, and resources that the Arab world has so much of? Our aim with this issue is to highlight the efforts of academics and activists to make sense of these and many other questions.
We are honored to feature Ella Shohat’s groundbreaking interrogation of the premises and frameworks associated with the rubric of “Judeo-Arabic language.” By mobilizing and deconstructing concepts that are “under erasure,” Shohat offers invigorating and new cultural geographies. Suliman al-Atiqi's “The Origins of Kuwaiti Nationalism: Rashid Rida’s Influence on Kuwaiti National Identity” engages the philosophical, religious, and national foundations of Kuwaiti institutions and identities.
We are also privileged to be featuring two special sections in this issue. A special section on Iraq features literary, environmental, political, and historiographic analyses as well as a roundtable on the challenges of researching Iraq today. Zainab Saleh, this special section’s editor, introduces these pieces in her “Disinterring Iraq: Writing Silenced Histories of Nation, Nature, and State.” Our second special section, “New Paradigms Factory,” is born of a fruitful joint collaboration between researchers working in and studying Algeria, Lebanon, and Sudan, as well as the Arab Council for Social Sciences (ACSS) and ASJ. We are honored to be featuring the first bouquet of peer-reviewed articles produced by grantees of ACSS, the new formidable effort to empower social science in the region. Paul Amar, this special section's editor, introduces this set of articles in “New Paradigms of Popular Sovereignty in the Wake of the Arab Uprisings.”
Complementing the special section on Iraq in this issue is a fleet of book reviews of recent works on Iraqi history, contemporary politics, and cultural production. Delving into the 1920 rebellion against British rule, Abbas Kadhim’s Reclaiming Iraq “presents an implicit case for Iraqi unity.” Similarly, Fanar Haddad’s Sectarianism in Iraq emphasizes the fluidity and contingency of sectarianism in Iraqi history. Two works, Red Star over Iraq and Saddam Hussein’s Ba‘th Party, examine the rise of the Ba‘th over Iraq’s formidable Communist Party and the decades-long survival of the Ba‘thist dictatorship in spite of assiduous external pressures and stresses. The collection of chapters in Conflicting Narratives: War, Trauma, and Memory in Iraqi Culture present “perhaps the most comprehensive resource in English on Iraqi literature and other cultural productions from 1980 to 2010,” spanning the period of Ba‘thist rule and its chaotic aftermath.
A trio of works treats Egypt and the Arabian Gulf. In Alexandrian Cosmopolitanism Hala Halim scrutinizes literary images of Egypt’s “second city.” Beth Baron’s new volume, The Orphan Scandal, revisits the growth of the early Muslim Brotherhood. Miriam Belli’s An Incurable Pastexamines the social and cultural memory of the Nasser era through a set of vernacular lenses. The Superlative City unpacks neoliberal urbanism and spatial history of Dubai. Tribal Modern seeks to augment familiar statist political histories of the region by excavating its transformations in cultural production and circulation. Rounding out the group, Abed Takriti’s award-winning account of Dhufar’s Monsoon Revolution breaks with both counterinsurgency and statist frames of Omani history to unfurl the dynamic life of armed anticolonial, anti-absolutist struggle on the edge of the Indian Ocean.
Another group of works attests to the growth of transnational modes of inquiry. James Gelvin and Nile Green’s edited volume, Global Muslims in the Age of Steam and Print, “opens up new space to rethink the meaning and timing of globalization.” Isa Blumi’s Ottoman Refugeesquestions the prevailing sectarian and ethno-national narratives of the late Ottoman Empire. T.J. Demos shows how a range of regional and diasporic artists focused on these subjects have aimed at “intervening in the global cultural imaginary, representing the stateless and unrepresentable, and generating an oppositional element in zones of conflict.” The edited volume Business Politics in the Middle East, featuring venerable and younger scholars of regional political economy, joins recent notable literature on the study of Middle Eastern capitalism and the “social and political influence of new Middle Eastern capitalists,” using the increasing weight of business classes to examine questions of state-society relations and economic policy-making. Two review essays close out the section. Nadine Naber’s discussion of Lila Abu-Lughod’s Do Muslim Women Need Saving? and Karima Bennoune’sYour Fatwa Does Not Apply Here deconstructs the persistence of Orientalist feminism. From a different vantage point, Alex Winder also interrogates Middle Eastern modernity, scanning a set of works on pre-Nakba Palestine that touch on gender and subjectivity, religion and national belonging, the life of the bourgeoisie, and the historical impact of radio technology.