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Alright folks, I normally abhor, loathe, and utterly detest any form of social conformity (tis the artist talking who prefers the margins versus the social center). I will make an exception though and jump on the bandwagon for one and only one notable reason:

2009 royally sucked. I MEAN IT REALLY TRULY DEEPLY UTTERLY AND PROFOUNDLY SUCKED! *Phew* there got that one out. So, I will join the plethora of individuals cheering and rejoicing as 2010 springs forth.
In celebration of the new year, I hereby present my top New Year’s resolutions:

1) Splurge on books! After I submit my last four *&^%$$ applications to UK MA programs, I fully intend to visit every half-priced old bookstore in this town and load up on more books than one could possibly fathom. My target: the remaining literary classics I haven’t read, works in social theory and philosophy (recommendations are of course welcome and I will likely write another post/facebook note to that effect), and of course other miscellaneous titles I’ve always wanted to read but never found the time. In other words, I’ve been intellectually deprived and crave a lengthy journey of good-reads, must-reads, and titles that are most importantly dubbed, who the fuck cares? It’s non-academic reading!

2) The all time New Year’s classic: lose fifteen pounds or drop 1-2 dress sizes. A short story about the bane of my existence: the freshman fifteen ended up turning into the sophomore twenty and finally concluded with the whopping resounding undergraduate 30. My response: Oh shit. I have now become fucking Bridget Jones. Can’t live up to the title without blogging about a necessary weight loss regimen right? Now I have to find a preferred form of exercise: jogging (dull), speed walking (expected), weight lifting at the gym (seriously?)  So, I settled on either ice skating, dance, and/or aerobics. I have to preserve some form of creativity here folks….

3) Write a novel that is inspired by true stories but is spinned into a grand work of fiction. Let’s face it, some of my life experiences are, as one anonymous friend put it, “Damn that’s shit you just can’t make up.” I wholeheartedly agree. Life’s a bitch folks, might as well have the last laugh if you can.

4) Achieve greater balance in all matters. This past year, my work/home/social life balance is illustrated (and brilliantly captured I might add) by the following mathematic depiction of inequalities:

Work   (greater than and most certainly not equal to)  >    social life (indicated by number of happy hour events attended)    >   home life

Oh…wait a minute. Scratch that. Here’s the more accurate formula:

[Work + grad school apps (squared)] (cubed) >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>> social life > home life.

Yep, that’s about right.

5) Attack the GRE next year with a fucking vengeance. ETS I’m going Russell Crowe on your ass.

6) Perform a certain number of completely random, neurotic, and utterly absurd acts. For those of you who requested I dance on tables (yes you know who you are), that’s a definite no. On that note, what the hell were ya’all thinking? You’re pretty disturbed if you ask me. Anyhoo, perhaps cartwheels on the national mall are in order, cartwheels in front of the Lincoln Memorial, perhaps even cartwheels from one quadrant in DC in a diametric fashion to another…. Ok, I’m running out of ideas. Feel free to email me with some.

7) Blog more, yes definitely blog more 🙂

It has been ages since I dared write anything for this blog (I use the term “dare” since it is a time consuming activity, and heaven knows anything that consumes time away from our daily tasks is quite daring). As always, I love to occasionally pen my thoughts down; otherwise my head may explode from recurrent reflections and informal observations. A year ago, I proudly donned my cap and gown and felt ready to embrace the so-called real world. After all, I felt I’ve seen it, lived it, been through it. In my view, we are all somewhat cocky when it comes to learning–humans love to believe that we’ve learned all we need to know. Or, we love to convince ourselves that we are fearless and ready to tackle any problem that comes our way.

I convinced myself a year ago that as an ethnic and religious minority, I’ve experienced it all: I’ve witnessed people wrestle with their collective identity, with the notion of being at odds with society and the mainstream culture, and of course with their past struggles in this turbulent world of ours. I have relatives who changed their names on their resumes to sound more “American” just to secure jobs (so your Palestinian Salams become Sams, your Mohammeds transform into the more acceptable Mo or Maddi, and so forth). Let’s face it, the very term “Palestinian” evokes a myriad of responses. I notice that Palestinians tend to embrace their diaspora identity as ardent nationalists (oh we know who we are and it is our duty to make the world aware of it!), or, they hesitate to answer the question, “Where exactly are you from?” I am still borderline amused when I hear a friend respond, “The holy land” just to evoke that “Aaaaah I see” reaction. Of course, that term seems more user-friendly than the seemingly hostile name “Ramallah” or “Khaleel” which may produce a few raised brows. Either way, Arab-Americans are still attempting to secure their place in America alongside other racial and ethnic groups. One demonstration of our social standing is illustrated by your typical job application. Notice that there is no separate category for people from the Middle East, yet Pacific Islanders, African Americans, and Latinos are usually represented in demographic questions. Arabs are treated as invisible, a category of people that do not deserve separate and distinctive representation in paper form. Apparently, we all hail from the Caucasus? Uhmmm no.

So here I am, a person who believed I am tough as nails, a person who defined myself in terms of my struggle to find my place in this country’s culture and institutions. I never identified myself strongly in terms of class status, but increasingly find that a redefinition may be required. Class is one key issue this country is hesitant to address. I wonder if one asks Americans which class they belong to, how many would answer, “The middle class of course!” What would happen if I told people that my freshman year in college, my father was laid off, unemployed for a few years, and my family hit the poverty line in terms of income? What if I told people I knew what it was like years ago to worry if groceries would make it to the table, or that we might lose the house? No, of course I shouldn’t share that information because when it comes to class, we are encouraged to toughen up and face the facts. After all, if people are in a lower rung on the class ladder, it is their fault right?

I am not writing this to obtain sympathy for my past–there were several times in college I refrained from sharing the above information since I despised the idea of being singled out, or buying a pity vote, or of being treated differently than my peers. In retrospect, I wish I would have discussed my experiences in greater detail for the sake of active reflection and life learning. I never realized how much class status influences a person’s perspectives until this past year. I was always very self-conscious of my ethnic and religious background since people tend to respond to those identities first (after all, how often do people ask, “So, what do you think about this issue as an Arab or Muslim?” I have never been asked the question, “What is your viewpoint as someone who comes from a lower-income family?”).

Looking back at my undergraduate experience, I often wondered why I sometimes struggled as a student. I would not classify it as an academic struggle as much as a deeply personal one. Coming from a lower class, I constantly felt like I existed in a parallel universe at my undergraduate institution. American University is by and large, a very affluent campus filled with students who come from middle and upper class families. It is fairly common for parents to pay for a significant portion of the tuition costs. I recall my friends were quite shocked to hear that I was bearing my full education costs by myself (grants certainly helped). I remember I frequently ran on 2-3 hours of sleep to prop up a perfect GPA when possible. “Why?” my peers often asked. My response, “No safety net, no bails out here. I am in this alone. I can’t afford attending parties like you can and I certainly can’t afford to fail.” The detrimental consequence was that I turned into an avid perfectionist, a person so utterly concentrated on success and achievement that I forgot to truly breathe, live, and take in the moment. I was even hesitant to ask for advice from faculty and others in general; my mode of thought: I am self-sufficient, fiercely independent, and can do this by myself as I always have.

The sharp effect (among many) of this country’s culture towards class (ignore class tensions exist and pretend that everyone can overcome adversity of any form at any time), is that it is easy for any individual to ignore their class identity and the struggles associated with it. I often wished away my past and pretended as if that economic struggle never occurred. I silently prayed to be like my peers: carefree, youthful, and truly living life as a 22 year old rather than packing 10 additional years of life experience in a young adult’s frame.

Granted, I still possess high expectations of myself and am still determined to overcome my past. The difference this time is that I accept that past exists. I embrace my class identity and hope this country will move closer to acknowledging the class divisions and struggles which persist…

For the past few days, I have watched the tragic events unfold in Gaza and have tried to make sense of the unfolding situation. I realize that as an American Palestinian who has friends in Gaza, I could write a very frustrated personal rant which cries out for social justice, peace, change and the like. Instead, I would actually like to take this post in a different direction for various reasons. I wish to first, share some self-conscious reflections based upon my personal experiences and secondly, shift the latter part of this post into the analytical realm.

For starters, my family is admittedly pretty distant from the events in Gaza and I will not in any way suggest that I can truly understand, grasp, or even imagine the human horror of the situation, or for that matter other humanitarian crises worldwide. During my visit to south Lebanon in January 2007 (a few months after the summer war), I still felt distant even as I gazed at the glass bits that cluttered the streets, the exposed sewage, the main roads lined with armed soldiers, the barbed wire, the UN convoys, and the children playing in bombed ruins. I recall staring up at signs which in Arabic warned Tyre’s worn residents to not venture off the streets due to the presence of cluster bombs in the area. I just remember silently asking, “Why? Why? Why? Is it all really worth it? Is it?”

Even then as I tried desperately to understand the human face behind conflicts in the Middle East, I still could not possibly say that I was able to empathize with people or share their experiences. The reality of the situation was and still is I am an American citizen who lives a relatively comfortable life a world away from the world’s conflicts and human tragedies. My family may consist mainly of Palestinian refugees from the 1948 war, but we are still very fortunate–my relatives have created a comfortable middle class life for themselves in neighboring Arab countries.

What we Palestinians abroad and elsewhere then collectively share is a feeling of loss and grief–a lack of national actualization. We shed tears and grieve not because we can necessarily come to grips with the death and destruction occurring in the remains of Palestine–though many can. We distant travelers and wanderers cry for the remains of our beloved country, our homeland, and our very national identity because it has not been defined by peace or prosperity–such entities have been torn apart as they were defined by perpetual pain and loss. Perhaps this is a reason Palestinians have learned to journey through this world as permanent travelers; we are wanderers who collectively reminisce over our shared memories and experiences, yet never fit into any part of this world including a part we label ours.

I do not pretend to be an effective poet or artist who can capture our collective human spirit through creative expression. This task should be left to others who will likely perform it better than I possibly could. Instead, I would like to venture beyond self-conscious reflections to ask larger questions. Amidst inaction at the international level, individuals at a person-to-person level can try to learn from such experiences. I will thus use the remainder of this post to address the following questions: Have the parties to the conflict ignored their lessons from history? Are there parallels between the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at this stage compared to other aspects of this conflict in previous times (perhaps at the regional level)? If so, how can we analyze and address such comparisons? Furthermore, what dynamics of this conflict can we elucidate through historical analysis?

Given that this is already a lengthy blog post, I also do not pretend to offer concrete or sufficient answers to the above questions. I only ask that we consider them to reflect upon this complex situation. Consider this a basic start.

My first impression after hearing the news from Gaza is that there are quite a few parallels between this recent set of airstrikes and those which occurred during the 2006 summer war between Hizbullah and Israel. There are a few key points here to consider: Hizbullah arguably triggered the war initially through capturing two Israeli soldiers at the border, killing others, and constantly launching rockets into northern Israel. (Amnesty International’s 2006 report documented the details of the war and can be viewed here). In response, Israel launched a 34 day war of airstrikes by land, sea, and air which resulted in an estimated 1,183 casualties of which a third were children, 4,054 people injured, and 970,000 Lebanese and Palestinian people displaced. Hizbullah in turn launched rockets into northern Israel which killed 40 civilians including both Israelis and Israeli Arabs.

The Amnesty Report also provided the following insights based upon interviews with both Israeli and Lebanese officials:

“According to the New York Times, the IDF Chief of Staff said the air strikes were aimed at keeping pressure on Lebanese officials, and delivering a message to the Lebanese government that they must take responsibility for Hizbullah’s actions. He called Hizbullah “a cancer” that Lebanon must get rid of, “because if they don’t their country will pay a very high price.”

The widespread destruction of apartments, houses, electricity and water services, roads, bridges, factories and ports, in addition to several statements by Israeli officials, suggests a policy of punishing both the Lebanese government and the civilian population in an effort to get them to turn against Hizbullah. Israeli attacks did not diminish, nor did their pattern appear to change, even when it became clear that the victims of the bombardment were predominantly civilians, which was the case from the first days of the conflict.”

There are two interesting developments here to consider: 1) based upon the above report, a few parallels exist between Gaza’s present situation and that of Lebanon’s in 2006 which merit attention, and 2) there are a few lessons that can be learned from the war in Lebanon that can be applied elsewhere. After all, Israel is not the only state that has launched airstrikes in an attempt to weaken militant or insurgent movements.

South Lebanon, like Gaza, is not only a politically volatile region, but is also extremely difficult to govern given previous humanitarian crises, frequent wars and violent skirmishes across the border, and the lack of a strong central government which enjoys full sovereignty (sounds strikingly similar to Pakistan and Afghanistan at times doesn’t it?). The end result is that non-state actors (in this case, political Islamist movements like Hizbullah and Hamas) are able to enjoy free reign in a politically unstable environment that is ripe for mobilization of new recruits.

All such movements need is a worthy cause and an extra reason to adopt politically violent resistance in the name of God and country. Israel’s fundamental error in Lebanon was not merely tactical–in my view, it would not matter whether or not they restricted their attacks to the air or pursued an actual ground raid. Likewise, in Gaza, it will not matter if they shift tactics and try to ‘learn’ from their encounter with Hizbullah. They committed the same mistake in 1982 that they did in 2006 and arguably will in 2008 in Gaza: by assuming that national security can be increased solely through military means, that an influential social movement can be defeated through sheer force or weakened, and by assuming that the local population will turn against such movements under extreme duress, Israel’s actions in Lebanon and Gaza have and will likely undermine its security and its political position in the Middle East. These airstrikes have already angered both Arabs and Muslims across the region–moderates and extremists included.

Hamas, like Hizbullah, will likely end up the unintended victor of this scenario since even moderate Gazans, other Palestinians, other Arabs, and quite possibly other Muslims elsewhere will likely support the political actor they believe opposes the state that is responsible for killing 300 civilians. I would argue the historical lesson to be learned from Lebanon is that airstrikes and sheer force will not necessarily lead to greater national security, but will instead produce the opposite result. The attacks in Gaza will not win the hearts and minds of moderates throughout the region, but will instead harden them, embolden them, and intensify their polarization at a time when negotiations are desperately needed and a comprehensive peace process is sorely absent.

In environments where central governments (or in Gaza, the inherent lack thereof) do not enjoy full sovereignty, the military intervention or attack by another state or political actor ultimately undermines any remaining sovereignty, power, and influence the central government previously enjoyed. The end result of the recent attacks in Gaza may very well be a further fractured Palestinian government, increased support for Hamas over other Palestinian political actors that embrace negotiations, and a further shift in the regional balance of power towards militant movements that have no desire to sit down at the negotiation table.

If Israel truly wanted to increase its security or to progress in the steps of restarting the peace process, its political and military establishment would rethink the lessons learned from Lebanon and pursue ‘solutions’ beyond simple tactical changes. Likewise, if Hamas truly cared about Palestinian civilians, they would not commit the same mistake as Hizbullah and provoke violent responses across the border that usually result in the loss of human life.

The tragedy inherent in this situation is that both sides lack the politically courageous leadership needed to resolve conflicts and pursue tough negotiation. The Palestinian and Israeli leadership is weak, fractured, and all too willing to pursue temporary solutions that will likely fail and set us back further than initially imagined.

and they’re called theorists. That’s right, I would just love to grab a few by the collars and say, “Damnit man! Why must you make all of our lives so difficult?! The empirical phenomena can’t possibly be that difficult to describe or explain! Ack!!!”

***I say this as I proceed to pull my hair out and pound my head against the library’s ill-colored and ill-decorated walls****

So I started this exercise with trying to comprehend existing debates concerning Islamist movements and got sucked into a vortex black hole of sorts filled with infinite intellectual puzzles (that are quite mind blowing I daresay) and discovered there is no end in sight. It is like playing a chess game (in this case, against myself) and thinking hah! I am only 3 steps away from checkmate…then you discover no, you are 6 steps away and only from check, not checkmate, and by the way, it isn’t 6 steps, it’s 6 with 5 substrategies and points to consider.

After 48 hours in the library this weekend, I have concluded the following:
There is no light at the end of the tunnel concerning literature on Islamist movements–either scholars address it as a problem with terrorism (even though not all Islamists are terrorists), a problem with conceptual definitions (how the hell do we define who is an Islamist and who isn’t), level of analysis problem (how we analyze them at either a global level or a regional level), a problem with rational strategy, a problem with identity, a problem with such movements challenging sovereignty and international norms, etc. etc. etc.etc. etc.

Dear God almighty folks, do you want to know what the REAL problem is? Theorists in different subfields are not talking to each other within one friggin discipline or across disciplines! That’s the problem!

And don’t get me started on individuals who hold paradigmatic irreconcilable philosophical worldviews because that is a whole other empty vacuum in space–and it sucks naive people like myself into its infinite theoretical depths of ill-conceived concepts and terms.

Can’t the IR theorists, Middle Eastern regional specialists, and social movement theorists hold a greater intellectual dialogue instead of talking past one another? That’s all I want–I want to see a new group try and bridge those gaps in the literature and devise creative and innovative ways to address social movements at a transnational level who politically mobilize populations in a variety of fashions.

Sure, it is a very tough task (to say the least) and begs many questions–but geez people, why have those gaps not been explored to the extent they can be?

*Sigh* I think I will stop turning my personal statement into a lit review and write it with existing knowledge, try to address those gaps as best as possible, and wowzas, if it needs more research, I will resume it by all means. For now, I think my head is going to friggin explode if I don’t compile my thoughts in a cohesive written manner.

P.S. I don’t want to shake theorists, but would like to politely and kindly ask them to step out of their restricted intellectually boxed debates now and then to look at……..other restricted intellectually boxed debates.

Ruggie Par Deux

I just realized Ruggie wrote another version of his introductory essay in his book (the version I read) which also appeared in International Organization, albeit with different emphasis and analysis.

To my friends who are IR geeks and are interested in Ruggie’s works, please note the following:

1) If you are interested in a summary of how IR evolved with more analysis of neorealism and neoliberal institutionalism, I highly recommend his introductory essay to his book (see post below regarding the 4 main arguments Ruggie provides).

2) If, however, you are interested in reading more about the sociological and philosophical bases for social constructivism (which Ruggie analyzes through briefly addressing some of Weber’s and Durkheim’s ideas), I highly recommend his article in IO. His article in IO I think is just as good as the essay I analyzed in the previous post; however, the emphasis and analysis is somewhat different and it is shorter. His overall arguments regarding the differences between neo-utilitarianism and social constructivism are pretty much the same.

So, I’m pretty much going through the IO article as we speak given that it is an excellent supplement to his book essay….and smacking my palm to my forehead at how I overlooked this glaring and obvious fact.

****Feel free to laugh not with me, but at me since I just laughed at myself for this one. Oh how I am sooo glad I gave myself a year to apply to PhD programs. ******

It has been some time since I sat down to punch out some thoughts on the good ol’ blog–in blog time, a week can seem like a lifetime. I originally started typing with the intent of writing some funny story about Black Friday, or seriously addressing the recent tragic events in Mumbai. For some reason, the writer and the quasi-intellectual in me wanted to address a different topic. I suppose if there is one key reason (among many I imagine) people become academics, it is because they instinctively are drawn to long-range perspectives in an age of instantaneous information and punditry. Perhaps that is one way I filter that information and allow myself to step back for a moment, take every bit of the action in, then proceed forward with greater long-range perspective. I admit there is a core part of me that sometimes makes better sense of the insane world we inhabit through quietly considering deeper and more abstract theoretical questions.

One such question I mulled over this week concerns how IR theorists address culture, identity, and norms in international relations, and secondly, how humans develop a collective intersubjective understanding of the aforementioned entities. The second part of the question asks: how does culture, identity, and norms influence collective behavior (or at a state level: how do states’ specific and generic identities shape their interests and thus, international outcomes?). Given the fact that I have asked myself these questions for quite some time, I also wondered: what makes the academic world of international relations (and of course, the social sciences in general) hang together?

I found John Gerard Ruggie’s essay (which I obviously riffed the blog title from) “What Makes the World Hang Together?” in his Constructing the World Polity: Essays on International Institutionalization (New York: Routledge, 1998) to be one of the best pieces I have read which clarifies the above issues from a constructivist perspective, but also does so through challenging ‘neo-utilitarian’ or rational-choice theoretical approaches to international relations.

Like Ruggie, I am also concerned with that same question, especially in an age where identity seems to take center stage in many top issues of the day: ethnic conflict, genocide, international terrorism, nationalism, political Islam, and even other social phenomena which might not seem to be identity-driven at first glance: interstate cooperation on economic agreements, the development of security communities, processes of state formation, and even shifts in cultural patterns of militarism to name a few.

From an academic standpoint, I found Ruggie’s work to be very significant due to the way IR is typically approached in terms of its ‘great debates’ (at least at an undergraduate level). Personally, I experienced this in terms of taking a few intro courses at my undergraduate institution where students were introduced to the realism vs. liberalism debate, then we moved on to neorealism vs. neoliberal institutionalism, then addressed both versus different versions of constructivism, feminist theory, world-systems theory, etc. What I find interesting in retrospect is the fact that a key (if not the most important debate at the moment in my view) is often not addressed in great detail (once again, at the undergraduate level): rational-choice theory or what Ruggie terms ‘neo-utilitarianism’ versus social constructivism.

More importantly, I am (and I assume many others as well) are increasingly realizing that different approaches in IR ultimately boil down to two key issues: differences in philosophical world views, and secondly, contending definitions of science, especially for the social sciences. I will hedge my bets an increasing number of social scientists will analyze the divisions in the discipline through addressing the above issues, especially since they arguably produced the divisions we can observe between rational-choice and constructivist theoretical accounts of IR (and political science in general).

Thus, one key problem with pinning neorealism against neoliberal institutionalism is that this overlooks their methodological and ontological similarities (there are still some differences in there, but I am willing to wager that through analyzing both approaches as ultimately, rational-choice theoretical accounts of world politics, they have much more in common than many students of IR initially expect.

Ruggie of course does an excellent job of succinctly summarizing how IR evolved until the present stage, and then proceeds to describe the neo-utilitarian/rational-choice similarities between neorealism and neoliberal institutionalism in particular. The final part of his essay proceeds to introduce a social constructivist research agenda through challenging existing ontological claims and methodological approaches of neo-utilitiarians/rational-choice theorists (to simplify, I will use Ruggie’s term neo-utilitarians for the remainder of this post).
Given that Ruggie’s article is quite dense (it literally took me a few reads to grasp the nuanced details of his proposals), I will briefly mention a few of his points then relate them back to my personal research agenda where applicable. Ruggie’s main arguments include the following points:

1) Neorealists and neoliberal institutionalists both assume states’ identities and interests are given (thus their convergence in terms of neo-utilitarian approaches); by contrast, constructivists ‘problematize’ states identities and interests and do not simply address ‘identity’ and ‘norms’ as ‘theory fillers,’ but address identities and norms as central components of their research agenda.

2) Neorealists and neoliberal institutionalists both are concerned with ‘regulative’ rules that are causal in nature and determine outcomes (examples include traffic rules and laws that prohibit illegal activity); by contrast, constructivists are mainly concerned with constitutive rules, or rules that provide noncausal explanations of social phenomena and define which set of social practices make up ‘consciously organized social activities.’ Ruggie especially emphasizes this point claiming that constructivists believe we can not explain international politics without constitutive rules (i.e., it is impossible to explain certain social phenomena like state formation and transformation merely through causal relationships and regulative rules). In other words, neorealists and neoliberal institutionalists can explain action sequences, but not how actors became constituted prior to conducting such actions. Their neo-utilitarian approach also neglects analysis of cultural and historical variation, and how social actors are constituted based upon variation in social frameworks across space and time.

3) Neorealists and neoliberal institutionalists do not adequately address the phenomenon of state transformation (Ruggie provided the great historical example of shifting from the medieval period to the modern state system–how can neo-utilitarians explain this shift without also accounting for corresponding identity and structural shifts as well?)

4) Neorealists and neoliberal institutionalists both have addressed ideational factors (or ideational causation), but have done so in a very restricted and limited manner.

To take all of Ruggie’s points one step further, he pretty much draws from the discplines of sociology, anthropology (esp. in the area concerning ‘intersubjective shared understandings’) and philosophy to argue that neorealists and neoliberal institutionalists neglect to analyze key components of international social realities (or they provide a distorted version of such realities) due to the following reason: both approaches do not address how humans collectively develop intersubjective understanding of social phenomena, how they proceed to ascribe meaning to that phenomena, and thus, how they construct constitutive rules which make sense of social activity. In IR terms, this means that neo-utilitarians can’t fully explain how entities like ‘sovereignty’ and ‘human rights’ acquired mutually accepted meaning over time.
Here is where I will add my two cents and try to connect Ruggie’s key points to my research interests:

I am personally interested in explaining how does a region like the Middle East fit into debates concerning international relations. Specifically, I ponder over three key issues that remain highly contentious to this day:

1) State formation and state identities: how did the state system in the Middle East emerge, then transform over time structurally and culturally? How did such transformations in state identities affect domestic political behavior and international outcomes?

2) Nationalism: how did collective actors (namely social movements) contest this state system and state identities? How did their constructed national identities influence state transformation and international political outcomes over time? How did their national identities transform in response to national/regional/international system transformations?

3) Social movements: how did non-state actors like political Islamist and/or nationalist movements increase their influence and power over Middle Eastern publics (and increasingly at an international level) through challenging the perceived legitimacy of the state and its specific identity?

4) Mutual constitution of identities: how did political Islamist movements develop their collective identities in relation to depiction of ‘the other’ (i.e., the American government, the secular Arab regimes in power that favored the status quo, Israel, other political rivals).

My main issue with any rational-choice neo-utilitarian account is that it does not problematize or question state identities or identities of non-state actors for that matter–thus, neorealists and neoliberal institutionalists would likely (in my view) not analyze or compare specific differences between state identity construction in Western Europe (or even the EU at a regional level) versus Middle Eastern states (or vice versa, between specific states in East Asia versus Latin America, etc. etc.). For this reason, historical and cultural variation is neglected analytically and methodologically speaking.

Secondly, by adopting state-centric approaches, non-state actors like Islamist movements may be addressed by neo-utilitarian accounts, but not to the degree states are addressed. The problem of course is that if a state lacks perceived legitimacy, then the question becomes: who are the ‘real’ actors in IR? Or, is this question determined through the social construction of reality (i.e., if we craft a shared narrative concerning who ‘we’ think the ‘actors’ are, then that shared belief will lead to changes in public recognition of different actors), or so a constructivist might say methinks.

An additional problem in regards to the above concerns ontological world views. Neo-utilitarians are not concerned with ‘how’ actors are publicly recognized or how they obtain public legitimation for their identity. Neo-utilitarians assume that identities and interests are a given and the ‘real’ actors on the scene (i.e. states) are the ones neo-utilitarians say they are. What is ironic is that whilst saying this, neo-utilitarians are constructing their own view of social reality through suggesting that states are the most important actors in international relations!

I sometimes wonder if any self-proclaimed neo-utilitarian took a short 5 minute walk in Cairo, or Islamabad, or Manilla and saw the public support for non-state actors or social movements in contrast to the state, would they revise such statements?

Finally, how can neo-utilitarians explain the rise in ‘anti-Americanism’? Is it because of America’s strong position in terms of material interests (military force, power over international economic institutions, etc.), or America’s hegemonic status? This ignores, as Ruggie put it, the importance of an American hegemony. This isn’t just economic or military clout we’re discussing, American hegemony actually entails….surprise surprise, an associated corresponding American identity.

Thus, political Islamist movements who would like to gain more power and influence in international politics are arguably successful when they are able to construct their collective identity in contrast to others (whether it be American, or their main political rival, the state which likely takes the form of either an unpopular monarchy or military dictatorship). The influence of identities is illustrated by the fact that if the U.S. government props up a corrupt regime in places like Egypt or Pakistan, one of the most effective ways an opposition group can politically mobilize popular support is through constructing their movement’s identity in polarized opposition to ‘the other’ or the other’s perceived unpopular identity. This whole complex process of identity construction and negotiation is ultimately ignored by neo-utilitarians.
My final analysis after an extensive post of ramblings: the academic world of international relations is currently held together by scholars with paradigmatic irreconcilable world views who will likely continue to duke it out for years to come. I just hope I can still join in the fun when (hopefully, or inshallah as some put it 😉 I can enter grad school.

Ok, and I seriously need to address the news soon methinks. Alas, I got my theoretical fill for the evening :-).

After presenting three very goofy posts that were simply the product of too much caffeine and hours of looking at Excel spreadsheets, I figure it is high time to write a serious blog post. Or, perhaps the term ‘quasi-serious’ is more appropriate to describe the writing exercise I am undertaking here.

I figure if there is an award out there for recent alum who still maintain some degree of geekiness, I’d say I’m pretty competitive and here’s why: I have started giving myself weekly assignments to keep up with the load of new information I’m consuming book by book, article by article to prepare for writing my personal statement for PhD programs (and wowzas is it more difficult than many expect!). That way, when I sit down to write it, I can keep track of my thoughts regarding relevant literature and the questions that came up along the way.

The assignment I have given myself this week is to blog my random thoughts and questions that came to mind as I read Dynamics of Contention (2001) by Charles Tilly, Sidney Tarrow, and Doug McAdam. I am still finishing the last chapter or so, but already have tons of questions to raise.

Before proceeding further, I forewarn my friends who are simply not interested in processes of identity-construction, political mobilization, democratization, etc. that this is intended to be a semi-loaded post. I do promise some lighter material soon (I have TONS of thoughts regarding Clinton as a potential Secretary of State, Obama’s views on U.S. foreign policy, and a whole other range of top issues). For now, I have been wrestling with tons of questions that came to mind as I read through Tilly’s work and MUST jot them down, otherwise, I will likely daydream about them at work.

Here goes: throughout my academic career, I have thought several times about how collective actors initially form identities, how they proceed to transform such identities through a continuous process of identity-construction, and finally, how do they shift their identities in relation to various social, political, and economic processes? If individuals and collective actors alike possess multiple identities, how and why do they determine which identity predominates for different social contexts?

I will digress from Tilly’s work for a moment. From an academic standpoint, the questions above especially surfaced for me when I began reading historical texts on the Middle East–especially works that sought to explain the regional political reprecussions of the Six-Day War of 1967. Although Tilly and his colleagues did not use Middle Eastern examples in their work (for reasons that I imagine have to do with the dire state of the literature for this region–I have many many views on this I will likely post at some other date. For now, suffice it to say that Tilly’s definition of a contentious episode would likely apply to the years leading up to the Six-Day War and of course afterward since it had profound political effects on the Middle East).

The common explanation of this contentious episode can be roughly explained as follows: during the 1950s and early 1960s, secular Arab nationalists effectively consolidated power in various Arab regimes after they obtained newfound independence from colonial powers. Several Arab states became military dictatorships ruled by the likes of former Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser and his Baathist cohorts in Syria and Iraq among others.

Scholars and historians offer many reasons for why regimes at this specific juncture in history sought to craft a distinctly regionally-oriented, secular, and pan-Arab national identity which emphasized ethnic and linguistic nationalist symbols (there are too many reasons to mention as to why this was the case, but I will select a few): 1) in a region as ethnically, linguistically, and religiously diverse as the Middle East, this was one way new regimes could consolidate and strengthen their power over states that possessed weak structures and little to no cohesive sense of national identity (Iraq and Syria being classic examples of this general phenomenon), 2) by specifically referring to secular, ethnic, and linguistic symbols that formed part of a regional pan-Arab identity at the time, leaders like Nasser attempted to gain support for their political agenda at a regional level by politically mobilizing Arab populations across state borders, and finally 3) leaders like Nasser felt the Middle East state system (and thus, national identities) were a product of the colonial experience and artificial state boundaries. This led to the development of pan-Arab nationalist claims that an ‘Arab nation’ could (and should in their view) acquire greater unity irrespective of existing state boundaries and state interests. I especially focused on Nasser above since he became the political figurehead for pan-Arab nationalist claims–one caveat to mention is that several of these claims initially developed in Syria.

Of course, I have greatly simplified historical interpretations of this period–I am merely trying to connect a few dots to my interpretation of Tilly’s work. What I find particularly interesting about historical explanations of this period is how historians (and even political scientists who focus on the Middle East) then proceed to offer the following explanation as to how Islamist movements gained influence and power over pan-Arab and Arab nationalists in the aftermath of the 1967 war: they usually assert that after suffering losses against Israel, the incumbent regimes lost legitimacy and support among their publics. Thus, Islamist groups like Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood which formed decades earlier (and were suppressed by Nasser) finally came to the fore as Arabs across the region expressed disillusionment and frustration with existing secular pan-Arab and Arab nationalist claims. The now infamous Brotherhood motto “Islam is the solution” became a hallmark way to frame A) dissatisfaction with an existing political order that did not produce fruitful results during wartime, and B) dissatisfaction with a distinctly secular brand of national and regional Arab identity.

Essentially, the popular story in classic social-movement model style then depicts the rise of nationally based and transnational Islamist groups to power in the following fashion: losses in the 1967 War and increasing uncertainty in various states over domestic economic and political conditions led the general Arab public in various countries to support the main opposition groups–political Islamist movements–and the collective political identity they espoused. Since the region has not become more democratic, that support has generally-speaking waned occasionally, yet has remained constant until the present time.

I, of course, have a few problems with the above story and many existing approaches to researching dynamics of contentious politics in the Middle East for various reasons. I will list them as follows and then relate them to Tilly’s work since I think this presents some interesting questions to consider:

1) The division between ‘nationalist’ and ‘Islamist’ collective identities: nearly every work of literature I have read on the subject treats both nationalism and political Islam as if they characterize unique and mutually exclusive actors, identities, and actions. Thus, if a nationalist movement makes X claim, it is mainly because it is a nationalist movement. The same problem characterizes literature on political Islam–scholars tend to analyze such movements as if they’re an island of their own with no overlap in dynamics with other phenomena like political mobilization, nationalism, democratization, revolutions, identity-construction, etc.

The result of course is that the literature which addresses contentious politics in general (and in my case, in a Middle Eastern setting) is extremely fragmented. To venture from reading about political mobilization to nationalism almost feels like taking a trip to two vastly different worlds. Secondly, by treating nationalist movements and political Islamist movements differently, scholars ignore the significant overlap between the two in terms of what Tilly refers to as ‘causal mechanisms,’ which he defines as a “delimited class of events that alter relations among specified sets of elements in identical or closely similar ways over a variety of situations” (Tilly, Tarrow, and McAdam 2001: 24). To clarify, I interpret his definition of the term to mean various causal processes at work that combine in different sequences to produce vastly different outcomes, yet apply in similar ways across a wide variety of situations. For example, causal mechanisms (or processes) like category-formation (the formation of collective identities through drawing boundaries and prescribing social relations across that boundary), brokerage (the connection of previously unconnected social sites through mediation of a unit), and certification (the validation of actors, actions, and identities) would arguably apply in situations where both nationalist and Islamist movements make public claims and participate in contentious politics.

In choosing to neglect analysis of similar mechanisms between different types of social movements, scholars are unable to effectively explain the transition between mobilization and demobilization between movements (why one movement loses influence as another movement gains, etc.)

2) Theories of identity-construction–this body of literature for God only knows what reason is largely ignored by political scientists who address Middle Eastern politics. Collective identities are mentioned (yes, how many scholars have already written about the significance of pan-Arab nationalism and political Islam?), yet, they do not take this one step further to analyze the dynamics behind category formation, and how this relates to political mobilization, identity shift, and object shift (a shift in relations between claimants and the object of claims (example, a change in relations between Brotherhood members and the Egyptian government if the Brotherhood starts articulating their claims to a third party).

To sum: the term ‘identity’ is often thrown around with little to no actual regard for its significance conceptually and theoretically. Secondly, identities are not analyzed as dynamic entities that are constantly negotiated and constructed through social relations (i.e., a relational approach). Instead, ‘nationalist’ and ‘Islamist’ identities are treated as if they possess essential coherent and durable static traits which reflect unique social phenomena. In other words, to be an Islamist is to possess X, Y, and Z characteristics, etc. This is the same problem we encounter when reading the works of Samuel Huntington where he assumed that ‘Western’ and ‘Islamic’ civilizations possess essential static traits that are mutually exclusive. We face the same problem here–scholars treat actors, actions, and identities that are labeled ‘nationalist’ and ‘Islamist’ as if they are mutually exclusive due to supposely inherent essential characteristics.

My critique of this would be that collective identities transform amidst episodes of contentious politics. Thus, groups like Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood self identify as being both ‘Islamist’ and ‘nationalist’ since they would like to promote goals they label as ‘Islamic’ ones, yet, they are primarily concerned with the social issues Egyptians face. For this reason, they are also concerned with how political Islam fits in their representation of Egyptian national identity. By contrast, other self labeled ‘Islamist’ groups like Al-Qaeda deliberately choose to identify at a transnational level for strategic reasons. Thus, both movements are concerned with political mobilization, but at a different level. The former self-identifies at a national level since that is where they choose to focus their mobilization efforts and where their perceived object of claims is located (i.e., the Egyptian government). By contrast, Al-Qaeda would like to mobilize supporters irrespective of state borders, and secondly, expand their selection of objects they develop political claims in relation to (i.e., the U.S. government, the EU, various Middle Eastern and South Asian states, etc. etc.).

3) Focus on movements and specific events rather than whole contentious episodes:

Since most scholars in Middle East studies focus specifically on A) the event of the Six-Day War, and B) on specific nationalist or Islamist movements, they do not effectively analyze the process of identity-shift. Why did large majorities of various Arab publics respond so quickly to the rise of self-identified Islamist movements? How did their collective identities transform over time? The shift from political orientation at a regional level, or collectively identifying an Arab nation that was regional in scope (including Syria, Egypt, Iraq, and other Arab countries) to national identification that corresponded with existing state boundaries (we are Egyptians and Arabs, we are Syrians and Arabs, etc.) is a significantly complex process that has many causes. This is a process that is not explored in the literature from a constructivist theoretical position to the degree it can or should be. Secondly, add political Islamist movements to the mix–how did movements like Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood appeal to nationalist sentiment, yet articulate bold claims that challenged an existing secular political order? What contributed to an increase in religiosity after the 1967 war, and did people collectively construct their national identity in line with other collective identities (being a Muslim, being a Sunni, being a Shi’ite)? Etc.

4) Constructivist versus rational-choice theory:

Ah, but of course, can’t forget this one. If actors had preconceived given interests that factored into their strategic political calculations, how does this explain the use of cultural, ethnic, religious, and linguistic symbols in dynamic processes of political mobilization? First, why would any political actor choose to self-identify as being a ‘nationalist,’ an ‘Islamist,’ an ‘Arab,’ a ‘Muslim,’ or all of the above? Why bother? Why do populations perceive such symbols in a way that their support wanes or increases depending upon specific patterns of identity-construction? Why not mobilize through specifically referring to economic conditions instead of ethnic identities? That is a question that is not answered by rational-choice theoretical accounts of contentious politics.

Secondly, intentions–how do we know if individual actors intended to rationally act and deliberate over various courses of actions? Unless we can empirically peak inside one’s head, this doesn’t cut it for me. The only plausible way to empirically analyze how and why political actors develop claims is through analyzing their social interactions–which of course leads us to analyzing collective rather than individual actors since humans are inherently social beings who do not exist in a vacuum. I have more thoughts on this point later…

5) The social character of identities–Tilly I thought raised an excellent point here: identities are not individually developed but instead form through social interactions and social relations. Given that humans are not born with their identities (contrary to what many think and what many nationalists assert), they develop an understanding of ‘who’ they are through others–how else would we know who is a ‘Palestinian,’ an ‘American,’ a ‘Muslim,’ or a ‘Christian?’ For this reason, any scholarly account which analyzes the collective identity formation of social movements is best served through analysis of collective social interactions–this is another area where preexisting accounts of the 1967 War as a contentious episode fall short.

Whew!!! I have many more thoughts about the above issues–I just provided some brainstorming ideas that have come to mind this past week. I will continue to write on this matter if time permits.

And yes, I promise to write some lighter posts soon about the news ;-).

Dear God,

I have a simple and petty question plus a kind request–I’m sure you get these all the time. I was considering leaving a sticky note, but wasn’t sure where to place it…and I imagine your email inbox is full.

So, I hereby present my question via my blog and facebook:
Why on earth did you create a 24 hour day?

Can you extend it to, say, 30, or maybe 56 hours without severely realigning the planets or causing a wholesale global armageddon? That, or grant me superhuman powers to complete my to-do list?

Sincerely,

An ungrateful soul/workaholic/caffeine addict who would love to complete her to-do list.

P.S. Tell Ibn Khaldun, Socrates, and Vincent van Gogh I say hi.

In another life, I would have been an interior designer, and quite an anal-retentive one. I realized this today as I glanced at my first real blog (http://sayidasiyasaofarabia.blogspot.com/) and found it irksome. At 7am this morning, I flipped open my PC (and I vow to get a mac because PCs really are that terrible) and took another look at the good ol’ blog. There was just something….something terribly annoying about it. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.

Then, it hit me like a ton of bricks. My blog needed a makeover. Not just any makeover. We’re not talking the equivalent of tummy tucks in terms of changing font sizes or facelifts involving repositioning my archived posts and widgets. We’re talking about a real full-blown makeover here.

I could just see Ty Pennington, the host of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, seizing my laptop, opening my blog page and saying, “Goooooood morn………Pfffftt! (Out goes the coffee and in comes the drama). Giirrrrrlfriend this is just wrong! Wrong! Wrong! So wrong! I mean…wow…..look here–the tan-hershey brown-beige color combination you’ve got going here just screams sand! sand! sand! I mean, we’re not trying to reproduce the Sahara here on your blog page, we want this to just shout you all over it! You’ve got to own this baby! And that photo you’ve got there of Alhambra, so 14th century….”

I, of course, look slightly mortified and slowly but surely try to reclaim my laptop, “Uh..Mr. Pennington….that is from the 14th century.”

“Whatever. Your size 16 Verdana bold font is atrocious, and the page layout does not do this space justice. We need to open up and create more space! Light hun! Blog pages are all about the lighting! We need an extreme makeover!”

Clearly my imagination runs wild most mornings and especially on the N4 bus to Farragut Square.

So, taking my imaginary Mr. Pennington’s advice, I decided to switch to wordpress because blogger offers very limited blog design options with little aesthetic appeal. Secondly, I plan to blog about a wide range of issues, but admittedly would like to focus on Middle Eastern and Islam related news items and tid-bits from time to time. For that reason, I put up a collage (which I proudly claim I designed myself 😉 up of Islamic architecture on my wordpress page. However, I tried to lighten up the overall design so that it looks more contemporary and receptive as a venue for a wide range of blog posts.

At some point, I would looooooove to write an extended post on how art, color, and imagery reflect and help articulate personal identity. Yes, this blog will be loaded with posts concerned with questions of identity (namely identity-politics and the issues taken up by the likes of Charles Tilly and other famed social scientists). For now, I think two goofy posts are sufficient until I get some serious material going.
On that note, if anyone obsesses with aesthetic function and appeal as much as I do, feel free to give me your feedback on my new blog design.