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 ;-).