You couldn’t swing a dead imperialist last summer without hitting an essay about the unraveling of the Sykes-Picot system in the Middle East. The bloody disintegration of Iraq and Syria seemed to have finally ripped apart the borders created by the British and French governments in the aftermath of World War I (even if the borders in question were actually forged at San Remo). It wasn’t just the rise of the so-called Islamic State spanning and erasing the Syrian-Iraqi border. The unprecedented, synchronized popular mobilization across borders during the early Arab uprisings of 2011 gave potent form to the ideals of transnational Arab political community supplanting the limits of nation-states. As the uprisings turned darker and most of the democratic transitions failed, new challengers to nation-states in the Middle East rose to the forefront: the Islamic State; the growing de facto independence of Kurds across Iraq and Syria, with ramifications extending into Turkey and Iran; the rise of sub-regional identities carried by heavily armed militias in failing states such as Yemen and Libya; unprecedented forced displacement moving millions of people within and across borders; and raging sectarianism dividing Sunnis and Shiites.
These developments have not had a singular effect on national identities, however. While some states have collapsed, creating space for new subnational identities to challenge national cohesion, most have retrenched into a fiercer form of authoritarianism. Egypt’s military coup, for instance, has been sustained by the heavy-handed promotion of extreme nationalism. Many states in the Gulf have drawn upon sectarianism to consolidate support for their regimes in ways that could have an enduring impact on popular conceptions of national identity. Battles over the proper role of Islam in public life have reshaped political discourse from Egypt and Turkey (see Senem Aslan and Kristin Fabbe in this collection) and Tunisia (Elizabeth Young). Kurds imagine new political possibilities in very different contexts, as Nicole Watts demonstrates from Halabja and Serhun Al demonstrates through the historical experience of Turkey and Iraq.
In February, therefore, I convened a Project on Middle East Political Science symposium with Laurie A. Brand at the University of Southern California to examine national identity in the face of such challenges. Their essays have now been released as Rethinking Nation and Nationalism, a special issue of POMEPS Studies, available for free download here. Continue reading on The Monkey Cage.