IR and Middle East studies: Speaking truth to power in a multipolar world

By Nora Fisher Onar, George Washington University, University of Oxford

*This memo was prepared for the the “International Relations and a New Middle East” symposium.

Ours is an era of Western retrenchment. The rise of the “Rest” has piqued a range of reactions among policymakers and publics. Responses range from anxiety (typically on the right) to enthusiasm (typically on the left) with a guarded willingness to engage emerging actors situated somewhere in the middle. The need to understand the new geocultural landscape presents the IR academy—with its global scope and networks—a timely opportunity to engage area specialists, not least when it comes to the turbulent Middle East.

The discipline of international relations, its name notwithstanding, has not always enabled a pluralistic prism onto world affairs. At the height of formal decolonization in the 1960s and 1970s, the IR academy—steeped in Cold War great power politics—mostly ignored the “third world.” A quintessentially “American social science,” the task of “seeing the world as others see it” (as J. William Fulbright exhorted his grantees) was allocated to comparative politics and area studies. Arguably, the most empathetic inquiry into the affairs of “Others” emanated from the humanities. This was largely due to the work of Middle East scholar Edward Said. His synopsis of a century of critique from the region in the seminal Orientalism offered a template with which to deconstruct Western readings—and the power relations they enabled—of the rest of the world. The approach transformed disciplines like literary theory, history, cultural, gender, and subaltern studies, as well humanistic social sciences like anthropology and sociology.

In time, such insights percolated into the IR academy in tandem with the challenge mounted by critical scholars from within (e.g. constructivists, historical sociologists, feminists). Empirical developments since at least the 2000s accelerated this process, converting what was long a normative project—decentering our reading of world affairs—into a strategic imperative.[1] After all, the latest economic crisis took the West down several pegs vis-à-vis emerging economic powers. And challenges continue to mount from the East (e.g. revanchist Russia; revisionist China) and the South (e.g. Arab turmoil; equatorial pandemics). The TRIP survey of faculty in 25 countries[2] tells us that 76.2 percent of IR scholars believe the discipline is Western-centric while 60.2 percent believe this state of affairs is untenable. In short, there is a palpable need to capture not the view from nowhere but views from everywhere.

Such trends have propelled research recently aggregated under the label “Global IR.” Given center stage at the 2015 International Studies Association annual convention under the presidency and committee leadership of figures like Amitav Acharya, Pınar Bilgin, and L.H.M Ling, the event was the largest ISA gathering ever. It brought together an interdisciplinary group, including students of the Middle East, who believe that “provincializing” the West in our analytical apparatus can enable more effective and more equitable global governance. As Charles King notes in his powerful piece on the state of international studies for Foreign Affairs, such “granular and culture-specific knowledge”—often gleaned through ethnographic, case study, and archival work, but also via the statistical survey and large-N toolkit of positive social science—can make “the critical difference between really getting a place and getting it profoundly wrong.”

But what is the added value of Global IR for students of the Middle East? There are at least two good reasons to engage. The first is to overcome parochialism. Bridge-building can help us think outside of exceptionalist boxes that stymie dialogue across the region much less with interlocutors beyond. An IR-ME studies conversation can leverage insights about transnational phenomena: the rise of “post-Western liberalisms,” as I have written elsewhere, “from Istanbul to Hong Kong”[3]; the growing salience of religiously inflected populism across an arc of rising Eurasian powers (in Turkey and Iran, but also Russia, India, and China)[4]; and the role of Islamism from a genuinely Islamicate perspective transcending the traditional focus on the Arab Middle East, in which Egypt is ground zero, other Arabs are secondary, Turks and Persians tertiary, and South and Southeast Asians are beyond the pale.

One initiative that has done an exemplary job of brokering such a conversation, the Social Science Research Council’s collaborative Inter-Asia platform,[5] is conspicuous nonetheless for the dearth of voices from politics and IR. This may reflect the wariness of many a humanistically oriented scholar from imbrication with power. However, and this is the second reason why Middle East studies has a kindred soul in Global IR: both draw inspiration from the Saidian view of the public intellectual as one who should “speak truth to power.” Doing so, Said suggested, requires “unbudgeable conviction in a concept of justice and fairness that allows for differences between nations and individuals, without at the same time assigning them to hidden hierarchies, preferences, [and] evaluations.”

This approach is but one mode of being a public intellectual. Other legitimate forms include neutrality in, say, the classroom, or lending expertise to agents and institutions of governance. Ultimately, the core of all public intellectuality is the willingness to ask hard questions. And in a multipolar era, the nature of such questions has changed. The relative decline of the West, for example, has driven a narrative of world historic comeuppance in Ankara and Moscow, Beijing and Sao Paolo. In more or less colorful idiom, pundits from these emergent centers of gravity argue that the West had been eclipsed and its civilizational energies spent at a time when erstwhile non-Western empires are regaining traction in their former imperial geographies.

In the case of Turkey, this story was amplified after the Arab uprisings when some in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere cited the Turkish experience as one source of inspiration in their rebellion against authoritarian regimes.[6] Turkey appeared to be in the vanguard of the right side of history, trumping the persistent Western/Orientalist view of the region and its peoples as incapable of either economic dynamism or political freedom.

Today, the magic of that moment has faded. In addition to the authoritarian backlash, sectarianism and militant movements with which the Middle East grapples more broadly, Turkey’s success story has been tarnished by sluggish growth and the anti-democratic turn of its leadership. Turkey’s pattern is not precisely one of democratic “reversal,” as the basis of political legitimacy remains the will of the voting public. It does, however, seem to entail democratic “careening.” Slater coined this term to describe: “the sense of endemic unsettledness and rapid ricocheting that characterizes democracies that are struggling but not collapsing.”[7] This pattern is evident in what Human Rights Watch, among others bodies, calls serious “rollback” in areas including freedom of assembly, freedom of expression, freedom of the press, and the protection of women as well as ethnic and religious minorities.[8]

The recent dismantling of rule of law in Turkey evokes a broader trend toward repressive populism from Hungary’s Orban and Russia’s Putin to India’s Modi. Certainly, there are counterexamples among emerging actors like Indonesia with its vibrant and pluralistic democracy and Tunisia with its remarkable, if fragile, coalition politics. But the trend across geopolitically significant Eurasian powers may be towards charismatic strongmen.

What does this mean for the emancipatory thrust of global IR? And what are the implications for the conversation with Middle East studies? In other words, how should the public intellectual, international and regional alike, speak to power in a multipolar world? On balance, after all, the West is still hegemonic. But with the rise of new centers, we encounter new centrisms. What responsibilities does the intellectual have, if any, to vulnerable individuals and groups in the societies in question such as women or ethnic and sexual minorities? And how do we grapple with the complex dialectics via which those minorities may be empowered when they embrace what populist leaders in their regions lambast as “inauthentic” Western-cum-universal values? Last but not least, how does the student of global IR disaggregate his or her analytical intervention from their own partisan preferences?

One possible approach, which I call “double decentering” entails jumping through two hoops. The first is to interrogate how the questions we ask and answers we proffer may (or may not) reproduce Orientalist binaries. The second is to ask tough questions about the co-constitution of Orientalism and Occidentalism.[9] This requires challenging claims of non-Western cultural purity and authenticity in the twenty-first century. Doing so may enable us to register the plural and hybrid nature of political subjectivities in the Middle East and global arena broadly. A double decentered vantage point is well-suited, moreover, to uncovering the roles of transnational as well as international, non-state and well as state actors.

In a nutshell, the added value of double decentering is to acknowledges the experience of multiple minorities—arguably aggregate majorities—in the “non-West” who have experienced double colonization: at the hands of Western colonialism and its legacies to be sure, but also at the hands of (neo-)traditional authorities within their respective societies.

Norah Fisher Onar is a visiting fellow at the Institute for Middle Eastern Studies, George Washington University and a research associate at the Centre for International Studies, University of Oxford.


[1] For a synthetic overview and application of the decentering logic see Nora Fisher Onar and Kalypso Nicolaïdis. “The Decentring Agenda: Europe as a Post-Colonial Power.” Cooperation and Conflict 48.2 (2013): 283-303.

[2] The Teaching, Research, and International Policy (TRIP) project housed at William & Mary examines the relationship between IR teaching, research and practice. TRIP conducts an annual multi-country survey of faculty on the state of the discipline. The data cited here is from the 2013 poll.

[3] Nora Fisher Onar, “Historical Legacies in Rising Powers: Toward a (Eur)Asian Approach,” Critical Asian Studies, 45.3 (2013): 411-430.

[4] Nora Fisher Onar, “Islamism in Turkey: From Muslim Democracy to Islamist Autocracy?” Faith, Freedom, and Foreign Policy, Transatlantic Academy, German Marshall Fund of the United States, April 2015. Available at:

[5] See

[6] A retrospective perspective drawing on survey and interview data reveals that while Arab political elites may have been put off by Turkey’s aspirations to leadership majorities—77 percent in 2009, 66 percent in 2012, and 60 percent in 2013—see Turkey’s regional imprint as positive. The decline, moreover, can be accounted for by the significant decline of support in Syria and Egypt, while other Arabs polled remained y positive on Turkey’s regional role. See M. Mufti, “Arab Reactions to Turkey’s Regional Reengagement,” Insight Turkey, 16(3), 2014 (summer), pp.15-23.

[7] Careening occurs, he argues, when there is competition between proponents of two different types of democratic accountability: vertical (encompassing the whole society) and horizontal (encompassing those who demand checks and balances to curb majoritarian excess). Dan Slater, “Democratic Careening,” World Politics 65.04 (2013): 729-763.

[8] Human Rights Watch, “Turkey’s Human Rights Rollback,” 29 September 2014,

[9] See, for example, my contribution, “Frames at Play: Beyond Orientalism and Occidentalism” in the POMEPS collection on Islam and International Order available at,

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