Religion and politics in the Middle East and Northern Africa (Acconcia, Mendiževec, Turk)

Chair: Dragan Nikčević

The civil war in Yemen, the government crackdown in Bahrain, the Shia upheaval in Saudi Arabia, new escalations of sectarian violence in post-Baathist Iraq and the many-sided impasse in Syria – many of the developments in the Middle East in recent years are strengthening the portrayal of the Middle East as essentially a staging ground for the clash between the denominations of Sunni and Shia Islam. Such a narrative presents the political conflicts of the region essentially in terms of continuity, reaching somewhere from the Iran-Iraq war and all the way back to the 7th century.

Elsewhere in the wider region, where the aftermath of the Arab spring or the continuation of the Israeli-Arab conflict provides the general political background, the religious character and homogeneity of the respective societies is equally taken for granted. Organisations such as Hamas, Hezbollah or The Muslim Brotherhood dominate the Western view of entire societies. All this was true long before the rise of ISIS, which by no means alleviated the manichean view held of the region today.

The orientalising effect of conflating political dynamic with religious motives is twofold: firstly, the picture is always more complex than represented, if only by virtue of the sheer multiplicity of political, ethnical and religious factions involved. Secondly, the outcome today can by no means be taken as self-evident or understood without its historical genealogy.

Decades ago, like many other parts of the world, the region has seen it’s share of Popular Fronts and other anti-systemic movements. Decades before, the Young Turks and Kemalists movements in Turkey were an example of adoption of European secularising tendencies. Decades later, before the Islamic revolution, the overthrow of the monarchy in Iran was a joint cause of leftist and traditionalist currents. To this day, many of the regimes across the region were, or still are, direct descendants of so-called Arab Socialism, retaining elements of its secular character.

Historical cases as mentioned above offer much more possibilities of discussion than most of the current public and media debate allows. How popular or elitist are the backbones of the respective political undertakings? How may we outline them by way of class, identity and other demarcations? What kind of mark have they made in the wider geopolitics of the region?

Giuseppe Acconcia: The Arab Uprisings: Left-wing activism, social movements and wars in the Middle East

By adopting Social Movement Theories (SMT) as a basic framework to analyse the 2011 uprisings in the Middle East, I disentangle the role of alternative networks and other forms of political conflict in mobilizing and forming a potential revolutionary movement. During the 2011 uprisings in Egypt the Muslim Brotherhood monopolized the space of dissent preventing the formation of common identities among the protesters. Especially social actors in the ‘Egyptian Street’ (e.g. youth, immigrants, poor, women, Ultras) and other opposition groups (Liberals, Socialists, Leftists, anarchists) did not find any place within the post-uprisings government and finally have been demobilised by the politics and political discourse of a pseudo Neo-Nasserism, implemented by the regime after the 2013 military coup.

Giuseppe Acconcia is an award-winning journalist, writer and researcher focusing on the Middle East. He graduated at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London writing a dissertation on the role of the military in politics in Egypt, Syria and Iraq. He taught at the American University in Cairo, he worked as a researcher on North Africa and the Middle East, for the Sakharov Prize and the Euro-Mediterranean cooperation. He is the author of Egypt. Military Democracy (Exorma, 2014), Pictures form Gihan (Muta Imago, 2013), The Egyptian Spring (Infinito, 2012) and A two days winter (Fara, 2007).

Aleš Mendiževec: ISIS – How to build a state

The emergence of Isis, the radical islamist terrorist organization, is in this aspect nothing special, nothing that would jump out of the line of al-Qaeda, Taliban and the like. Their gruesome media presentation and politics of fear, directed inwards and outwards, the latter meaning towards what they call “Western” society, this is not anything ideologically essential. Their emergence and continuing persistence is mainly a product of a chance coincidence of different factors, some of which seem very improbable. From Iraqi inner fragility and chaos, Sunni (wahhabism) sectarianism, to American pragmatism and European ignorance.

But in terms of political ideology Isis is rather different: at one point in their insurrection it became a question of founding a state, a modern state, even though the ideological basis is theological, meaning their version of Islam. This state, so called Islamic State, must be made from scratch, from nothing, territorially speaking and ideologically ‒ law, economics, domestic and foreign politics and so on; a political primitive accumulation so to speak. We could bear witness to this phenomenon when the Guardian published leaked documents, naming them “a masterplan for consolidating power”. These “Isis papers” show Isis’s ideology, it outlines the principles for governing their territory and their strategy for becoming a viable state. We will try to analyze just this: the political philosophy of Isis, beyond Islamist theology, which is by itself insufficient to establish a fully developed and lasting state with its apparatuses.

Aleš Mendiževec is completing his postgraduate studies focusing on the political philosophy and epistemology of Louis Althusser. He publishes journalistic and theoretical articles at Radio Študent 89,3 MHz, Šum magazine and elsewhere. Within the framework of the program and the collective of Neteorit, he organised seminars and lectures on the topic of contemporary French philosophy. He is also a member of the Živko Skvotec collective, which organises theoretical and non-theoretical political events.

Miha Turk: Jihad and secularisation

The somewhat controversial title of the panel has nothing of the sort in mind. Secularism as the aim and ultimate value in modern liberal state building and on the other hand jihad as its most extreme negation (in near eastern terms). Secularism and jihad are seemingly two mutually exclusive political aims where the cultivation of the former should diminish the possibility the latter. We shall dwell on this seemingly polar opposition in its common points, with the intention – trough a few examples of recent and not so recent near eastern history – try to hint as to how the two political phenomena are in fact in some cases mutually productive and how jihad in terms of political strife actually made the foundation for modern secularist state (Turkey) and on the other hand how secularism (through colonial state building) made the conditions for the return of jihad in its modern form.

That is to say that secularism in terms of abolishing old traditional “state islam” and the socioeconomic establishment behind it in fact produced the conditions in which various strains of folk religion in its spiritual and also extreme variants can be placed, and as the recent events in Turkey and Syria can testify. Through the established reciprocity of the two we shall try to understand the role and prospects of secularism in relation to ISIS (as a by-product of modernity) and its relation to more traditional powers in the region. The intention is to try to understand the modern foundation of this new jihad and drive a distinctive line between it and the traditional (disappearing) religious establishment as its opposition.

Miha Turk is a MA student of philosophy in with a BA in history and philosophy. He works as a cultural worker and a journalist and correspondent for Radio Študent. As a correspondent he has covered the recent uprising and oppression of the Kurds in Turkey, The refugee crisis and political situation in Iraq and Greece.

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