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Ken Christie on national identity in the Middle East

January 21, 2014

Ken Christie, program head of the human security and peacebuilding program in the School of Humanitarian Studies, answered some questions recently on the new book of essays, State Formation and Identity in the Middle East and North Africa, which he co-edited with Mohammad Masad.

What has the Arab Spring taught us about how the population views its country?

The Arab Spring that began in 2011, started with a young fruit seller in Tunisia who was told by police that he didn’t have a business permit. He ended up setting himself on fire. So one of the things we were interested in in the book was how does religion and ethnicity as forms of identity fit into this whole movement within the Arab Spring and state formation. One of the things we know about the Middle East is that they are rather weak states in many ways. They have had a lack of democracy.

Good governance is seen as something that gets imposed by the likes of the World Bank. We were interested in state formation and how it evolves naturally. The trouble with the Middle East is that we’ve imposed structures that haven’t worked to a large extent. Iraq was formed by drawing a line in the sand. They have many different ethnic, tribal and religious groups and citizens talk about themselves as belonging to a particular tribe and religion rather than a country.  It creates chaos in the future.

How do states handle different views and resist chaos?

We looked at the state as a kind of entity and tried to offer a framework. Ideally the state should be a neutral force.  We argue in the book that if you fail to bring these multiple identities together then you are going to fail as a state. This is the problem with Pakistan. Do you coerce these groups as Saddam Hussein did or do you just give free rein to these groups and have chaos.

How does globalization weaken identity?

That’s one of the questions we look at in the book. You see this in the Gulf. Suddenly they were modern states such as Dubai. In UAE, Kuwait, you have a traditional authority – a monarch – but then they have a modern society below them.  How do you deal with that? Now they have shopping malls and westerners and alcohol, and they’re getting the World Cup in Qatar. There are two reactions to that: you can say I’ll have nothing to do with it and become more extreme and more fundamentalist, or I’m going to embrace it and consume the western goods and wear western clothes and take on other identities: Louis Vuitton or Armani.  

Has globalization strengthened democracy?

This is the big disappointment of the Arab Spring, because in none of the countries affected has democracy really taken hold. In some ways, globalization may have weakened the institutions and brought out elements of the army which have been reinforced. So you see people rioting on the streets. You say “we have to restore order.” How? Dictatorship? You can’t get order through democracy because it means a lot of disorder in the beginning. What happens in Egypt will happen in the rest of the Arab world.

What is the value of your book?

We are looking at the contradictions, and how does a state reconcile ethnic, religious and national identity? The value lies in the fact that we are looking at different theories and look at case studies to analyze them.  Maybe states just have to be imposed. Who are you going to back – a strong armed ruler who will have order in the country? Or one of the many armed groups?

Peace negotiations are between two groups, but in Syria one is the state and then there are a thousand other groups who are confused and conflicted amongst themselves. These things are going to take hundreds of years to resolve.