Monthly Archives: August 2014

“A Ready-made Approach to the World”: Ethnic Conflict, Neo-Cons and the Rise of ISIS

Nationalism and ethnic conflict are some of the grand old themes of social science research. “Nationalism and ethnic conflict” rolls off the tongue, and immediately calls to mind the great classics like Imagined Communities, or Nations and Nationalism; the phrase makes sense and has become a powerful analytic category. I myself frequently list “nationalism” or “nationalism and ethnic conflict” among my research interests, and obviously this is the rubric under which the realities of Sri Lanka in particular (and much of the developing world in general) are commonly understood. This post not in any way intended to be a criticism of those whose research agenda falls into this category, but rather a way to question the effects that an uncritical “nationalism and ethnic conflict” worldview may have for policy.      

It seems to me that it is worth asking: is “nationalism and ethnic conflict” the best overall framework for understanding some of the phenomena happening in the world at this very moment? Is the relentless focus on ethnicity/ethnic identity/nation harmful in some way? And is it perhaps obscuring other things that underpin human realities, like ideology, class, economics, affinity groups, etc.?

These questions take on specific importance, and I have been inspired to ask them once again, because of their ramifications for policy. Specifically, I am interested in what is currently happening in Iraq. With the rise of the group known as ISIS/ISIL/the Islamic State, there has been a lot of soul-searching in the western media, both mainstream and alternative, about what led to this moment, in which thousands are fleeing for their lives and the US is once again sending troops and weapons to the country it invaded in 2003. My main question is: did the neoconservative vision of the world create the conditions of possibility for a group like ISIS to come to power? To what extent is that neoconservative vision premised upon an understanding of “ethnicity” or “religion” that is overly rigid and insufficiently nuanced?  

It’s hardly groundbreaking to point out that categories and intellectual constructs matter in the crafting of policy. Anyone with some social scientific background can tell you that the way experts are trained to think about things shapes how things actually play out “on the ground,” especially when those experts are funded and backed by powerful western interests. Starting in the colonial era, Europeans came up with categories of race and ethnicity to divide and regulate the populations they sought to rule. Mahmood Mamdani has tackled this head-on in his work on various African states, and other examples abound (see, for instance, John Rogers’ 1994 article on “post-orientalism” and identity in Sri Lanka).  

The title of this post, “a ready-made approach to the world,” is from Assassin’s Gate: America in Iraq (2005), by George Packer. Packer is himself a rather problematic figure (a self-described “pro-war liberal”) but the book is a fascinating account of neocon circles in Washington and elsewhere, and of the way they viewed the Middle East. For example, neocons’ dubious understandings of history led them to espouse what was called the “everybody move over one” theory, in which “Israel would annex the occupied territories, the Palestinians would get Jordan, and the Jordanian Hashemites would be restored to the throne of Iraq” (Packer 2005: 31-32). Many hard-right foreign policy experts believed this scenario would work out just fine because Shia Muslims in Iraq would welcome the Sunni monarchy due to their unstinting “veneration” of the Prophet and by extension King Hussein (Packer 2005: 30). The book explains in detail the relations between Washington and various dissident Iraqis during the lead up to the invasion in 2003 – the fascinating thing is not just the blindness and arrogance of these policy architects, but the way in which they were arrogant and blind. Essentialist, reductionist views of Muslims and Arabs underpinned the ways neocons and so-called “Middle East experts” viewed the political landscape of Iraq in the early 2000s. These beliefs also infected some parts of the left, most notably figures like Christopher Hitchens.    

A statement by the Federation of Worker’s Councils and Unions in Iraq posted on in June 2014 powerfully called out foreign powers – including the US – for their role in creating the sectarian divisions that have aided the rise of ISIS:

 “Iraqis generally reject ISIS, whether in the central or southern regions of Iraq or in parts of the country that are no longer under government control: the so-called “Sunni” areas or the “Sunni Triangle”, a term that intelligence services, particularly the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), devised as part of a plan to engineer sectarianism in Iraq.” (Jadaliyya, June 2014)

 Here, the Federation makes it quite clear, through the use of quotation marks and qualifiers like “so-called,” that Iraq’s sectarianism and Sunni vs. Shia conflict is not at all a natural, ancient, unchanging divison but one that was cultivated by the CIA and other actors. Basically, they are inviting us to consider that religious/sectarian tensions (which are treated in this case like ethnic divides) might not be the only thing characterizing social relations in Iraq. Of course, Americans don’t hear about groups like the Federation of Worker’s Councils regularly because we are trained to believe that in other countries, big monolithic ethnic groups (who either hate each other or perhaps hate us) are busy fighting existential battles to the death. These strange, exotic others don’t get to have unions, political parties, community organizations, different media outlets, all the things that actually make up the fabric of day-to-day life. For all the lip service paid to “civil society” among westerners, we have remarkably little regard for how multi-faceted and complex “civil society” is in other places, just as it is so in the US, Great Britain, Canada, etc. (As an aside, the best example of this attitude is the way the US State Department phrases warnings to US citizens in foreign countries, overwhelmingly non-western ones. When the warning is about protests, it just says to avoid a given area at specific times. There is never any mention of what the protests might be about, since it is assumed that the US citizens concerned wouldn’t want or need to know. The substance and content of protests is immaterial).

Intellectual dishonesty, muddled thinking and racism have been part of US foreign policy for a long time, much before the rise of the neocons under George W. Bush. Can this be countered in any way? I don’t know. It has been the life’s work of people far more brilliant than I to think about and tackle that question. But I do wonder if the way we introduce students of social science to “nationalism and ethnic conflict” could be changed to make them better prepared to challenge dominant ideologies. In undergrad I took a course called, you guessed it, “Nationalism and Ethnic Conflict” and it was taught by an amazing professor. But in retrospect, I see that there were limitations as well. As was all too common at my undergrad institution, we were taught about the big theories of ethnic conflict – primordialism, institutionalism and constructivism – as if they were all equally valid, discrete and mutually exclusive ways of viewing the world (this in and of itself merits a separate blog post). One of our assignments was to take a fictional country with a given percentage of people of made-up ethnic groups (the proportions were loosely based on Sunnis, Shias and Kurds in Iraq) and asked to come up with a “solution” for how this country should be governed. There you have it – regime change and nation-building, all done on paper for your senior year poli sci class final. The danger of this kind of thing is that it risks naturalizing the very idea of “ethnic conflict” and presents quite dangerous – and already thoroughly discredited ideas – as worthy of legitimate discussion in the classroom. A responsible approach to the teaching of “nationalism and ethnic conflict” should include some level of meta-commentary on theories on nationalism and ethnic conflict themselves, and efforts at impressing upon students the real power that certain theoretical frameworks have had in shaping politics.

 In his introduction to The Invention of the Jewish People, Shlomo Sand writes “I don’t think books can change the world, but when the world begins to change, it searches for different books.” I hope that the what is going on today in Iraq might compel us to seek out different books.


AAA in Washington, DC – December 2014

Pleased to announce that I will be attending the 2014 meeting of the American Anthropological Association (AAA) this December in Washington DC. It will be my first visit to DC in about 18 years, and hopefully a great chance to connect with friends and fellow anthropologists. I will be presenting some of my research on Twitter and Sri Lankan politics on a panel entitled “Media and Mobility” chaired by Dr. Sahana Udupa of the Max Planck Institute.