World Congress for Middle Eastern Studies

Barcelona, July 19th - 24th 2010


Identity and National Culture - 1/2 (422) - Panel

· Date: FRI 23, 9.00-11.00 am

· Language: English

· Description:

Chair: Matthias Determann (PhD Candidate, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, UK)

Paper Presenter: Alam Saleh (PhD Candidate, School of Politics & International Studies, University of Leeds, UK) “Identity, Ethnicity, and the Security Challenge in Iran since 1979”
Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the issue of Ethnic Minorities in Iran has been a central theme of academic debates for scholars and researchers of politics and social sciences. Central to these debates is the relationship between the country’s demographic structure and its territorial integrity and political stability. For example, the fact that ethnic minorities make up more than half of the country’s population has given rise to the belief that this demographic mix poses a threat to Iran’s territorial integrity and political stability. This paper aims to explore, through use of the theory of societal security, how the recent external and internal changes, as well as, increasing ethnic identity awareness have greatly enhanced the political weight of ethnic groups in terms of territorial integrity, political stability and Islamic unity. This paper looks at the position of ethnic and religious minorities in the Islamic constitution and compares and contrasts this with their position in post revolutionary Iran. Through such an analysis, the study challenges the idea that the security challenges faced by Tehran are purely a manifestation of its external environment. Indeed, by examining the issue of ethnic identities which, by their very nature are transnational, this research details the tensions and conflicts, which have marked relations between a hegemonic regime defined by its Persian-Shi’a identity, and Iran’s ethnic minorities since 1979. Nationalism and Islamism, the two main components of Iranian identity in pre and post-revolutionary Iran, remain key variables in defining contemporary politics in Iran. As such, this paper regards discussion of these key variable as central to any understanding of the security challenges that Tehran now faces as its seeks to secure both its internal identity, and external security.

Paper presenter: Esen Egemen Ozbek (PhD Student, Carleton University, Canada), “Trauma, Identity, and Memory in Elif Shafak’s ‘The Bastard of Istanbul’”
In this presentation I will look at Elif Shafak’s controversial novel Bastard of Istanbul in terms of national trauma and trauma-related issues of identity formation, especially in terms of disruptions in time and space. The novel is basically the story of an identity search through the events that intersects the lives of two families, one Armenian American and other Turkish. It overlaps personal and collective experiences of trauma manifesting the interdependence of these experiences. What is revealed further are the intersection points between personal and collective identities and the ways in which these two seemingly separate fields hinge upon each other. In my presentation I will look at subject and collectivity (in this novel’s case this collectivity takes the form of ethnic/national community) not as hermeneutically sealed compartments, but as mutually reproducing dynamic processes of identifications. I will argue that ‘The Bastard of Istanbul’ provides an important opportunity for the readers to ask themselves following two questions: how are the personal and collective identities constituted/imagined through mutual processes? And how does trauma affect these processes? Moreover, the novel tackles a series of important ethical questions related to the history of Turkish and Armenian people by leading its reader to think about historical guilt, injustice, discrimination, and oppression. I suggest that, although fragmentation of identity through trauma has detrimental effects on the subject and communities, it at the same time opens the subject and collectivity to the ‘other’ by means of breaking the sense of wholeness and of being at ‘home’ that could be the source of patriarchy and nationalism. In order to be able to empathize with the pains and sufferings the ‘other’, one has to be aware that every coherent identity, temporal continuity, and communal belonging is an imagination. Taking national trauma as ‘blessure de memoire’ in the phantasmatic of ‘nation’ I will look at the ways through which the subject and collectivity have to give radical struggles within themselves for coming into terms with their past in Shafak’s novel.

Paper presenter: Matthias Determann (PhD Candidate, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, UK), “The Saudi State or Arabia? The Dynamic Development of Historiography in Saudi Arabia”
This paper analyses a central tension in historiography and wider intellectual debates in Saudi Arabia: The tension between conceptions of the country's history as that of either a Saudi and Wahhabi state or as that of a wider Arabian entity. This tension is unique in the Middle East, as most other countries have developed a consistent national historiography much earlier. However, it has not yet been comprehensively studied by the insufficient research on history writing in the Kingdom. My research, based on a long stay and intensive fieldwork in Saudi Arabia including interviews with prominent Saudi historians, fills this lack and provides thought-provoking new insights into the kingdom's intellectual history. I argue that despite censorship, historiography has witnessed a dynamic development over the past hundred years, not just in terms of the emergence of modern professional historical research but also in terms of discussions about the very identity of the country Saudi authors have been living in. Since the 1930s, foreigners close to the first Saudi king and the Saudi government have written the histories of Saudi Arabia as a history of the House of Saud beginning in the eighteenth century. They were followed by the first generation of professionally educated Najdi historians in the 1970s and 1980s, who, supported by the government, have taken over this perspective and introduced a discourse dominant in Najd and in line with that of the political and religious establishment, hence focussing on and praising the Saudi state and the movement of Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab. However, this development has also been challenged by amateur and since the 1970s professionally trained historians, in particular from regions other than Najd, who have conceived the history of the country more as a wider history of Arabia. Some of these authors have emphasised Hejaz and 'Asir especially as distinct regions. Others have produced new studies that explain the Saudi rule and the Wahhabi movement in the context of a wider pre-Saudi and pre-Wahhabi history of the country. Ironically, it was to some degree the state sponsorship which fostered these challenges as some researchers went to study in the UK and the US with governmental scholarships, which fostered new the development of new arguments. And this dynamic development of historiography and intellectual discussions in general is likely going to continue, as more Saudi students have been sent abroad in recent years, while domestic education has also been fostered.

Paper presenter: Harith Alqarawee (PhD candidate, Scuola Superiore Sant Anna, Italy), “National Narrative, Sectarianism and Discourse of identity in Post-Saddam Iraq”
The question of national identity is implied in almost every aspect of Iraqi politics and every debate about the Iraqi political community. Whether or not the various Iraqi communities will be able to produce a national narrative which could be sufficiently inclusive is one of the main questions about Iraq’s future. Building, or dismantling, a nation is basically a process of power conflict. This conflict in Iraq has been fiercely shaped by the sectarian lines in post- 2003 Iraq. The reciprocal suspicions and violence between Sunnis and Shiites, and their conflicting cross-national alliances controlled the post-2003 politics and contributed in molding identity discourse of different political groups. However, this conflict is not a new one. It is part of a deep crisis related to the construction and development of modern Iraq and to the ways through which the issue of social integration has been handled in the past. As it is the case with many Middle Eastern countries, the ‘statehood’ in Iraq was imposed on a society where a modern high culture has not yet prevailed and the gap between the high culture and the low culture is far from reaching a clear conclusion. Sectarianism manifests the ability of pre-modern identities to mobilize popular support and to influence the public perception. The absence of a well-defined and widely accepted national narrative represents the nature of socio-political conflict in this country. This fact can be demonstrated by studying the identity discourse in post- Saddam Iraq. There is an evident disagreement in the narratives and symbols through which each political group seeks to approach the issue of national identity. The identity discourses of sectarian groups express different, even contradicting, interpretations of the past, the present, and the future. There is a conceptual incompatibility of definitions among these conflicting discourses. I will try to analyze samples of the latter in order to clarify the ideological and conceptual gaps and discrepancies. It is important here to explore the extent to which the sectarian boundaries have influenced these discourses and the extent to which they have been overcome by some other boundaries (e.g. ethnic or ideological). I hypothesize that the wider the gap between narratives adopted by the different political groups, the most difficult is the process of constructing an inclusive and cross-sectarian national identity.

Paper presenter: Nino Surmava (PhD Student, Iv. Javakhishvili Tbilisi State University, Georgia), “Issue of Cultural Identity in Al-Tayyib Salih's Novel ‘Season of Migration to the North’”
Issue of cultural identity represents one of the most important subjects of the modern Arabic literature. And this is natural for people, who were under foreigners’ dominion for many years. There is no doubt that in the epoch of globalization, in the environment of assimilation of nations and races, the process of more rapid modernization (when the whole modernization is comprehended as Occidentalization) causes the relevant reaction’ the necessity of strengthening cultural identity. Interestingly enough is the fact that in works of art such themes usually are chosen by the writers, who acquire such type of knowledge through their own experience and due to their biographic moments and frequently they, either consciously or unconsciously, used to identify themselves with protagonists of their literary works. Al-Tayyib Salih belongs to the group of Arab writers bearing ‘both cultures’; he was a Sudanese writer, integrated with Europe. It is obvious that Al-Tayyib Salih’s continual travelling from Europe to Arab countries and vice-versa was reflected in his creative work, the main motive of which was opposition of the two cultures, clash of western and eastern worlds. This problem acquires particularly dramatic nature in Al-Tayyib Salih’s novel ‘Season of Migration to the North’, which made the author’s name famous throughout the world. Since the date of its publication (1967), this novel was of great success both with European and Eastern literary critics. It was declared 'the most important Arabic novel of the 20th century'. This literary work deals with confrontation of Sudanese local intellectuals with the dilemma created as a result of British colonial governance, since they found themselves between two cultures, i.e. African-Arabic and European cultures. This is specific historical situation: clash of traditional African-Arabic and modern European civilizations exerts influence over two main characters of the novel. Their problem is to identify cultural identity, standing face to face with foreign civilization, which aggressively encroached upon their traditional civilization, but, on the other hand, they are not able to deny this foreign civilization, since this civilization promoted their maturing and made their ‘ego’ incongruous with their traditional way of life. Given these circumstances, inner and social integration of their personality are equally unachievable. The report deals with the problem of cultural identity created as a result of confrontation of cultures in the life of two main characters of the novel.