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Societal (In)Security in the Middle East: Radicalism as a Reaction?

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This is an advance preview from Regional Security in the Middle East: Sectors, Variables and Issues, forthcoming (May 2019).

Ever since the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire, Arab societies have remained vulnerable to cross-border identities. Arab collective identity has been exploited by Arab states to strengthen their regional reach and might. Without this foundation, Abdul Nasser, for instance, would not have been able to embolden Egypt’s regional position. Once a useful tool at the disposal of Arab rulers, this same collective identity turned problematic in other periods. Because of his pursuit of Arab nationalism, Nasser was forced to take action in Yemen and at Egypt’s borders with Israel, which brought about devastating repercussions that lead to the decline of Arab nationalism (see Ajami 1987). The same goes for Saudi Arabia’s pursuit of Salafism as a tool in its foreign policy, which backfired through Al-Qaeda’s ‘internal Jihad’ campaign (see Ahmadian 2012). Therefore, cross-border identities are now a challenging variable for Arab states. Besides cross-border identities, identity crises in Arab states have also emanated from ethnic and sectarian realities. The Kurdish issue, Muslim-Christian conflicts, and Shiite-Sunni rifts in the modern Arab history, are examples of conflicting identities leading to national catastrophes. Although identity is not the only determining factor in conflicts, it is surely an analytical category that is very useful for understanding some of them (Panic 2009, 37).

As much as those conflicting identities and loyalties in Arab states are of a historical nature dating back to the formation of the new Middle East, they have been emboldened by the functional inefficiencies of Arab states. From the inability, and at times unwillingness, of states to function properly in the economic, political, social, and security spheres arose cross-border ethnic and religious identities as a means to protect Arab societies’ mere we-ness. Within such an equation, societal security remains unmet by states that are lagging behind huge developments sweeping the region. The question this chapter tries to answer is how has societal insecurity helped radical and terrorist organisations such as Al-Qaeda and ISIS flourish within Arab states? The hypothetical answer is that collectively perceived threats along with states’ inability to function properly in resolving internal and external challenges, creates collective frameworks to address perceived challenges, one of which has been radical and terrorist organisations.

An Applicable Concept?

Securitisation theory has unleashed a wide range of debates on the effects of new dimensions of security on states and societies. Societal security is one of the theory’s main offshoots. The concept was designed to address the limitations of existing conceptual tools in analysing contemporary developments (Bilgin 2003, 211). It is concerned with the ability of societies to reproduce their traditional patterns of language, culture, association, and religious and national identity and customs within acceptable conditions for evolution (Buzan 1991, 433). Therefore, its design was meant to highlight the role that ”identity” plays in security relations (Williams 2003, 518).

Another factor that will contribute to its appeal and influence is its focus on societal identity as the core value vulnerable to threats and in need of security (McSweeney 1996, 82). Societal security suggests that identity groups are concerned with survival through preserving ethno-national identity, whilst states seek to maintain their sovereignty (Saleh 2010, 239). Accordingly, a nation can only be mobilised for national security in peacetime if the majority of the people identify the state and its enemies as the highest expression of their own personal security and fear. (McSweeney 1999, 21) Therefore, unlike Roe’s argument that the maintenance of territorial integrity is invariably as important for societal identity as it is for state sovereignty (Roe 2005, 157), in some cases societal security is not achieved by sticking to the state’s territorial integrity.

Societal security was a byproduct of Europe’s post-Cold War challenges. Barry Buzan puts it within the centre-periphery dichotomy, stressing immigration and clashes of rival civilisations as sources of societal insecurity in the centre. ‘The immigration issue does not exist in isolation. It occurs alongside, and mingled in with, the clash of rival civilisational identities between the West and the societies of the periphery’ (Buzan 1991, 448). This begs the question whether the concept is applicable in a Middle East faced with drastically different challenges.

The answer resides within the main assumption Wæver and Buzan provide us with: dichotomised identities of states vs. societies. As the general definition of Wæver goes, ‘a state that loses its sovereignty does not survive as a state; a society that loses its identity fears that it will no longer be able to live as itself’ (Wæver 1995, 67). The main challenge here is the differentiation of state security from that of the society. Criticising the concept, Williams argues that, according to societal security, the state cannot represent and protect the society and its ‘we-ness’. As such, the state and societal security can come into conflict as ‘societal’ elements challenge the state’s right to decide (Williams 2003, 520). Despite critics’ arguments against the identity-based dichotomy (see McSweeney 1999; also Williams 2003), societal security is useful in providing analytical means to address challenges of radicalism and terrorism in the Middle East. There are two main – historical and functional – reasons for that.

Historically, the creation of Arab states post-World War I created unmatched state-society identities. Despite the Arab nationalist rhetoric accompanying the revolt against the Ottoman Empire (see Sorby Jr. 2006), Arab elites accepted new borderlines drawn by the Sykes-Picot Accord. Being the leaders of new states within those borderlines, Arab elites started consolidating their power, asserting the newly founded states’ identities into their societies. Previously, Arab societies’ identities were attached to the subnational (tribal and geographical) and transnational (Islamic and ethnic) we.

The main advocates of the new states’ identities turned out to be the same elites who used to challenge Ottoman rule based on the transnational ethnic identity. This had two main outcomes: first, it deprived elites of much needed legitimacy during nation-building processes; and second, it paved the way for the middle class to move against the ruling elites. Thereafter, the sequence of coups in Arab nations brought militaries to the forefront to lead the political scene (see Cook 2007). Therefore, when the starting enthusiasm faded away, Arab people came to realise the semblance of the old and new elites and their attempts to consolidate power and impose the state’s prioritised identity on their society. Those facts brought up a new form of activism that went beyond the state and challenged it. The failure of Pan Arabism in its two main forms (Nasserism and Ba’athism) created a vacuum soon to be filled with radical orientations.

A short reading of the modern Middle East brings up an image of a dichotomised identity: elites trying to consolidate power through coercion and the imposition of the state’s fragile identity on the one hand and a vibrant society with a multifaceted identity on the other. Because of that dichotomy, sometimes even increases in a state’s security can lead to increases in the insecurity of certain societal groups (Saleh 2010, 239). The continued failure of elites to improve their society’s sense of we-ness rendered societies fertile ground for alternative, sometimes challenging, narrations of identity. Radical readings narrated the modern Middle East history as irrelevant to its true identity, thereby widening the state-society identity gap.

Functionally, preoccupied with consolidating their power, state elites were less worried about the functionality of the state’s apparatuses. If developing economies, political opening and providing security are the main objectives a state is expected to deliver, Arab states were only functional in terms of providing security. States with better fortune found adequate rent to meet their societies’ economic needs. Still the majority were not that fortunate. Therefore, with nationalism’s appeal fading away, ‘bread uprisings’ started or loomed ahead during the 1970s and 1980s.

The Arab Spring brought these dysfunctionalities into daylight. The ‘dignity revolutions’ were not about Arab or Islamic unity, but rather a defiance to states’ dysfunctionalities (see Salih 2012; Aissa 2012; Douglas et. al. 2014). Those........

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