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The Middle East Upheavals: The Necessities of a New Social Criticism

By Jonathan Piron

Political discussions in Western Europe about the state of play and balance of power in the Middle East  are mostly predetermined by an orientalist and Eurocentric lens. In order to deepen our understanding of the current political and social situation there, we must be aware of the prisms we look through and how they cloud our analysis, and forge a new criticism of power relations.

With the end of territorial domination of Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, there has been an outpouring of analyses and opinions about a ‘return to order’ in the Middle East. The conflicts in progress are frequently described from a religious perspective, and many commentaries place the general situation of the region within a context of centuries-old tensions, often exploited by external powers pulling the strings. A number of prejudices against the Middle East help consolidate this view. These views liken the Middle East to the Middle Ages in Europe: a dark, violent area, plagued by religious conflicts and incapable of modernising. They believe that from the Arab Spring[1] of 2011 emerged ‘Islamist Winters’, indicative of the failure of democracy inherent in the region as a whole. This framework of thought concludes that Arab spaces, incapable of self-determination, can only be dominated by strong powers, which are the only ones capable of protecting the populations against themselves.

The West, which is itself an abstract notion, is still conditioned by gaps in its perception of the conflicts in the Middle East and their resolutions. These omissions are largely inherited and upheld, propped up by a superficial approach to explaining the Middle East today. Indeed, this simplistic approach, which rejects the search for social and political causalities of the upheavals in the region for more than 20 years, maintains problems rather than resolves them.

Neo-orientalism in action

The first of its shortcomings is the imposition of a Western model of thought upon the Middle East. In his famous book published in 1978, Orientalism, Edward Saïd developed the idea that the ‘Middle East’ has been conceived and organised according to a hierarchical order imposed by the West, homogenising and essentialising an entire region, whose local particularities end up being erased[2]. This orientalism, continued by neo-orientalism since the Arab revolutions, not only constructs the way in which Arab spaces are viewed from a European standpoint, but also exacerbates the distance between the criticism of the very structures of domination and values and theories of emancipation, making any genuine social critique difficult[3].

Let us first consider criticism of domination. The basic assumptions develop the idea of an Islamist or imperialist domination of the Middle East; some go further and combine the two ideas. Far from being autonomous, the Arab spaces would merely be the plaything of superior interests seeking to impose themselves against all opposition. In the face of these dominations, anti-imperialism and the defence of secularism appear as instruments protecting states and their sovereignty against these insidious threats. Therefore, conflicts affecting the region would merely be the results of underhand attempts to overthrow the established regimes in the name of foreign interests, or to impose an obscurantist order – in this case Islamist, presented as homogeneous from Morocco to Iraq. However, this discourse of domination never considers that this narrative of domination may actually be an instrument of power of authoritarian regimes, raising the spectre of conspiracies plotted against them when they are called into question internally. The prisms of Islamophobia, of the essentialisation of ‘Arab violence’, and of Western imperialism end up being integrated into a communication system which discredits any opposition that attempts to unravel authoritarian structures, if only momentarily. In an era where all manner of conspiracies are rife, these positions eventually become conditioned responses that are hard to condemn using a critical perspective. The wind of change is no longer seen as a positive outlook but as a threat.

Added to this blindness of the foundations of domination is the inability to clearly perceive the emancipatory mechanisms emerging in the Middle East. The dynamics of transformations at work in the region are rarely perceived from an internal angle. Autonomy and solidarity, for example, are only considered possible on the basis of a Eurocentric framework of interpretation. Local structures and identities are thus presented as archaic or harmful, as applicable. However, the Arab world has seen new social projects emerge, in their own way and according to their own context. Areas of contestation have developed in the margins of power, some of which share horizontal orientations and avoid the domination of the established bodies.

This impossibility of adapting or renewing social criticism towards the Middle East is not only due to the European prism but also due to manipulations by the regimes in place, who manage to uphold these constructed positions in Western public opinion. The situation in Syria is symbolic of this postulate, managing to skilfully balance two dichotomous concepts. Assad’s power is presented simultaneously as the only one capable of fighting Islamist terrorism, which is echoed by right-wing movements, and as the chief fighter of Western imperialism, attracting the sympathies of movements on the Left. This dual discourse neutralises the opinions that can influence Western policies: any disputes expressed remain niche and ignored globally. Moreover, this confusion is upheld by various broadcasters used by the established regimes, knowingly or otherwise, to occupy the media space in Europe. Those whom Bourdieu referred to as “negative intellectuals” participate in the prevailing confusion and lack of clarity, or paint a picture of social realities that exist only in certain spheres, omitting the daily lives of an overwhelming majority of the populations concerned. The concept of otherness is also failing within Arab societies themselves, where the judgments by elites and intellectuals often discredit the working classes and apply the same criticisms and forms of rejection to them. Drowned in generalising concepts, the Other does not exist. The available categories are: Arab, Muslim, Rebel, or Terrorist. Populations and their diversities, and therefore their history, are invisible.

These different postures ultimately deny the social and political autonomy claimed and upheld by many populations since the beginning of the Arab revolutions in 2010 and 2011. Worse still, according to the conspiracy theorists, who are flourishing both in the West and the Middle East, these revolts are discredited by the idea that there is an external power behind the scenes pulling the strings.

Political or state transformations

However, the various areas that make up the Middle East have undergone profound and ongoing changes in recent decades. Some of these were caused by states seeking to maximise their profits. The various phases of opening up the economies in the 1990s and 2000s (summarised by the term infitah) gradually unravelled the social aids granted by the various autocratic powers to their populations.  The neoliberal shift and the disengagement of public authorities from their social responsibilities have enabled other movements to take over and provide basic solidarity assistance. Various new tools for participation and protest have emerged to counteract this withdrawal from the public role. These new forms of mobilisation are organised in different ways, whether through new, more horizontal networks such as the 6th April Movement in Egypt or spontaneous, leaderless structures, such as in Syria with the tanzikiyat. Intermediate spaces, between private and public, are emerging, such as the demands in Iran for the right to the city and the opposition of local residents to projects carried out by the institutions in place. This occupation of intermediate spaces also demonstrates resilience. In spite of civil conflicts and the brutalisation of repression, various initiatives have been upheld and even set up in Yemen, Syria, and Egypt[4].

Other pressures have added to these phenomena, including a record demographic transition, which brought the population of the region from 112 million in 1970 to 313 million today. Combined with a high level of urbanisation, mass literacy, and a transformation of social and family conditions, this phenomenon has inevitably brought about profound social changes, leading to new protests. Original forms of organisations have thus emerged, revealing players hitherto relegated to the background, such as women and young people.

Finally, these transformations are also linked to migration, which has disrupted the region. These migratory flows have not only transformed the cities but have also shaken the ties of solidarity that have long existed within the various local communities. In 2015, more than 143 million Arabs were estimated to be living in countries experiencing various armed conflicts, while 17 million were forced to leave their homes. The Arab revolutions have thus modified the geography of migration, leading to the emergence of new tensions but also new social mechanisms designed to respond to situations experienced by refugees. The strong territorial anchorage which characterised the working classes and some middle classes was disrupted, leading to changes in social capital[5].

One of the consequences of this is that the conceptions that have prevailed since the 1960s around centralised states are indeed now outdated. Globalisation, the flow of information, and the dynamics of individualisation have contributed towards disrupting social and political relations. New forms of organisations have emerged, based on particularities of each country and escaping a universal definition, with the autonomy of the social fields varying greatly according to the states analysed[6]. The classical vertical structures have thus been overwhelmed by new forms of participation, with new forms of solidarity being reinvented.

A paradigm shift

In order to overcome these tensions and better respond to future ones, the way of viewing the Middle East and its populations must evolve. Without reconstructing an intellectual and political critique based on the transformations taking place in the region, the different policies that will be proposed to resolve the crises will only postpone and create new ones. All the more so because the despair arising from the abandonment of the local populations to their fate contributes to the exacerbation of a resentment that could fan the flames of the most radical members[7].

This reconstruction must be achieved through a critique of concepts and a deconstruction of their use and validity. Imperialism and the relationship with Islam are the tip of the iceberg. The other approach to be developed is based on overcoming state-centric considerations and promoting new models of governance in order to better understand the internal dynamics that disrupt local communities and, by extension, the relations of domination between governments and the governed. The long-term approach should replace that based on the short term, seeking profits, and conservatism. It should also be acknowledged that the various policies pursued since 2001 in the region have not resolved the tensions and conflicts that affect the Middle East and us. Without this deep questioning, the backlash, which we cannot prepare for, is likely to be even more violent.

These different tasks are particularly arduous because of the cognitive dissonance which often reigns supreme. Our habitual attitudes regarding the Middle East are so grounded and maintained on many levels (whether in the news media, television series, or even on tourist trips) that the process of transforming the way we view the region should also be cultural.



[1]     The term ‘Arab Spring’ is mainly used in the Western world. Local populations prefer the concept of the ‘Arab revolution’ (at-awrat al-arabiyyah).

[2]     Edward Saïd, L’Orientalisme [Orientalism], Paris, Seuil, 2005, 430 p.

[3]     Corcuff, Philippe, Où est passée la critique sociale ? Penser le global au croisement des savoirs [Where has social criticism gone? Thinking global at the crossroads of knowledge], Paris, La Découverte,  “Bibliothèque du Mauss” coll., 317 p.

[4]     Perry Cammack et al, Arab fractures. Citizen, states and social contracts, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Washington D.C., 2017, pp. 18-20.

[5]     This decommissioning process has been particularly well analysed for the situation in Syria in the work of Adam Baczko, Gilles Dorronsoro and Arthur Quesnay: Syrie. Anatomie dune guerre civile [Syria. Anatomy of a civil war], Paris, CNRS éditions, 2016, 421 p.

[6]     While noting that, for Tunisia, the mobilisations and demands that led to the fall of the regime were not initiated by the sectoral organisations in place.

[7]     Marc Ferro, Le Ressentiment dans lhistoire [Resentment through History], Paris, Odile Jacob, 2008.

The Middle East Upheavals: The Necessities of a New Social Criticism