Binder: Ethnic Conflict and International Politics in the Middle East
In the post-cold war era, there has been renewed interest in the study of ethnicity and ethnic conflict. Spurred on by the violence in the Balkans and in the former Soviet republics, scholars have attempted to understand the resurgence of ethnicity and ethnic nationalism. Leonard Binder's edited collection is an attempt to come to terms with the meaning and implications of ethnic conflict in the Middle East. The scholars assembled by Binder are mostly political scientists, which determines the scope and nature of the essays.
The book constitutes the proceedings of a 1996 workshop/colloquium sponsored by the Department of Political Science and the G. E. von Grunebaum Center for Middle East Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. It is divided into four parts, with Binder providing an introduction and afterthoughts. Part 1 deals with Arab nationalism (and is the only section to be given a subtitle, "Cooperation, Conflict, and Domination," although these terms could be applied to the other sections); part 2 with Iran, Islam, and the Persian Gulf; part 3 with Turkey, the Kurds, and Central Asia; and part 4 with Jordan, Palestine, and Israel. Surprisingly, Egypt and North Africa are largely ignored.
The volume provides a welcome antidote to Samuel Huntington's "clash of civilizations" thesis. Binder situates ethnic politics in the nationalist age squarely within a framework of international politics, and the essays collectively reveal that ethnic politics vary immensely from region to region, from state to state, and from one historical context to the next. This point is made by Gilles Keppel, Adeed Dawisha, and Martha Brill Olcott, who examine Islamic movements, communal conflict in Iraq, and religion and nation-building in Central Asia, respectively. Among the most persuasive and judicious contributions is Laurie A. Brand's essay on the changes in Jordanian, Transjordanian, and Palestinian identities in Jordan and on the strategies used by the Hashimite monarchy to manipulate contradictions and tensions between various communities to prevent the emergence of a unified opposition. Michael Herb's discussion of the political constraints and realities that influence Shi`i political strategies in different Arab states in the Persian Gulf offers a pointed critique of those scholars who assume that Shi`i communities are motivated solely by ideology and/or by Iranian influence. However, his proposition that the Shi`a of Lebanon are a subordinate community that seriously entertain the possibility of "rebellion, secession, autonomy, or rescue" (p. 173) from the Lebanese nation-state with Iranian support is puzzling, especially when considered alongside Michael C. Hudson's cogent contribution, which suggests a far more complicated reality in post-civil war Lebanon. Muhammad Muslih similarly situates the rise of Hamas in Palestine within a concrete social and political analysis, while Ian Lustick offers perhaps the most theoretically ambitious essay in which he criticizes both the "primordialist" and "constructivist" (pp. 334-35) conceptions of nationalism. He offers instead a theory of "hegemonic compliance" (borrowing from Antonio Gramsci), which allows for both fluidity and continuity within nationalist identities. Lustick tests his theory by examining how the Likud party in Israel has attempted to reshape what he calls the "cognitive map of Israelis" (p. 353) by trying to erase the Green Line (Israel's pre-1967 borders) and by making the occupied West Bank an inalienable part of Israel.
The historiographical critique offered by Lustick ironically underscores the uneven quality of some essays in the volume. Moshe Ma'oz's contribution on Syria, for example, recapitulates old arguments about Hafiz al-Asad's role in bringing stability to Syria and building a Syrian national identity. Shibley Telhami makes an interesting argument about the rise of what he calls a post-Nasirist "new Arabism" (p. 56) in the wake of the Gulf War and the consolidation of U.S. hegemony in the Middle East. He suggests that this new Arabism is being driven by what he refers to vaguely as "market demand and supply" (p. 56) and further states that "globalization" (also undefined) is "finally catching up with the Arab world" (p. 57), which begs the question of what exactly is meant by globalization. David Menshari argues that the ideological impetus of the Iranian Revolution has been slowed by the realities and constraints of governance and has been subordinated to Iranian national interests, but the essay is dogged by unhelpful descriptions, such as "radical neo-fundamentalism" (p. 136) and "Iranian standards" of liberalism (p. 146), which suggest that there is some norm by which Iran must be judged. Binder, furthermore, seems to argue against the point of Muhammad Muslih's essay on Hamas by insisting that it is a "religious movement that rejects nationalism" (p. 277) and that "Palestinian nationalism looks to many like an anachronism" (p. 33). Such observations are not warranted by any of the evidence provided in the volume and only can be made if one insists on the most literal and decontextualized readings of the Islamic discourse of Hamas.
In sum, while there is much useful information, some excellent essays that will interest specialists on various Middle Eastern countries, and some interesting analyses of various ethnic conflicts in the Middle East (including Gabriel Warburg on the civil war in Sudan, Ian O. Lesser on the challenges to Kemalism, and Graham E. Fuller on the Kurdish "problem" in Turkey), there is little cohesiveness to the volume and, with the exception of a solitary effort by Lustick, little theorization about ethnicity or nationalism.
Ussama Makdisi is an assistant professor in the department of History at Rice University.