Academic journal article Anthropological Quarterly

Inhabiting the Margins: Middle Eastern Minorities Revisited

Academic journal article Anthropological Quarterly

Inhabiting the Margins: Middle Eastern Minorities Revisited

Article excerpt

A century ago, with World War I marking the Middle East region's bloody passage from Ottoman domination to another imperial order, the fate of certain politically vulnerable populations-whether marked in terms of ethnicity, language, religion, or all three-was a global concern. One hundred years later, what we conveniently but ambiguously call Middle Eastern minorities-some of them seemingly the same as before, others appearing to be newly emerged, all of them profoundly affected by World War I and its aftermath-are once again in the headlines. While anthropologists have not been silent about the unfolding events, most of our work has responded very slowly to the current developments. Not surprisingly, other voices have filled the silence, usually bringing along with them worn frameworks of understanding that lie near-at-hand.

Take, for example, Scott Anderson's widely read report, "Fractured Lands: How the Arab World Came Apart," published last summer in the New York Times Magazine. Based on many years of investigation and in-depth interviews, Anderson's long article is a reportorial tour de force that displays deft narratival skill as well as great sensitivity to the profiled individuals. Yet Anderson's framing of its core, by emphasizing the "extraordinarily complex tapestries of tribes and sub-tribes and clans, ancient social orders that [have] remained the populations' principal source of identification and allegiance," hearkens back to a primordialist vision of peoples and cultures that admits historical process in very limited ways, if at all. While this passage might appear to be a clichéd but more or less innocent recourse to an Orientalist view of the Middle East as a timeless place peopled by ancient and fractious tribes-a narrative conceit that simply introduces the more substantive and subtler core of the article-it, in fact, opens the backdoor to Anderson's startling conclusion, in which he seems to empathize with his Kurdish informant's call for ethnic cleansing in the "artificial state" of Iraq.

States of nature versus artificial states. Ancient allegiances and failed states. Heterogeneity versus homogeneity. Anderson is not alone: these are the tropes of many American and European popular accounts of the contemporary Middle East (and much of the world besides). Beyond the clear echoes of Hobbes, these tropes are also tied up with the logics of nationalism that have exercised much scholarly reflection over the past three decades, including within anthropology. In a way, we can think of this as the problem of the two Andersons-Scott Anderson writing in 2016, and Benedict Anderson writing in 1983. In the dominant contemporary interpretation of the Middle East crises, we have a sort of reversal of the "imagined communities" argument: it is as if to say that what we are beholding is the failure of the nationalist imagination, which in turn uncovers the "true" nations that the modern states failed to suppress or transform.

The rarely questioned dominance of this interpretation in popular discourse points at the very least to a profound disconnect between public reason and academia. Several ways to account for the disconnect spring to mind. One is to point to the wide institutional and discursive gap between academia and the non-academic public sphere-one that grew particularly stark in North America and Europe over the course of the 1980s, and that is only exacerbated by the shrinking of the public sphere itself. Another possible answer is simply that Orientalism dies hard.

But there are other possible explanations that are worth exploring here as well. One is that non-essentializing accounts are difficult to undertake. Unlike the organicist metaphors of the natural and unnatural, of collective birth and death, and of the state as executive over the unruly body called population, the metaphors for conceiving things in non-primordialist terms have yet to be developed-or, if they have, have yet to be made easily accessible outside specialist circles. …

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