Editor’s Note for the 2021 Volume
Please read the entire JMEPP 2021 volume here.
Anthropologist Engseng Ho treats the topic of empire and diaspora as intertwined and complexly linked in his 2004 article, “Empire through Diasporic Eyes: A View from the Other Boat”, specifically focusing on Western empires and Muslim diaspora.
Ho’s academic findings on the linkage between empire and diaspora inspired the basis of this edition. For the 7th print edition of the Journal of Middle Eastern Politics and Policy ( JMEPP), we wanted to look beyond domestic politics of individual countries in the region to 1) see how other regions interacted with the Middle East and vice versa, rather than operating inside restrictive geographic parameters, 2) explore how empire as a growing conceptual framework is complicating the nation-state scope of investigation, and 3) understand how the movement of peoples in the diaspora, including refugees, drives policy within and outside of the region’s territorial demarcations. Thus, in viewing politics and policy in the Middle East under the frameworks of empire, diaspora, and global transitions, fruitful conclusions can be drawn about where policy may go in the upcoming decade, viewing the importance of transregional connections as paramount.
The Middle East saw its share of globe-altering events in the last year. While JMEPP seeks to offer original analysis beyond the headlines, almost all major contemporary regional developments have been addressed in the present edition. The list, of course, is not exhaustive, but includes the Abraham Accords and increasing international marginalization of Palestinians, the renewed fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh between Armenia and Azerbaijan, continued protests amidst crises and weakening state institutions in Lebanon, and the rise of Turkey’s aggressive imperial foreign policy, to name a few. While there are major global transitions afoot as relates to the region, there is also a lack of transition— sadly, the 10-year anniversary of the Syrian revolution marks little change for those living under the dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad. Likewise, the humanitarian crisis in Yemen persists. The edition discusses what may become of newly inaugurated President Biden’s policies toward the region, including the challenge of renegotiating the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action ( JCPOA) with Iran. And finally, the edition would be remiss to not address how Covid-19 has impacted the region.
We took going “beyond borders” seriously. Alex Shams redefines Iran as a space by culture, rather than invisible lines marking political boundaries, and explores how this can foster better understanding during deep political divides between the US and Iran. Rethinking space geographically, Omer explores spatial bounds between Europe (“not solely as geography, but as a set of ideological, intellectual, and political projects”) and the Middle East, arguing that “the Israel/Palestine case both symbolically and concretely represents the continuous presence of Europe in the region.” The inclusion of the Caucasus in this edition also exemplifies the porous nature of borders, exploring Georgia as a north-south borderland between Europe and the Middle East (Meiering-Mikadze). Additionally, Okcuoglu offers us an incredible portrait of the literal borderlands of Kurdistan and“the way people in the Kurdish borderlands experience state strategies for surveillance and control of populations,” thus,“shedding light on the informal source of state authority in contested borderlands: arbitrariness and uncertainty.” (Okcuoglu)
In tackling Empire, we see vestiges of American imperial presence in Iraq (Al-Waeli), and the pattern of shifting empires and influences (Russia, Turkey, Iran) in the Caucasus and how that affected the fighting which broke out in July in Nagorno-Karabakh. Though historical acts of American imperialism still affect the region, multiple authors conclude that with the West“seen as busy with itself ” especially in the case of the Caucasus “former Russian, Ottoman and Persian empires” intersected and “their modern successor states meet and compete” (Meiering-Mikadze). Shapiro also defines the U.S. and the wider west in this arena as the only real geopolitical losers.
The power of diaspora is undeniable in contemporary Middle East affairs. We feature powerful voices commemorating the Syrian revolution, and a featured interview with Syrian actor Jay Abdo now residing in the U.S. on what it means to be a refugee. These voices embolden calls to make Syria a priority in the Biden administration after so much tragedy—as Oula Alrifai puts it, “what we ignore, we empower.” Alex Shams beautifully takes up the nature of Iranian diaspora in the US, explaining the need for more diasporic organizations to make connections with contemporary Iran rather than demonizing it and focusing on solely ancient Persian culture—“ they often have a tendency to overlook Iran as a living, dynamic place, perpetuating the same stereotype of Iran as a land mired in backwardness since the 1979 Revolution.” We also explore the steps that Jordan, as the first country in the world to vaccinate refugees, took to immunize asylum seekers and refugees through Bouri’s analysis.
Finally, we come to global transitions, including recognizing a lack of global transition regarding Syria and Yemen. The arguably biggest transition in the region was the normalization process between Israel and numerous Arab countries, and the Abraham Accords. We offer numerous perspectives on this historic turn; as some argue, “these US-brokered agreements give the United States a strategic edge. In the Middle East, America needs that more than ever.” (Kramer) In light of these developments, Baroud puts forth that “not only does normalization marginalize Palestinians, but it redefines the‘enemy’ of Arabs altogether. And,“according to this new thinking, the Israeli occupation of Palestine is no longer a priority for some Arabs, but the supposedly expansionist Shia Iran is.” Kabilo also focuses on Iran here. He offers an alternative vision to the JCPOA, and what it could offer to the Biden administration, a plan “consolidating a center of gravity consisting of moderate Sunni states against Iran, connected by intelligence, security and economic cooperation.” Additional transitions in the use of technology in social protests are explored by Ghazi and Walker, and Misztal takes us through new horizons in what is possible for a once strategic alliance between Turkey and the US.
While many of these major transitions have been lauded, others view the region mired in familiar and repetitive past issues. Baroud takes us back to what George W. Bush harkened as a“New Middle East” in 2008, to stabilize the region in favor of American-Israeli interests, and comments that through “the constant targeting of Israel’s enemies throughout the region and more, it is clear that US foreign policymakers are still committed to the [old] New Middle East idea.” Along these lines, Malas remarks that “Although President Biden claimed that ‘Diplomacy is back!’ at the Munich Security Conference earlier this year, his subsequent February strike in eastern Syria indicated business as usual.” Ultimately, it may be that, as Omer tells us, “New horizons for the Middle East cannot be imagined without grappling with Europe’s persistent presence and historical entanglement in the region.”
Politics and policy in the region are as complex as ever. Where there are global transitions, there is also a lack of transition in important developments and humanitarian crises, and we believe that investigating the region across borders, and through the lens of empire and diaspora, offers us the best way to understand the most pressing issues facing the region within and without.
Journal of Middle Eastern Politics and Policy Spring 2021