World Regions: The Middle Eastern Pivot Working Group I

On June 8, 2014, CIRS and the Stony Brook Institute for Global Studies (SBIGS) held the first working group under the collaborative research initiative World Regions: The Middle Eastern Pivot. Scholars from various disciplinary backgrounds gathered for the meeting in Doha to discuss topics related to the concept of “regions”, the construction of regional identities, and world regions and civilizations.

Participants began the working group meeting with a discussion of “a Pangaean approach to world regions”. The new-old approach to world regions categorized regions using physical and meta-geographical distinctions. Physically, the distinction is the seven continents that resulted as a fragmentation of the old super-continent Pangea. Other meta-geographical distinctions are: nation-states, which arise out of political categories; North-South and core, periphery, and semi-periphery economic categorizations; and cultural distinctions such as the occident and the orient. However, this traditional way of studying regions lacks the incorporation of the human impact on the geo-body, which is largely affected by techno-scientific means.  While the new-old approach fragments the earth based on a predominantly socio-cultural perspective, the new-new approach—or the Pangea II project—seeks to integrate the techno-scientific lens with the cultural studies lens. Our socio-natural impact gives rise to a global techno-scientific culture requiring new imagery and a re-mapping of the world—as Pangea II. Participants also discussed the importance of language when constructing and re-mapping regions. The notion of “world” regions emphasizes the diversity and divisions between various regions, whereas the concept of “global” regions may focus more on the interconnections and overlaps, accounting for the ongoing change that is occurring to earth as a whole and providing a binocular view that incorporates socio-cultural and socio-natural constituents.

“The Islamicate civilization and the Persianate world” was the second topic of discussion amongst participants. The growth of Orientalism by the end of the eighteenth century led to a shift from a unitary to a plural notion of civilization. The Orientalist approach to civilization used language as the decisive marker, and as such, based on the generation and influence of the Persian language, the Persianate world is considered to be a civilizational zone. Max Weber’s approach to civilization replaces language with religion as the main marker. In this conception, the Islamicate civilization is constituted as a world region. These conceptions of world regions are not mutually exclusive and as such identities can be intersecting and overlapping allowing one to be simultaneously Muslim, Persianate and Middle Eastern. In considering world regions as a unit of analysis, geographic, cultural or political, and structural coherence are considered to be the basic criterion. Geographic coherence was evident in ancient and medical empires that were territorially contiguous. Political coherence is produced as a result of polity formation. A framework for considering political coherence is “Sheldon Pollock’s idea of the vernacular millennium where the ecumenical languages—Sanskrit, Latin and Arabic—recede to make possible the growth of vernacular languages and cultures as a result of polity formation with the rise of local monarchies.” While Arabic was the lingua franca of the Islamic Civilization, Persian became a complimentary lingua franca to Islam where the Samanids in the tenth century played a particularly major role in spreading Islam as a world religion. A core component of the third criterion - structural or institutional coherence—is the legal order and juridification of norms and organizing logics. Islamic law—or Sharia—is predominantly private law and developed under the Islamicate civilization. Public or constitutional law however did not develop under this civilization and the idea of an “Islamicate monarchy” as a “political ethic” was largely derived from the Persian idea of kingship—signifying another area of great overlap between the two worlds.

In exploring the topic of the “Islamicate Ecumene in MENA and South Asia before Colonial Empires and Nation-States”, participants discussed the monopolization of literature by two dominant framings on geographic entities: that of the ecumene (ethno/cultural/religious civilizational aspects) and that of the empire (political aspects). Nestled between these geo-entities framings is one that is more socio-cultural and socio-economic—one that focuses on activities centered on exchange and one that includes people who were not part of the elite—such as students, teachers, pilgrims, traders etc. The neglect of the latter geo-entity accounts for the relative absence of the Middle East and South Asia in comparison to other parts of the world in the scholarship of global histories. Addressing this third geo-entity fills a huge gap in the scholarship and facilitates the reconstruction of salient spheres of social communication that took place prior to the nineteenth century.  By embracing philology, and drawing on social-scientific techniques that create cardinal visualization, scholars can facilitate the study of conceptual history and the reconstruction of spheres of spatial communication in past contexts.

While addressing the Arab World and the Middle East as overlapping world regions, the “Middle East” as a defined region was problematized by the working group members. Characterized as “one of the most relative terms”, scholars have long debated what geographical, cultural, political and historical patterns give coherence to this label. Despite these disputes in the nomenclature of the Middle East, participants nonetheless engaged with the region. Paralleling an earlier discussion of shifts in regional centers and the reversal of center and periphery, participants questioned whether there is a shift in the regional centers of gravity in the Middle East—moving away from the previous centers of power and economic activity of Baghdad, Cairo and Damascus, to that of the Persian Gulf states. In order to understand whether the center of gravity is shifting, scholars of the region need to have a better read of the intellectual landscape of the Middle East. Much of what we know about the production of knowledge in the region is related to that of political activists, but not much is known about political thinkers in Middle Eastern society. Whether or not places such as Dubai for instance, signify authentic cultural centers of knowledge production in the region could help us understand whether such regional shifts are in fact occurring. Some participants, however, questioned whether there remain any centers of gravity, or perhaps just a series of networks that interlace throughout the region.

Bridging regional studies and social science disciplines, participants delved into the topic of “The Middle East and International Relations Theory”. Each of the four schools of IR thought (i.e. the power, interdependence, Marxist, and constructivist schools) has particular relevance to the region. For instance, the power school emphasizes realism and attributes the shape of the region to the actions of great powers—this is fitting to the Middle East because the shape—and definition—of the region is in fact a product of great powers. When interpreting the modern world, however, another type of realism emerges—realism of power that is defined by the ability to produce and develop techno-scientific knowledge, emphasizing the modern need for civilizations to be progressive as compared to traditional civilizations that did not emphasize the growth process. Though the power school remains salient, it does not account for the power of regional actors nor take into consideration non-state actors. The school of constructivism on the other hand—which is a late comer in IR theory—brings forth the importance of ideas, thereby bringing IR theory closer to social thinking and allowing for deeper analysis and engagement with the internal dynamics of the region. Neo-constructivism—perhaps the most effective of all—integrates the material dimensions of the latter three IR theories (power, economy, class) and that of ideas.

Last on the agenda, working group members tackled the topic of “Central Eurasia as a World Region”. Central Eurasia encompasses multiple ethnic groups and languages making it difficult to define this region as a region. Although linguistic similarities between Uzbeks and Kazaks for instance indicate a level of cultural similarity; natives of these countries do not perceive it to be the case largely due to the linguistic and geographic borders that were reified through the soviet institutions of the twentieth century. From an internal perspective, national legacies of the region make it hard to identify central Asia as a region as its inhabitants have historically emphasized maintaining separateness. Additionally, from the perspective of outsiders such as international aid donors, the divergent developmental trajectories of the countries within also undermines regional coherence (for instance, while Kazakhstan is undergoing rapid economic progression, countries like Tajikistan and Afghanistan are seen as failing states by the international community). The various aspects of language, culture, geography, diasporas and the ways in which international organizations engage with the region, reveal multiple layers of regional identity that may be mobilized by people. Thus, while the region may be a construct of western academic discourse, there are moments when people evoke regional unity for certain purposes. Ascertaining when these moments occur and for what purposes contributes to the understanding of the ways in which people themselves evoke regional coherence.

Participants and Discussants:

  • Laura Adams, Harvard University
  • Saïd Arjomand, Stony Brook University
  • Zahra Babar, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
  • Nerida Child Dimasi, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
  • Barb Gillis, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
  • Mehran Kamrava, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
  • Bahgat Korany, The American University in Cairo
  • Dwaa Osman, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
  • Wolf Schäfer, Stony Brook University
  • Gagan Sood, London School of Economics
  • Elizabeth Wanucha, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar

Article by Dwaa Osman, Research Analyst at CIRS