September 19, 2021

Regional Studies: The Middle East

Written by: 
Krešimir Petković

The second bloc of texts previously published online, which will be included in the issue of the Annals for 2021, is dedicated to politics in the Middle East. From the perspective of the secular eschatologies of liberal democracy, the Middle East, with its saturation with religion and conflict, stubbornly resists what is progressively called the right side of history. Considering the differences within the region, as well as its unclear borders, political science comparative studies registered in the Middle East the “empire” of informal corrupt and clientelist politics, patterns of collective violence in domestic politics (alongside with wars in foreign politics), and strong influences of religious law – in what is generally called theocratic political orders, and sometimes takes the concrete theopolitical form of constitutional theocracy (cf. Kasapović, 2016: 22, 25-26).

This political vibrancy and conflictual properties of the subject of research go along with the expected problems of the academic production of discourse about it. As we can read in the preface of the cited, in many ways impressive, book on the Middle East edited by Mirjana Kasapović, Middle East studies, often ideographic and thus marked by a low potential for generalization, are characterized by theoretical and methodological insufficiency and are notoriously ideologically, politically, and culturally biased (cf. Kasapović, 2016: xi-xv). Said’s formulas about the discursive subjugation of what cannot be ontologically eliminated are today deprived of its historical combative freshness and have acquired an overtone of a shabby phrase associated with identity conflicts poorly sublimated in the generality of academic neo-scholasticism. Due to the development of events and the change in the “power relations”, some of Said’s historical assessments, such as the one about the second-rate forces in cultural production (Said, 1999: 414), do not stand today, already in the light of the last of the articles in this bloc of texts (about the Turkish soap operas). However, in principle, the problem of the political function of discourse arises, after all as with any other type of academic grasp of the subject within what Gramsci calls political science. If what is being written from Croatia about the Middle East is not just an ephemeral pastime of comparativists, similar to any apolitical exotic collection of trivia, is it “a kind of Western projection on the Orient and the Western will to rule the Orient”, and is this stuff we produce in our search of truth actually an unusual plural beast definable, with the little help of Foucault’s 1970s jargon, as a “system of truths, truths in Nietzsche’s sense of the word” (Said, 1999: 125, 264)? And given that we are not that far from the “Orient”, do our possible prejudices and projections play any political role, for example, in the immediate neighborhood that our previous bloc of texts dealt with?

The ambitions of this bloc, however, are somewhat more modest than the political desire to govern. My hope is that, at times at least, they are, having in mind postcolonial theory, a bit more reflexive and noble. For a start, their primary purpose is not to fall apart as a coherent whole, discursively and thematically, not only because of the Tower of Babel problem, i.e. the multiplicity of languages of the region that defy coherent rendering into Croatian. However, I hope that the three texts we offer to the readers succeed and a little more than just being three disparate texts about the Middle East. Dealing with religion and the division of power, the role of language in war, and the political significance of cultural narratives, the published studies are brought together with something more than the political geography of the region. They tackle some fundamental issues of social sciences and humanities. Each of the published studies, in its own way, deals with problems of identity conflicts, the role of language in them, and the purpose of social and political (co)existence of human individuals and communities. What leads to the collapse of secular political projects? Why do certain language experiments fail and what does that mean? What do only seemingly banal but in fact politically multi-layered stories about the fates of the heroes of romantic television soap operas tell us about desirable values? The authors in their contributions try to answer these questions and some others as well.

In an article on interfaith councils and consociations, Vedran Obućina gives a thorough overview of the Lebanese case with minor comparisons with other countries in the region and examines the role of religious leaders in building peace in religiously divided societies in the Middle East. His approach to advocate religious peace and dialogue through interfaith councils can bring about skepticism among political scientists familiar with the issue of power sharing in divided societies and the theory and practice of consociational democracies. On the other hand, it undoubtedly represents a theoretically educated and practically knowledgeable overview of problems of divided societies with strong religious identities which is worth reading. Obućina, a theologian and political scientist, provides an interesting perspective on divided societies with notes of political theology which makes the text potentially interesting to political theorists dealing with authors such as Kantorowicz, Agamben and of course Schmitt.

In contrast to the typical political situation in civil society where language emerges as a place of struggle for political categories, once the lines of conflict are drawn in war, language becomes its means, similar to other weapons, more or less effective in how it is used. In the text on language policy and war, Dalibor Vrgoč problematizes the terminology used by the Israeli military forces in the war operations against Hezbollah in the Second Lebanese War. In a very specific and of course much more fatal context, Vrgoč’s study continues the critique of “intellectual impostures” once undertaken by physicists Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont (1999) and by Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay (2020) who in the field of identity politics continued Sokal’s project of academic pranks exposing shabby and ideologically charged scholarship. Moreover, those interested in the history of avant-garde poetry will gain a somewhat unexpected insight into the possible consequences of neoteric language experimentation. Needless to say, the editors are advised to highlight (perhaps following the wise insights of Laozi, a Chinese sage, more than those of Grunf, the comic book character) that, as a rule, the failed experiments of ones tend to bring success others, and at least here they refrain from expressing any bias in terms of taking sides or favoring outcomes, even in historical conflicts.

Finally, starting from Mirjana Kasapović’s almost a decade-old article on Turkish soap operas, Borna Zgurić analyzed the narratives present in two Turkish series, Daydreamer and 50 m22, There he recognized the politically salient narratives, not only as a currency of soft power, but a means of political propaganda in Turkey. According to the author, despite the fact that these TV-series shows seemingly Western and secular values, after “scratching a little below the surface”, they offer almost identical political, cultural and social narratives with the aim of reproducing conservative culture, which reflects the ruling party’s cultural political program. Zgurić doesn’t shy from the methodological problems of his research, the conditionality of the conclusions and voices the need for further research of the production and the reception of the analyzed content. Perhaps the greatest value of his analysis is the careful description and insightful political interpretation of the narratives and discursive features of both series. Having in mind the summer days of conducting the research, the editorial hope is that the methodological procedures of prolonged viewing and writing did not cause an irreparable damage to author’s home supplies of gin and tonic.

Finally, since we are already deeply entangled in theoretical dilemmas and methodological issues, we should soberly point out interdisciplinarity as a feature of the bloc, which is luckily in line with the proclaimed editorial policy. The articles seek to draw constructive academic ties between political science, linguistics, theology, defense studies and media studies. If they have just a bit succeeded in that, it is not such a tiny bit. Having that in mind, with these three articles we also want to pay due respect on the occasion of the 65th birthday and the retirement of a distinguished professor of comparative politics Mirjana Kasapović, former editor-in-chief of the Annals of the Croatian Political Science Association. We hope that the readers of these papers will recognize her influence that goes beyond mere courtesy quotes. In a modest way, the here presented articles attempt to pay tribute to a career of impressive work Kasapović has given to the political science community in Croatia, without, of course, in any way making her responsible for their content.

References

Kasapović, M. (ed.). (2016). Bliski istok: politika i povijest. Zagreb: Fakultet političkih znanosti.

Pluckrose, H., Lindsay, J. (2020). Cynical Theories. Durham, NC: Pitchstone.

Said, E. (1999). Orijentalizam. Zagreb: Konzor.

Sokal, A., Bricmont, J. (1999). Fashionable Nonsense. New York: Picador.

Annals of the Croatian Political Science Association

Croatian Political Science Association
Faculty of Political Science
Lepušićeva 6, 10 000 Zagreb
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