“Since September 2001, there has been a surge in publications about empire and ‘the new imperialism’ ” (Jones, B. G. 2006, p.10). These scholarly attempts to understand the Middle East using a postcolonial lens were brought about not by an eagerness to understand the Other in a globalized world, but by the threat of the Enemy-Other. The study of Postcolonial theory is particularly useful to the Middle East, which is said to have “beseech[ed] domination” during the Age of Imperialism (Sbaratnam, M. 2011, p.787). Contemporary Postcolonialism works to rebut the assumption that Islam is “one continuous culture” are not new phenomena, merely one that has reemerged (Lockman, Z. 2010, p.34). Not only were the peoples of the Middle East “dominat[ed],” but also their academics were treated as a “collection of Orientals, not of Orientalists” at the 1889 World Exhibition in Paris (Michell, T. 1988, p.2). Therefore, a romantic perspective of the Middle East from a European point of view replaced the academic perspective of the Middle East from the Middle Eastern point of view (Michell, T. 1988, p.2). This is important to the structure of the contemporary international system as “Imperialism is foundational to… the basis of international organizations and international law” (Jones, B. G. 2006, p.4). The integral nature of Imperialism further proves that bias is inherent in international relations and that “the world’s political truths are never presented, they are only ever represented” by those who have the ability to record and articulate the truth (Mitchell, T. 1988, p.179). Thus, states, “formerly colonized and metropolitan,” are placed in a “highly uneven and exploitative international system” (Jones, B. G. 2006, p.4). Postcolonial theory serves to aid in the understanding of contemporary international relations in the Middle East as its unique state formation and sources of conflict are attributed to the region’s colonial history.
Postcolonial theory is a critical theory that conducts an analysis on the “generally unquestioned assumption embedded in the public and personal European imagination and in the formal institutions of European international order” that, as Said stated, “subject races should be ruled” (Jones, B. G. 2006, pp.2-5). As scholars of International Relations dealt with outlier paradigms from previously colonized states with “willful amnesia [and]… containment” in the past, one must view the international system and its institutions through a postcolonial lens (Jones, B. G. 2006, p.10). Postcolonial theory serves to:
“[Point] out discursive Orientalisms, [deconstruct] historical myths of European development, [challenge] Eurocentric historiographies, [rearticulate] subaltern subjectivities, [diversify] political subjecthoods and [re-imagine] the social-psychological subject of world politics” (Sabaratnam, M. 2011, p.781).
Theory as a whole creates a spatio-temporal dialogue between theorists, which allows underlying assumptions of time and place to be questioned. The diction of the term ‘dialogue’ itself “suggest[s] distance and difference between the speakers” (Sabaratnam, M. 2011, p.782). “Distance” can be constructed as either time or space and “difference” covers a range of connotations including religion, ethnicity, nationality, and socio-economic standing (Sabaratnam, M. 2011, p.782). However this nature of dialogue allows, “debates about Eurocentrism can often divide into… camps which talk past each other” (Sabaratnam, M. 2011, p.784). When conducting an analysis on dialogue, one must observe the perspective of the writer and account for his or her bias. Writers’ perspective comes from “their identities, horizons, and interests, and indeed how these are situated within the world of practice and action” (Sabaratnam, M. 2011, p.782). An important part of postcolonial theory is demanding that independent schools of thought interact. Postcolonial theory is essential to understanding contemporary international relations in the Middle East, as colonial assumptions are embedded in the international system.
The importance of Postcolonial Theory is well illustrated by the comparison of the process of state formation between previously colonized states and colonizer states. “No proper understanding… of the contemporary Middle Eastern state can be obtained without reference to the colonial legacy in the region” this is due to the contrast between the contemporary European definition of the term ‘state’ and the way in which states in the Middle East were formed (Aybubi, N. N. M. 1995, p.86). The European definition of the term ‘state’ is “a territorial entity based externally on sovereignty and internally on legal institutions and a unified market” (Aybubi, N. N. M. 1995, p.99). The model of colonial state formation is in great contrast to the ‘Napoleonic model,’ also known as the European model, wherein; the state develops through “an organic, internal process of social and cultural integration” (Aybubi, N. N. M. 1995, p.108). At the same time, the state is “moving towards political centralization, legal standardization, equality of citizenship, and sovereignty for the people” (Aybubi, N. N. M. 1995, p.108). Whereas, the formation of states in the Levant did not emerge from “an integrative social process emanating ‘from within,’ [rather from a]… disintegrative political processes imposed ‘from without” (Aybubi, N. N. M. 1995, p.108). As the Levantine state did not emerge from an “organic process,” rather a colonial one, it “excludes important parts of the social experience of its society, not by transforming them into a more homogenous and ‘transparent’ political space” (Aybubi, N. N. M. 1995, p.109). The process of forced state formation in the Middle East is still the source of great conflict within the region due to the clashing of Middle Eastern and ‘European’ interests (Aybubi, N. N. M. 1995, p.108).
Through a Postcolonial lens, “historical particularism,” plays an important role in the Middle East’s growth as a region and its integration into the international system (Halliday, F. 2003, p.15). As “historical particularism” suggests, the Middle East can only be understood once an understanding of the “historical formation of the societies and politics of the region” has been achieved (Halliday, F. 2003, p.15). The colonial history of the Middle East is diverse as the region had a variety of colonizers who imposed different colonial experiences. Halliday postulates that the states themselves and the institutions within them are “too different” in terms of internal and external political systems and “state formations… to permit any unified endogenous explanation” of conflict (Halliday, F. 2003, p.16). Therefore, the search for a “common… cause in the conflicts that ravaged the Middle East in recent decades [and throughout history] is futile” (Halliday, F. 2003, p.16). Each state in the region is vastly different due to their different colonial histories, hence why it has been referred to as a “mosaic” (Aybubi, N. N. M. 1995, p.108). Postcolonial theorists find this to be of particular importance as, individual states’ histories, particularly their colonial histories, make them unique globally and diverse within their region to a point which may instigate conflict.
An additional cause of both inter- and intra-state conflict is “external control” in the contemporary era (Halliday, F. 2003, p.20). External control breeds distrust within the international and the regional systems. Postcolonial theorists comprehend that previously colonized societies naturally have a history of exploitation of both people and resources. This exploitation has continued until modern day as these previously colonized states, often perceived as weaker, are used as puppets by the previously colonizer states for their own ends. States with colonial histories are wary of other state’s motives, as they are aware of the potential for puppetry by Western powers. For instance:
“Iranians accused Saadam of being a tool of the Americans and having attacked on Washington’s instructions; Iraqis accused Khomeini of being, among other things, an Israeli agent and of sending envoys to Tel Aviv to receive instruction” (Halliday, F. 2003, p.20).
Previously colonized regions have “become objectified in discourse as requiring external control, involvement and direction” (Sabaratnam, M. 2011, p.787). This common rhetoric served as a justification for the West’s colonial past in addition to justifying its exploitative actions, with regards to raw material and labor, in the present. Therefore, it is beneficial for the exploiting countries if the perception of “formerly colonized countries” by the public and private sectors is as if previously colonized states are “as lacking proper agency” (Sabaratnam, M. 2011, p.787). This dichotomy creates an ‘us’ versus the ‘Other’ dynamic between the Levant and the West. Postcolonialists perceive that “human reality seems to be genuinely divided, into clearly different cultures, histories, traditions, societies, even races” (Said, E. W. 2003, p.45). Said questioned the possibility of avoiding “the hostility expressed by the division… into ‘us’ (Westerners) and ‘they’ (Orientals)” (Said, E. W. 2003, p.45). This division is understood through a Postcolonial lens as it is profitable and, therefore, perpetuated through time and space.
- A further cause of intra-state or intra-regional conflict is increased ethnic diversity within the region (Halliday, F. 2003, p.27). This cause of conflict is particularly prevalent in previously colonized regions due to their haphazard state formation for political and economic gain rather than for the clarification of a nation’s boundaries. Ethnicities and the cultural and linguistic practices paired with them are coming increasingly into abrupt or violent contact with each other in an increasingly globalized world. The clashing of cultural norms, religion, and other practices of particular ethnic identities is more likely to ensue with greater diversity in one particular state. When the colonizing powers entered the Middle East, this source of conflict was not considered in their rush to obtain resources to fund the newly industrial era (Aybubi, N. N. M. 1995, p.110). Thus, the “arbitrary nature of [the Arab East’s] current borders” is the product of “acts of conflict, competition, and bargaining” between Western powers without any consideration to the people inhabiting the region (Aybubi, N. N. M. 1995, p.110). This inconsideration is particularly problematic in “the Levant, or the Arab East” is where the “mosaic image of the Middle East… can be applied with the least difficulty” due to the myriad of cultures which inhabit the region (Aybubi, N. N. M. 1995, p.108). This issue is currently and will continue to be increasingly perpetuated by globalization (Bogaert, K. 2013, p.217). For example, the development and spread of communication technologies is speeding up globalization. During the Arab Spring, “socio economic reforms” brought about a rise in a community’s technological ability, such as social media websites, television, and cell phones (Bogaert, K. 2013, p.215). Postcolonialists understand that this technology has the power to both instigate conflict and bring cultural sympathy within the region. Thus, this technology can bring about “political transformation” more rapidly with a wider audience than seen in the past (Bogaert, K. 2013, p.215). This example illustrates the usefulness of Postcolonialism in the modern world by showing that “local political agency” in the globalized modern world is “not just a product of the global, but also an agent of globalization” (Bogaert, K. 2013, p.216). In a globalized society, postcolonial theory becomes much more important to facilitate an understanding in academia, politics, and in the public perception.
Postcolonial theory is still relevant for understanding the Middle East today because much of “the massive world history of imperialism” has not been included in much of the discipline of International Relations, “from the theories and substantive concerns of the disciplines of both International Relations and international law” (Jones, B. G. 2006, p.9). For instance, “Islam is beyond IR’s field of apprehension as anything other than caricature” (Jones, B. G. 2006, p.9). Islam has been studied in the past, but only recently has academia accepted research from that perspective. Therefore, the academic discipline is altered due to a new cultural and historical perspective. Postcolonial theorists observe that much of the field of International Relations is based on “assumptions of essential difference and the barbarity of the Other” (Jones, B. G. 2006, p.9). Postcolonial theory serves to question these assumptions and reform the basis on which international institutions and international law is based. This theory is particularly important, as the issue of inherent difference will only grow, with increasing globalization, which is “an almost natural process… [which will lead to] the worldwide spread of all kinds of values and norms” (Bogaert, K. 2013, p.217).
- Aybubi, N. N. M. (1995) Over-Stating the Arab State: Politics and Society in the Middle East. New York, USA: I.B. Tauris.
- Bogaert, K. (2013) Contextualizing the Arab Revolts: The Politics behind Three Decades of Neoliberalism in the Arab World. Middle East Critique. 22 (3). pp.213-234.
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Halliday, F. (2003) Islam and the Myth of Confrontation: Religion and Politics in the Middle East. New York, USA: I.B. Tauris.
- Jones, B. G. (2006) Decolonizing International Relations. Lanham, USA: Rowman & Littlefield.
- Lockman, Z. (2010) Contending Visions of the Middle East: the History and Politics of Orientalism. 2nd ed. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
- Mitchell, T. (1988) Colonising Egypt. Berkeley, USA: University of California Press.
- Sabaratnam, M. (2011) IR in Dialogue… but Can We Change the Subjects? A Typology of Decolonising Strategies for the Study of World Politics. Millennium- Journal of International Studies. 39 (3). pp.781-903.
- Siad, E. W. (2003) London: Penguin Classics.