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Towards De-exceptionalizing the Middle East: Navigating Between Theory and History

By Nachiket Midha

The Middle East has become a slightly paradoxical place in individual consciousness and perception. On the one hand, it appears to be this crucial geostrategic part of the globe significant for power competition, resources, and trade; on the other hand, it is perceived to be this faraway place frozen in space and time. This paradox, in some ways, has made the Middle East an ‘exceptional’ region that is different not only from the West but within the ‘East’ too, its perpetual exceptionalization has ascribed to it a unique place in the former ‘orient’. Its exceptionalization has been a long historical process, both during the colonial and post-colonial periods.

         Now, as daunting as this question might sound, it is relevant nevertheless to ask how does one go about de-exceptionalizing the Middle East? More significantly, in order to reliably view the Middle East, we should first ask: Are the political, societal, and economic processes in the region (the Middle East) fundamentally similar to developments in other parts of the world, or are there actual civilizational differences? To that extent, this essay looks at how the scholarly works produced on the Middle East have engaged with the region and how far they have de-exceptionalized it or contrapuntally reinforced the perpetual historical exceptionalization.

Exceptionalizing the Middle East: The Discourse of History

         The first set of questions that arise in the context of de-exceptionalizing is what kind of assumptions do we formulate when we study the Middle East? More significantly, what kind of theories do we apply in examining the Middle East as a whole? To begin with, initially, much of the Oriental literature is responsible for shaping the assumptions about the Middle East especially in the context of reinforcement of orientalist tropes of thinking in contemporary scholarly activities. In a similar critique, Edward Said points out that “…the Middle East does not attract scholarly attention because of its intrinsic weaknesses… [based on] an almost exact duplication of the canonical Orientalist opinion that the Semites never produced a great culture.” Said in saying this, in some ways, is also pointing at the broader contemporary trend that persistently attributes exceptionality to the Middle East. But is it true that the ‘Semites’ never produced a ‘great culture’?

         Countering this widely held belief regarding the lack of a ‘Semitic culture,’ Cemil Aydin argues how, in actuality, Pan-Islamism as a movement had popular cultural bases to it, as well. In doing so, Aydin not only manages to challenge those orientalist tropes of thinking but also makes the Middle East a standard/regular actor akin to others in anti-imperialist/colonial struggles. More crucially, at a scholarly level, Aydin tries to de-exceptionalize the Middle East by (a)highlighting Pan-Islamism’s cultural and strategic roots, and (b)its presence as a part of, and not distinct from, the broader anti-colonial/imperialist struggles. Furthermore, it is of importance to note the presence of an already existing vibrant intellectual culture of the Middle East that further arose in response to Western colonial exploitation. It is imperative to look closely at the intellectual strands/culture that existed in the Middle East during this period of the 20th century because an argument often made regarding the ‘conscious’ movements in the East is that they lacked an intellectual basis. Pan-Islamism, for instance, is one such case. Then it becomes imperative to counter precisely this line of thinking because, apart from making the Middle East more ‘unique’, it purports the lack of Middle Eastern intellectualism altogether. Again, Aydin in this regard reinforces precisely this argument, perhaps not so directly, nonetheless bolstering it. He states that “…the first Pan-Islamists were intellectuals who wanted to counter the slights, humiliations and exploitation of Western colonial domination” and, he compares some of them like Syed Ameer Ali with intellectuals like W.E.B Du Bois and Rabindranath Tagore. Thus, the historical exceptionalization has no basis to it and, hence, more scholarly accounts, rooted in context and regional specificity, like Aydin’s, are required to understand the Middle East.

Mainstream IR Theories and (de)Exceptionalizing the Middle east

         Another question arises when we argue and move ahead in time while retrospectively analyzing what went awry that led to the exceptionalization of  the Middle East to such a broad and ominous extent. The question that comes to the fore is how we study International Relations (IR) in the Middle East? And more specifically, what kind of theories and assumptions do we apply while understanding the region? Post-WW2 has seen a surge of what one might label the realist way to understand IR. Realist theory gives primacy to the State as the unit of analysis with ‘power’ as the core interest of the States. It has its intrinsic merits in explaining why States might go to war or acquire nuclear weapons, but is it fair to assume that realist theory is universally applicable in all contexts?

         This essay concurs with Fred Halliday’s view that realist theory, in reality, is characterized by “…a neglect of ideology and belief systems, a minimization of factors internal to states and societies, inadequate attention to economics, and, of special importance for the misrepresentation of the Middle East, a view of inter-state relations as marked by timeless, recurrent, patterns.” Halliday’s criticism of realism is valid for two broad reasons. Firstly, it hints at the limits of the generalizability of realist theory. The lack of generalizability, in some ways, stems from the fact that the bedrock assumptions of realist theory are very Eurocentric. In other words, these assumptions are a product of European experiences of WW-1 and WW-2. Secondly, it also highlights realist theory’s neglect of historical experiences and specific contexts rooted in the ground, and therefore, giving rise to flawed analogous claims. One might very well argue that the Middle East is an authoritarian place. However, this comes with a problem or a puzzle, i.e., an authoritarian region but vis-a-vis what? Succinctly, when we claim that the Middle East is an authoritarian/dictatorial region, we draw our analogies to Europe or the West. Indeed, by those standards, the Middle East is authoritative. Thus, mainstream Western IR theory, in some aspects, indulges in a kind of historical ignorance when it comes to analyzing the Middle East. While  indulging in this kind of ignorance, these theories make value judgments regarding the Middle East and establish set norms while comparing the region with ‘the assumed normal,’ i.e., the West. What this kind of ‘norm making’ does, in turn, is exceptionalize that place even more. Again, as Halliday points out, to study IR in (and of) the Middle East, we need “…a sensitivity that defies the ahistorical complacency of realism.”

         However, this does not mean that realism is meritless. And, this also should not imply that all realist accounts necessarily exceptionalize the Middle East. Nevertheless, these accounts can be meritoriously impeccable yet might not add to a de-exceptionalized understanding of the Middle East. Lawrence Freedman and Efraim Karsh’s paper on understanding the United States’s victory in the Gulf War of 1991 is a compelling example of the same. It provides an analysis of military capabilities, war calculations and power considerations from the US’s viewpoint. While Freedman’s and Karsh’s paper does not necessarily look at the Middle East through an ‘exceptional’ lens by making the region or the actors appear brutish, barbaric, or uncivilized, it simultaneously does not strive to de-exceptionalize it too. While they consider US ideological considerations like the Vietnam War’s humiliation, they do not do so for actors like Saddam Hussein. As John Esposito notes with regards to the Gulf War crisis that there existed genuine “…populist Arab nationalist, anti-imperialist support for Saddam (or more precisely those issues he represented or championed) and the condemnation of foreign intervention and occupation.” Then, though Freedman and Karsh do not necessarily portray Saddam Hussein in a parochial dictatorial way, they do not seem to consider his ideological motivations and the support he got domestically, as well. 

         The same set of mainstream IR assumptions seem to dominate the discourse when we characterize the type of regimes that exist in the Middle East. The simplistic premature black-box labelling of the Middle Eastern countries as non-democratic regimes is another example of how the Middle East is increasingly exceptionalized. Mehran Kamrava, for instance, provides a compelling nuanced classification regarding the characterization of the States in the Middle East. His classification of Middle Eastern States works at two levels. To begin with, he classifies them into four categories: exclusionary, inclusionary, sultanistic, and quasi-democracies. On a second level, while detailing these classifications further, he presents: (a)How exclusionary states in the Middle East are “benign” vis-a-vis their African/South-American counterparts, (b)How Saddam’s Iraq or Khomeini’s Iran are inclusive states, (c)How sultanistic regimes are not necessarily very exclusionary or inclusionary but balance both, and (d)How quasi-democracies in the Middle East operate with the presence of a conscious electorate. What Kamrava’s classification does then has two-fold implications. Firstly, it breaks away from the general assumptions that all Middle Eastern states are unmerciful repressive regimes that stifle freedom of speech. In fact, this is not true as Kamrava points at that, “Most Middle Eastern states—especially Iran, Egypt, Tunisia, pre-1992 Algeria, Morocco, Kuwait, and to a lesser extent Saddam’s Iraq—allow[(ed)] critical (even satirical) reporting by the media on local officials and local issues such as housing shortages, high prices, and mismanagement.” Secondly, by adding specificity and detail in his regime outline, Kamrava makes the Middle East less exceptional. In other words, he provides an in-depth sequential regime formation theory specific to the Middle East that breaks away from the assumptions and applications of mainstream IR theory that is Eurocentric at the least and discriminatory at worst.


         Contemporarily, in our epoch, the Middle East has also become synonymous with another devastating idea, i.e., terrorism. Terrorism has exceptionalized the Middle East in unprecedented ways. But as Faisal Devji argues that terrorism is a globalized phenomenon and hence, it is imperative that it is viewed in a global sense away from the regional (often Western) parochiality that today sees the Middle East as a ‘hub’ of terrorism. This example of terrorism becomes a crucial concluding point not only because it is the most contemporaneous instance but also because it has become the most effective tool to deceptively exeptionalize the Middle East.

         In conclusion, it is therefore critical to understand that mainstream IR theory—like regime formation or realism, extrapolated in the preceding section—while not necessarily flawed or non-meritorious, are problematic nevertheless in how they shape our understanding of the Middle East. Furthermore, it is the contentious power of generalizability ascribed to these theories that are particularly baneful, and in the process, the lived history of the Middle East becomes, colloquially speaking, a casualty. Besides, when dealing with the historical argument and orientalist literature, one must proceed with obvious caution and historical empiricism. To that end, this essay was an attempt to stress the necessity of scholarly de-exceptionalization of the Middle East that moves away from mainstream IR and shifts towards a more context-specific historical approach. 

Nachiket is a second-year undergraduate at Ashoka University majoring in Political Science with a double minor in International Relations and History.
Nachiket Midha | LinkedIn

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