MENA Academy Weekly Roundup #15
Holidays catch-up edition
I’ve rarely had such mixed feelings about an honor than I have about Foreign Affairs naming my article “Invading Gaza Will Be A Disaster for Israel” one of its top ten web articles for 2023. Don’t get me wrong, it’s an honor to be in such excellent company, with an article I’m proud of having produced at a critical moment. It’s just that I very much would have preferred to have had the article quickly forgotten because Israel had decided to forego the ground invasion.
Instead, two months later, Israel’s invasion has already resulted in some twenty thousand dead Palestinian and genuinely countless wounded, nearly two million Palestinians displaced under horrific conditions with little access to food, water or medical care, almost unprecedented physical and infrastructural destruction of Gaza. There’s no hint of a workable political plan to end the war or serious thought about post-war arrangements, Israel seems increasingly determined to drive Gazans into permanent exile, the West Bank is ever more consumed by conflict as settlers rampage with open IDF support, there’s major risk of escalation in Lebanon, Israel has made a mockery of international humanitarian law and norms with global repercussions, the Houthis are targeting Red Sea shipping, and nobody seems to have any idea or even intention — all exactly as predicted, except perhaps for the Biden administration’s genuinely baffling (and politically exceptionally costly at home and abroad) ongoing enabling of a strategic disaster and moral atrocity which only the United States could hope to end.
Many of us are finding it difficult to celebrate the holidays or personal joys amidst these horrors of Israel’s devastating war on Gaza. The coming year is going to be a difficult one, as the repercussions of that war spiral across the Middle East, intersect with what looks to be a uniquely horrible Presidential election year in the United States, and turbocharge bad faith assaults on academia (see MESA’s letter to college and university presidents on this). So many of our colleagues and friends are suffering direct personal tragedy and loss, whether in Palestine or Sudan or across the region’s warscapes, and so many more have experienced outrageous personal and professional attacks in the media or within their institutions. I will be doing everything I can over the coming year to address these grim conditions at multiple levels. For now, thanks for following the blog and podcast, and for all of your support. You’ll be hearing more about all this far too soon.
And now, for the final MENA Academy Weekly roundup of 2023, because we should always find time to celebrate outstanding work by our colleagues and to discover provocative new scholarship. First, I recommend checking out the 25th anniversary special issue of the journal Civil Wars, for some outstanding (if not primarily MENA-focused) reflections on the evolution of the study of civil wars and political violence. Next, I call attention to a fascinating biography of Iraq’s Ayatollah Ali Sistani, by Century International’s Sajad Jayad. Then I point out a few really interesting new journal articles: friends-of-POMEPS Thomas Hegghammer and Neil Ketchley’s important methodological note on the implications of ignoring near-miss terrorist attacks in datasets (part of the ongoing interrogation of the shortcomings of datasets across the field of political science); Pasiri participant Dina Osama Lotfy’s impressively cross-regional study of the role of religious institutions in democratic reversals and autocratic resurgence; and a really fascinating study of the legacies of Turkish repression of the Kurds by Cyanne E. Loyle and Ilayda E. Onder which really speaks to my current book project on Middle Eastern warscapes. And finally, Tom Pepinsky’s review of decades of scholarship on Southeast Asia in the journal World Politics resonates in fascinating ways with our ongoing examinations of Middle East scholarship.
I’ll be back with some personal updates after the New Year!
Civil Wars 25th Anniversary Special Issue, edited by James Worrall and Alex Waterman. This isn’t specifically Middle East focused, but its review of the field is broadly relevant to many of us working in the region. In the special issue, a fantastic group of scholars takes stock of a quarter century of the study of civil wars with a diverse set of reflections, articles, and reviews. I especially liked the piece by Paul Staniland tracing the emergence of political violence as a discrete field of study within and adjacent to the civil wars literature which allows for attention to a far wider range of processes, actors, and concepts. I also found Megan Stewart’s piece useful, especially her take on the expanding conception of the political in the civil wars literature. I would also draw attention to Anastasia Shesterinina’s reflection on the contributions of the late, great Lee Ann Fujii for the study of political violence; we all learned so much from her relational approach to “the social embeddedness of participation in violence, the endogeneity of social categories to violence and embodied and performative dimensions of violence.”
Sajad Jayad, God’s Man in Iraq: The Life and Leadership of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani (The Century Foundation, December 2023). ABSTRACT: In his new book, God’s Man in Iraq: The Life and Leadership of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Century International fellow Sajad Jiyad draws on original sources and hundreds of interviews during decades of fieldwork inside Iraq to show how Sistani, as the revered senior Shia cleric in a Shia-majority country, commands the loyalty of millions of faithful. With quiet authority, Sistani has tried from behind the scenes to steer Iraq through a series of existential crises since the U.S. invasion and fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003. During decades of turmoil, war, and regime change in Iraq, Sistani has loomed above every other cleric and politician.
Thomas Hegghammer and Neil Ketchley, “Plots, Attacks, and the Measurement of Terrorism,” Journal of Conflict Resolution (Online 20 December 2023). ABSTRACT: How should we measure terrorism? Political scientists typically use executed attacks as the dependent variable and test covariates to identify factors that produce terrorism. But attacks are an imperfect measure of terrorist activity because of ‘plot attrition’ — the tendency for plots to derail due to police intervention or other factors. We examine whether the exclusion of foiled plots from event datasets constitutes a measurement problem in terrorism studies. Building on recent advances in plot data collection, we study the correlation between plots and attacks and conduct an original analysis of jihadism in Europe. Our results suggest common research designs predicting terrorism can produce different results depending on whether incidents are operationalized as plots or attacks. Adjusting for state security capability does not solve the problem. Despite its limitations, plot data is a more complete measure of terrorist activity that should be incorporated, when available, in quantitative studies of terrorism.
Dina Osama Lotfy, “Religious Institutions’ Stances towards Autocratization in the Post-Third Wave Period,” Government and Opposition (December 2023). ABSTRACT: While scholars have devoted significant attention to religious institutions’ role in democratization, less attention has been given to their role in autocratization. Moreover, religious economy approaches suggest that religious institutions are flexible to offer whatever is of interest to the marketplace, but here the role the institutions played in the third wave of democratization suggests a stable commitment. I test the impact of religious monopoly and the historical pro-democratizing role on 52 dominant religious institutions’ stances towards autocratic practices related to regime survival in the post-third wave period. Logistic regression models reveal that stronger religious monopolies decrease the probability of opposing regime survival, while the historical pro-democratizing role of the dominant religious groups in the third wave increases the probability. Furthermore, when the religious market is highly monopolized, the commitment to a democratic role in the third wave is weak, and it is strengthened when there is intense religious competition.
Cyanne E. Loyle and Ilayda E. Onder, “The Legacies of Rebel Rule in Southeast Turkey,” Comparative Political Studies (December 2023). ABSTRACT: During armed conflict civilians often inhabit areas of contested governance or areas where rebel groups, NGOs, and/or criminal syndicates vie for authority and challenge the control of the state. As non-state actors confront the authority and legitimacy of the state, civilians become central players in that competition asked to uphold or undercut these alternative governance claims. In this paper we examine the long-term impact of rebel governance for citizens living in spaces where state governance is challenged. Leveraging survey data from areas historically under PKK control in Southeastern Turkey, we focus on the ways in which contestation over governance during the conflict influenced future trust and engagement with the Turkish state. Specifically, we find that individual engagement with rebel governance institutions and personal conflict experience are important factors in understanding the effects of contested governance. Our findings increase our understanding of the long-term impact of armed conflict on civilians and the potential lasting impacts of rebel governance on the post-conflict state.
Thomas Pepinsky, “Southeast Asia and World Politics,” World Politics (December 2023 preprint). ABSTRACT: This essay reviews research on Southeast Asia that has appeared in World Politics, with a focus on articles published since the mid-1970s. Drawing on debates about the nature of the region that are commonly found within the field of Southeast Asian area studies, the essay identifies two axes along which Southeast Asian politics research varies: in its emphasis on the connectedness versus autonomy of the region, and in its focus on individual country experiences versus common regional dynamics. Characterizing the Southeast Asia–focused research in World Politics in this way helps us to understand more generally the relationship between area studies and political science over the past fifty years.
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