The Dichotomy of Race and Modern Nation-States in the Middle East

Natalie Tan – Singapore

Discover More Here The concept of the nation-state is a new one for the Middle East, only emerging through the imposition of fixed borders by colonial powers in the 19th century. Yet, these efforts to divide the Middle East into nation-states artificially divided tribal and ethnic communities that had lived together for centuries. The failure of many middle eastern states can be seen as a failure to impose a top-down understanding of national identity on disparate ethnic groups.

The concept of the nation-state is a very new and, at the same time, foreign phenomenon to the Middle East. Only after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century and under the colonial rule of the region did the racial/tribal identities become formally subordinate to the concept of modern state. The racial/tribal identities were marginalised in favour of the newly invented top-down national identities enforced by the newly established states. For instance, in Iraq under the Ba’ath Party, the use of tribal names was banned. The top-down modernisation of the country under the rule of the Ba’ath Party also created a massive urban population with weaker racial/tribal identities.  

The fragmented ethnic texture of the Middle East has made it extremely difficult for the formation of homogenous national identities. Most of the current nation states in the Middle East are home to a range of varied communities who identify themselves mostly along their racial/tribal characteristics. Attempts by different countries in the Middle East including Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, or Yemen to create a sense of loyalty towards a unified national cause have mostly failed due to their elitist nature and lack of support from the masses.

The primary source of conflict between the state and tribal groups in the Middle East has been the state’s right to control the legitimate use of violence and the nation’s resources. In addition, the Westphalian concept of sovereignty—centred on control over territory rather than population—was historically quite foreign to the region. In the traditional Middle East, borders were always fluid as function of the strength of the ruling racial/tribal power. However, upon the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the birth of the new nation-states in the Middle East, concepts such as fixed borders, sovereignty, common history, common language, citizenship, common identity, and national loyalty were forced upon the fragmented racial/tribal structure by colonial powers.  

The new geopolitical map of the Middle East and especially the borders which were set by the colonial powers upon the collapse of the Ottoman Empire artificially divided the racial/tribal communities which had lived together for centuries with common racial identities into new entities called nation states. This ultimately resulted in the creation of racial majorities and minorities within the new borders. The Kurdish population, for instance is divided among Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syria. Such divisions have created significant and long-lasting political and security problems, and the Kurdish people are a prime example.

The existence of various racial/tribal minorities in different countries of the postcolonial Middle East has created a platform for some of these states to interfere in each other’s domestic affairs with the excuse of supporting or repressing the minorities in that particular state. For instance, Iranian and Turkish troops often dishonour Iraq’s sovereignty in cross-border incursions to target Iraqi Kurdish militants whom Iran and Turkey claim as a national security threat to their minority Kurds. Such disputes contribute greatly to the instability of the Middle East even today.   

As the aftermath of such forceful divisions, a new set of challenges has come into existence in the Middle East. The lack of proper institutional arrangements among newly emerged modern states toward fostering concepts such as  national identity and loyalty, have resulted in an artificial top-down notion of said concepts in a number of these countries. In a short period of time, established and traditional racial/tribal identities have become subordinate to the new, artificially made national identities. The crisis of legitimacy experienced by the rulers (largely viewed by the people as puppets of the previous colonial power) of these newly-established nation states, and their inability to incorporate their respective national identity projects into the overall texture of their societies, appears to have bolstered racial and tribal identities that oppose this project.

The subordination of racial identities to the artificially made national identities has given birth to the popularity of supra-nationalist movements in the Middle East as well. Pan-Arabism, Pan-Kurdism and Pan-Turkism can be considered some of the main ideologies that are seeking to revitalise the precolonial structure of the Middle East based on racial identities. To an extent, these ideologies can be also held accountable for the instability of the Middle East.

The combination of all of the above racially rooted problems in the Middle East has turned the states in this region into states with only the nominal characteristics of nation-states. The instabilities in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan and other states in the Middle East can be viewed as the direct result of the failure of imposing top-down national identities over the established racial/tribal ones.