Panel 1

Panel 1 – Beyond ‘Middle East Exceptionalism’: “What the Middle East Offers to World History”
Yasmeen Abu-Laban & Abigail Bakan

Title: Israel, Palestine and the Politics of Race: From Exceptionalism to Global Context

Abstract: An enduring idea of Israel in the Western academy and popular imaginary is that it is a unique state in the context of the Middle East region because it is the only ‘democracy.’ This paper will trace how this was constructed as part of the ideological hegemony of the United States in the aftermath of World War II, and how this idea has been challenged in the face of the democratic impulses and movements associated with ‘the Arab Spring,’ as well as growing global attention to the human rights abuses experienced by Palestinians in Israel/Palestine. In particular, this paper utilizes a racial contract framework to disrupt a mythologized exceptionalism that has attended studies and discussions of Israel. By placing Israel in international as well as comparative context, and by attending to the Palestinian voice, this paper will highlight how power, politics and race have been, and remain, critical to the study of Israel in a global context.

Bio: Yasmeen Abu-Laban is Professor of Political Science at the University of Alberta. Her research interests center on the Canadian and comparative dimensions of ethnic and gender politics; nationalism, globalization and processes of racialization; immigration policies and politics; surveillance and border control; and citizenship theory. She is co-editor of Surveillance and Control in Israel/Palestine: Population, Territory and Power (2011), co-editor of Politics in North America: Redefining Continental Relations (2008), editor of Gendering the Nation-State: Canadian and Comparative Perspectives (2008), and co-author Selling Diversity: Immigration, Multiculturalism, Employment Equity and Globalization (2002).

Abigail Bakan is Professor and Chair of the Department of Social Justice Education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto. Her research is in the area of anti-oppression politics, with a focus on intersections of gender, race, class, political economy and citizenship. Among other areas of research, she is currently engaged with a research project debating racism and framing anti-racism through a close study of the United Nations World Conferences Against Racism (WCAR) process, supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC).

Ramin Jahanbegloo

Title: Challenges of Democratization in Iran: A Case Study of the Strengths and Weaknesses of the Green Movement of 2009

Abstract: This paper examines the Iranian Green movement of 2009 in relation to the historical and political of democratization in modern and contemporary Iran. Viewed through an Iranian and non- Western political lens, this movement represented the beginning of a unique nonviolent the civil society push against all forms of absolutist ideologies in the Iranian public sphere. To better understand the strengths and the weaknesses of the Green Movement emerged one must analyze in the context of the democratization process in Iran in the past hundred years (notably 1906, 1952 and 1979). As such, this tumultuous event not only exposed a growing rift between the political and ideological in Iranian society; it also developed for the first time the conception of a nonviolent political revolt in Iran.

Bio: Ramin Jahanbegloo is an Associate Professor and York-Noor Visiting Chair in Islamic Studies in the Department of Political Science at York University. He has been a researcher at the French Institute for Iranian Studies and a fellow at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University. He is also a member of the advisory board of PEN Canada. He has won the Peace Prize from the United Nations Association in Spain (2009) for promoting dialogue between cultures and his advocacy for non-violence. Among his 20 books in English, French and Persian are Beyond Violence (Har-Anand 2008), India Analysed (Oxford University Press 2009), Talking Politics (Oxford University Press 2010), Civil Society and Democracy in Iran (Lexington Press, 2011), Democracy in Iran (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013) and The Gandhian Moment (Harvard University Press, 2013).

Peyman Vahabzadeh

Title: Exceptions to Exceptionalisms! What the Middle East Offers to World History

Abstract: A theoretical interjection into the concept of exceptionalism allows us to sever the “state of exception” from the sovereign. This theoretical move enables us to see that which remains concealed: the “exceptions” that challenge exceptionalisms, in reaction to which the sovereign bestows upon itself its prerogative to impose the law while standing outside of it. Another name for these pesky exceptions is “social movements” proper. In light of inversion of theory of exceptionalism, we will revisit the contributions of the Middle East—namely the examples of Iran, Tunisia, and the Kurdish region of Rojava—to a world history guided from the bottom up.

Bio: Peyman Vahabzadeh is Associate Professor of Sociology and Director of Cultural, Social, and Political Thought (CSPT) Program at University of Victoria. He is a social theorist by training whose work has advanced a unique approach called “radical phenomenology,” which he applies to the study of social movements and collective action. His substantive area is Iranian social and political movements since the 1960s. He is the author of three scholarly books in English, nine books of memoirs, poetry, fiction, literary criticism, and biography in Persian, and numerous other publications on the Internet.

Navid Pourmokhtari

Title: How Applicable are Mainstream Social Movement Theories to the Middle East?

Abstract: In this presentation I argue that mainstream social movement theories ultimately fall short of explicating the phenomenon of mass mobilization in contemporary Middle East societies, chiefly because of their provenance: they were developed in Western liberal democratic polities, where collective action of an oppositional kind is not only tolerated by the state but legitimized as a force for progress, both social and political. This stands in stark contrast to the case in the Middle East where oppositional movements are viewed invariably as a dire threat by authoritarian regimes prepared to use whatever force necessary to preserve the status quo. As will be shown, despite their dominance in the field of social movement studies, mainstream theories are prone to certain universalistic assumptions and ‘West-centric’ orientations, which ultimately render them incapable of accounting for the specificities and complexities of Middle East cases, and for this reason inadequate to explicating the precise conditions that govern the emergence of mass social movements in the region, the forms and modes they assume and the motives that impel their constituents to mobilize at certain historical junctures for the purpose of contesting power. Note that while criticism implies the existence of alternatives, owing to time and space constraints, this presentation focuses solely on problematizing the applicability of mainstream social movement theories to a Middle East context, thus highlighting the need for fresh thinking about how broad social movements can contest power in the context of authoritarian states.

Bio: Navid Pourmokhtari is a doctoral fellow with the Department of Political Science, University of Alberta. His research interests lie in comparative politics and international relations, particularly in the context of the Middle East, and in international security studies and mass social movements. Pourmokhtari’s most recent works have appeared in Third World Quarterly, International Sociology, Against the Current, the Journal of Human Trafficking, and Sociology of Islam.

Mojtaba Mahdavi

Title: “The Old is Dying”: The Unfinished Project of the MENA Social Movements

Abstract: “The Quiet Encroachment” of the counterrevolutionary forces after the Arab Spring has largely contributed to the revival of an old discourse of “Muslim Exceptionalism”. The rise of ISIS in Iraq and Syria, the predicament of Islamism in power and the return of a military regime in Egypt, the breakout of proxy/civil war in Syria and Yemen, and the collapse of the Libyan polity have reproduced such a conventional discourse. Drawing on Walter Mingolo’s concept of “epistemic disobedience”, this paper challenges the colonial epistemology of the conventional wisdom about the contemporary MENA social movements and the aftermath. It explores a decolonial vision of the region.

The paper’s argument is twofold: first, it examines how the interaction of the global structure and the local conditions repressed the revolutionary spirit in the region. Second, it suggests that the MENA social movements experience a deep and profound crisis. However, such crisis, following Antonio Gramsci’s approach, “consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” The paper proposes that the MENA social movements symbolized a “post-Islamist turn” – a deep-seated socio-cultural, epistemological and structural transformation in the region. Hence, these movements are an open-ended/unfinished project. The quest for human dignity, social justice and freedom will continue to generate new democratic social movements.

Bio: Mojtaba Mahdavi is an Associate Professor of Political Science and the ECMC Chair in Islamic Studies at the University of Alberta. He has published dozens of refereed journal articles and book chapters. His recent books include Towards the Dignity of Difference? Neither End of History nor Clash of Civilizations (with Andy Knight); Under the Shadow of Khomeinism: Problems and Prospects for Democracy in Post-revolutionary Iran (forthcoming); and Towards a Progressive Post-Islamism: Neo-Shariati Discourse in Postrevolutionary Iran (with Siavash Saffari, in progress). He is the guest editor of the special issue of Sociology of Islam on “Contemporary Social Movements in the Middle East and Beyond” (2014).​ He is the recipient of several awards and grants including the conference fund of SSHRC (Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada), the SSHRC Connection Grants, IDRC Canada Partnership Grant, Killam Research Operating Grants, Visiting Fellow Grant at the Liu Institute and Green College at University of British Columbia, among others. Mahdavi’s research interests lie in social movements and democratization; secularism, Islamism and post-Islamism; modern Islamic political thought, comparative political theory, comparative politics and international politics of the Middle East.