Opinion Piece by Dr Harout AKDEDIAN
On Sykes-Picot and the crisis of socio-political imagining
The articles by Traboulsi and Patel are spot-on in demystifying repeatedly mentioned and rarely questioned tropes regarding the Sykes-Picot agreement. For analytical purposes, however, I think Traboulsi’s reference to Anderson’s Imagined Communities points towards a wider intellectual crisis of socio-political imagining well beyond Sykes-Picot or borders in the Middle East.
Traboulsi cautiously argues that Arab nationalists’ ‘natural Syria’ is as artificial as the artificiality of the Sykes-Picot related arrangements. I completely agree with this assessment. But I also acknowledge that regardless of the historical evolution of political borders in the Middle East, political borders in general are an intrinsic feature of the modern state - both effectively and normatively.
Normatively, the state reinforces and projects notions of territoriality by educating the most active and impressionable segments of society. This takes place in no small scale through the institutions of violence and coercion that both 1) impose these ideas on broader society and 2) subject the majority of the male population at age 18 to indoctrination through conscription. When state resources are directed towards this end and generations go through these systems, artificial borders become more than cartographic lines that mark the beginning of one state’s sovereignty and the end of another’s. These imagined borders become a part of collective socio-political psychology. With the full weight of the state behind territoriality, the notion seems to gain sufficient social weight for some to be willing to sacrifice life for these imagined lines – either to preserve or to change them.
Traboulsi seems in agreement here as he points out that borders did not shape the socio-political landscape of the Middle East on their own. Rather, he argues that endogenous and exogenous actors operating and negotiating with structures and processes at play did. But if we want to lay our focus on borders as such (as both articles do), the question to be asked is not only socio-historical as in how they came about, but also psychological as in how they influence our political imagining of the Middle East. This point is further stressed by the footage of ISIS fighters claiming the end of Sykes-Picot by crossing the Syrian-Iraqi border on bulldozers. As if the problem with borders (Sykes-picot or otherwise) is simply a matter of re-shifting cartographic lines on political maps.
If anything, ISIS propaganda regarding the end of Sykes-Picot reveals a much broader issue in the Middle East and beyond – that of the intellectual crisis of imagining social organization and politics only through the prism of the modern state system:
The state, most obviously in the MENA region, seems to have disappointed significant portions of the populace. The prescriptive answer to the general disappointment either consists of some variation of the Weberian state, or a theocracy that is based on the same modern Weberian state-structures with minor alterations in form not content. This is similar to the intellectual crisis of the left today where the debate around political economy is limited to ‘more capitalism’ or ‘less capitalism’ but never alternatives. Similarly, discussions about political systems in the Middle East either call for more states (partition), or some variation of the modern state (more or less participatory, more or less secular). Why not look beyond the state system for alternatives – especially scholars and intellectuals? Maybe systems of self-governance in areas such as Rojava or Manbij between 2012 and 2014 put forth different answers.