Towards a Non-State Centric Understanding of Iraqi History

While reading historian Eric Davis's Memories of the State, I came across his description about how the British colonizers favored a compliant chess piece, Faisel II, and his regent, Prince Abdullah among the successors for the Hashemite royal family in the mid-1930s. Davis argued that the compliant Prince saw that the British could help him stay in power, and thus allowed for more British interference in Iraq.

Book cover
This description struck me because it seemed that the state harbors a magical "seat" where the person who manages to sit in that place, would become more invincible than other political actors. Thus generations compete for power at the magical seat, which replicates the preexisting organs and arrangements of the state, including colonialism arrangements such as the British mandate. It does not seem to be that much different from a pre-French revolution "monarchy," even though it is clear that the 20th century Hashemite monarchy was anything like it. While Davis is aware of the differences and impact of colonial designs on the Hashemite monarchy, he still presumes a rather monolithic, state-centered narrative in the unravelling of the Hashemite monarchy for his readers.

The implicit question seems to be the age-old one: How can a "modern historical account" explain how an "Oriental despotic regime" becomes a "modern state," which has institutions providing checks and balances?

But this frame seems to be exactly the problem. The frame assumes that everyone is power-hungry as rational decision makers, and thus would definitely seize the opportunity to enter the power vacuum when available. In the Iraqi case, the colonialists could presumably offer anyone that magical seat, and anyone would capitulate. Even idealists such as leftists and nationalists might squander the opportunity during the power machination process. At the same time, states are also in competition with each other, and thus, they would all have to maintain internal stability to "get ahead" in the race. In Arab Spring, Libyan Winter, scholar Vijay Prashad has also noted how "regional stability" is also a key code word for U.S. foreign policy decisions in the Middle East. In this sense, one could see how there are people who support a state-centered narrative (including a wide range of people from U.S. foreign policy heads to certain Ba'athists and Communists), and those who would differ.

Rather than state-centered narratives, I find Foucault's conception of power more nuanced in order to understand these processes. He critiques the idea of power as a magical seat in Society Must Be Defended (p13):
In the case of the classic juridical theory of power, power is regarded as a right which can be  possessed in the way one possesses a commodity, and which can therefore be transferred or alienated, either completely or partly, through  a juridical act or  an act that founds a right—it does not matter which,  for the  moment—thanks to the surrender of something or thanks to a contract. Power is the concrete  power that any individual can hold, and which he can surrender, either as  a  whole or in  part, so  as to constitute a power or a political sovereignty. 

Under the Iraqi state's eyes, "Communists," "Shias," "minorities,"and "women" are separate categories. Davis takes cue from Gramsci in his formulation of the state and anti-state resistance. While Davis's book emphasized that there had been functioning political institutions and democratic activity in Iraq in 1954 and complicates a despotic stereotype of pre-1960s Iraq, his state-centric understanding of power is still limiting and replicates these monolithic categories of women, Shias, minorities and communists. Similarly, the good-intentioned policymakers have made and would continue to make the same mistake while navigating through ethnic loyalties and political affiliations of Iraq if they continue to view society from a state-centric vantage point.

Rather than staring at the magical seat, we should pay more attention to where the power projects itself toward and how it is embodied. Foucault also admits that there are not so many methods outside of this model to understand power. One can read more about that in his lectures. While recognizing the Iraqi Left-leaning intellectuals' enormous contribution in historicizing sectarianism, documenting "voices from below" and analyzing class formation in Iraq, I would also like to see more Foucauldian or non-state-centric analyses of Iraqi history.

Overall, the mainland Chinese academia also suffers from obsession with state-centric narratives. They are also using the same paradigms to understand the outside world as well. That is why I find studies on the effects of colonialism so curative to the current academic obsession. As Timothy Mitchell as written in 1991 in the article "The Limits of the State: Beyond Statist Approaches and Their Critics," "Political subjects and their modes of resistance are formed as much within the organizational terrain we call the state, rather than in some wholly exterior social space." This understanding would also become beneficial to critiquing and resisting the communist government: currently many dissidents cannot formulate a strong response to the assumption that "without the communist government, China will surely become chaotic." This assumption similarly uses the overempowering ideal of a sovereign that keeps things in check: Without that sovereign, any opportunist will seize the magical seat. To have any meaningful resistance against the increasingly prevelant communist state, dissidents and resisters have to undo this understanding of the magical seat.


Social Relations and Sexual Assault

Yesterday a scholar came from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst to speak on her research work on sex workers of Bombay. Her main concern is that most legal and policy discourses do not take into account the differences in terms they use and the terms the sex workers use. For example, a daily wage laborer who may have been engaging in sex work as well would use the term majburi to describe her undesirable circumstances. A Dalit man Muku also used the same word majburi for moving after a drought in his Maharastrian village. This term is best translated as having to do something under constraint, but even that for the scholar is unsatisfactory and disempowering. Policymakers would usually use the words like "forced" for majburi, e.g., someone was forced to engage in sex work. She finds that this translation reduces the legitimacy of their means of liveligood, which includes sex work. She also finds issue with the liberal paradigm of sex as individual expression and, rather than something socially mediated. She also proposed that there is a strong overlap of sexual labor and daily wage labor for these lower-classed, lower-caste people. She brings up the issue of caste, such as hijras are not only a community seen in a sexually charged manner, but also through caste lenses; but I found the caste issue to have been more of an auxiliary to the talk as a whole. I would have been more keen on understanding how caste is reflected in such an urban sexual economy. The talk garnered a lot of attention and much discussion. Most questions were thinking about how one could link the ethnography with the center questions. I also asked a question about how to think about these undisciplined sexualities in general, since intercaste marriages in India are also punished for breaching the dominant regulation of a casteist sexual economy. I did not get a satisfactory answer.

This post will be discussing another incident related to the idea of ambiguity and sexual relations bounded by social processes. I was exchanging in Delhi at Jawaharlal Nehru University in 2015. I befriended A.S. at the Brahmaputra Hostel, where I went to eat most of the time. Like most people staying at this Hostel, he was a PhD student. Towards the end of the semester, I had the opportunity to travel with him to Gwalior. We stayed overnight in separate accommodations. It was a nice trip overall, with some hiccups in between. We had to wait for several hours due to some planning errors outside of the Gwalior Fort. During this time he mentioned to me about a Lucknow girl who he claimed to be madly in love with. He said that she did not love him as much. We even had beers in a restaurant, which is rather unusual given the relatively conservative environment of the city. At the train station, I bought the memoir Lucknow Boy written by Vinod Mehta, while A.S. continued to reminisce about “his” Lucknow girl. We also played the game of Antakshari (a South Asian spoken parlor game played with song verses) while waiting in the train station. We arrived in Delhi around 5AM, and it was relatively cold. He suggested for me to stay at his hostel for some time, but I refused. We remained on good terms afterwards. I also hosted my birthday party in December in his room, in which he was invited. After the party, he expressed interest in one of my friends who attended as well, to which I downplayed since I thought they would probably not be suitable as a couple. 

A month later I finished my semester. He helped me handle some of my luggage on the last day before I returned to Germany in 2016. He received the opportunity to exchange on scholarship in an Eastern European country, and left for said country in March, but we did not meet. 

Last year, September 27th, I was in the U.S. and recounted the memories of traveling in Gwalior to another friend of mine on Wechat. Then coincidentally, some news about A.S. popped up on my facebook timeline. It was a link reporting sexual assault charges against him. The victim said that he promised he would marry her, which he did not. I automatically assumed that this was the Lucknow girl he used to speak so often about (I was wrong. I searched for this news again today, which has been either cleaned from Google or swamped by other more controversial cases of sexual assault that have since been unfolding. But I did manage to find a link to a news report and in that report, it is said that this girl studied at Delhi University. Only then did I realize I had wrongly assumed the identity of the victim for the nine months.). An Eastern European friend of A.S. had shared the link and defended A.S. against the news. The friend personally vouched that A.S. is a good person and would never do such a thing. This was during the time when JNU had experienced much attack from a biased news media, so I was very skeptical of this report and defensive as well. I discussed this issue with my mom in the same manner and stressed that perhaps it was because of his changed circumstances that severely affected his relation with the Lucknow girl, and this claim was being subsequently being made against him.

My mom thought that such incidents often happen under an environment where people become upward mobile in a short period of time. According to her analysis, the woman would want to share some glory with the successful man who had the ability to go abroad. When she does not get what she wants, she resorts to claims of sexual assault or rape. My mother thought that when it comes down to cases of sexual assault, it is a game of he-said, she-said: the outcome largely depends on the clout of each party involved. If the man has more social and legal resources, then the girl would usually “lose,” regardless of what actually happened. 

The matter stayed in my mind for some time and I gradually forgot about it. When I visited JNU again this year in March, I was again confronted with more details about this case. I met up with Sardarji, who is an affable and popular guard at the university and a true friend of mine. He had met A.S. on two separate occasions with me as well. A.S. and I were once invited to eat handmade makki ki roti (unleavened Punjabi bread made from corn flour) at Sardarji’s home across the road from the University. We had a really good time eating and talking about how the University is often a social force of its own that defends its turf against the other corrupt and elite groups of Delhi, including those that have ties with the state. The other time was when Sardarji attended the birthday party hosted in A.S.’s room.

When Sardarji and I met, I felt like there was much to discuss since we do not have very good ways of communication when we are in different countries. We spoke in Hindi. I prefer to talk in Hindu with someone in person rather than on the phone, because there would be more visual cues for me to understand. Sardarji thought that the case of A.S. was one of the important things to be discussed with me, since we were friends. He asked me if I knew about the case. I said yes, I had read about it, and I was very shocked about the situation. He said he was shocked as well, since A.S. seemed to have been such an innocent boy (sada). We both agreed that A.S. seemed innocent. Sardarji gave me more details which he witnessed on the night of the police raid after the FIR was filed: the policemen stormed Brahmaputra hostel and one even slapped A.S. The moral accusations hurled at A.S. that night by various agents of the law seemed to be more emotionally charged than the actual “crime”: he was married at home and was having relations with more than one girl who were not his wife. Sardarji also seemed to be more appalled by the promiscuity rather than the rape. It is very ironic that the last time all three of us bonded, Sardarji, A.S. and I were discussing about the acts that rebelled against the state (in Hindi): JNU students had been defending one JNU female student who had been harassed by a Delhi elite who was the son of some politician. The police came to arrest students and it was a total chaotic clash. This time, for Sardarji, the police now represented moral authority that rightly punished the philanderer. I listened with awe to both cases, since 1) I did not witness or could not have read about it anywhere and 2) my language capabilities restricted me from posing questions that would generate more nuanced details. Sardarji and I talked perhaps for 40 minutes and this case was the most prominent theme.  We said goodbye and I left the campus.
Through facebook, A.S. also learned that I was in Delhi and reached out on facebook to meet up.  I did not know how to make about the whole situation and I did not reply.

Today, I was reading Nivedita Menon’s book Recovering Subversion and the chapter on rape was particularly thought-provoking. “Law’s claim to truth is based on a binary logic which sets up oppositions like truth/untruth, guilt/innocence, consent/non-consent. This binary logic, [Carol Smart] argues, is completely inappropriate to what she calls the ‘ambiguity of rape.’ In criminal law the object is to establish guilt or innocence, and in rape cases, the establishing of either, turns on another pair of opposites: that of consent/non-consent.
The dualism of consent/non-consent is “completely irrelevant to women’s experience of sex. Neither begins to approach the complexity of a woman’s position when she is being sexually propositioned or abused… (T)he ‘telling’ of a story of rape or abuse inevitably reveals ambiguities. Hence a woman may agree to a certain amount of intimacy but not to sexual intercourse. In the legal model however, consent to the former is consent to full intercourse… (I)n legal terms submission fits on the consent side of the dichotomy. The only alternative when non-consent is not established is to presume consent.” (p123)
This story came up again in my mind and I decided to write down what I have learned so far. How to think about an anthropology of sexual assault or sex work that does not fall into the binaries of consent/non-consent or agency and oppression?