Panel 4a. The Politics of Liberation: Theory and Practice of Violence in the Arab World

Chair: Lucy Abbott

Hannah Arendt on Violence, Revolution and the Middle East
Lucy Abbott, University of Oxford

The diverse outcomes of the recent revolutionary movements in the Middle East provide an opportunity to conceptualise violence and its place in liberation struggles. In her comments on revolution, German political philosopher Hannah Arendt observed the post-liberation vision to be often forced into the background by the urgency of addressing liberation from necessity. For Arendt, the idealism of imperialism had created a completely new political context, one which used administrative bureaucracy to undermine the pursuit of a politics based on law and invited violence as a means of resistance. This paper draws upon sections from On Revolution and the Origins of Totalitarianism to document her views on violence’s colonial roots and its anti-political nature. It then forges conceptual connections between the demands for ‘bread and dignity’ made during the Arab Spring and Arendt’s comments on the role of the social question in the descent of revolutionary movements into violence.

The Jihad Discourse of the Muslim Brotherhood during the Presidency of Muhammad Morsi
Ewan Stein, University of Edinburgh

Jihad has occupied a prominent position in the worldview, political strategy and foreign policy of the Muslim Brotherhood, which enjoyed a brief taste of power in Egypt from 2012-13. Muhammad Mursi and the Brotherhood had many enemies and detractors at home and abroad. For some, the Brotherhood was an irredeemably radical Islamist group that used elections to seize control of the state, but which would use this power to enforce its ideological vision on Egyptian society and declare a jihad against Israel and the West. Others saw the Brotherhood as having sold out to a US-Israeli agenda in the Middle East and having ‘abandoned’ jihad. Each of these interpretations misrepresents the way the Muslim Brotherhood has conceptualized jihad throughout its history. In this paper I argue that the Muslim Brotherhood’s understanding of jihad has remained relatively consistent over time. Where it has engaged with jihad discourse, it has done so to serve its overall purpose of establishing and consolidating a mass movement in Egypt oriented towards the gradual Islamic reform of state and society. I also argue that, contrary to common perceptions, the discourse of jihad offers a means for Islamist social and political actors to support, rather than overturn, the domestic status quo. This broader perspective evolves from a general examination of the Brotherhood’s approach to jihad in the decades prior to the election of Muhammad Mursi before focusing more closely on the Mursi and immediate post-Mursi periods. The paper shows that the Muslim Brotherhood has approached jihad as a mechanism for domestic reform, and as military action conducted under the authority of the state. This conception has related to the Brotherhood’s historical desire to build a mass movement for Islamic reform without provoking state repression and has thus also functioned to absorb more radical opposition to the Egyptian regime. In many ways the Brotherhood continued to behave like an opposition movement despite having won both parliamentary and presidential elections. The engagement of the Brotherhood, as well as that of Salafi preachers, with the issue of jihad, reflects this structural continuity. To illustrate the argument the paper scrutinizes Islamist approaches to jihad in political discourse in relation to three key issues: first, Egypt’s policy towards Israel; second, the civil strife in Syria and third, the military coup directed against Mursi in July 2013.

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State Violence Devolved: Online Vigilante Violence in Bahrain
Marc Owen Jones, Durham University

Torture, tear gas, birdshot, electrocution, rape, and beatings are just some of the examples of state-sponsored violence undertaken by the Bahraini regime since 2011. Ongoing since the early 1900s, this more traditional ‘state-sponsored’ violence has monopolised the headlines due to its egregious nature, and visceral unpleasantness. Yet the rise of social media, and the devolution of acts of surveillance and online vigilantism has confused this binary of state versus loyalist violence. Now, acts of social control undertaken by those representing the hegemonic order, such as balṭajiyya (thugs), but not necessarily agents of the state, are becoming increasingly important as a regime survival strategy in Bahrain. This paper acknowledges the importance of violent acts undertaken by those representing the hegemonic order, while also problematising the notion of violence itself. In Bahrain, where surveillance and social media are increasingly an important tool in the state’s intimidation of activists and civilians, it is important to critically interrogate how the generation of fear through social media constitutes violence itself. These strategies of control, which generate physiological responses such as fear anxiety, should no longer be distinguished entirely from acts of physical violence, and taken more seriously as a form of repression.

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Violence: An Inherent Heritage?
István T. Kristó-Nagy, Exeter University

The various Islamic attitudes towards violence demonstrate the interplay between biological and cultural heritage, social and historical circumstances, communal identities and personal inclinations. When analysing such attitudes, all of these layers have to be considered. In order to understand and contextualise attitudes towards violence in Islamic thought, I have aimed to outline first the biological roots of violence, followed by the historical evolution of human attitudes to it. I have focused on how social changes are reflected in religion in general and in Islam in particular. generalisations in the above study also seek to debunk more generally accepted generalisations. Statements about Islam as a ‘religion of violence’ or as a ‘religion of peace’ are useful only for the study of the ideological stances of those who exhibit them.

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