Primordial Identities, Bounded Territories, and Contemporary Violence?: American Geopolitical Perspectives on the Middle East's Cultural Landscapes

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Struckman, Luke




American perspectives on the Middle East often contend that the region's nation-states are comprised of clearly demarcated ethnic and religious groups whose identities remain static over time. Cultural features of the region are seen to be as durable as its physical features. These perspectives further maintain that when nation-state boundaries are incongruent with the boundaries of ethno-sectarian groups, civil unrest or violent conflict is inevitable. These assumptions are inaccurate because they employ outmoded colonial and Wilsonian views on social organization and can essentialize and/or depoliticize conflict. However, representations based on the assumptions of clearly bounded and static ethno-sectarian groups carry the advantages of making cultural landscapes legible, and thus amenable to geopolitical management. The goal of this project is to understand how ethno-sectarian territorial assumptions are employed in contemporary American views on the Middle East. To do this, I analyze three important sets of maps and texts which encapsulate contemporary American views on the region. The set of maps consists of easily accessible ethnographic maps of the Middle East. These maps are drafted, published, and made available by U.S.-based cartographers, journalists, government agencies, media outlets, and universities. The first set of texts focuses on the U.S. military's Iraq Troop Surge and are made up of American media coverage along with government, military, and think tank documents. The second set of texts focuses on the Arab Spring and are comprised of American media coverage, think tank reports, and academic commentary. My findings show that in most of these materials, it is assumed that the ethno-sectarian characteristics of the region can be depicted accurately, objectively, and completely in cartographic and textual representations. I conclude by asserting that problematic ethno-sectarian depictions are reinforced by the writing of prominent American foreign policy intellectuals. These depictions are important because they play roles in framing American geopolitical strategy and action in the region.






Carleton University

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