Three theses on ISIS: the Universal, the Millenarian, and the Philistine

Nimer SultanyA warm welcome to Nimer Sultany who brings us a guest post on thinking about ISIS. Nimer is Lecturer in Public Law, School of Law, SOAS, University of London. He holds an SJD from Harvard Law School. He practiced human rights law in Israel/Palestine, and was the director of the Political Monitoring Project at Mada al-Carmel – The Arab Research Center for Applied Social Research. His recent publications include: “The State of Progressive Constitutional Theory: The Paradox of Constitutional Democracy and the Project of Political Justification” in the Harvard Civil Rights – Civil Liberties Law Review and “Religion and Constitutionalism: Lessons from American and Islamic Constitutionalism” in the Emory International Law Review.


The ruthless brutality of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS or ISIL) unfolds before our eyes on the screens. As commentators struggle to explain and understand it, it becomes convenient to revive old Orientalist tropes. Beyond the spectacular brutality, the reason that ISIS invites attention (both fascination and fear) is that it seems easy to fit in confrontational narratives of Islam (us v. them, anti-American, etc.). Muslims are clearly angry at something. In his infamous article “The Roots of Muslim Outrage”, Bernard Lewis simplistically explained that Muslims are envious of, and angry at, Western modernity and secularism. The U.S. magazine Newsweek illustrated this knee jerk reaction, and recourse to run of the mill thinking patterns, in a Muslim Rage cover in September 2012.

o-NEWSWEEK-MUSLIM-COVER-facebook

In his book “Covering Islam” (1981) Edward Said has effectively critiqued these binary simplifications that dominate not only journalistic discourse about “Islam”, but also expert-talk about Islam. For Said, all attempts to conceptualise other cultures are a value-laden interpretive exercise. He showed the deficiencies of orthodox writings on—and views of—Islam, and called for “antithetical knowledge” to challenge the orthodoxy’s claims of value-free objectivity.

It seems little has changed, however, since Said wrote his book in the wake of the Iranian revolution. In this brief commentary I want to examine three attempts to understand ISIS. These are long treatments in respected liberal media outlets. To use Said’s phrase, these are treatments that fit in different “communities of interpretation.” These three essays are all aware of the need to provide “context” for ISIS. However, their contextualisation differs. The success of this contextualisation in shedding a light on ISIS varies. Let me call these interpretive techniques: universalization; Millenarian confrontation; and intellectual bewilderment. These three attempts operate mostly on the ideational/ cultural domain.

Continue reading

The Corbyn Effect

Moderate Militant-Free Labour Conservative Poster

In the last days, the Labour mainstream has not so much fallen as fully leapt into a fit of apoplexy. The cause an opinion poll – by no means solid, by no means a guarantee of future stock value – placing Jeremy Corbyn as the likely winner of the party’s leadership contest. Labour MPs, some now publicly flagellating themselves, nominated Corbyn for a ‘balanced debate’, but apparently couldn’t countenance that it might actually lead anyone to, you know, debate. Corbyn’s moment of popularity is thus sketched as, among other things, “the emotional spasm…an apocalyptic tendency”. John McTernan – a prime mover in the utter implosion of Labour in Scotland – was invited to hold forth on national TV as an oracle nevertheless, where he showed off his great talent in persuasion by calling Labour supporters “morons”. John Rentoul, that other great passé hack, thought recognising the left-wing appeal of the SNP as a factor in Labour’s defeat was like believing in space lizard conspiracy theories.

There was an equal portion of patronising bullshit to go with the name-calling. “Do some research” before you dare to a preference, chided Anne Perkins. Don’t be a “petulant child”, admonished Chuka Umunna. Sunny Hundal came at logic with customary cack-handedness, transforming the clear articulation of principles into a pathology. These are some of the same people who bemoan the detachment of politicians from real people, the decline in party membership, and so on, only to rise up as vengeful furies when a candidate dares to stir energies. All down to an unsavoury populism, natch. This, says Helen Lewis, is ‘purity leftism’, nothing like the necessary compromises of opposition, where you have to be bold enough to endorse 2% defence spending (something “the public” indeed likes, although hardly top of their polled priorities). Blair, of course, can only relate in the terms of triangulation, regurgitating the 1990s whilst pretending to the terrain of the future.

It doesn’t matter that Corbyn’s record is one of democratic socialism (remember that?). It doesn’t matter that there are trends in his favour. It doesn’t matter that his economic policies are comparatively bold and redistributive. It doesn’t even matter that many of Corbyn’s policies are popular. One line of Blair’s intervention was widely cited: “I wouldn’t want to win on an old fashioned leftist platform”. Few completed the quote: “…even if it was the route to victory“. This is not political argument, nor even Machiavellian electoral planning, but the tantrum-jitters of the self-appointed aristocracy. Having passed out lectures on loyalty and collective responsibility on Monday during the second reading of the Welfare Bill, the dauphins were by Thursday pre-declaring a coup should Corbyn win and practically spitting on their own activists besides. They saw no contradiction. Labour’s experts advocate not political communication but political manipulation, impersonating the enemy to take their place in our collective consciousness.

And so it will go on if any of the appeasement candidates win. Continue reading

The Perpetual Financial Crisis of UK Higher Education

Higher Education in Britain – particularly in England – is now clearly in perpetual financial crisis. This may seem an odd claim, since universities appear to have higher incomes than ever, and are sitting on vast cash reserves. But this superficially calm macro-level picture obscures the broiling chaos at the micro level. Universities, and particularly their individual departments, have been deliberately exposed to enormous year-on-year fluctuations in their incomes – potential and actual – that vitiates any attempt at rational planning and leaves financially strapped units particularly vulnerable to savage, short-term cuts designed to rebalance the books.

The latest move in this direction comes in a remarkable missive from the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) which, on instruction from the government, is cutting £150m in funding to English universities — not just in future financial years, but the present academic year (2014-15) and the next (2015-16). That means universities will not receive the funding they anticipated, and planned for, even for the year to September, let alone for the following year.

Continue reading

Theorizing Embodiment and Making Bodies ‘Matter’

Bringing to a close our symposium on Bodies of Violence is Lauren’s rejoinder to all our contributors, Kevin McSorley, Ali Howell, Pablo and Antoine.


First, a huge thank you to the (Dis)order of Things and especially Antoine for organizing this forum and to each of the contributors. It’s been a huge honor to have my work read so carefully and responded to so thoughtfully and I welcome the opportunity to try to clarify some of my work and acknowledge where the contributors have pointed out helpful areas for future research.

As Pablo K and others noticed, Bodies of Violence it is not meant to be a general theory of embodiment in IR (I’m not sure such a project is feasible or politically desirable in any event).  It is a more specific intervention with a different ambition: both to speak to ‘mainstream’ concerns about theorizing violence, particularly forms of political violence associated with the ‘war on terror’ and to make not only a theoretical argument about how we might or should theorize embodiment and violence, but also to show that understanding these different ‘modes of violence’ necessitates such an understanding of the relationship between bodies, subjects and violence.  My rationale for using feminist theory to think about the relationship between bodies, subjects and violence in IR was not meant to be exclusive: certainly (other) people working with concepts of biopolitics as well as anti-colonial/anti-racist theorists, disability theorists, phenomenologists and more also have much to say on this topic, some insights of which have been very important in my analysis, if not as fully fleshed out (if you will) as my engagement with feminist theory is.[i] For me, it was a particular reading of feminist theories of embodiment, not solely based on Butler, but on a particular feminist problematic in which women, as a category of those constituted, as Pablo K put it, the “improperly bodied”, are politically disenfranchised and generally excluded from their status as a fully human subject that served as a starting point, but far from an ‘ending’ for thinking about the subject of embodiment.  Rather, it is, as Kevin noted, “the specific tradition of trying to think through women’s subordination in terms of the relationship between bodies, subjects and power” that feminist theory entails that I wanted to use to think about violence and embodiment in ways that I hope will speak not only to feminists in IR but also to other critical and the more pluralistically and trans-disciplinarily minded scholars in IR and beyond as well.

Continue reading

Secular Bodies of Pain and the Posthuman Martial Corps

The penultimate post in the symposium on Lauren Wilcox’s Bodies of Violence before the author gets the opportunity to respond to all the participants. Previous contributions come courtesy of Kevin McSorley, Ali Howell and Pablo – Lauren’s opening post can be found here.


David Mach, Die Harder (2011)

David Mach, Die Harder (2011)

With Bodies of Violence, Lauren Wilcox performs the much-needed service of bringing the body back to the foreground of international politics. Through both sophisticated theoretical exegesis and a rich treatment of relevant empirical material, the work insistently underlines why embodiment matters in contemporary practices of violence and how so many accounts of international relations to date have been deficient in this regard. To any that might still doubt it, Wilcox further demonstrates how the insights developed by feminist theory are not restricted to its primary object of gender and makes a compelling case that we find in this body of work one of the most important repositories of conceptual resources for thinking physical embodiment and the normative social frameworks in which such embodiment is lived out.

Perhaps Wilcox’s most important theoretical commitment in the book is her steadfast refusal to take bodies, and by extension political subjects, as given. Instead, bodies are always to be conceived of as in-formation, produced within and bound by normative orders all the while resisting and exceeding them. The human body should therefore not be treated as the basic unit of social ontology or serve as the fixed atom upon which the edifice of political theory is to be constructed (as exemplified by liberalism’s usual reliance on the sovereign rational individual). Drawing in particular on Judith Butler’s work, Wilcox proposes rather to conceptualise the subject as ‘ontologically precarious’ (p.190) and our political orders as accordingly contingent and open-ended. Violence is here taken to be of critical importance since it cannot be considered as ‘merely harmful but is constitutive of the embodied subjects of IR’ (p.28).

Bodies of Violence offers much stimulus for reflection but I will limit my comments to developing two lines of thoughts which are presented here as much as general provocations than as pointed questions to Wilcox. The first concerns the status of pain within the ethico-political imaginaries of modern societies, the second pertains to the relation of the posthuman military body to prevalent corporeal norms.

Continue reading

Bodies, What Matter?

And now, the fourth post in our symposium on Lauren Wilcox’s Bodies of Violence.[1] It follows Lauren’s opener, Kevin McSorley’s take on embodiment and Alison Howell on the value of feminist IR in such a project. Posts by Antoine and a rejoinder from Lauren follow.


Type Any Name Bodies

Lauren Wilcox seeks something like a theory of the body (and embodiment, crucially different) in international political violence. The body not as inert or as the mere vehicle for mind, but malleable, and indeed “deeply political”. As she puts it early on in Bodies of Violence, we therefore require a conceptual framework for seeing “how bodies are enabling and generative of war and practices of political violence more broadly”. And it is part of her case that such a theory of bodies – or, at least, a theoretical inquiry into violent embodiment – would be among the first in the discipline of International Relations, which has thus far failed to understand how bodies matter, how bodies are produced, and how violence acts upon and through bodies, even as it claims to be the discipline most concerned with human survival in the face of organised violence. And despite IR being in thrall to an unsustainable individualism, which might at least be expected to bias it towards discrete human experience.[2]

In short, international theory is disembodied, and the body an “absent presence” (aptly put, and true). Since we all have bodies, and can only encounter the world through our bodies, we should thus in some sense seek to include – perhaps even ‘centre’ – the body in theory. Even as poststructural scholarship evades the injunction to produce systematic theory, it is able to reveal the absence of bodies in our dominant paradigms. Wilcox pushes us in the same direction, arguing that, as subjects, we are embodied, precarious and have physical forms that are both produced by, and are in turn productive of, the world of ‘politics’. This is both a conceptual and a normative question, since those who have been considered improperly bodied have historically been excluded from politics, from the means of social reproduction and autonomy, and from recognition as human itself.

To not see the body is thus not to entertain a neutral and cerebral vision of the human, but instead to reproduce the historical exclusions by which some bodies (in the familiar refrain, those that are male, white, cisgender, heterosexual, Eurocentric, able-bodied and rational) are taken to be the benchmark by which others (framed as deviant, inadequate, juvenile or dangerous) are measured and found wanting. Bodies of Violence moves through a series of sites (the US Naval Base, Guantanamo; the suicide bomber’s vest; the airport scanner; the drone operator’s screen-throne; the rhetoric of humanitarian intervention), mapping how the body figures in each of them. It is a book thoroughly about bodies, but not therefore necessarily a theory of bodies and embodiment. And it is theory of em-bodies-ment that we may in need of.

Continue reading

Bodies, and Violence: Thinking With and Beyond Feminist IR

10170814_10203788729029655_7004664852126275170_nOur third post in the symposium on Lauren Wilcox’s Bodies of Violence comes courtesy of Alison Howell (the first two posts can be found here and here). Alison is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Rutgers University, Newark. She has written on topics relating to the international relations of medicine, health, security and warfare. Her first book, Madness in International Relations examined the role of psychology in global security practices.


I have a confession to make: at the last ISA, swept up in the magic of New Orleans, I rekindled a romance. I should probably clarify that I’m not talking about one of those salacious romances that one hears rumors of on the Hilton elevator. No, I’m talking about my relationship to FTGS specifically, and feminist IR more generally.

tacky rose

When I first started going to the ISA a little over ten years ago, I felt strongly identified with FTGS. Though I consider my research feminist (amongst other things), and though, for that matter, I’ve continued to pay dues to the FTGS section as a kind of hopeful political act – still the romance didn’t last. Partly my intellectual curiosities took me in different directions. I also had trouble articulating some of the problems I had with the deployment of some concepts in feminist IR (especially the concepts of trauma, and also violence, which I’ll return to in a few paragraphs).

But lately I’ve been feeling flirtatious with feminist IR again. In part, this is because I’m finally getting some clarity on why I have disagreements with some feminist thought in IR (and thoughtful disagreement is a kind of engagement). It’s also because I think that feminist IR is beginning to be more diversely peopled and theorized. For these reasons, I was excited to find Lauren Wilcox’s impressive book in my possession, a book that appears as part of Oxford University Press’s Gender and International Relations series, a perch from which it is pushing feminist IR in some new directions.

Wilcox’s book is novel in that it works to systematize an approach to the body in IR. To date, a focus on the body as a site of theoretical concern in IR has been piecemeal, though certainly not absent. Yet what Wilcox achieves in placing the body and embodiment as central conceptual artifacts in Bodies of Violence, is to freshly open up a number of thematic concerns and questions for the study of global politics.

Continue reading