Houses built on sand

My new book is coming out shortly with Manchester University Press. Below is a short synopsis of the argument, followed by some initial reviews.

In the 2005-6 academic year, I took a course on the Philosophy of Language led by Robbie Williams at the University of Leeds. A key component of my degree, I was fascinated by the topic and in particular, how vagueness was addressed in language. Within this module, I worked on the Sorites Paradox, which articulates issues with inherently vague predicates such as bald, or heap. Unbeknownst to me at the time, this discussion would stimulate ideas almost 10 years later when I began working on a book on sovereignty in the Middle East. Initially concerned with the porous nature of state borders stemming from shared normative environments and geopolitical penetration of political projects, the Sorites Paradox was my entry point. Around the same time, I discovered the work of the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, whose work on sovereign power would have a dramatic impact on my intellectual work. Agamben’s work is predominantly concerned with the regulation of life through the cultivation of particular forms of bio political projects. Over the course of a number of months, including during a reading group at Lancaster with some wonderful students, I got to grips with Agamben’s work and found that it spoke to a great deal of what I was trying to achieve in the book. At this point, I found a title, Houses built on sand and shortly after, signed a contract with Manchester University Press. I cannot speak highly enough of the staff at MUP, but that is for another time and place.

In Houses, I explore the emergence and evolution of political projects across the Middle East, dating back to the formative years of the 20th century, particularly after the fall of the Ottoman Empire. Across the following 100 years, I explore the ways in which sovereign states have sought to regulate life through the cultivation of biopolitical projects that make use of the myriad forces at their disposal. This includes grounding their rule in normative projects of Pan Arabism and Pan Islamism, to the more draconian manipulation of constitutional clauses to declare states of emergency. In such conditions, the sovereign has the right to do whatever is deemed necessary to ensure the survival of the state and here, Agamben’s work is invaluable, allowing for a thorough reflection of the ways in which rulers and political elites seek to regulate life.

In order to facilitate this, early chapters look at the establishment of political projects and the structures that regulate life within and across these spaces. Central to this is a discussion of constitutions, legal documents that regulate life, often grounded in normative claims and tradition. A fundamental aspect of this concerns clauses that allow for the suspension of the rule of law in times of crisis, establishing states of emergency, exception or martial law which is integral to Agamben’s work. Religion plays a prominent role in this, allowing a range of actors to lay claim to legitimacy through demonstrating piety and adherence to religious norms. Beyond this, religion – and in particular, (the manipulation of) sectarian identities – operate as a way of deriving support from others across political projects, particularly within times of political instability where geopolitical issues

The construction and (re)shaping of space is a key feature of the book. Drawing on the work of Doreen Massey, I argue that space across the Middle East – and beyond – is understood in accordance with three principles: 1) it is a site of possibility; 2) it is constantly in flux; and 3) it is the  product of the interaction of geopolitical forces with the “intimately tiny”. Across the Middle East, I argue that geopolitical forces play out across local communities where they interact with a range of issues, including socio-economic forces, civil society, access to political systems, and basic needs. The most obvious example is the way in which geopoltical issues interact with local politics in Beirut, where regional tensions map onto local divisions, with repercussions for the ordering of space, distribution of resources and access to political space.

Yet I also argue that local events also have geopolitical repercussions, seen in the aftermath of the Arab Uprisings, where domestic instability stemming from the breakdown of relations between rulers and ruled prompted regional actors to try and shape events in their image, best seen in the cases of Syria, Bahrain and Yemen. The ‘sectarianization’ of political life across the region is a feature of this, albeit with roots dating back to the aftermath of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, where concern at the loyalties of Shi’a groups led to King Abdullah of Jordan’s comments about a “Shi’a crescent”. In this environment, Shi’a groups were framed as 5th columnists and threats to political stability. Governance strategies and biopolitical machineries of power were designed along such lines in a number of cases. Further instances of political instability in the aftermath of the Arab Uprisings exacerbated these processes of sectarianization, leading to a fundamental tension in political projects about the ordering of life according to state sovereignty or sectarianism.

Across the book I seek to trace these processes of sovereign power and their repercussions for political life within states and across the region more broadly. I argue that efforts to exert sovereign power across local contexts can have serious repercussions for the ordering of regional politics across the Middle East. Bringing together material from International Relations, Middle East Studies, Political Theory, Political Geography and Religious Studies, I seek to offer a different reading of regional politics which is shaped by domestic concerns about regime survival which are located in an increasingly precarious regional environment, where the people of the region are paying the heaviest price.

Reviews:

A theoretically-informed and empirically-rich exploration of the impacts of the contestation of sovereign power on states, societies, identities and the regulation of time and space. A creative intellectual tour de force, one rarely encountered in studies of the contemporary Middle East.

Bassel Salloukh, Associate Professor, Lebanese American University

The politics of sectarian difference in the Middle East have been cast in many ways, but never with such rigor and heart as Houses Built on Sand.  By examining sovereign power and its fragmentation, Mabon has constructed a comparative framework that is elastic enough to contain the myriad of local and national experiences with sectarian ‘othering.’ At the same time, the book connects developments across the region using cutting edge political theory to explain recent and devastating contestations between rulers and ruled, including the notion of the abandonment of the ruled by the rulers through such mechanisms as the formation of internal enemies along sect-differences. Meanwhile, displaced individuals find meaning and purpose in transnational communal networks, ramping up the potential for instability and violence, as well as rebirth and change. In this dynamic and important work, Mabon uncovers the role of agency in the forms and behavior taken by sovereign power.  He shows us sovereignty’s fundamental fragility in the wake of mass-mobilized frustration, and he helps us to reimagine a normative space in the Middle East where people’s safety and security might someday come before grandiose political projects.  

Staci Strobl, Associate Professor, University of Wisconsin-Platteville

Situated at the nexus between political theory and Middle East Studies, Houses Built on Sand investigates the claims and mechanisms through which life is regulated in the Middle East.  The theme of sovereignty and its relationship to political power is the anchor for this rigorously researched book that breaks new intellectual ground. An important and timely contribution, especially for those interested in a philosophical understanding of the turbulence and protest that continues to rock the Arab-Islamic world.

Nader Hashemi, Associate Professor, University of Denver

At a moment in which political orders in the Middle East are under exceptional strain Mabon explores the effects of fragmented sovereignties on the political trajectories of states, societies, and communities in the Middle East. His account of the many ways in which competing claims to sovereignty, legitimacy, and authenticity manifest themselves across multiple political and social registers, often at great human cost, is eloquent, theoretically rich, and marvelously ambitious.  Sweeping in its historical and geographic scope, Mabon’s work is acute and urgent in calling our attention to the conditions that sustain violence, exclusion, and conflict in today’s Arab world.  

Steven Heydemann, Janet Wright Ketcham 1953 Professor in Middle East Studies; Director of Program in Middle East Studies.


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