In large parts Iraq and Syria, the central state is no longer a key force in governing people's everyday lives. But this does not mean that there is no order or any system to how people govern themselves. This is what the project investigates: How do we conceive of governance and sovereignty beyond the state? With global movements trying to respectively bolster or dismantle the nation state, on both the political left and the right, this question has become increasingly important. The findings of the project will be therefore be of relevance to people working with foreign relations, people interested in the current events of the Middle East, and people interested in alternative ways in which societies may be structured.
By working ethnographically with two semi-stateless zones, Iraqi Kurdistan and Northern Syria, concrete, empirical answers may be provided as to how governance and sovereignty are vested in practice and globally intertwined. Working ethnographically means spending an extended amount of time with people who live lives beyond the central state's direct control and influence. Accordingly, this project also aims at disentangling the understanding of sovereignty from its arguably predominantly western history. Following the idea that sovereignty (as it has been conceived by western canon) does not apply to or figure into local peoples' understanding of what governance is, the project will seek to extrapolate a locally sensitive, bottom-up understanding of terms and practices that may replace or supplement sovereignty. The project, in other words, opens up to considerations of interlocutors' own definitions and ideas about what sovereignty and governance entails, and how these are set into practice. In this way, beyond charting how people live and govern themselves without a state apparatus, the project also sheds light on alternative ways of conceptualizing governance and sovereignty itself. The project's plan for working in two regions will additionally provide the means for comparison and wider extrapolation.
The fieldwork part of the project has now been completed, and while the data is currently being analyzed, there have emerged a few preliminary results. The first concerns the Iraqi Kurdish and Syrian Kurdish regions’ efforts to present themselves as if they were sovereign. Surrounded by and being encompassed by states who do not favor Kurdish sovereignty, Kurdish actors seek to subvert and overcome these limitations by appealing directly to the international community through sovereignty-emulating means, despite not having a state. This involves, among other things, presenting the Kurdish regions as if they were sovereign, meaning that that Kurdish leaders in particular will emphasize their perceived de facto sovereignty. The second finding is related to the first, in that these efforts to present the Kurdish regions as sovereign often run into realpolitikal issues that undercut the characteristics of sovereignty as belonging to states (for instance, free international import and tariff agreements, and opportunities for directly appealing to international organizations and governments for [military] aid).
Rapid change in the Middle East has not only challenged how sovereignty is constituted, but has also impacted the very concept of sovereignty. The social and political worlds in the Kurdish areas of Iraq and Syria serve as prime examples, as their stateless and fluctuating condition post-ISIS challenges notions of what sovereignty means in relation to practical governance. Drawing on expertise of leading scholars in Global History at the University of Oxford and in Social Anthropology at the University of Bergen, this project will conduct fieldwork in the Kurdish regions of Iraq and Syria to investigate how sovereignty, autonomy and self-governance are being locally re-imagined and re-worked in these contested areas. The aim of the project is to contribute new understandings of sovereignty 'beyond the state' in a fluctuating and changing Middle East.
Sovereignty has been traditionally interlinked with statehood in European political theory and anthropology. Considering the non- or pseudo-state nature of the Iraqi and Syrian Kurdish areas, new knowledge is needed to understand how governance and sovereignty may work outside of clearly established state relations. While the two regions have vastly different political-ideological trajectories and modes of social organization, a comparative approach will highlight how conceptualizations of sovereignty and practices of governance are intertwined. The stay at the University of Oxford will allow me to expand the comparative foundation for the project as well as develop new, interdisciplinary understandings of sovereignty and their relevance historically and globally. By prioritizing and starting with local conceptualizations of sovereignty derived from ethnographic field research, the aim is to return the concept to an Anglo-European context, where new intersections may shed light on the concept’s contingency, premises, and disparate use.