By Mekia Nedjar, Ph D

Associate Professor of International Relations

Oran 2 University


Abstract: This paper explores how security studies in/about the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) divulges that the region is mostly studied as a security-oriented construct, which reduces the MENA world to a security problematique. Most of the security studies literature relies on structural gatekeeping mechanisms which recode and rearrange meanings and narratives that perpetuate a predominantly Eurocentric character triggering modes of mis/reading security in MENA.

Recently, T.V Paul and Amitav Acharya, former presidents of ISA (International Studies Association) and both originally from the global South, argued that ‘among all the IR sub-fields, security studies (SS) is one area where inclusivity is much less present’. The historical gatekeeping practices of exclusion, representation and silencing have shaped the material reality of the global security order, while also affecting knowledge production in the discipline of SS itself. Thus, the discipline per se structurally limits our knowledge of how security is perceived and approached in the global South, namely in MENA as a region of study.

The way we study security raises a range of unexamined questions like why should we focus on SS since 1945? Who is/are the agent(s) of the security discourse? What does ‘narrating security problems in a region’ mean for the narrator/enunciator? Whose safety are we targeting? How are narratives on security constituted? What happened to security in the aftermath of the Westphalian nation-state? What does security consist for the colonial state powers? What is the subject matter and for whom does it matter? 

The aim of this essay is to analyze how, since 1945, SS has historically constructed MENA as an object of knowledge. We first proceed by informing the postcolonial perspectives on ‘security’ and how parochialism and, namely Eurocentrism still contribute to restricting what shapes security grammar of non-Western perspectives. Revisiting how ‘security’ came into being as a construction or constitution discloses the indoctrination of security assumptions and its naturalization in social and political discourses. These practices, eventually, narrow the intellectual endeavor of the Western academic institutions which determine the subject matter and research methods. Prior to this, we should acknowledge that unfolding the many facets of security meaning and perceptions, incarnates different degrees of its applicability in different spatialities. In this regard, Charlotte Epstein points out that a genealogy of the ‘givens’ or assumptions are important to understand and interrogate our constructed social and political worlds and how constitutive theorizing shapes contemporary configurations. She raises critically how some differences are substantialized and others made unseen, even unthematized through political rules and knowledge. The knowledge monopoly, as highlighted by Mohammed Ayoob, is intimately related to the monopoly over the legitimate subject who makes the rules of the study and enforces them. First, I will discuss how SS has excluded and shaped the subjectivity of colonized spaces, à la Saidian, while simultaneously speaking on behalf of the colonized world. Second, I will show how this specifically applies to the MENA where thinking and practice of SS, rooted in Cold-war dynamics with a top-down conception of security, still ostensibly persist in the present.

Who Speaks in Security Studies?

SS stipulates that the core speaks security on behalf of the periphery. As such, the prevailing ideological norm is to study security from the perspectives of the global North, ultimately disposed to normativize and visualize the rest of the world. The scholars based in the periphery or global South are marginalized (they are passive and norm-takers) while their body and location are raw materials of Western-centrist theorizing and toolbox framing in SS. Inasmuch, scholars have to adopt this sort of predesignated toolbox in their queries in the periphery. No matter if it is helpful to ‘fit’ the insecurity of reality. The preeminence of Eurocentrist slants in SS and global knowledge production exposes systematically that the Western experience, as a site of theorization and narration, is the referent metric model to follow and embrace. 

The small states and peripheries are relegated and marginalized in system theorizing which implies asking, not what we are talking about, but in which context we are talking about security and why. This is one of the prominent questions underpinning the genealogy of international security as a history.      

Most scholars allude to the genesis of security thinking through the Renaissance, but bizarrely they stop short of analyzing this pre-Cold War perspective. Thus, security is reduced to post-Cold War thinking and only tackled through the context of great powers conflicts while largely ignoring the experiences of the colonized.

Consequently, SS scholars have always been fascinated by the security of the great powers, and the ‘international’ is reduced to states as units in world politics. In sum, the limited possibility of ‘speaking its security problem,’ as Annick Wibben denotes, reveals ‘how security gets narrated, and by whom. It also provides important insight into the workings of power’. The performative dimension as a semantic repertoire of textual and cultural meanings shape security utterances and contextualize norms that are undeniably grim for marginalized peoples. Most of the SS literature relies on abstraction practices associated with the ‘belief in the legitimacy of words and those who utter them’. Analyzing security literature diffused on MENA helps us to depict how perceptions are shaped through mechanisms of ‘language games’; when we act to securitize (something), we tend to desecuritize other factors at the same time. With that said, the securitization framework which is afoot with the recent research on speech acts, has done more against opening up the SS. In fact, these speech acts are more than the result of structural competition between actors over contradictory definitions of security and different interests. Sara Bertrand highlights that securitization theory grounds our knowledge of the category ‘security’ in speech and discourse. Those who are incapable to complete the required securitizing speech act are not just excluded but silenced through specific mechanisms of silence. She points to the colonial moment of securitization studies when securitization theory and its critics are steeped in: the problem of securitizing ‘for’, of speaking security for others.

Contextualizing ‘Security’ in MENA 

A preliminary review of SS in/about MENA divulges that the region is mostly studied as a security-oriented construct. MENA is being reduced to a security problematique, an attributive tendency which intersects Middle East Studies and International Relations with SS. It epitomizes how security framing ambiguities and gaps related to the global South and MENA and their representations, deviate our attention from MENA reality. In this regard, SS provides a vague sense at best, or relegates, at worst, the importance of the historical experiences of the subjugated (weak) vis-à-vis the strong, who both must be placed in a common analytic frame. 

As such, any Eurocentric writings provide very restricted and non-factual ‘categories for making sense of the historical experiences of the weak and the powerless who comprise most of the world’s population.’ 

Subsequently, reconceptualizing the problematic status MENA holds in SS should be taken as an issue of epistemology. The logic of critique here points to a state of sensing uneasiness and tension in claims and assumptions made on ‘security’ appearing as a slippery, vague concept. This appearance, as Paul Williams points out, usually refers to ‘what the subject in question says it means; neither more nor less’. While those narratives imply that states pursue their own survival, they are rarely reflective of how they see themselves or how they want to be seen by others. 

Let’s take an example of the European Neighbourhood Policy of bordering practices in the southern Mediterranean. Raffaella Del Sarto argues that European Union policy is often ‘described as a neocolonial mechanism to construct, order and subjugate its periphery’ – to render weak and fragile. Therefore, a fragile regional system with deep polarization involves regional strategic dimensions as security and legitimacy emanating from the exercise of authority of the dominant (powerful) state over a subordinated state. ‘No monopoly or hegemony without a security of hegemonic power’. That means the strategic survival of Arab states consists of a state of being weak and subordinated. As such, scholars assign no major role of foreign interference which is based on the assumption of a general approach to keep states subjugated, so they have to be fragile.

In this regard, Marina Calculli notes “powerful states sometimes prefer conflict to diplomatic engagement as a way to manage uncertainty and (re-)assert their position, especially when they feel their power is not recognized.” 

It should be mentioned also, as leading scholars and experts assert, that MENA is the most securitized region in the world. The great powers began militarizing and providing security assistance onto MENA about two centuries ago. Obviously, the civil policy agenda has barely been considered. What happened in the aftermath of Arab Uprisings concretize the classical insecurity dilemma in which ever greater intervention of great and regional powers only left everybody less secure.  

Finally, we must acknowledge that there is a noticeable core-periphery rip between the (post)colonial condition in the global South and security thinking in the modern time. If the Westphalian nation-state is a primordial unit of security analysis, this same nation-state promulgated colonizing, subjugating, exploiting and humiliating societies in the South.

To comprehend the scope of how the periphery perceives security broadly, one needs to shift—not some sense from the core, but also, underline the translocality of perspectives. To overcome this, Stefano Guzzini endorsed to ‘turn IR anxieties to a positive stimulus’ indicating what drives the power of a humankind in her ontology/interests, not according to the Western experience, but what this power denotes and symbolizes for the dominated humankind.  Reconsidering the meaning of security in MENA is to change the way and the place in which questions are posed, then re-humanizing and contextualizing the security writing outside the canonical boxes.

Mekia Nedjar is assistant professor of International Relations at Department of Political Science and International Relations, Oran 2 University-Algeria. She received her Ph D from Autonoma University-Madrid. Her main research interests range from knowledge production, modes of thinking in Security Studies, International Relations in/about MENA and Global South to the intersection of EU construction and colonialism. She has published (in English, Arabic and Spanish) on IR, systemic fragility and the problem of securitization in/about MENA.

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Mar 12, 2024
Public Policy


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