Exclusive interview with Professor Arshin Adib-Moghaddam
Arshin Adib-Moghaddam is Professor in Global Thought and Comparative Philosophies at SOAS, University of London and Fellow of Hughes Hall, University of Cambridge. Educated at the Universities of Hamburg, American (Washington DC) and Cambridge, where he received his MPhil and PhD as a multiple scholarship student, Prof. Adib-Moghaddam was the first Jarvis Doctorow Fellow in International Relations and Peace Studies at St. Edmund Hall and the Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Oxford. Adib-Moghaddam received his Professorship at SOAS within eight years after his PhD as one of the youngest academics in his field.
Adib-Moghaddam is a member of several editorial boards, including Third World Quarterly, and he is co-editor in chief, together with Prof. Ali Mirsepassi (New York University), of the Cambridge book series, THE GLOBAL MIDDLE EAST. He is the author of several books, including On the Arab revolts and the Iranian revolution (Bloomsbury, 2013) and Psycho-nationalism (Cambridge University Press, 2017). In addition, he has published over 50 research articles in scientific journals and books and he has given numerous key note lectures all over the world including in Japan, Qatar, Armenia, the United States, Iran, Germany and the UK.
As a critic and philosopher, Adib-Moghaddam is world renowned for his work about world politics, Iran, Islam and the West, and the international/comparative politics of West Asia and North Africa. As a public intellectual, he writes about contemporary culture and global politics and he has appeared in several documentaries produced by the BBC, Al -Jazeera and other TV outlets,. Prof. Adib-Moghaddam’s commentary and interviews have been published by leading outlets including Times Higher Education, Al-Jazeera, CNN, The Guardian, The Independent, Mehr News Agency and the Tehran Times.
Below is the text of the interview of Asre Andisheh with Prof. Arshin Adib-Moghaddam:
Which International Relations theories have focused on the issue of “identity”?
There are a range of international relations theories that look at inventions of identity and their repercussions for foreign policy, and world politics more generally. In particular social constructivism emerged more forcefully in the 1990s as a school of thought that looked at the engineering of ideational systems and their impact. Related, so called relativist or post-positivist paradigms, evolved out of gender studies with an emphasis on gendered forms of violence in wars, for instance.
The horrible scourge of rape or other forms of sexual violence which are clearly gendered represent a pivotal contribution to the discipline. Equally, “post-colonial” approaches look at ideational systems in order to assess neo-imperial power steeped in discursive dominations. The seminal work of Edward Said’s “Orientalism” continues to be a particularly potent focal point in these scholarly exchanges.
All of this came very late to the discipline of IR, which has been the least developed out of the family of social sciences, certainly in terms of critical theory formation. This situation has changed with a new generation of interdisciplinary scholars who look beyond paradigmatic boundaries and who reject the simple, mono-causalities that “realism” has to offer. My book “The International Politics of the Persian Gulf” published in 2006, was the first to bring IR theory to studies of the region in order to offer an alternative view to understand relations between states in the Persian Gulf and world politics more generally.
What is the Realism school's approach to identity?
The realist paradigm is primarily focused on material variables, and not ideational ones. Classical, peripheral and neo-classical realism have experimented with the power of ideas, but only as intervening variables. There is no answer to the content of (national) interest, for example. How is it constituted and why? How do political elites view the position of the country in the world and how do they pursue it in terms of foreign policy? How do norms emerge and how are they enacted. More recent “realist” concepts such as soft power, borrow from ideational analysis, but they are mute about a range of issues and they underestimate the complexity of the social world in general, and world politics in particular.
This is why “realist” power politics has led to irrational policy failures. Ultimately, and this is the real scientific point here: realism itself, as any other theory, is a subjectivity, an “identity” that is invented and not primordial. Theory is always made for someone and for some purpose. It is not developed in a vacuum. It emerges out of particular social and/or academic structures and preferences and a political context. The philosophical point being that every human project is socially constructed, and everything serves a purpose. If one doesn’t believe in this simple premise, one is either superstitious or naive.
Liberalism has ignored the issue of identity, believing that identity is not an important issue in politics, but rather a matter of economic welfare policy for citizens, and if governments can resolve people's economic welfare, then the problem of identity is not matter. What is your assessment of this?
Like so called “realism”, so called “liberalism” has many different facts. In political terms, being “liberal” is itself an identity, like being a leftist, Islamist, etc. It is a socially constructed subjectivity that one adopts to particular ends. In the discipline of IR, the paradigm of “neo-liberal” institutionalism was carried forward by Robert Keohane and others. At its analytical root, this approach shares many similarities with the “realist” school of thought, certainly in terms of its aversion to ideational factors as explanatory variables. Identity formations, always invented, always contested, do not figure prominently in these IR theories, exactly because they were invented within a US-centric habitat, that was heavily biased in favour of an undifferentiated conceptualisation of power and quantitative methodologies. This is why key debates in IR resolved around this US-centric configuration as a burden for better theory-building. This predicament has been overcome in the last two decades or so. Certainly in Europe and Asia, and before that in South America, most IR departments are now dominated by critical approaches.
How have post-structuralism theories looked at identity?
Post-structuralism looks at the social construction or invention of identity formations and their impact on international relations. For instance, while it is analytically correct to assume that there is no global organisation with the nominal power to pacify the international system which is codified as anarchy in (neo) realist theory (the UN would not qualify as such an organisation), post-structural theory would not take this condition as primordial or unchangeable. First of all there are different forms of anarchy in different regions.
Second, structures of Hobbesian anarchy can be overcome. Europe and East Asia, perhaps even Latin America are a good example for this structural elasticity. These regions used to be beset by ongoing conflict of the most horrible kind. In the case of Europe, even two devastating world wars. But they overcame, to different degrees, this conflictual structure. Certainly in Europe we can’t speak of a Hobbesian “kill or be killed” state of nature. The continent resembles more a Farabian pacified zone, something that the German philosopher Immanuel Kant would have termed “demokratischer Freieden” or a “security community” in Karl Deutsch’s terms. Structure can be overcome, identities redefined, society redefined. Post-structural approaches look at such movements in the human condition.
Which International Relations theories better address issues such as nationalism, the emergence of the radical right, environmental movements, and so on?
Such themes do not appear in realist theories as they are state-centric. Non-state movements are of no real theoretical relevance to them. Post-colonial approaches have had a long tradition in focusing on forms of racism, psycho-nationalism, the suppression of minorities etc. Many social constructivists focus on environmental concerns these days, as these are post-national and affect us all. Gender theoreticians as well, look at the effects of environmental degradation and forms of subjugation based on gender discrimination.
Francis Fukuyama's recent book is on identity, “Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment”. Why are Fukuyama's focus on identity given that liberals don't pay much attention to identity?
I have not read his new book. Fukuyama is not a serious scholar, nor is he a good theoretician. He is jumping on bandwagons. At the end of the Cold War he predicted “the end of history” in a rather pedestrian manner that would have made Hegel cringe. He was also associated with the neoconservative movement – then he became a neoliberal and now seemingly a socialist. The reason why he can jump between these contradictory political identities is exactly because he has no real philosophical standpoint from which to argue his case. There is no substance and authenticity to his writings because he is not theoretically grounded. He is a good story-teller, but that’s all.
Obviously, he was entirely wrong about the premise that the worldwide spread of liberal democracies and free-market capitalism of the so called “West”, which for him meant the United States, and its lifestyle may signal the end point of humanity's sociocultural evolution and become the final form of human government. First of all, there is no unitary “west”. Most Europeans live and think very differently to the citizens in the United States. I have lived in both settings, and the differences are stark, even in terms of political and socio-economic organisation.
The social market economies of continental Europe are fundamentally less unjust than the free-market economy in the US; the social policies in Scandinavia do not exist in the USA, the federal democracy in Germany, is a very different form of governance compared to the presidential democracy which operates from Washington DC. Today, more than ever these differentiations and complexities are coming to the fore. I can only judge from the facile title and the sensationalistic, sudden case for socialism, that this new book of Fukuyama is equally devoid of substance and depth. At least, however, he seems to appreciate that an order that is socially sensitive, politically inclusive and not based on “identity politics” is a better form of governance, compared to states based on exclusionary ideologies of a religious or secular kind.
What is your solution to the issue of identity politics and issues such as nationalist movements and extremism, and so on?
Identity is always invented for someone and something, in politics in order to bolster the sovereignty and legitimacy of the ruling classes. That is all. At the base of it etymological invention any form of identity is entirely hollow, an empty space where everyone is equal. Ali Shariati conceptualised the rhizome of identity formations in his famous distinction between bashar and insan.
We are all Mensch or bashar in the end. If we reduce our personal identity to this reality, our connections to the world become clearer and there is no scope for a dichotic differentiation between self and other, us and them, friend and foe, khodi and ghey-re khodi which is at the heart of any form of identity politics. As bashar, we can show our insaniyat towards the whole world. There is a long tradition of such “humanism” in eastern philosophy, in the poetry of Rumi, Khayyam, Saadi and in the treatise of Farabi, Avicenna and others. I have revisited their ideas in my forthcoming book “What is Iran: Domestic politics and international relations in five musical pieces” which will be published by Cambridge University Press. The politics of identity is a poor substitute for good governance, a functioning social system and human security.
It is a failed relic of the 20th century and the ideational insecurities of modernity that continue to haunt the world, even today. The battle for history starts with a battle against any form of discriminatory identity politics and in support of inclusivity, plurality and commonality within difference. A disjunctive synthesis, so to say, where the difference of our neighbour is celebrated as an addition to our common bashariyat. At that time of our politico-cultural evolution, the mirror image of the “other”, turns into a beautiful resemblance of our “self.”
There are movements in this direction, the post-national politics of the European Union for instance. But even the EU has not turned world politics into a field of agonistic rivalry, rather than antagonistic confrontation. In the absence of a truly universalistic politics for global peace, which the charter of the UN calls for, common threats to humanity such as solutions to the environmental crisis continue to be relegated to a better tomorrow. Education is crucial to find the common ground that I have conceptualised. A future devoid of discriminatory identity politics, can best be forged within a context where thinking and educating freely is rewarded. To that end, we need the ability to think, more universities, more critical ideas, more innovation. In many ways, the recipes for a better future are already available, they merely have to be implemented by the political classes.