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Contesting Narratives, Locating Power (Lund Conference)

Following the Torture Trail From Middle East Studies to American Studies

[image from unknown archive] [image from unknown archive]

What we have seen erupting in and across the Middle East since the end of 2010 is full-throated anti-authoritarianism, boosted by the inspirations that protesting peoples can take from the revolutionary activism going on in other countries. These revolutions may appear on the surface or to non-experts to be spontaneous, contagious and overwhelmingly youth-led. Such perceptions are not false, but explanations for the revolutionary momentum must grapple with the specific nature of authoritarianism that characterizes the various regimes whose populations are demanding their removal, and the years- or decades-long factors that drive the present anti-authoritarianism. The crippling effects of neoliberal economic policies, pervasive police brutality, rampant corruption, bankrupting arms races, and fossilized unelected leaderships are critical domestic factors, varying by country but present in all. The international dimension, especially regime alliances with the US and collaborations in the global “war on terror,” have also been targets in the swell of anti-authoritarianism.  
I have been particularly intrigued by the centrality of regime torture and anti-torture activism to revolutionary motivations and momentums, especially in Egypt but also in Syria and other countries as well. To the extent that the police killing of Khaled Said was a catalyst for the Egyptian revolution, the “we are all Khaled Said” Facebook page illustrated the anti-torture solidarity that was so important to galvanizing protests in 2011. Equally important was the torture factor in the quick sequence of events that surrounded the collapse of the Mubarak regime. When he appointed Omar Suleiman as his vice president, Suleiman’s role as the CIA’s interlocutor for US torture-by-proxy and Egypt’s role as a torture destination for “extraordinary renditions” not only undermined the kind of transition that Mubarak might have hoped for; they cast a bright light on the US torture program. The kinds of demands for accountability for torture being pursued in Egypt today—including putting torturers on trial—also illuminates the failure and refusal of the US government to pursue any accountability for its own torturers. In this regard, the “we are all Egyptians” sentiments that protesters in Wisconsin embraced could also be the slogan for Americans who wish to see some domestic accountability for torture.
From my perspective as a sociologist and law and society scholar, recent developments are fertilizing a bumper crop of scholarly engagement with authoritarianism and more comparative inquiries into illiberalism. I am interested in the degree to which protesters and regime-changers in the Middle East are motivated by the concepts and enforcement mechanisms of international law. Whereas human rights have had a mixed record as a framework for political activism (because of pervasive and not entirely untrue perceptions that human rights are Western-centric and/or a tool of neo-imperialism), it is impossible to disregard how “people in the streets” have made demands for human rights part of their protests. Human rights does not (or should not) have a fixed/reified meaning; the present moment offers the prospect that it will come to mean anti-authoritarianism and anti-illiberalism. Sovereign states are not going anywhere (well, Libya might be in line for a divorce, like Sudan), but what is being demanded is representative rule—self-determination in its truest meaning, wherein people see themselves (i.e., their interests) reflected in the policies and practices of the states that rule them—which is a “liberal” aspiration but not an inherently “Western” one. Liberal states don’t torture people, so to the extent that states torture, they are functionally illiberal. The comparative analysis of liberalism and illiberalism is a promising way to put another nail in the coffin of orientalism and putative Middle East “exceptionalism.” We are all torturers, until we aren’t.

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