Scholars in Context: Omar Sadr
Jadaliyya's Scholars in Context series consists of Q&As in which scholars of the Middle East describe their research and the paths they took to arrive at it. The series provides a platform for these scholars to highlight the significance of their work, identify the audiences they seek to reach, and outline their future research trajectories, giving readers an in-depth look at the latest research in a given field.
Jadaliyya (J): What is the main focus of your current research, and how does it connect to or depart from your previous work?
Omar Sadr (OS): My current research explores the crisis of liberalism, democracy, and pluralist coexistence with a particular focus on Afghanistan. I am trying to understand why Afghanistan’s democratic experiment from 2001 to 2021 failed so miserably. A simplistic explanation for this has been to emphasize the central role of continuous armed conflict as a determining factor contributing to the failure of democracy, preventing the political system from stabilizing and solidifying. However, this simplistic understanding necessitates a thorough explanation of democracy’s failure in relation to the global crisis of democracy and liberalism. My work explains how liberalism’s philosophical assumptions about individual autonomy and value pluralism contributed to the failure of liberal democracy and liberal peace in Afghanistan.
Using the political theory of republicanism, my 2021 paper titled “The Republic and its Enemies: The Status of the Republic in Afghanistan” explains how democracy in Afghanistan suffered from four distinct but interconnected crises: ideational, structural, functional, and normative.
My first book, Negotiating Cultural Diversity in Afghanistan, which won the 2022 best book in social science award from the Central Eurasian Studies Society (CESS), studies the governance of diversity in a conflictual and diverse society and the way the state mediates diversity. It investigates how the pathological homogenizing state is correlated with Afghanistan’s crisis of governance and democracy. By criticizing liberalism, communitarianism, and multiculturalism, the book attempts to present a synthesis of critical multiculturalism and intercultural dialogue as an alternative framework for the governance of pluralistic societies such as Afghanistan.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does it address?
OS: My research interest lies in the intersection of pluralism, democracy, and the state. It theorizes the challenge of governance of cultural diversity in a conflictual society. I have drawn from the subfields of political theory, comparative politics, and international relations to understand the relations between diversity, democracy, and the state. My work is an attempt to analyze the failure of democracy and the pathological homogenizing state in Afghanistan by engaging with four categories of literature: the political theory of liberalism, republicanism, multiculturalism, and value pluralism. On the one hand, liberalism tends to ignore and neglect cultural diversity; on the other hand, multiculturalism essentializes cultures as discreet and fixed practices. Transcending these two philosophical traditions, I argue that acknowledgment and recognition of cultural diversity in a pluralistic society should be based on two key principles. First, recognition of individual autonomy, particularly the right to dissent within a culture. Second, facilitating the opportunity for intercultural dialogue among different cultures.
Finally, my work also tries to answer two key policy issues. First, how the failure of the political order in Afghanistan is correlated with a homogenizing state. Second, how the failure of democracy is correlated with a thin electoral democracy in Afghanistan that failed to consider both civic activism and cultural diversity.
J: What brought you to this work? What was the source of inspiration?
OS: The focus of my writings has mostly been on exploring political reform, constitutionalism, democracy, and pluralism. When I started writing as an academic, I was drawn to theorizing the challenges of peaceful coexistence in a pluralistic society and how cultural diversity is suppressed by state and nationalism. This was inspired by my experiences in Afghanistan and its problematic history—a history of forced assimilation, religious discrimination, forced displacement, and systematic war crimes. Besides theoretical contribution, my work proposes a policy solution for the accommodation of cultural diversity in the state and the establishment of a peaceful pluralistic society.
J: What audiences would you like to reach, and what kind of impact would you like your research and writing to have?
OS: Theoretically, my work contributes to the political theory of pluralism, the international relations debate about the trajectory of the state in the non-western world, and comparative politics literature on the state and democracy. It also contributes to studies on the politics of Afghanistan.
I strongly believe that academic writing should not remain limited to the academic community within limited access journals that require a subscription. Theory building, theory testing, or theory application could be transformative if it should inspire change for a better, just, and peaceful society. Academics should be able to communicate not just with their own pairs but also with common people. It has been my endeavor to communicate to academic, policy, and public audiences. Some may consider these three as three divergent audiences, but, for me, they are complementary. Academic research should address the policy demand. Both should be able to consider the interest of the people. It is by transcending the academic audience that an intellectual responsibility is fulfilled.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
OS: I am working on an edited volume exploring liberalism in Afghanistan. The volume aims to examine philosophical, theoretical, and policy implications of the failure of the liberal project in Afghanistan for liberalism and for Afghanistan. I am also working on a paper on how peace negotiations between the government of Afghanistan and the Taliban (2020-2022) failed. Finally, I co-teach an online seminar on the crisis of democracy at the New University in Exile Consortium.