Large parts of the Middle East are going through dramatic upheavals. From Sudan to Afghanistan, violent conflicts are threatening the viability of the states established decades and centuries ago in the wake of colonial rule. Control over the means of violence is fragmenting. Elite competition has in some cases led to splits in the security apparatus. In other countries, armed resistance movements and informal agents of violence are usurping the security functions of the state. What is driving these processes? How do they relate to economic interests, discursive practices and the international context? How do they change people’s access to security and their vulnerability to abuses?

Scholarly concern with security and statehood has in recent years been mostly driven by developments in Africa. The “failed” and “fragile” states’ debate has given rise to a new strand of literature that prescribes empirically grounded analyses of statehood and governance to avoid superficial application of formal theories of state based on European experiences (Hoffmann and Kirk, 2013). Rather than assuming ‘the state’ as a unitary structure that exists to various degrees in various countries (being more or less ‘failed’), it focuses on the forms of authority, and multiple practices, that claiming to represent the state enables.

Integral to this approach is an understanding of power and authority as processual (Lund 2006). As scholars of Sub-Saharan Africa have noted in the burgeoning ethnographic literature on statehood and authority in that continent, (Hagmann and Péclard 2011) a view that sees authority as precarious and in need of repetitive performance and affirmation render focus on negotiations, struggle and everyday social encounters particularly meaningful and important. It is only by close attention to how, in concrete instances, rights, obligations, domains and authority are carved out, renegotiated and enforced that we can we can appreciate the actual, de-facto workings of power.

This workshop applies this perspective on statehood to the struggles over political institutions and authority in the contemporary Middle East, focusing on armies and militias. We argue that the key to understanding the nature of violent upheaval we are witnessing in countries like Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria is analysis of the social relationships that have shaped statehood and authority in individual countries, setting the stage for internal and external conflict.

Specifically we want to look at how individual states or rulers have organized, mobilized and legitimized their armies and security apparatus, and how these practices are linked to broader processes of governing. We argue that we can only understand the logic of this organization through an analysis of how power is legitimized and practiced within each context. By exploring the linkages between security apparatus, violence, and statehood we are aiming to contribute to new theoretical perspectives on contemporary statehood and governance in the Middle East and beyond.