Background and Scope of the Project

Citizenship is a central feature of the modern nation-state. Neither scholars nor policymakers can provide us with a unified and agreed upon idea of what citizenship means in all places, at all times, and for all people. But, pared down to its most basic construct, citizenship is recognized as being that which establishes the fundamental rules of membership, participation, and belonging for the people who inhabit a particular territory. Citizenship creates the legal instruments and political boundaries that shape the relationship between individuals and the state to which they belong. In the absence of a universal definition of citizenship as a category, there are certainly still universally understood ideas, norms, and notions of what citizenship should be as an aspiration and an ideal. In sum, although citizenship exists and develops within its own local context, as a result of a particular historical trajectory, and based on local social and cultural practices, it is still often bound, even if just in the imagination, to the universal, lofty, and idealized form of itself.

In the Middle East, over the course of the twentieth century, state-building efforts included the creation of narratives of collective national identity, and instituted the development of practices of citizenship. Much of the existing literature on the region, when it comes to citizenship, has been fixed on the limitation of rights afforded to citizens in authoritarian states, and on the inherent imbalance between citizens’ access to rights versus the power of autocratic regimes that govern them. There has been less of a focus on the linkages between citizenship, class, and persistent inequality in the Middle East. Political, civil, economic, and social rights are closely linked to the social stratification systems that exist across the region. Based on class, an individual’s status is determined in the society. This status comes with a set of political, civil, and social rights; obligations; behaviors; and duties that the individual is expected or encouraged to perform. In return, states are expected to provide and protect certain political, social, and economic rights.

Since social stratification is intertwined with the conception of citizenship in the Middle East, systems of stratification vary significantly across the region depending on the political agenda of the state. In addition to social stratification, other forms of inequality are also used by states as political tools. These forms of inequality can be based on a variety of factors, among which: ethnicity and race; relationships to modes of production; area of residence; religion and sect; gender; and allegiance to particular institutions, political parties, or ruling families. Although these forms of inequality are different in their devices, they have similar impacts on the state’s subjects, and thus the rights those subjects are entitled to. In other words, social stratification and inequality are social norms crafted by the state that impact the allocation and distribution of resources, and access to social goods across different categories of persons. Although existing literature highlights elements of stratification and inequality in the Middle East, there has been a gap in the scholarship regarding the similarities and differences of the stratification systems and forms of inequality, their link to the conception of citizenship across the Middle East, and how these systems and forms are maintained and reproduced.

Middle Eastern states not only have contributed to the formation of social classes and pervasion of inequality, but also—through carefully controlling the legal access to citizenship rights—have reproduced systems that allow states to segment society. This strategy has served states looking to exercise their hegemony, and maintain allegiance from certain classes and segments of society by controlling access to citizenship. This, of course, has had a direct impact on the conception of citizenship as being a privilege given by the state, rather than a birthright of all subjects. Furthermore, the revocation and withdrawal of citizenship rights have become a tool to discipline segments of society not sufficiently cooperating with the state. 

The evolution of citizenship in the Middle East has also been impacted not only by historical legacies, but also by ongoing crises that affect the various states within the region. Civil and transnational wars, revolutions, foreign occupation, waves of forced migration and mobility all still challenge states and the development of citizenship rights. The artificial borders that are byproduct of colonial machination, and the continuous flee of refugees and displaced people within the region and to the West have been problematizing the conception of citizenship in the Middle East more.

Germane to this discussion, it is important to study the politicization of citizenship in the Middle East in comparison to other regions. States around the world have shown varying degrees of politicization of citizenship through their normative discourse. This can be seen in the multiple tiers of citizenship and discrimination in cases of revoking citizenship. This provokes questioning whether regime type and degree of civic participation in decision making have an impact on the conception and politicization of citizenship.

Since the 2011 Arab Uprising, examining regional issues through the lens of citizenship has become increasingly important. Many of the protests that took place during the Arab Spring were an expression of peoples’ unhappiness with their limited rights of citizenship, the perceived lack of equal access to economic goods, limits on political participation, and absence of social justice. Among the demands made to the region’s dictators by protesting national was that citizenship rights to be acknowledged and recognized. In line with this, Center for International and Regional Studies (CIRS) launched a new research project to examine some of the central questions around issues of citizenship, identity, nationalism, class, marginalization, and inequality. Through this project, CIRS hoped to broaden and deepen academic understanding of the conception of citizenship within the context of the Middle East.

Article by Islam Hassan, Research Analyst at CIRS