Nadim Koteich

2023… The Interior Is Back to Making Politics

Though it might be hasty, one could make the claim, based on the types of political developments that are unfolding, that 2023 has already acquired its character.

It is the year of the return of the interior. That is to say, domestic and foreign policies are being shaped primarily by domestic issues. This is especially true for the Middle East, after ideological conflicts spiked over the past decade.

The most substantial challenge facing Israel today is neither the missiles of Hamas and Hezbollah nor Iran’s nuclear weapons. It is the country’s domestic social, political, cultural and moral struggles (which pushed its head of state to warn of a “civil war”) that threaten to obliterate Israel in “seven and a half minutes”!

Iran’s most significant challenge, also domestic, is linked to the regime’s legitimacy at home and its ability to meet the needs of society, and this challenge played a role in compelling Iran to seek settlements and reconciliations.

In an immense country like China, the interior, not its purely ideological conflict with the US, has become the source of policy-making. China’s challenges are tied to the repercussions of the measures taken by the state to address the COVID-19 pandemic, the real estate bubble, and decreased growth rates. Without economic growth, Beijing cannot meet the expectations of the Chinese middle class, the largest globally and the most prominent symbol of the Chinese miracle.

Expanding our scope slightly, we find that the US does not deviate from the rule. America’s domestic issues, its conflicts of identity, ideology, and interests, have to shape US foreign policy. It has always been said that, in the US, “all politics is ultimately domestic politics;” however, this axiom has never been as evident as it is today.

The return of the interior is a pivotal juncture in the evolution of the philosophical conceptualization of politics and the clash of doctrine.

Political ideologies, as frameworks for organizing and understanding the role and structure of government, have a profound impact on how we see and engage with the world, as well as how we understand our environment spatially and temporally. Looking into the interplay between political ideologies and conceptions of space and time can be very helpful for understanding how political geography, the historical context, or visions for the future shape political ideas and practice.

How space is conceptualized is a crucial component of political ideologies of any kind, as it has direct implications for the way in which political power is distributed and exercised, as well as identifying sources of legitimacy and the criteria for success and failure. Ideologies’ spatial dimension is closely tied to geopolitics, whether this refers to physical borders, natural resources, or how the population is divided geographically. The spatial dimension is inseparable from the temporal dimension, which evokes history, as is the case for most national or identity-based ideologies that grant unique importance to land, culture, language, and ethnicity.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s understanding of all these matters pushed him to enter Ukraine in order to “correct” the mistakes of history and “save” the country’s Russian speakers. In Israel, the battles raging in the West Bank and Jerusalem stem from a biblical conception of space and time that defines the “Jewish homeland.”

Iran’s actions suggest that it is also stubbornly struggling against geography, as it reiterates that the Islamic Republic is now “on the shores of the Mediterranean.” Its actions also speak to a desire to “correct” history, which is understood according to a particular vision that recalls specific historical battles and moments of political conflict over in Islam.

Space expands and contracts depending on the nature of the ideology. It can contract to include the borders of the “Jewish homeland” or the “Kurdish homeland,” two give two of many examples. And it can expand to encompass the earth and everyone on it, as is the case for the liberal ideology, in whose name Francis Fukuyama once declared the end of history, and implicitly the end of geography, with the emergence of the global village.

Obviously, the ability of different ideologies to adapt and evolve over time varies, as does their capacity to accommodate changing social, economic and political conditions, and what the dynamics of political thought and practice do and do not allow for.

This leads me to the divergent conceptions of space and time among Middle Eastern rivals. Vision 2030 outlines how time is perceived in Saudi Arabia, and its internationally recognized borders illustrate how it perceives space. In the Gulf, one finds similar notions of these concepts. After the country celebrated its fiftieth-year anniversary in 2021, the UAE outlined its vision for the next fifty years.

As for the space, it is the country itself. Here, we find specific time frames and defined spaces that the human mind can perceive.

On the other hand, if we look at political Islam, both Sunni and Shiite, we find that time ranges from ancient history to a future beyond the future and beyond life. The Sunni puritans yearn for what is called the golden age of Islam, the era of the Rightly Guided Caliphs. They aspire to bring a caliph that reproduces it in the present to power, ignoring the frameworks set by statehood, national borders, political legitimacy, and national identity.

The Shiite puritans refer back to moments that they believe encapsulate all that political righteousness means, as they do when they commemorate Ashura as a political moment. Their struggle is to change the outcomes of this historical event through the outcomes of the battles being waged in the now and here, whether in Iraq, Syria, or Yemen.

As for the future, both see it as nothing less than the afterlife itself, where eternal bliss and paradise are ascended to after the divine promise is fulfilled.

Non-ideological countries, like Saudi Arabia and the UAE, look to the future. Theirs is a tangible future that physically exists temporally and spatially, and it is linked to plans for a future that can be predicted. In this future, there is greater emphasis on strengthening economic development, social cohesion, modernization, and environmental sustainability, and the path toward it is usually shaped by the needs and aspirations of the people of a particular nation state.

The outcome of this interplay between political thought and questions of time and space is directly tied to the future of mankind. The utopias pushed for by ideology, especially rigid ideologies, are founded on the idea of bringing about an ideal society built on the basis of religious, cultural, national, political or class principles. Thus, utopia can potentially encourage a culture of individual sacrifice and martyrdom for the common good, as it prioritizes collective goals over individual well-being.

In contrast, other countries in the region, such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE, have prioritized individual well-being and meeting contemporary needs and aspirations, such as ensuring high living standards, good education and health care, and economic opportunities for their citizens.

And so, the most consequential potential outcome of the political tracks emerging in the region is this change in how space and time are perceived politically. As mentioned at the outset of this article, the return of the interiors is the most prominent manifestation of this shift. The interior is back to shaping politics and taming ideologies after cold hard reality tested the capacity of utopias to become places where hardship and tragedies unfold in the here and now.