Yemen had a bad 2009, culminating in a claim of responsibility by the Yemen-based al-Qaeda franchise for the failed Christmas Day terrorist attack above Detroit. Increasing media coverage in the past year, which has often portrayed the country as a basket case on the brink of implosion, has done little to provide a nuanced portrayal of the young state. Lisa Wedeen’s ambitious and illuminating Peripheral Visions: Publics, Power and Performance in Yemen provides a wealth of expert observations and analysis of this complex and frequently misunderstood country, dispelling a number of myths along the way. The book presents challenging but refreshing discussions of nationalism, democracy and identity in a way that prioritizes experience on the ground over comfortable theoretical assumptions. Although primarily aimed at an academic audience, it also contains valuable insight for those in the policy-making community tasked with “doing something” about Yemen as aid budgets increase in line with growing international concerns over the country’s plight.
Wedeen follows an interpretivist approach and uses a mixture of methods, enabling an expansive discussion that is not confined by artificial conceptual boundaries. She conducted 18 months of fieldwork in Yemen between 1998 and 2004, during which she undertook ethnographic work, conducted extensive interviews with a range of local actors and took part in qat chews (qat is a mildly intoxicating drug, said to increase alertness and lucidity). This research was complemented by a study of existing academic literature, poetry, songs, newspapers, NGO reports and recordings of Friday sermons, among other things.
Wedeen asks the following at the outset: What makes a Yemeni a Yemeni in the context of the state’s fragilities? Why does Yemen hold together to the extent that it does? How does nationalism operate, and how do claims of national belonging articulate with other experiences of solidarity?
Having posed these questions, Wedeen goes on to explain in the introduction why Yemen is a good case study for a discussion of the making of national attachments and their relationship to political order:
• Before 1990, Yemen had never been a unified state and as such had no previous experience of “statehood” to build upon.
• The formation of unified Yemen coincided in theory with a process of “democratization.”
• The weakness of state institutions meant the authorities had limited resources with which to promote nationhood.
• Yemenis held multiple identities (for example, in the form of loyalty to their tribe, region or field of work).
The introduction goes on to set out the theoretical framework for the chapters that follow, first by revisiting literature on nationalism, and second by examining debates around performative politics: how the use of words, the understanding of abstract concepts, and the enactment of everyday practices produce specific logics and generate observable political effects. Wedeen argues that focusing on the performative aspects of politics allows for an appreciation of the contingency of solidarities and the fluid nature of identities.
On nationalism, Wedeen accepts certain points made by Benedict Anderson in his well-known work on “imagined communities.” She hones in on the distinction he makes between discourses that are “specifically nationalist in content from other ways in which national imaginings happen independently of this rhetoric,” while disputing others, particularly assertions over the linear nature of the development of nationalist feeling. Wedeen also questions the assertion by some of Anderson’s followers of a necessary link between nationalism and secularization, something that does not fit the Yemeni example, in which religion maintained a key place in the public sphere even as nationalist ideas came to the fore.
In Chapter One, “Imagining Unity,” Wedeen sets out the historical background to the amalgamation of North and South Yemen. She discusses the way in which a range of discourses — including those circulated through poetry, radio broadcasts and newspapers — set a backdrop against which a united Yemen became a feasible outcome, despite its never having existed in the past. Wedeen finds that nationalist discourses served to constitute individuals who considered themselves to be Yemeni — due, for example, to reading the same newspapers or listening to the same radio program — and helped to summon groups like Yemeni “people” into being. While these developments enabled the creation of the new state, Wedeen finds that there is no necessary link between feelings of national solidarity and political stability, given that national identifications can be used to criticize a regime as well as to support it.
In Chapter Two, “Seeing like a Citizen, Acting like a State,” Wedeen explores the relationship between the regime and its people by examining state-citizen dynamics with regard to three major “national” events: the presidential elections of 1999, celebrations held to mark the tenth anniversary of Yemen’s unification, and the furor that surrounded the emergence of Yemen’s “first” serial killer. The chapter, which incorporates fascinating anecdotal details, discusses the way in which the elections and anniversary celebrations were used to project an image of power and “stateness” even though state institutions remained extremely weak. Wedeen goes on to show that through seeking to project an image of power in this way, the state increased expectations among the population, which began to demand that this newly visible entity provide them with services. Consequently, while the regime was able to intermittently project aspects of stateness, this did not necessarily foster national unity or support for the regime’s agenda. The serial-killer case is used to argue that citizens’ evolving sense of belonging caused them to long for security within a state structure. Although the saga exposed the state’s inability to protect its citizens, this did not result in the rejection of the state, but rather a desire to enhance it and strengthen its powers.
In Chapter Three, “The Politics of Deliberation: Qat Chews as Public Spheres,” the author switches focus from nationalism to democracy. She asks whether the weakness of some authoritarian states could in fact enhance the potential for political activism and critical debate, using the format of the Yemeni qat chew as a case study. Wedeen argues that such gatherings, during which lengthy discussions of pertinent local and national issues take place, represent democratic acts, but of a kind ignored by minimalist understandings of democracy that equate it to the existence of contested elections, regardless of the democratic or other nature of the broader environment.
The widespread currency of minimalist definitions in policymaking circles means that such debates are not merely theoretical, but rather have significant practical implications. As such, the arguments in this chapter add to questions about the arguably overstated focus on elections as a marker of progress towards a “democratic” society regardless of the broader context — as seen most prominently in recent years in Afghanistan and Iraq. While some people would contest the democratic nature of a forum in which participants are seated according to their social and economic status, qat chews nevertheless constitute some of the most vibrant theatres for debate in the Middle East region and as such invite further attention. Wedeen concludes that, while democratic practices can exist in the absence of genuinely contested elections, their existence does not imply a proliferation of liberal values, questioning commonly held assumptions over a natural link between the two.
Scholarly books by authors with long-term engagement in their subject matter become all the more important at a time when the international media spotlight focuses on a country about which little is generally understood. In the fourth chapter, Wedeen articulately dispels a number of common myths. In “Practicing Piety, Summoning Groups: Disorder as Control,” Wedeen corrects misleading generalizations about Sunni-Shia/Zaydi cleavages (something that is frequently and mistakenly used to explain the northern uprising) and the nature of tribes (the existence of which is often used erroneously to explain all manner of issues). She also explains how symptoms of state failure, as identified by outside observers, can be alternatively interpreted as a successful adaptation to circumstances by the regime. For example, the regime’s divide-and-rule policies may provoke or prolong localized conflicts but also enable the regime to prevent serious challengers from emerging, though it is important to note that the regime now appears increasingly incapable of containing the ripple effects of tactics that previously worked in its favor.
In the final chapter, “Piety in Time: Contemporary Islamic Movements in National and Transnational Contexts,” Wedeen critiques arguments over the source and nature of the religious revival of recent decades. Building on previous arguments in the book, she stresses that a zero-sum approach, in which nationalist and religious identifications are not seen to be compatible, ignores the ways in which the two can and do coexist. Wedeen also dismisses those who argue that neoliberal economic policies can in themselves explain the surge in Islamist feeling, pointing out that the trend was underway in Yemen before structural adjustment programs were implemented. She then disputes assertions that the social services provided by Islamist groups in response to hardships inflicted by economic reforms act to delegitimize states, pointing out that many groups involved in such activities operate within a national framework that they do not contest or seek to undermine. The book ends with a brief conclusion that summarizes key themes that have emerged in the preceding chapters.
Developments in Yemen during 2009 spawned a plethora of articles on the potential for imminent state failure. These usually listed a selection of Yemen’s contemporary crises — the northern rebellion, the southern secession campaign, plummeting oil revenues, acute water shortages, demographic issues, poverty, piracy — and pointed to Yemen’s structural weaknesses: its relative youth and lack of experience of statehood, its weak central government, porous borders, strong tribal feeling and heavily armed population. However, most recent commentary has failed to examine how Yemen has coped with these challenges, many of which are not new, up to this point without dissolving into endless civil conflict. Reasons for the country’s durability in the face of seemingly overwhelming odds are rarely explained, and Peripheral Visions has an important role to play in filling this gap in understanding, demonstrating how solidarities have developed and evolved in ways that have enabled the country to hold together.
Wedeen’s latest book is an important contribution to the scholarly literature on nationalism, democracy and identity, bringing fresh ideas and material into debates that sometimes fail to keep pace with developments on the ground. Wedeen refuses to bend facts to fit theory, but rather hones in on contradictions between the two in an effort to increase understanding of the dynamics at play. In addition to its academic value, the book also has relevance for a broader audience. The sheer scale of the security, political and economic challenges facing Yemen suggests the country will remain on the international agenda in the coming years. Although this book is not a quick or easy read, those tasked with formulating Western policies towards Yemen will find much in Pe ripheral Visions to inform their thinking and help them navigate the many potential pitfalls ahead. Wedeen’s in-depth knowledge of Yemen and its politics provides a welcome contrast to the instant experts on our TV screens.