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Setting Boundaries: Who is Inside the Nation?

April 24, 2013

Identity Today: the Challenge in Somalia . Menkhaus, an expert about Somalia, argues that the biggest challenges that Somalia faces today is the definition of identity and rights in a federal or confederal system (which is often put forth as the alternative to a central nation building project). A federal solution is perceived by many as code for clan-based regions and therefore begs the question of who has the right to live or make full political claims in these entities. If one opts for territorial entities which are also ethnic entities then one opts for an exclusivist view of national identity in which political rights derives from belonging to a particular clan situated in a specific territory: this is called rights by blood. This exclusivist form of identity is adopted in Somaliland and Puntland where members of other clans are treated at best as guests and at worst as foreigners. A homogenous and unique identity, so the argument goes, vies for loyalty to the state institutions and authorities and therefore the formula is one citizenship for one national identity. The alternative to a particularist/exclusionist forms of identity is an identity which is more inclusive and does not collapse a unique national identity into citizenship: from this angle rights are to be given on the basis of citizenship.

The book Colonial Effect analyzes the making of national identity in Jordan and it holds interesting lessons for Somalia. The book describes how Jordan is a country where the idea of Jordanian has been an ever shifting and historically contingent concept. An analysis of the making of national identity in Jordan can help to sketch out the opposition between particularist vs inclusive identities and pinpoint the pros and cons of each form of national identification.

Jordan Today (source fanack.com)

Identity in the Making: Elastic Territories and Demographics. The history of Jordan is punctuated by historical moments which corresponded with the contraction or expansion of the territorial and demographic entity. The first territory known as Jordan was created by the British and the Amir Hijazi ‘Abdullah in 1921: before that date there was no territory, people or nationalist movement known as Jordanian. It encompassed a territory which was to expand and contract with time. In 1948 the occupation of Palestine by the Zionist caused millions of Palestinian to flee to Jordan and the de-facto annexation of the Central Palestine renamed as West Bank. Jordan assimilated the people whose origin was outside the 1921 territorial entity called Transjordan and by so doing it expanded both territorially and demographically. Palestinians became part of Jordan because the king claimed that people from both banks (the West and the East) were the same people. In 1967 the war with Israel cost Jordan the de fact loss of authority over the West Bank thus triggering a de-facto demographic and territorial contraction. In the same period the rise of the PLO and its claim to represent all Palestinian challenged Jordan’s claim to speak on behalf of Palestinian who are now Jordanian. The tension between the Jordanian monarchy and the Palestinian guerrillas which begun to encroach on the state authority inside Jordan culminated with the civil war in 1970 in which Jordan armed forces fought against Palestinian guerrillas. In 1989 and following the first Intifada in Palestine, Jordan severed its ties with the West Bank, disengaged de jure from the West Bank and denationalized the Jordanian population of the West Bank. Every territorial and demographic contraction and expansion was associated with a redefinition of national identity and a redefinition of who was the other against whom define itself.

Identity in Jordan. The other was initially conceived as the British colonial power as the nationalist movement drew on a pan-Arabic identity. Who is Jordanian was therefore defined against the British and it materialized into a struggle to end British occupation after independence. The events in 1948 inaugurated a trend which departed from the pan-Arabian Jordan identity: it was a particularist/exclusivist Jordanian identity. This identity saw the Palestinian Jordanians (i.e. those annexed to Jordan after 1948) as the other against whom define itself. This trend consolidated in the 1960s with the emergence of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) which threatened Jordanian regime claims to represent Palestinian land (West Bank) and the Palestinian people (those who became Jordanian citizen after 1948). This particularist/exclusivist Jordanian identity trend solidified in 1970 when the Jordanian armed forces fought against the Palestinian guerrillas. What ensued the civil war was the switch from an external other, the British, to an internal one, namely, Palestinian Jordanians which continues until today. A switch in other words from an inclusive identity to an exclusivist one.

To Exclude or To Include? A particularist/exclusivist Jordanian identity rejects the criterion of residency as a basis to establish Jordanianness, using instead the idea of origin. By defining as Jordanian only those who originally resided in the 1925 Transjordan territory it questions the Jordanianess of some of today citizens whose geographic origins within living memory are located outside the borders of the nation-state (Syrian-Jordanian, Chechens-Jordanian, Circassian-Jordanian and even some Bedouin tribes). It questions also the identity of those who, given their origin outside the original territorial core, refuse being uniquely Jordanian today (the Palestinian Jordanians who feel Palestinian and Jordanian at the same time). This exclusivist identity advocates for rights by blood or rights by origin and therefore it leaves out those who are outside the original territorial or demographic core, however this core is defined (Transjordan in 1925 in the case of Jordan). If one brings this identity to its logical conclusions one would advocate for a contraction of the nation into smaller and smaller segments and tribes  into a never-ending spiral.

An inclusive Jordanian identity on the other hand substitutes origin with residency: as Colonial Effects explains

“The territorial division was therefore taken as starting point and the system introduced by which citizens exercised their public rights and duties where they took up residence, without regards to gens and tribe”.

As Palestinian Jordanian argues today Jordan is to include all of those who are citizens. This position is epitomized by King Husayn who in 1993 stated his support for the equality of all Jordanians “of all origins and birthplaces”[1] (p.272). From this angle, citizenship does not equal a unique identity and recognizes that also those groups with a diverse identity could be loyal to the state. Kurdish in Turkey today are another good example as they are citizens of a state which defines itself as Turk yet they affirm their Kurdish identity. As the Turkish president put it

The Ottoman Empire may have been a Turkish state but that didn’t mean every single one of its citizens was a Turk.


[1] This dictum is also enshrined in the 1946 Constitution which prohibits discrimination on the basis of “origin, languages, or religion”. Colonial Effects, p.41

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