Climate-Induced Migration in North Africa: A Case Study of Morocco

by Furqan Khan, Tayyaba Zaman Janjua
National Defence University, Pakistan.

Abstract: Climate-induced migration has become an imminent issue in the geographically diverse North African region. It is estimated that around 2.5 million people suffered climigration from the sub-Saharan regions to the coastal cities in Morocco along the Mediterranean, where the existing economic pressure is swelling up to threaten economic well-being and even social norms. Such climate-led migration is induced by water and food shortage resulting from the decline in soil fertility, salinization, desertification, and severity in temperature, especially in the sub-Saharan region. Therefore, the paper explores internal and external dimensions inducing climate change and its impact on migration in Morocco. The study uses the theory of the spillover effect to identify implications of climate-induced migration for economic, social, and political domains. It analyzes the policy actions of the Moroccan government in dealing with the Climate-induced migration. Finally, the research formulates certain policy recommendations that can help to mitigate threats of the climigration in North Africa in general and Morocco in particular.


North Africa, with direct and indirect implications of climate conditions, is increasingly becoming a hotspot for global climate change. Situated in proximity to the Middle East and Europe, the region is experiencing an increase in average temperature, water shortages, and rapid population growth. However, apart from being a problem in itself, climate change is driving other socio-economic, political, and security problems for the region and beyond. For example, climate change is causing migration within North Africa as well as across the Strait of Gibraltar

The conviction supporting climate change as the primary reason behind migration is widely contested. However, political discourse and academic research provide sufficient empirical evidence to support the nexus between migration and climate change. According to the latest World Bank report on internal climate migration in sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and Latin America, around 143 million people or 2.8% of the total population of the three regions together will migrate from areas with low productivity and pervasive climate conditions to productive and conducive areas by 2050.1 However, it suggests that North Africa will experience the highest rate of climate-induced migration.2

The existing literature mentions several rationales behind migration; ranging from the critical geographical characteristics of North Africa to insufficient adaptability. Morocco is considered to be predominantly vulnerable to severe climate conditions with abrupt temperature changes, low precipitation, water scarcity, and slow and rapid on-set processes that force people to migrate from rural areas to the cities on Mediterranean coasts and Europe with wider social, political, and economic implications. Therefore, the research takes Morocco as the case study to explain the general pattern of climate change in North Africa, the resulting migration, and its consequences for social, economic, and political domains.This paper is divided into six sections. In the first part, the theory of spillover effect explains the spiral impacts of climigration in different domains. The second part describes the climate conditions and its successive patterns in North Africa as a region and Morocco as the case study. The third portion underlines the slow-onset processes and sudden-onset disasters as the causes of migration. The fourth section examines the implications of climate-induced migration on the domestic, regional, and international levels. The fifth section identifies major policy initiatives taken by the Moroccan government at home, regional states in North Africa, and international initiatives in averting the negative implications of climate-induced migration. Finally, the paper identifies legal and normative gaps in the existing framework to suggest a viable recommendation for effective migration management.

Theoretical Framework – Spillover Effect Theory

The theory of the spillover effect explains the ripple effect of one domain and implications on other areas; the political, economic, social, and ecological. The theory originates from the neo-functionalism paradigm, where it serves to explain integration among states resulting from cooperation in one area and its spilling over to the others. The theory owes its origin to economics, where economic development at the macro-level spirals and expands resulting in either desirable or undesirable socio-economic consequences.3 Hence, it is important to note that the theory puts different variables into play where changes in intensity or degree of scope at the macro or micro level of one variable become stimuli affecting others. Such an effect creates overall changes to the system, from horizontal dimensions (across different domains at a particular level) to vertical (across the extended level of analysis).4

In vertical spill-over, climate change becomes a stimulus whose direct impact on migration does not remain limited to the domestic domain, but extends in scope to the regional and international level, but with variable correlative strength. For example, migration in North African countries, such as Morocco, happens more often internally rather than externally. Such internal migration at the domestic level takes place with two distinctive patterns; from rural areas to cities and in the form of mobile pastoralism.5 Similarly, the intra-continental migration in North Africa takes place more than inter-continental migration into Europe or elsewhere. UN officials estimate that out of a total of 17 million African migrants, a mere 3% reached Europe while 93.7% of migration took place within the region.6 The strength of the linkage between the three levels depends upon socio-economic conditions, the capacity of mobilization, and the adaptive capacity of the people across the three domains.

In horizontal spill-over, climate change induces migration which spills its effects over to other domains at domestic, regional, and international levels. the effects include socio-cultural changes, economic pressures, and political instability at the three levels. Mobile pastoralism, the traditional way of life of the Berber community in Morocco, is on the decline as Berbers have started to live in fixed communities like Arabs. The climate critical migration from rural areas adjacent to the Sahara Desert coastal cities, such as Casablanca and Rabat, intensifies employment demands and the need for other socio-economic imperatives. Moreover, climate-induced migration triggers political conflicts, especially affecting migrant’s management. Hence, the vertical and horizontal spill-over lens demonstrates and problematizes the issue of climate-induced migration in North Africa, particularly in Morocco. 

The Climate-Migration-Socioeconomic Correlation

Climate change is a threat multiplier with direct and indirect consequences on forced migration across the North African region in general, and Morocco in particular. Forced migration spills into the socio-economic and political spheres at the domestic, regional, and international levels. By exacerbating migration, climate change brings social changes, economic pressures, and political instability. For example, estimates from the United Nations International Migration Organization suggest that, by 2050, between 25 million to 1 billion people will be displaced purely due to environmental reasons.7

The causal link between climate change and migration can be explained by four main elements: changing climate conditions and their effect on the quality and quantity of natural resources, resulting effects on the ecological order; changes in standards of living due to migration, and changes in migration patterns and adaptability. The link between climate change and migration is also evident when looking at the interaction between the aforementioned elements and socio-economic factors at domestic, regional, and international levels. For example, while studying Ghana with controlled socio-demographic factors, no link was found unless socio-demographic factors were considered in a successive study by Ocelo.8 According to a national survey in which 28.1% of the displaced agricultural households were involved, 92.1% were believed to be affected by adverse climatic conditions in Morocco.9 Therefore, the socio-demographic factors are essentials to understand the direct link between Climate Change and Global migration. 

However, it is difficult to assess the number of climate-induced migrants. This is the reason as to why the data used in the research reflects upon the horizontal and vertical impacts of migration overall. Generally, experts believe that despite the considerable influence of climate change over migration patterns, the uncertainty of measurement and complexity of socio-economic and demographic rationales for migration makes it more difficult to establish whether or not migration is caused by climate change or by other push or pull factors. 

North African Pattern of Climate-Induced Migration 

North African climate generally varies across coastal and inland areas. Along the coasts, the Mediterranean influence induces a mild climate that is characterized by sufficient rainfall (400-600mm/year) with dampened winters and dry summers.10 The inland climate, however, are mostly semi-arid and arid desert climates, which are identified by extreme temperatures; cold winters, and hot summers with insufficient rainfall (semi-arid 200-400mm, deserts <100mm).11 The North African region is predominantly semi-arid or desert, therefore, it remains dry most of the year. The coastal regions, however, have frequent rainfall between October and March that usually end up with devastating floods and droughts, especially in the capital cities. Similarly, Sirocco is a special feature of the North African climate; a combination of sandy winds arising from the Saharan Desert which run towards the North and across the Mediterranean, eventually touching Europe.

These severe climatic conditions have become a major source of natural disasters in the region. During the last two decades, North Africa has suffered from 115 major climate-induced disasters which mostly include flood and riverine with a minimum of 5% droughts.12 These disasters led to immense human and material loss including killings of 275, 000 people from droughts of 1999, and loss of 295 million USD, while affecting 230, 000 others from 21 floods between 1995 and 2016.13 Such lingering climatic conditions adversely challenge the survivability of people in poor countries in the African continent, especially in sub-Saharan Africa. Therefore, North Africa is increasingly becoming a hotspot for climigration. North Africa, due to the bridging nature of its geographic location, is used as a transit route for the migration into Europe. For example, there were around 100,000 foreign migrants only in Algeria in which almost 40% saw the country as the final destination while the other 40% as a transit to Europe.14 

Trends across Morocco

The trend of migration in North African countries like Morocco can be explained in the context of both internal and external migration.The internal migration within Morocco is more than external migration to Europe. Inhabitants in the South and North are vulnerable to devastating environmental challenges, including low precipitation and droughts in the South while dry areas and low water availability in the North. The insufficient water supply hampers agricultural production which provides more than 40% of the employment opportunities.15 Resultantly, insufficient opportunities from the agricultural sector push people from rural areas, which consists of 70% population, to the urban areas which house 90% of the country’s industry. This puts more population pressure on urban areas where the rural to urban trend of migration creates multiple challenges for the Moroccan government. This is the reason why urbanization in Morocco has increased from 53-56% between 2000 and 2010. On the other hand, with the rise of the sea levels, the possibility of floods along the 3500km coastline is an emerging threat that can potentially induce future internal migration. 

Morocco, because of its proximity, acts as a transit for migrants from sub-Saharan Africa to Southern Europe. The nature of Moroccan migration continued to change over the decades, for instance, in the 1960s, most of the Moroccan migrants in Europe were guest workers which complemented family unification till the 1990s. It was after the 1990s that migration accelerated from Morocco into Europe, mainly because of increasing development in agricultural and construction sectors, complemented by the devastating climatic conditions at home.16 Most migrants from Morocco include regional migrants from the poor and climate affected countries of sub-Saharan Africa. According to a report by the Migration Policy Institute, there are around 700, 000 sub-Saharan migrants living in Morocco, a country with a small population of only 34 million. Most of these migrants try to flee to Europe and North America but often fail and are arrested. The UN Migration Agency estimates that some 45, 505 migrants used the sea to reach Europe out of whom 14, 680 reached Spain in southern Europe through the Mediterranean. 

Causes of Climate-Induced Migration

Morocco, like many regions of the world, is facing intense slow onset-processes and rapid onset-disasters which are causing numerous social, economic, and political changes, including mass migration as the only alternative.

Slow-Onset Processes

Due to extreme weather conditions, Southern Morocco is losing its aridity, resulting in droughts and desertification. Estimates suggest that around 90% of Morocco’s land is desertified posing consequences on the agricultural sector.17 Because of the positive relations between desertification and agricultural production, the Moroccan population migrates from the South to Mediterranean costs to earn their living.

Even in the 2175km long coastal region with 80% of the population and major industries, continuous soil erosion threatens the ‘low lying’ ecosystem of the coast, which the IPCC suggests is expected to erode with 0.1m by 2030 and 0.17m by 2050 with more major floods and storms. 18 Specifically, the Saidia and Tangier region, which houses 60% of the population, faces erosion of 2-3m which the IAEA says could be averted up-to 60% by using isotopes. 19 40% of Morocco’s vulnerable land is losing a 100 million tons of soil each year as well as reduced water reservoirs resulting in forced migration for survival. The extreme climatic conditions such as soil erosion, salinization, and shifting patterns of precipitation reduce the productivity of Moroccan land. For instance, salination will reduce 50% of production within the next 20 years, and the IPCC considers the decrease in tree density along the Western Sahel zone and semiarid parts of the country as the other reasons. Therefore, people dependent on agricultural production migrate to escape adverse environmental factors. 

Sudden-onset Disaster

In Morocco, a survey in 2009-2010 found that every fourth house was vulnerable to weather shocks.20 Such weather shocks like floods and droughts are the pushing factors for migration especially for agricultural households, as they affect agricultural production and revenues. In 2007, Spain arrested illegal migrants among whom two-thirds were farmers from the Khouribga in Morocco. 21 The 2016 floods in Morocco were the worst of the last 30 years costing 120,000 people their jobs and displaced thousands of others.The Moroccan government reported to UNFCCC the weather shocks, especially the thunderstorms and windstorms from the Atlas Mountains. For instance, in 2014, a series of storms relocated around 170,000 people against unfavorable environmental conditions. 22 Moreover, frequent earthquakes resulted in forced migration similar to those of the 1960s, which made 35,000 people homeless; the Al Hoceima earthquake that left thousands of people homeless in 2004. 23

Impacts of Climate-Induced Migration

1. Domestic Level

Displacement from climate-induced changes is a major issue in Morocco. According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC), almost 32,393 people were displaced due to sudden-onset hazards such as earthquakes, Tsunami, and high floods in Southern Morocco between 2008 and 2014.24 Such climigration has social, economic, and political impacts on the country. Socially, traditional nomadic life in Morocco becomes the primary victim, where Berbers have given up Mobile Pastoralism to live in fixed communities in urban areas like the Arabs, or have at least adopted Sedentary Pastoralism. Economically, because of Morocco’s heavy dependence on agriculture affected by climate change, the country faces severe economic pressures in coastal cities like Casablanca and Rabat. The World Bank estimates Morocco’s unemployment rate at 9.002% in 2019 and is increasing in cities with 80% of the total population. 25 IPCC identifies climigration as a threat to many aspects of human security. Political violence and unwelcoming situations for migrants cause political tensions in receiving cities or regions. Besides political division over the settlement of the migrants, migrants arrange for themselves political platforms to secure their rights in the state.

2. Regional Level

Morocco attracts more migrants from North Africa than other regional countries with around 7 Million migrants that either cross the Strait of Gibraltar into Europe, or end up as permanent immigrants in Morocco. The continuous migration pressures from North and sub-Saharan Africa cultivates xenophobic sentiments in the Moroccan society. The social racist stereotypes in Morocco cast Africans from the neighboring countries as criminals, drug dealers, and prostitutes.26 For example, the televised mockery of black immigrants by the Moroccan comedian attracted widespread critics. The Human Rights Watch has documented numerous cases of police violence under Morocco’s National Immigration Policy. Despite these challenges, sub-Saharan migrants are using art and music as a mutual language to build social and cultural bridges with the Moroccan society. For example, the Ghanian Born Reuben Yemoh Odoi traveled all across the Saharan desert to reach Morocco, and made his name in “find[ing] the truth in [his] music and art”.27

Economic imperatives being a major push factor for climigration have increased competition, shared employment opportunities, and resources in the population, stressing the coastal areas of Morocco. Despite European financial support, Morocco faces, and will continue to face socio-economic challenges of climigration from the regional countries. To prevent migrants flow into Europe, European countries have provided financial cooperation to Morocco to manage migrants in the country. Resultantly, the migrants face issues with identity and legal status, which includes political subjectivization and basic human rights. 

3. International Level

Most migrants leave to Morocco to eventually arrive at their final destination; Europe. According to the Pew Research Centre Analysis, almost 1 million new migrants from sub-Saharan Africa have relocated between 2010 and 2017 (4.15 million total).28 Such cross-Mediterranean migration causes social stress due to occupation of resources and opportunities by outsiders; for instance, xenophobic behavior has developed in Britain towards the other European nationals, due to social values largely incompatible with European social realities.

Migration, and climate-induced migration in particular, brings multiple economic challenges and opportunities for sending and receiving states. The sending states lose technical and professional workforce but receive billions of dollars in remittances. For example in 2006, Morocco became the top remittance receiver in Africa with 5.2 billion US Dollars and 3 million migrants abroad. On the other hand, the receiving states feel economic pressures but also gain a cheap labor force. Insecurity from African migrants has cultivated special European political behavior towards the region. The European Union has provided financial assistance, politically pressurizing Morocco and other North African transit states in ensuring strict barriers to migration from Africa. Some migrants return with newly acquired norms and political values. The political spillover benefits the Western countries for their mature democratic and institutional setup that spills to impact political behavior across developing countries.

Policy Actions and Results

1. Domestic Policies

I. Plan Maroc Vert

Forty percent of the Moroccan population is directly or indirectly linked to the agriculture sector who, in turn, become the primary victims of climate changes in Morocco. Under the Plan Maroc Vert in 2008, a comprehensive strategy of 300 projects with USD 2 Million was designed, allowing farmers to use alternative crops which would be less sensitive to the volatile climatic stress. Hilal Elver, the UN Special Rapporteur, appreciated the plan for reducing poverty from 16% in 2010 to 10% in 2015 and its role in achieving the first Millennium Development Goal (MDG) 1 which is to halve the “proportion of hungry people”. 29

II. High Commission for Water, Forest and the Fight against Desertification

The HCWFD was established to devise national strategic responses to the increasing desertification and its influence over migration patterns. According to the HCWFD, 80% of Moroccan land is prone to desertification, making a large part of the country increasingly inhabitable. Morocco has devised a 10-year plan to fight desertification until the year 2024.30 Growing water scarcity and moving dunes pose significant challenges to the local population and forces them to migrate. The HCWFD plans to encourage reforestation and prevent forest fires that destroy 30,000 hectares each year.

III. National Initiative for Human Development (2005)

Poverty remains one of the outcomes of severe climatic conditions, affecting agriculture and spilling over to affect food security. Though the rate of poverty has decreased from 19% in 1999 to 15% in 2004, climate-led poverty as a push factor for migration has been growing over the past few years.31 The National Initiative for Human Development (NIHD) of 2005 was launched to achieve an “effective decentralized system of governance” and to contribute to “natural resource management”.32 The objectives of the initiative are consistent with the obligations held upon Morocco in the Rio Conventions. 

2. Regional Policies

III. AU Migration Policy Framework for Africa (MPFA)

In July 2001, the African Union Council of Ministers debated addressing the migration issues at the regional level, which later established the MPFA in 2006. The AU plan was revised in 2018 and it sets its sights to address the migration challenges at the continental level. The framework encompasses nine different areas which include labor migration, irregular migration, forced migration, and others.

III. National Initiative for Human Development (2005)

In addition, Morocco and Algeria have introduced legislation protecting migrant rights; thus giving them a reason to stay and not migrate to Europe. For example in 2017, Algeria announced plans for residency rights and work permits. Hence, the domestic legislation in-laws under a regional approach are essential to improve migration management in the region and provide opportunities for sub-Saharan states. 

3. International Policies

I. EU Regional Protection Programmes (RPP)

Migration from the third world, especially from North Africa, is a source of potential and danger for European countries. The European Union in its Immigration Pact of 2008 differentiated between potential and dangerous migrants; they pressured North African transit countries to prevent migrant flow into Europe. In December 2011, for instance, the EU launched it’s (RPP) in North Africa to encourage refugee management beyond European Borders.33 The program includes efforts to build the capacity of the North African countries in managing the refugee crisis in the region.

II. Valletta Summit – 2015

The EU in 2015 invited African states to the Valletta Summit which was aimed to “emphasize the principles of solidarity, partnership and shared responsibility for managing migration flows in all their aspects”.34 The Joint Action Plan formulated five main objectives to ensure cooperation between Europe and Africa that include addressing root causes, managing legal migration, ensuring asylum rights, preventing irregular migration, and resettlement of migrants.35

III. Marshal Plan with Africa

German Chancellor Angela Merkel suggested developing Africa’s economic potential and infrastructural capacity to help them manage and accommodate migrants and reduce their influx into Europe. The “Marshall Plan with Africa” was introduced to address the humanitarian, socio-economic concerns, and other pushing factors for migration to Europe. Described as the ‘Golden Ticket’ and ‘Silver Bullet’ for African economic development, the plan boosts African social status and provides the luxuries of high-end trade with Europe.36 It offers Afrikaners with African solutions, providing them with new jobs, expanding their opportunities, and improving living standards. 

IV. Mobility Partnerships

Migration among EU countries is managed under the framework of the European Union, countries that are not part of the EU, or cannot be assimilated, are engaged through Migration Partnerships. This partnership includes financial cooperation such as the Emergency Trust Fund for Africa (ETFA). The ETFA has spent almost 174 Million Euros between 2016 and 2017 on migration management between Morocco and other sub-Saharan countries, improving governance and social-economic conditions of migrants from North and sub-Saharan Africa. 37

African countries enjoy relatively low incentives, for example, European countries are interested in ensuring the resettlement of migrants and border control in Africa. However, African countries seek cooperation in the establishment of ‘legal channels’ for migration to Europe to provide better economic opportunities.38 Similarly, the Readmission agreement of 1992 between Morocco and Spain could not be materialized owing to its unpopularity in Morocco. Hence, conflict of interests coupled with different social, political, and economic realities reduce the degree of states’ willingness to cooperate over migrant management.


1. Expanding Migrant’s Legal Definition

Climate-Induced migrants hold no international legal identity to claim rights and duties. Their condition makes the ensuring of protection and rights difficult. The complexity of their circumstances and the diverse contexts in which they exist complicates the legal codification of environmental migrants.39 Further, the displacement by slow and rapid onset processes is associated with other factors that complicate the status of migrants as climate-driven. Among them are the quest for economic opportunities, poverty, governance, and conflicts. In addition, the coexistence of voluntary and forced migration, of internal, regional and international migration, and finally of slow-onset processes and rapid-onset disasters constitute impediment in formulating a legal framework to define environmental migrants.40 The terms environmental or climate refugee cannot be used given the criteria set by the Geneva Convention of 1951 (no persecution of migrants from the environment), therefore, the convention lacks instruments to protect climate affected migrants.

The United Nations definition for internally displaced people, which says that “persons or groups of persons who have been forced or obliged to flee or leave their homes or places of habitual residence, in particular as a result of or to avoid the effects of [. . .] natural or human-made disasters, and who have not crossed an internationally recognized State border”, is sufficient for legal protection.41 However, the definition does not include migration due to slow-onset processes. Therefore, in absence of a legal definition for the environmental migrants, the protection of environmentally displaced individuals can be ensured by focusing on the rights of the individuals, not on the rationales behind migration or the factors causing displacement. 

2. Normative Gaps

Because of the lack of legislation and the inability of the 1951 Geneva Convention to protect environmentally displaced people, are neither refugees nor migrants, and they are entitled neither to the rights granted to the refugees that flee due to persecution or war nor are legally honored to the basic human rights. Climate change diminishes living opportunities, constrains the movement of action, and forcibly displaces people under pressures of slow-onset processes or rapid-onset disasters. Therefore, effective policy-making should be made to uphold humanitarian principles in dealing with environmental migrants by filling the normative gaps in migrant’s policy-making.

3. Strengthening of Empirical Evidence

Migration remains a multi-causal phenomenon driven by economic disparities, social vulnerabilities, political instability, and lack of access to natural resources, ethnic conflicts, wars, and adverse climatic conditions. Therefore, it is hard to differentiate between climate induced-migration migration and migration caused by other factors. Such intricate calculation and hazy determinism are attributed partly to the methodological issues with blurred definition and contextualization.42 Hence, “resilience, social variability, abject poverty, lack of adequate predictive models” makes the anticipated flow of migrants impractical to quantify, especially in Europe which is expected to get millions of ‘environmental migrants’ by the end of 2020.43

Therefore, it is important to develop a strong empirical link between the environment and migration. Such a link can be developed by drawing a defined context for migration with reasonable environmental rationales. Without such a defined contextualization and empirical link, academic boasting about climate-induced migration will remain irrelevant for policy and practice to mitigate the threats faced by climate-induced migration. 44

4. Avoiding Selective Mobility

The unequal treatment of migrants, based on their potential and capabilities, remains another hurdle in comprehensively addressing the issues of migration. For example, mobility partnerships with North African countries reflect the EU’s political management of the migrant’s issue. It seems interested in migrants who could become potential for its economic development as can be used as cheap labor, but also takes strict measures in border control; thereby inhibiting the flow of unskilled migrants. Therefore, the European Union should be convinced in its policies to the fact that the migration problem cannot be solved and illegal trafficking cannot be overcome unless a comprehensive management framework is developed for every type of migrant, irrespective of their status, potential, or origin.

5. Strong African Union with Integrated Approach

The Migration Policy Framework for Africa sufficiently defines nine different dimensions of migration across a multitude of domains at domestic, regional, and international levels. However, the suggestive nature of the framework reflects a broader weakness of the African Union in shaping the regional approach. Therefore, the Union should be granted legal powers to manage migration and address the socio-economic pushing factors. This is not feasible without a smart bargain between the African Union and the European Union, keeping the position of Europe in context as the popular migrant’s destination. Hence, more powers of legal pursuance at the regional level coupled with European cooperation on reconcilable terms can ensure an integrated approach on behalf of the Union to solve the climate-related problems in the continent.


Climate-Induced Migration is emerging to challenge the existing social, economic, political, and ecological domains at the domestic, regional, and international levels. The strength of the causal relationship among the three variables i.e. Climate, Migration, and Socio-economic factors, is identifiable to be considered for an integrated response from states, regional and international organizations. As evident across the distributive analysis of the horizontal domains and vertical levels of climate-induced changes, the inter-link between climate and migration turns out in strong relation to induce socio-economic and political implications.

Besides the strength of the causal relation, a clear identification of the cause itself is instrumental in understanding the climate-induced migration. Such causes range from slow-onset processes of gradual progress to sudden on-set disasters of weather shocks. Therefore, the location of the cause supported by strong empirical evidence is the key to half the solution to climigration. The twofold three-axis implications of climate-induced migration reasonably suggest a deeper link between Climate Change and the potential willingness to migrate within states, across North Africa and into Europe. The tri-level mobility is accompanied by implications of a multitude of dimensions that include social changes, economic impacts, and political impacts of a limited degree. 

However, there is no direct dissociative mechanism to individually engage climate change and migration that can lead to a viable solution. Instead, taking the Climate-Induced Migration as an intertwined problem and formulate integrated solutions to address the challenges faced of Climigration. Also, the insufficient empirical linkage inhibits the manifestation of the problem in the policy framework of states and international organizations. Therefore, experts should reflect upon the unnoticed linkage that exists across the Climate Change, Migration, and Socio-Economic implications and help it become an agenda for future policy formulation at domestic, regional, and international levels.


  1.  The World Bank. (2018). Report on Groundswell: Preparing for Internal Climate Migration.
  2.  Iman B. & Reinhart. (2018, April 24). Desire to Migrate Rises in North Africa. Gallup.
  3.  Trachuk, A. & Linder, N. (2019, February 7). Knowledge Spillover Effects: Impact of Export Learning Effects on Companies’ Innovative Activities. Current Issues in Knowledge Management.
  4.  Ibid.
  5.  Julian S. T. & Mariam T. (2016, March). Environmental Migration in Morocco: Stocktaking, Challenges, and Opportunities. Policy Brief Series, 2(3).
  6.  Kingsley, P. (2016, November 26). The Small African Region with More Migrants than all of Europe. Guardian Africa Network.
  7.  Basetta, F. (2019). Environmental Migrants: Up to 1 Billion by 2050. Foresight CMCC Observatory on Climate Policies and Future.
  8.  Marion B. et. al. (2019). Migration Influenced by Environmental Change in Africa: A Systematic Review of Empirical Evidence. Demographic Research. (41)18. pp. 491-544.
  9.  Piguit, E. & Laczko, F. (2014). People on the Move in a Changing Climate: The Regional Impact of Environmental Change on Migration”, International Organization for Migration (IOM) Published by Springer. P.122. 
  10.  (2009, August). North Africa: Impact of Climate Change to 2030 (Selected Countries). A Commission Research Report by the National Intelligence Council, P. 8.
  11. Ibid.
  12.  Ruef, H. & Ariza, C. (2016, June). The Climate Change, Migration, and Economic Development Nexus in North Africa: An Overview. Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation Switzerland.
  13. Ibid.
  14.  Wodon, Q. (2014). Climate Change and Migration: Evidence from the Middle East and North Africa. International Bank for Reconstruction and Development/The World Bank. P. 43. 
  15.  Wodon, Q. (2014). P. 51.
  16.  Jill Jager et al. (2009). Environmental Change and Forced Migration Scenarios EACH – FOR Synthesis Project.
  17.  G. A. Heshmati. (2013, January 10). Desertification and Its Control on Morocco. Combating Desertification in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East: Prove Practices.
  18.  Grant, P. (2011, July 13). Climate Change Financing and Aid Effectiveness: Morocco Case Study. OECD, P. 10.
  19.  Khouakhi, Abdou et al. (2013, March). Vulnerability Assessment of Al-Hoceima Bay (Moroccan Mediterranean Coast): A Coastal Management Tool to Reduce Potential Impacts of Sea-Level Rise and Storm Surges. Journal of Coastal Research, Special Issue. pp. 968-971. 
  20.  Cong Nguyen et al. (2014, June 29). Extreme Weather Events and Migration: The Case Study of Morocco”, Munich Personal RePEc Achieve (MPRA), P. 1.
  21.  Woden Q., Minh & Quentin. (2014). Climate Change and Migration: Evidence from the Middle East and North Africa. World Bank. Page 52. 
  22.  Julian & Hind. (2016). Assessing the Evidence: Migration, Environment, and Climate Change in North Africa. International Organization for Migration (IMO). P. 22.
  23.  Ibid.
  24.  (2020, January 21). Country Information: Morocco. Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre.
  25.  (2019, December). Unemployment, total (% of the total labor force) (Modelled ILO Estimate) – Morocco. International Labour Organization Statistics, World Bank.
  26.  Bouknight, S. (2019, June 9). Acting against Racism and Xenophobia in Morocco. Inside Arabia Voice of the Arab People.
  27.  Rotinwa, A. (2019, June 3). As Morocco Swells with Migrants: Music is a Common Language. The Christian Science Monitor.
  28.  (2018, March 22). At least A Million sub-Saharan Africans Moved to Europe Since 2010. Pew Research Center. sub-Saharan-africans-moved-to-europe-since-2010/
  29.  (2015, November 13). Plan Maroc Vert – Spotlight on Morocco’s Agricultural Policy. Gro Intelligence.
  30.  (2015, April 24). Morocco Sets on 10 Year Plan to Hold back the Desert. Euro news.
  31.  (2011, April). Mainstreaming the GE Aspects in the Planning and Monitoring Process of the NHDI in Morocco. United Nations Development Program.
  32.  Ibid.
  33.  Sergio Carrera et al. (2012, August). EU Migration Policy in Wake of the Arab Spring: What Prospects for the EU-Southern Mediterranean Relations? European Commission Research Area MEDPRO, Technical Report.
  34.  (2015). What is the Joint Valletta Action Plan? Euro-African Dialogue on Migration and Development – Rabat Process.
  35.  Ibid.
  36.  Jerven, M. (2018, September 27). Marshal Plan for Africa. TRT World.
  37.  (2020, January 19). North Africa: Our Work. International Cooperation and Development European Commission.
  38.  Ibid.
  39.  (2014). IOM Outlook on Migration, Environment and Climate Change”, UN International Organization for Migration (IOM).
  40.  Ibid.
  41.  (1998). Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement: introduction Scope and Purpose. United Nations.
  42.  Stojanov, R. et al. (2014, October 28). Contextualizing Topologies of Environmentally Induced Population Movement. Disaster Prevention and Management, (23)5. pp. 508-523.
  43.  Goff, L. et al. (2012). Climate-Induced Migration from North Africa to Europe: Security Challenges and Opportunities. Brown Journal of World Affairs, (18)2, pp. 195-213.
  44.  Ibid.

Climate Justice: A Framework for Addressing the Global Consequences of Climate Change

by Al Reem M. Al Ameri
Department of International Studies, Zayed University, Abu Dhabi, UAE

Abstract: Climate change is one of the most urgent transnational and transgenerational problems of our time. Although it requires global collective action, climate justice remains a “hushed- up” and untold story. This paper approaches climate change from the climate justice framework.


1. Nature of the Problem: The Definition and Background

For decades, people believed that it was questionable that human activities affected the climate. They thought that a “balance of nature”1 governs the environment. Then, several decades into the nineteenth century, the Western world witnessed an industrial revolution that relied heavily on coal in the beginning and later on oil and gas. However, it was not long before scientists began to sense changes in global temperatures. Especially during the 1930s, given the developments and progress in technologies and services related to the environment, meteorology, and climate, observers started to notice steadily rising temperatures and increased levels of CO2 in the atmosphere; from that period, climate change has become a reality and a crisis that has begun to loom over the horizon. 

Nevertheless, knowledge of climate change and its impact, including rising temperatures and carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, remained limited to scientific circles and environmental and climate scientists until the green movements and environmentalists appeared in the 1970s. They managed to bring the issue into the public sphere and have been able to include climate change on world governments’ agendas. The issue of climate change moving from closed scientific circles to the public sphere  engaged different groups beyond the environmentalists and ecologists. For example, it helps address climate change by examining critically the current economic activities that rely heavily on burning fossil fuels and depleting natural resources like water, air, and land. It led some scholars to formulate theories criticizing our modern and selfish economy, such as “the tragedy of commons”2 by Garrett Hardin. With his work in 1960, Hardin managed to draw public attention to the problem with modern economic style and anticipate future problems and the collapse of our environmental system as a result of our self-centred activities and overuse/overconsumption of the shared natural resources. Since the 1960s, there has been a “public recognition of the global environmental crisis”3 caused by human activity, which, of course, requires human intervention – government intervention and collective action – to tackle the problem that humanity faces and to mitigate its adverse effects to the greatest extent possible. 

In the early 1970s, the first major international conference on the environment was held by the UN in Stockholm, Sweden, marking the first international recognition of climate change. At the end of the decade, “Climate change was recognized as a serious problem by the First World Climate Conference in 1979.”4 Since then, an extensive series of meetings and international conferences on the environment and climate change have been held with broad international participation. Examples of such efforts include the Earth Summit in Rio (1992), during which the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was adopted, Kyoto Protocol (1997), where participants agreed on emissions reductions, to the Paris agreements of 2015, which set out a global framework to deal with climate change in terms of mitigation, adaptation, and finance.

However, these international conferences and agreements on climate change are primarily framed by the liberal economic perspective that dominates global politics today. In other words, the liberal perspective tackles climate change from a material economic perspective and offers economical solutions, such as clean economy, renewable energy, and carbon coupons/carbon trade. Moreover, this liberal view argues that combating climate change needs a collective and equal responsibility for all nations. Therefore, there must be collective action and cooperation in solving climate change, and here lies the problem of this approach. The truth is that climate change is not the responsibility of all countries equally and not all countries are affected by climate change impacts on the same scale. Moreover, not all countries can afford climate change costs, mitigation costs, or costs adapting to climate change, which is known as the “adaptation capacity.” 5 Therefore, it is of paramount importance to approach the problem of climate change differently so that we can understand the reason as to why climate change solutions have so far failed and why the international community – both state and non-state actors – has not yet reached a consensus. This paper approaches climate change from the perspective of justice. It will describe and analyze two main principles of justice: 1) Distributive Justice: distribution of responsibilities and burdens inter-nations and inter-generations. 2) Procedural Justice: the participation of all who cause and are affected by climate change in international decision-making processes.

By examining climate change from an ethical point of view and as an issue of injustice, the paper answers the following questions:

• Can considering climate change as an urgent moral issue help in developing a comprehensive international agreement?  

• Can framing climate change as an ethical problem prevent climate negotiations from stalling or drifting endlessly?  

• How can calls for climate justice help us in addressing phenomena such as climate refugees and environmental racism?

2. The Voice of Morality: The Rise of Environmental Justice Movement

It is quite unfair to discuss climate justice without first shedding light on the environmental justice movement, especially given that some thinkers and academics consider that climate justice has been born out of this movement. For many, environmental justice movements and their affiliated organizations helped in conceptualizing, contextualizing, and shaping climate justice discourse. The issue of climate justice has always been embodied in environmental justice activities from the outset. The movement has led to approaching climate change ethically and morally. Additionally, it paved the way for the organization and establishment of climate justice principles, thereby striving to combat climate change by seeking justice in the first place. 

The environmental justice movement emerged in the mid-’60s, especially in marginalized communities of colour and in poor rural areas. Initially, the movement’s demands were environmental rights equivalent to those in prosperous communities and wealthier classes. It also called for equal protection from natural disasters and hazards, which have become more frequent and increasingly devastating. 

Simultaneous with the growth of civil rights movements in many regions of the world, environmental rights – the right to a healthy environment – were increasingly being viewed as an inherent human right. According to many scholars’ remarks, there was a merger between civil and environmental rights at around that time. This integration helped, to a great extent, shape the concept of environmental justice. 6 Since then, the environmental justice movement has been a pluralistic movement that embraced civil, political, social, and environmental rights. Most of the time, therefore, reflections on environmental justice are necessarily a process of consideration of human rights and dignity of all individuals. That is why “the concern for the relationship between the conditions of everyday life and the natural world, illustrates how a move from environmental justice to a concern with climate change should not be unexpected.” 7  

Perhaps the most remarkable influence of the environmental justice movement is that it has helped link our ecosystem and climate change issue with human rights concerns in all its aspects – national sovereignty, self-determination, social justice, the right to access resources, the right to protection from environmental dangers, and the right to sustainable development for current and future generations. Overall, the diversity of the environmental justice movement is reflected in climate justice approaches. Herein lies the importance of the environmental justice frame for a comprehensive understanding of climate justice development. It is essential to tackle climate change from such a holistic approach – Justice – which offers a way to encompass the full range of concerns.  

Climate (In)justice.  

1. Who should shoulder the burden, make decisions, and take action on climate change?8

So far, the paper has addressed the evolution of discussions on climate change from its beginning, when it was merely viewed as an environmental phenomenon, until a broad consensus has been reached on the fact that climate change is a problem caused by modern human activities. Then, the paper examined the integration and interaction between the environmental justice movement and concept of climate justice and explained how the movement’s grassroots activities and its organizations helped in formulating and enriching the climate justice approach. 

Indeed, there is no single exhaustive definition of climate justice. Instead, there are several definitions and explanations for the concept of “climate justice,” reflecting to a great extent the breadth and inclusiveness of this concept/approach. For example, Robyn Eckersley defines climate justice as the “fair distribution of the benefits and risks of social cooperation and, second, the minimization of those risks concerning an expanded moral community. 9 While the Mary Robinson Foundation, a pioneering organization in promoting the concept and the approach of climate justice, defines Climate Justice as follows: “Climate  Justice states that ‘climate justice links human  rights and development to achieve a human centred approach, safeguarding the rights of the  most vulnerable and sharing the burden and  benefits of climate.10 Moreover, one of the  definitions that profoundly expresses climate justice dimensions is the one mentioned in Organizing Cools the Planet booklet: “Climate  Justice is a vision to dissolve and alleviate the  unequal burdens created by climate change. As a form of environmental justice, climate justice is the fair treatment of all people and freedom from discrimination with the creation of policies and projects that address climate change and the systems that create climate change and perpetuate discrimination.11

Almost all these definitions of Climate Justice mentioned above have been translated from mere abstract words to practical reality. The definitions have also been institutionalized and operationalized mainly by non-governmental organizations, such as Climate Justice Now, Climate Justice Action, CAN International, and Environmental Justice Foundation. These institutions are working to strengthen the climate justice approach and frame the problem of climate change in a more comprehensive framework than other frames that seem unable to accommodate a problem of such magnitude. The ethical and moral stand is the starting point for these entities’ work, by considering that there is a problem of injustice and inequality between the contributors and those affected by climate change, a problem that is undoubtedly transnational and intergenerational. It also works on altering our consumer societies to sustainable societies and by shifting our high-carbon economy to a green economy for the sake of our planet and the human race’s existence.

This paper will be limited to examining the two most important elements/ principles in the Climate Justice Approach:  

• Distributive Justice.  

• Procedural Justice. 

1.1  Distributive Justice

Through the question of distributive justice – which deals primarily with the distribution of damages, benefits, and burdens of climate change between those who cause it and those affected by it – we see that there is inequity in the degree of vulnerability to climate change. The countries most affected by climate change are the least contributing to it, while the countries emitting the most greenhouse gas are the least affected by climate change and its effects. One of the main reasons for variation in the degree of vulnerability is that not all nations can mitigate climate change impacts nor do they have the same capacity to adapt to climate change and cope with its consequences. This undeniable fact makes the climate justice approach more necessary and relevant than ever before.

Table 1. The Climate Risk Index for the 2017, the most affected countries 12

Let us now look at some statistical figures that illustrate the distribution of climate change damages and related natural phenomena, such as droughts, floods, and storms. According to the latest statistics, 13 between 1999 and 2018, Puerto Rico, Myanmar and Haiti were the most affected and vulnerable to related climate risks and impacts; storms, floods, temperature extremes, mass movements, and heat and cold waves, etc. In 2017, “Puerto Rico, Sri Lanka, and Dominica were at the top of the list of the most affected countries, followed by Nepal, Peru, and Vietnam.” 14 As shown in Table 1, “eight of the top ten are developing countries; one is classified as an upper middle-income country (Dominica) and one an advanced economy generating high income (Puerto Rico).” 15

On the other hand, the main contributors to change are industrialized countries with major economies. For instance, data shows that the major emitters of Carbon dioxide – which is the most  significant contributor to human-induced climate change – are the US and China, followed by the  European Union, India, Russia, and Japan. 16 In  addition, “China and the US alone are  responsible for more than 40% of the world’s CO2  emissions, while the top 15 generates 72% of CO2  emissions, and the rest of the world’s 180 countries  produce nearly 28% of the global total; close to the amount China produces on its own.” 17 These statistics  show the extent of the disparities between countries that contribute directly to climate change and responsible for massive environmental devastation through their high-carbon economies and countries with modest economies with very low CO2 emissions. 

Table 2. The World’s top 5 CO2 Emissions-Generating Countries 18 (metric tons of carbon di oxide equivalent)

This data raises fundamental questions which should guide our thinking as we address climate justice problems such as: Who should bear the brunt of climate change costs today? How should the costs of climate change mitigation and adaptation be distributed between states? There are three mains known principles 19 to tackle these questions: 

1. Polluter Pays Principle: 

This principle states the following: Whoever has caused and brought about climate change ought to bear the burden of paying the costs and mitigating its impacts. 

2. Ability to Pay Principle: 

This principle points out that all should bear the burden, but in proportion to their ability to pay, since climate change is a global problem and each the country is affected, albeit to varying degrees. 

3. Beneficiary Pays Principle: 

This principle shifts the burden of climate change onto countries that benefit from using fossil fuels and relying on carbon-economies. Therefore, the more a country emits CO2 in the atmosphere, the more costs it must pay, the more burden it must bear. These principles can be applied separately or in combination. However, some will argue that only one of these principles must be followed to achieve a just distribution of climate change’s burdens. However, what matters here is that using the climate justice approach, we can take into consideration different principles and methods to achieve the desired equality and justice.

1.2 Intergenerational Justice

Another dimension of distributive Justice is intergenerational Justice. It is well known that climate change is a transcending crisis, as it moves beyond the geographical boundaries among nations and also straddles temporal boundaries across generations. Therefore, one of the main pressing issues in combatting climate change is how to deal with the trans-generational character of climate change. There are two issues we must consider in this regard. First, the burden on the current generation results from the activities and greenhouse gas emissions of previous generations. Second, future generations are expected to confront the severe effects of climate change and depend on our actions today.20  

It is through a climate justice approach that we are able to ask to what extent members of one generation can inherit moral obligations from the actions of previous generations? In addition, what are the obligations and duties that the current generation owe to succeeding generations?21  

In fact, there are no simple one-size-fits-all answers.  What is crucial in this regard is to guarantee human rights and intergenerational justice. Human rights treaties and climate change agreements set out obligations and duties to secure current and future generations’ rights. For instance, Article III of the UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) stipulates as follows: “parties should protect the climate system for the benefit of present and future generations of humankind, based on equity and in accordance with their common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities.”22 In addition, the UN considers protecting the climate as a right of future generations, and this was asserted in the draft resolution “Protection of Global Climate for Present and Future Generations” that was submitted in the General Assembly in 2008.23  

The protection and assurance of human rights, including environmental rights, can be done by acknowledging the complexity of climate change and by critically assessing the proposed solutions. It can also be done by providing normative/ethical guidelines for sustainable resource management, transforming sustainable development, and moving to a green low-carbon economy. Moreover, it can be accomplished by global collective action that includes everyone and ensures everyone’s participation. This last point brings us to the second side/aspect of Justice, which is Procedural Justice through which distributive Justice can be achieved.

1.3 Procedural Justice

Procedural justice is often overlooked when addressing climate change. Indeed, there is a plethora of literature, research, and discussions on the distributive justice of burdens and climate change costs, whether mitigation or adaptation cost, where distributive justice can only be achieved through just procedures and fair processes. In the view of many scholars,24 a defect in procedural justice will affect the outcomes of any agreement on environmental and climate change, foremost among which is the endeavour to achieve climate justice. Herein lies the critical importance of considering both principles of justice, the procedures/procedural principle and then the distribution principle. Procedural Justice is mainly concerned with questions relating to actions, decision making processes, and parties involved. Therefore, we can raise some questions about which parties are entitled to participate in the decision-making processes or take part in drafting and designing climate treaties and agreements. Since climate change is a transnational global problem and All are Affected,25 it requires collective action, multilateral agreements, and international coordination to combat it. However, there are several principles/criteria to define who should participate in the decision-making processes.  

This paper examines a guiding principle of procedural  justice for participation in a climate change regime and to achieve climate justice, namely All Affected  Principle (AAP), which states “that a decision-making  process needs to offer some form of participation to those who are affected by the  outcome of the decisions that are made.”26 This concerns the fairness  of the processes by which substantive outcomes are agreed and relates to the level of participation and recognition of all the actors involved in decision making processes.”27 Although many scholars have criticized this principle for being vague and a simple solution to a complex problem, the next section will examine three justifications28 for considering this principle as a suitable way to achieve just participation and representation in climate change agreements: 

1. Intuitively Attractive Principle

The AAP principle provides an intuitive answer to who should participate in the decision-making process in a climate change agreement. Accordingly, all actors affected by an agreement’s outcome are entitled to participate or be represented in the agreement drafting process; any party affected by a decision must consider its interests while making the decision.  

2. The Epistemic Value of the All-Affected Principle: 

This justification, which is philosophical to some extent, assumes that the parties whose interests are affected by a decision are the best decision makers or the most suitable parties to make the right agreement/decision. As a result of all affected parties’ involvement in the decision-making process, the outcomes are expected to be more effective and equitable. 

3. Moral Justifications for the All-Affected Principle: 

The last justification for considering the AAP as one of the most suitable principles for achieving procedural justice in the climate change regime is that the AAP is upholding ethical values, which are:  

I. Moral Standing: Those who are affected by a decision should have an opportunity to influence a decision’s outcome. Otherwise, the international community will not achieve a state of justice and fairness regarding climate change agreements and procedures.  

II. Autonomy and Political Equality: The involvement of affected parties in the decision-making process allows them to achieve a degree of autonomy and self-determination. In contrast, some affected parties’ exclusion from a decision making progress will deprive them from realizing these values. 

All affected parties’ participation in the decision-making process will increase the effectiveness and compliance with climate change agreements. The closed-door policy and exclusion of a large segment of the international community are grave concerns that could obstruct and undermine the endeavour to reach a global consensus and achieve climate justice. 

Absence of Environmental Global Governance   

This last part will briefly highlight the harm caused by the lack of global governance in efforts to achieve climate justice. A global issue as climate change transcends arbitrary borders among countries and it becomes vital to have a global entity responsible for organizing collective efforts of states to ensure commitment and respect/acceptance of the environmental agreements policies. Although there are various environmental organizations at international and local levels and many conferences and summits on climate change, we still lack political will and commitment from states. The dilemma always remains the doctrine of state sovereignty, as no international organization can compel any country to act. Nonetheless, these international efforts are symptoms in developing global environmental governance to combat climate change.  Besides the need for global governance to ensure global climate justice, there are some phenomena related to climate injustice, and it cannot be addressed without supra international organization. 

One of these pressing issues, for instance, is climate refugees, the human cost of climate change. It is considered a relatively recent phenomenon, and there is no, as yet an official universal agreement or consensus on its definition. An increasing number of refugees migrate and flee their homes due to natural disasters caused by climate change. In most cases, it is forced migration, particularly from the impoverished Southern countries, affected by climate change severally, to migrate internally to safer places or internationally to the North – Europe or North America. Add to that some manifestations of environmental racism,29 such as industrial countries’ waste that ends up in Africa, causing toxic air and greenhouse gas emissions, ignoring the effects of the environmental impacts and the human health in these countries. In addition, factories are being transferred to the third world, where environmental laws are less strict or virtually non-existent in some countries. It seems as if the third world or Africa is the land that has no rights or as if it is terra sacer.30  

In this regard, these present issues and perhaps many other issues in the future will significantly drive towards a just and comprehensive approach to climate change. Besides developing global international governance, which will serve as a guarantor in an international environmental regime, Procedural Justice allows affected minorities to participate and be represented in the decision-making process that affects their future and rescues their homelands. This will ensure an equitable distribution of the costs of climate change, considering each nation’s abilities and capabilities. 


Climate change is a complicated and multifaceted problem that touches all aspects of human life: the social, economic, political, and environmental. It is a problem that exceeds all traditional frameworks, meaning that any limited and one-dimensional approach to the problem will not be sufficient and may not lead to any desired results. The climate justice approach, which has evolved and crystallized over several decades of human effort and activities, is the most comprehensive and holistic approach that does not exclude any aspect of life, does not exclude any part of the earth, does not marginalize any human group, and most essentially stems from an ethical and moral position. Also, through distributive and procedural justice, global climate justice can be achieved. While most of the focus has been on distributive justice, without proper consideration for procedural justice, the goal of achieving climate justice will be incomplete.


  1. Spencer R. Weart, The Discovery of Global Warming (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008).
  2. Garrett Hardin, “The Tragedy of the Commons” Science 162(3859) (1968): 1243-1248. 
  3.  Stephen McGlinchey, Rosie Walters, and Christian Scheinpflug, International Relations Theory (Bristol, England: E-International Relations Publishing, 2017).
  4.  United Nations, UN Environment Programme  (UNEP), Climate change Information Sheet, (2001).  available at
  5. Ellina Levina & Dennis Tirpak. (2006). Adaptation to Climate Change. Key Terms. Paris.
  6.  Ibid.
  7.  David Schlosberg & Lisette Collins. (2014). From Environmental to Climate Justice: Climate Change and the Discourse of Environmental Justice. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change, 5, no. 3 (2014): 359-374.
  8.  Mathias Risse, (2008). Who Should Shoulder the Burden? Global Climate Change and Common Ownership of the Earth, HKS Working Paper No. RWP08-075,
  9.  Robyn Eckersley, The Green State: Rethinking Democracy and Sovereignty (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004)
  10.  The Geography of Climate Justice An Introductory Resource. Mary Robinson Foundation (Ireland), 2011, 
  11.  Hilary Moore and Joshua Kahn Russell, Organizing Cools the Planet: Tools and Reflections on Navigating the Climate Crisis (Oakland, CA: PM Press, 2011)
  12.  Ibid. 
  13.  David Eckstein, Vera Künzel, Laura Schäfer, Global Climate Risk Index 2018. Germanwatch, 2017, 
  14.  Ibid.
  15.  Ibid.
  16.  Pollution by Country Population. (2019). Retrieved  2020-01-10, from country/
  17.  Sean Fleming Chart of the day: These countries create most of the world’s CO2 emissions. [online] World Economic Forum. Available at: theday-these-countries-create-most-of-the-world-s-co2- emissions/ [Accessed 7 Jan. 2020].
  18.  Ibid. 
  19. Simon Caney, “Distributive Justice and Climate Change” in The Oxford Handbook of Distributive Justice, ed. Serena Olsaretti (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2018), 664-688.
  20.  Ibid.
  21. Fabian Schuppert, “Climate Change Mitigation and Intergenerational Justice,” Environmental Politics, 20, no. 3 (2011): 303-321.
  22.  United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Kyoto Protocol, Kyoto, 19.
  23. UN General Assembly, Protection of global climate for present and future generations of mankind: resolution / adopted by the General Assembly, 22 December 1989, A/RES/44/207, available at:
  24.  David Schlosberg and Lisette Collins, “From Environmental to Climate Justice: Climate Change and the Discourse of Environmental Justice,” Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change 5, no. 3 (2014): 359- 374.
  25.  Luke Tomlinson, Procedural Justice and Climate Change: Defining Who Should be Included in the Decision-making Processes of a Climate Change Agreement. Unpublished paper (2011). 936f459f-8b31-4c646b8d1511.pdf 
  26.  Ibid.
  27.  Ibid.
  28.  Ibid.
  29.  Environmental racism refers to the process and outcome of racial discrimination in the enactment and enforcement of environmental laws, rules, and regulations and in targeting minority communities for the siting of polluting industries.
  30.  The Sacer term in Latin means “the one who may not be sacrificed, yet may be murdered with impunity, a life that is worth neither saving nor killing”. The Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben used the term in his book Homo Sacer/The Sacred Man, and here I borrowed it and used it to describe the lands of the Third World as Terra Sacer/The sacred land.

Coral Reefs and Climate Change in the GCC Region

by Aisha Almaazmi, Manaswi Madichetty, Riman El Sayed

Abstract: The aim of this research paper is to analyze the correlation between increasing temperature and the damage caused to coral reefs, the marine ecosystem, and its impact on human health in the GCC countries.


Climate change has affected multiple ecosystems across the globe; a critically important ecosystem that suffered the most due to climate change is the coral reefs ecosystem. The coral reef ecosystem is a marine ecosystem and it is a habitat to a variety of organisms and species, ranging from microbial algae to whale sharks. Moreover, the coral reef ecosystem overlaps with several other marine and terrestrial ecosystems. Nevertheless, the coral reef ecosystem is remarkably sensitive and fragile, where the smallest change could lead to destructive consequences. Therefore, the effects of damage to coral reefs will not be limited to coral reefs alone. In fact, damage to the coral reefs would produce a series of adverse consequences that would affect also marine life and humans. 

The most recognized form of coral damage is coral bleaching. Coral bleaching is when the corals lose symbiotic algae, known as zooxanthellae; this alga, along with the photosynthetic microorganisms, provide nourishment and pigment to the corals. Coral bleaching occurs due to various reasons, including but not limited to temperature variation, salinity and acidity variations, and introduction of toxins in water. Corals can survive weeks after the bleaching, but then they eventually die. If the condition that leads to bleaching, however, were reversed, the corals would be capable of recovering from bleaching.

 1. Impact of Temperature Variations on Coral Reefs

According to the National Ocean Service, on average, coral reefs grow at a temperature between 23°–29° Celsius. Although it may vary, generally speaking, the lowest temperature coral reefs can tolerate is 18° Celsius. Meanwhile, some coral reefs can tolerate up to 40° Celsius at most in terms of addressing high temperatures. Nevertheless, exposure to such a high temperature can be tolerated for brief terms of time only.  

Temperature variations impact coral reefs both directly and indirectly. The corals are affected directly when the change in temperature results in damaging their living tissue; in most cases these damages are irreversible. On the other hand, climate change can possess an indirect influence on corals. Different organisms that inhabit the same geographical area as the coral reef react in diverse manners and these reactions eventually stimulate a transformation in the surrounding environment of the corals. These transformations could have either a negative or positive impression on the coral reefs. In some instances, the impression could be neutral as well.

1.1 Warm Water Impact

The rising temperature patterns characterize a threat to corals in various aspects. When the planet heats up, so does the water. In water temperature higher than the threshold, the zooxanthellae and photosynthetic microorganisms will be released from the coral polyp. When the corals can no longer establish the mutualistic symbiotic relationship with the zooxanthellae, the coral will bleach, which will lead to death in several weeks from malnourishment. 

Rising water temperatures also negatively influence corals indirectly. In some instances, herbivore fish, like the parrotfish, will not be able to tolerate the high temperature of water; they either migrate or die. When no more herbivore fish are available in a geographic region, some competitor algae, called macroalgae, will nourish and rapidly reproduce, thus dominating over corals and putting them at the risk of bleaching. According to Coral Reefs Alliance, algae embody a threat to corals as algae are capable of “smothering them, blocking their access to sunlight and promoting the growth of harmful bacteria.” 

Climate change has also an indirect effect on corals. When the planet gets warmer, the oceans and water bodies will get heated as well, resulting in evaporation. When the heat evaporates the water in oceans, the natural habitat of coral reefs, solid material and particles will remain in the ocean, thus changing the salt concentration ad acidity levels of the water. Corals on average can grow and survive in water salinity that is between 32%-40% and the average salinity of the ocean is around 34.72%. Any disturbance in the salinity would result in irregular calcification, which will result in creating a barrier and blocking sunlight. Sunlight is essential for zooxanthellae in order to undergo photosynthesis and supply the corals with energy and nutrients. (Henkel, 2010).

1.2 Cold water Impact

Climate change threats on coral reefs are not limited to only higher water temperatures. A drop in the water’s temperature has a fairly negative influence on the coral reefs’ habitats.

Although the threshold temperature may vary depending on the geographical region, on average it’s 18°C. One of the most tremendous mortality rates of coral reefs due to a drop in water temperature took place in the coral reefs of Florida, United States (US). In January 2010, the Florida Reef Tract (FRT) experienced mass mortality of various coral reef colonies due to a spontaneous sharp drop in the water temperature that fell to 16°C. The drop in temperature continued for six days in a row and resulted in the death of 7.8% of all colonies in the FRT.

Similar to high water temperatures, low water temperature embodies a threat to the dinoflagellates and photosynthetic microorganisms that live within the coral reefs. When a disturbance in the homeostasis occurs, the efficiency in the endosymbiotic metabolism of these would decrease, and organisms won’t be capable of undergoing photosynthesis effectively, which leads to death. Once the dinoflagellates and other microorganisms are no longer providing photosynthetic products (energy and nutrients) to the corals, the corals will die due to malnourishment. Moreover, the cold water itself damages the living tissues of the corals. The living tissues will die and there is neither energy nor material and nutrients to repair with. 

In contrast to coral bleaching due to warm water temperatures, death due to cold water temperatures cannot be reversed when the water returns to its initial temperature. If corals were exposed to a temperature of 14 Celsius or less for barely nine hours, it would result in coral mortality. Meanwhile, in coral bleaching episodes, the corals can survive for weeks before they die due to malnourishment; and if the homeostasis was restrained again, the corals would be capable of recovering (Lirman, Schopmeyer, Manzello, Gramer, & Precht, 2011).

2. Impact of Corals on the Marine Ecosystem 

Coral plays an important role in the preservation of any marine ecosystem. It is crucial to analyze its impact on those that interact with it. Thus, the benefits of coral reefs are discussed in the following section, along with the impact damaged coral reefs have on the ecosystem and marine life. 

2.1 Benefits of Coral to Marine Ecosystem

Coral plays an essential role in marine ecosystems; its frequent presence indicates its importance for marine organisms. According to Coral Guardian (n.d.), there are three primary benefits of corals to marine life: coastal protection to increase ecosystem resilience, marine life habitat, and food sources. Firstly, many cities, communities, and countries are located within coastal regions, which means that they are within close proximity to the ocean or sea. Because of that, they are also prone to damages caused by storms, hurricanes, or tsunamis. Climate change has triggered the high frequency of these natural disasters, which puts ocean-side communities and countries in a vulnerable position. However, coral reefs act as natural barriers, protecting the coast from powerful waves and destruction from natural disasters. Coral reefs function as dissipators of wave energy, in which they “break” waves through friction, which protects the coasts from floods (van Zanten, van Beukering, & Wagtendonk, 2014). Not only do coral reefs protect coastal communities through breaking waves, but they also protect marine life from the consequences of storms and floods. When the coast is protected by coral reefs, the resilience of the marine ecosystem increases; therefore, marine life becomes less affected by damages. Healthy coral reefs are necessary for coastal protection; many coastal communities have been able to avoid damages. On the other hand, unhealthy or almost non-existent coral reefs pave the way for costly destruction to the coastal region. For example, due to the dying coral reefs in certain areas of the Maldives, a wall costing about 10 million US dollars was built in order to protect the coastline. Strong waves are caused by hurricanes and storms, which results in flooding; this causes severe damage to economies that rely primarily on the ocean. Economies that prosper due to activities such as fishing benefit the most from coastal protection, because fishermen are able to catch fish and sell them for money (NOAA, 2019). The coast protection offered by coral reefs is considered as a hidden cost; coastal communities are able to protect their economies and food sources without realizing the immense protection being offered to them. 

Second, healthy coral reefs provide a habitat for marine life. Over a million different species of plants and animals inhabit coral reefs; it serves as a means of protection from predators (Coral Guardian, 2014). Coral reefs can grow up to 45 meters from the ocean surface, which is why they are a popular living spot for marine organisms. Even though corals only make up 1% of the ocean floor, they house about 25% of marine species (KDE Santa Barbara, n.d). Sea urchins, fish, sharks, sea stars, shrimp, lobster, octopus, snails and many marine organisms find shelter in the brightly-colored reefs. Because of the diversity in species, coral reefs have been nicknamed “rainforests of the sea.” Just as there is a diversity in the species of fish, there is also a diversity in the types of coral. Different coral reefs house different kinds of fish, who choose their habitats according to their convenience. Coral reefs serve as a base for living, feeding, breeding, spawning and growing, which is why marine organisms choose reefs that are the most suitable to their needs. This demonstrates the commonality of having a differentiation in niche preference between different marine species, which shows the crucial relationship shared between coral reefs and marine species. Some species are shown to have a higher dependency on the coral reefs they inhabit when compared to other species. For example, smaller fish utilize the colors and massive structures of some reefs to hide from predators, as well as find tiny pieces of plankton to eat (Messmer et al, 2011). Coral comes in many shapes, sizes, and colors; however, they themselves are marine animals known as polyps. According to NOAA Fisheries (2019), polyps take root on the ocean floor, forming strong, sturdy caves made out of calcium carbonate. 

Lastly, coral reefs serve as a food source for both marine organisms and humans. Because many coral reefs are located close to shore, coastal regions and communities largely depend on protein-filled seafood from coral reefs, such as fish, shrimp, oysters, and lobsters. According to Coral Guardian (2014), well-maintained and healthy reefs yield about 5 to 15 tons of fish and marine invertebrates, which means around 1.42 million tons of seafood from coral reefs. Ten million people rely on seafood as a primary source of protein, calcium, iron, and vitamins A, B, and C. Because coral reefs provide a massive food source for humans, marine species are constantly reproducing to maintain a balance in the ecosystem. Coral reefs are never short of inhabiting species; fish and other species reproduce multiple times throughout the year while other species reproduce seasonally. Because of the diversity of ocean species, many species are constantly reproducing, which creates balance, especially when humans also use coral reef species as a food source (Woods, 2018).  In the case of coral reefs being a food source for other marine organisms, coral can be consumed when it is young or fully grown. When it is young, coral floats around in the plankton, where it can be eaten by some small marine animals. Even when coral is grown, they are eaten by many fish, snails, and worms, despite possessing a skeleton (Knowlton, 2019). 

2.2 Damaged Coral Reefs and Their Impact on Marine Ecosystems

As discussed in the previous section, coral reefs serve a great purpose in the marine ecosystem, as well as greatly benefiting marine organisms. Some of their main benefits to the marine ecosystem are offering coastal protection and resilience to marine ecosystems, providing a diverse habitat to marine species, and providing a food source to both humans and marine species. However, none of the benefits discussed above can be of any significance if coral reefs are damaged. In the past decade, the impact of climate change on ecosystems has become dangerously common. The increase of storms, hurricanes, and rising sea levels are common factors of climate change. Climate change also causes rising ocean temperatures and ocean acidification, which are two factors that trigger the decline of coral reefs. Coral is prone to stress from such factors that leads to coral bleaching and possible death.

Coral bleaching is a process caused by unusually warm temperatures in oceans (most commonly caused by climate change), which causes coral to turn white due to the absence of algae (NOAA, n.d). Algae and coral have an endosymbiotic relation with coral reefs, which means that their relationship is a mutual one between a host organism (coral reefs) and an internal organism (algae). When they are stressed, coral reefs forcefully release zooxanthellae, the algae that reside in coral and gives it its color and brightness. This process can eventually lead to coral reef death if ocean temperatures remain warm. The problem of bleaching is severe also because once corals die, they have a significantly lower chance of coming back. When there are no coral reefs, the remaining coral finds it more difficult to reproduce, which decreases the coral reef population. More importantly, when there are fewer coral reefs, marine organisms lose their habitat, food source, and protection (WWF, n.d). Frequent inhabitants of coral reefs such as fish, snails, sea stars, lobsters and more will struggle to find security against large predators. Some species have already reached the brink of extinction due to the death of coral reefs. This cycle will eventually cause an imbalance in marine ecosystems, which will not only impact marine life, but also human communities that benefit from coral reefs.

One of the most recent events of coral bleaching occurred during the years of 2014-2017, in which ocean water temperatures were extremely warm. Around 70% of coral reef ecosystems worldwide were affected, along with areas like the Great Barrier Reef in Australia in which over 100 miles its coral was bleached. In 2005, the University of Newcastle upon Tyneled led a research team to investigate a sample of 50,000 coral reefs in some of Seychelles’ inner islands to compare the conditions of the reefs since 1994. The research team studied the impact of global warming on the coral since their first study and discovered that in 1998, ocean temperature increased, which caused the death of almost 90% of the inner island coral. Unfortunately, these coral reefs could not reseed or regrow, which caused a massive habitat problem for the marine species in that area. Due to the heavy effects of bleaching, there was a decrease of almost 50% of the area’s fish community, four fish species went extinct, and six fish species became critically endangered (Anonymous, 2006). 

With damaged coral reefs, there is no coastal protection or increase in resilience for marine ecosystems. Coasts have a higher chance of getting damaged due to the lack of protection offered by reefs. In addition, marine ecosystems are more susceptible to damage caused by hurricanes and storms, which weakens their survival mechanism. Moreover, damaged coral reefs leave no room for marine species to inhabit coral reefs, which puts their protection, food source, and breeding habits at a risk. Finally, food sources for both humans and marine species are compromised when coral reefs are at risk. Coral reefs and their inhabitants have become the prominent victims of climate change.

3. Impact of Damages to Marine Ecosystem on the GCC      

The damage to the marine ecosystem(s) is not limited to the sea creatures, it also affects humans since the sea and coral reefs are essential for humans’ survival. The sea provides food security, jobs for local communities, and supports the economy through tourism and economic activities. The GCC region’s economy is significantly supported by a marine water body, the Arabian Gulf (a.k.a. Persian Gulf). In the GCC region, the Gulf is mainly important for supporting fisheries and tourism. However, due to climate change, the coral reefs are decreasing in population and are at risk of extinction. Of course, any disturbance in the coral reefs’ ecosystem would lead to a disturbance in the marine ecosystem, which would be reflected on the human society and economy. Therefore, the GCC region is taking actions and establishing policies to prevent further damage to the coral reefs and marine ecosystem and support the recovery of their ecosystems. 

3.1 Impact of Damages to Marine Ecosystem on Human Society 

Climate change has resulted in an unprecedented damage to the coral reef ecosystem(s) that influenced further destruction in the various marine ecosystems. The affected marine ecosystem(s) would impact human daily livelihood; even if the consequences were not observed in the short term, they exist and would take place unless immediate actions were taken. Coral reef ecosystems hold immense importance for millions of people around the world. Sectors that are directly impacted include natural shoreline protection barriers, food providing fisheries, income, and jobs for local communities. Other benefits provided by the coral reef ecosystem include tourism, recreation, and foreign income. Concerns are being raised by researchers about the increasing levels of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere, which is degrading coral reef ecosystems and generating global environmental risks for people that depend on them (Pendleton et al., 2016).

Some of the biggest plots of continental coastlines in the world can be found in the Middle East, specifically, in the GCC region. However, the Middle East, precisely the GCC region, is faced with some of the fastest-growing populations as a result of immigration and tourism (World Resources Institute, 2011). Coral reefs are a direct tourism attraction for many activities such as diving tours and fishing trips. There are also multiple restaurants, hotels, and many other businesses that surround the coral reef areas that generate large sums of income all around the world. Thus, the losses associated with the degradation of coral reefs are large. For instance, according to the Australia Institute, the Great Barrier Reef in Australia could lose one million annual visitors and lead to the loss of ten thousand jobs (Haines, 2017). According to another study in 2003, total annual earnings of coral reefs in the world is $29.8 ​​billion (Cesar, Burke & Pet-Soede, 2003). All of these studies highlight the importance of coral reefs to the tourism sector. The studies further elaborate on how the slightest damage to the tourism sector would impact the economy of a country with it. Most of the GCC countries’ economies rely on the tourism sector. For example, in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates (UAE), the tourism sector has experienced a remarkable growth by 150% from 2006 and 2014 (Ben-Romdhane et al., 2020). The majority of the tourists stated scuba-diving and observation of coral reefs as the main aims of their trip. This indicates how crucial coral reef tourism is for UAE’s economy, and also for other GCC countries. Studies suggest that coral tourism brings around one hundred billion dirhams (100B Dhs) annually. As a result of the profit the coral reef tourism industry brings to the country, the UAE government planned to have 14% percent of the marine regions protected by 2019. That was done in order to preserve the coral reefs while creating more diving destinations, which would increase tourism in the UAE (Wasmi, 2017). 

One of the most important and direct forms of human dependence on reefs is fisheries. This dependence plays an important role in providing food, income, employment, and creates a drive towards poverty alleviation. Worldwide, over 275 million people live within 10 kilometers from the coast and 30 kilometers from a reef (Burke & Institute, 2011). For these people, fisheries are supposed to be a sustainable source of food, but with the degradation of coral reefs, their sustenance is put at risk. Unsustainable fishing has been the cause of this issue. According to the University of British Columbia (UBC), one-third of marine species could be extinct by 2090 if immediate action is not taken. “We did not consider the interactions between other human activities in addition to climate change,” said William Cheung, Associate Professor at UBC.  “Thus, considering the rapid development of the marine environment in the region, it may be worse. I think besides mitigating the damage, there is an urgent need to reduce carbon emission. In the longer term, this will be the ultimate solution to the problem” (Zacharias, 2018). The GCC countries’ economy and culture depends significantly on fishers. Therefore, the GCC governments are constantly working on increasing the growth of the fishery sector. According to one report, it is projected that the production of fish would increase by 7.2% between 2020 to 2025. This growth, however, may be limited by the climate change impact on coral reefs and marine biodiversity. Any reduction in coral reefs will lead to a decrease in fish population, and the marine biodiversity will be adversely affected. As a result, the fisheries would be damaged and result in a shortage in food security and a higher unemployment rate. In order to conserve the economy and the fishery sector, while continuously exporting fish, the GCC governments started investing in aquaculture. Remarkable major investments have been made despite the project(s) being in its early stages. For example, in Oman, the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries had made a huge investment which is estimated to be one billion dirhams (1B Dhs) in order to develop 15,000 hectares of land for aquaculture.  Based on this investment, it is expected that Oman would produce two hundred thousand (200,000) metric tons of fish between 2030 and 2040. Another country that had planned and invested in supporting aquaculture, due to the damage inflicted on the fishery industry by climate change, is Saudi Arabia (KSA). KSA had produced sixty thousand (60,000) metric tons in 2017. Currently, KSA is working on surpassing the production of six hundred thousand (600,000) metric tons by 2030. It is noteworthy to point out that KSA’s investments in expanding the aquaculture and fishery industry is primarily driven by a need to meet the domestic demand and maintain food security for the public (Markets, 2020). All these efforts and investments further highlight how crucial the fishery industry is for GCC countries and the importance of preserving it and supporting the recovery of marine ecosystem. 

3.2 Efforts to combat Coral Extinction due to Climate Change

The GCC countries acknowledge the threats climate change has on the environment and coral reefs, and how it affects the public’s livelihood. Therefore, numerous efforts have been made to combat climate change and reduce the damage inflicted. One of the most remarkable efforts made was creating institutions and organizations to protect the environment and monitor climate change. These include the Ministry of Climate Change and Environment in the UAE, Environment Public Authority in Kuwait, and the Ministry of Environment, Water, and Agriculture in Saudi Arabia. Moreover, GCC countries are currently studying the production of clean energy and switching to renewable energy instead of fossil fuels in order to reduce carbon dioxide emissions in the atmosphere. Some of these efforts include UAE Energy Strategy setting an agenda to have 50% of the energy used as clean energy by 2050, where 44% of it would be generated from renewable sources. Moreover, KSA is planning to generate over 27 GW of clean power by 2023 and more than 58 GW by 2030 (Nagraj, 2020). 

Investing in eco-friendly projects and establishing studies to limit the impact of climate change on coral reefs is crucial. However, it would not be effective unless it is paired with educating the public about the climate change threats and enlighten them about the importance of our natural resources, especially the coral reefs. Therefore, in order to understand whether the impacts of coral reef degradation are recognized by the UAE community, we conducted a simple two-question survey. The results of the survey indicate that the majority of the population does recognize the coral reef degradation as a threat to their health and economy. To explore the opinions of the percentage of individuals that did not address this as an issue, we approached them to find out their reasoning. Most of the respondents who responded negatively did not recognize the economic benefits of a country’s coral reef or they did not realize that their main protein source in the form of fish is endangered. Considering the lack of awareness regarding this issue, the positive response percentage from among the 65 respondents is surprising (Appendix A).


Despite the abundance of research that discusses the importance of coral reefs in multiple ways, the awareness around the issue is not as elaborate. Our coral reefs, once damaged, are extremely difficult to regenerate completely, which would lead to a loss in marine life and habitats, thereby losing its value as a tourist destination. 

At an individual level, precautions one can follow to protect the reefs could be to simply follow the local rules that are set by the government regarding the reefs, adopt sustainable fishing, research the sourcing of the fish one consumes, avoid physical damage to coral reefs, and spread awareness in communities by starting mini-campaigns to explain the do’s and don’ts regarding coral reefs.

Other actions that need to be taken include implementing sustainable fishing and tourism, partnering with a local committee to spread the rules and regulations pertaining to coral reefs, and enforcing the penalties for violating rules regarding coral reefs. The most important suggestion is to take climate change efforts as a priority because of the multitude of adverse effects it has on coral reefs and other parts of the Earth as well. 

Appendix A 

These are the questions we included in the survey and the results we obtained. 


Anonymous. (2006). Global warming may have damaged coral reefs forever. Sea Technology47(6), 59–60. Retrieved from

Ben-Romdhane, H., Jabado, R., Grandcourt, E., Perry, R., Al Blooshi, A., Marpu, P., . . . Ghedira, H. (2020, June 15). Coral reefs of Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates: Analysis of management approaches in light of international best practices and a changing climate. Retrieved February 16, 2021, from

Burke, L. M., & Institute, W. R. (2011). Reefs at Risk Revisited. Retrieved from

Cesar, H. S., Burke, L. M., & Pet-Soede, L. (2003). The Economics of Worldwide Coral Reef Degradation. Retrieved from Cesar Environmental Economics Consulting website:

Connell, D. W. (2018). Pollution in Tropical Aquatic Systems. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press.

Coral Guardian. (2014, January 9). Why are coral reefs so important? Retrieved from

Coral Reef Alliance. (n.d.). Coastal Protection. Retrieved from

Coral Reef Alliance. (n.d.). Local Threats to Coral Reefs. Retrieved from

Haines, G. (2017, February 21). Great Barrier Reef could lose one million visitors annually if coral bleaching continues. Retrieved from

Henkel, T. P. (2010). Coral Reefs. Retrieved from

KDE Santa Barbara. (n.d.). Coral Reef. Retrieved from

Knowlton, N. (2019, August 22). Corals and Coral Reefs. Retrieved from &nbsp;

Lirman, D., Schopmeyer, S., Manzello, D., Gramer, L. J., Precht, W. F., Muller-Karger, F., . . . Thanner, S. (2011). Severe 2010 cold-water event caused unprecedented mortality to corals of the Florida reef tract and reversed previous survivorship patterns. PLoS One, 6(8) doi:

Markets, R. (2020, June 12). 2020 GCC fisheries and AQUACULTURE SECTOR analysis – production of fish in the GCC region is projected to grow at a rate of 7.2% During 2020-2025. Retrieved February 16, 2021, from—production-of-fish-in-the-gcc-region-is-projected-to-grow-at-a-rate-of-7-2-during-2020-2025–301075034.html

Messmer, V., Jones, G., Munday, P., Holbrook, S., Schmitt, R., & Brooks, A. (2011). Habitat biodiversity as a determinant of fish community structure on coral reefs. Ecology, 92(12), 2285-2298. Retrieved January 18, 2020, from

Nagraj, A. (2020, April 30). The climate crisis: Is the gcc doing enough in the sustainability space? Retrieved February 16, 2021, from

National and Atmospheric Administration Oceanic. (n.d.). Coral reef ecosystems. Retrieved from

NOAA. (2019, December 5). Shallow Coral Reef Habitat. Retrieved from

National Ocean Service. (2017). In what types of water do corals live? Retrieved from

Pendleton, L., Comte, A., Langdon, C., Ekstrom, J. A., Cooley, S. R., Suatoni, L., … Ritter, J. (2016). Coral reefs and people in a high-co2 world: Where can science make a difference to people? PLOS ONE, 11(11), e0164699. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0164699

Reef Resilience Network. (n.d.). Importance of Reef Fisheries. Retrieved from

Woods, R. (2018, June 26). How Do Fish Mate: The Ultimate Guide. Retrieved from

World Wildlife Fund. (n.d.). Everything You Need to Know about Coral Bleaching-And How We Can Stop It. Retrieved from

World Resources Institute. (2011). Reefs at risk revisited: Middle East. Retrieved from

van Zanten, B. T., van Beukering, P. J. H., & Wagtendonk, A. J. (2014). Coastal protection by coral reefs: A framework for spatial assessment and economic valuation. Ocean & Coastal Management, 96, 94–103. Retrieved from

Zacharias, A. (2018, June 17). Third of Gulf’s marine life could be extinct by 2090, study finds. The National.  Retrieved from

Globalisation’s Facilitation of Environmental Violence

by Roa Daher

Abstract: Globalisation has shaped many aspects of modern life, including the state of our environment. This paper approaches the topic of environmental violence through the lens of globalisation by arguing that globalisation and its by-products, like the media, have had an undeniable role in the rise of environmental violence, which is a form of environmental activism.


Environmental violence, or green violence as it is sometimes called, has been defined by Büscher & Ramutsindela (2016) as “The deployment of violent instruments and tactics towards the protection of nature” (p. 10). This form of radical environmental activism surged in the 1970s as a response to the ineffectiveness of environmental organisations (Cianchi, 2015). Decades later, this environmentalist sentiment is still present as demonstrations have emerged to protest the observed bureaucratisation of environmental organisations, like Greenpeace, as they move away from radical action and more towards lobbying and working with governments (Cianchi, 2015). The aforementioned shift does not necessarily mean the elimination of environmental violence: in 2012, a Greenpeace ship was heading towards an Arctic oil rig in an effort to stop its operation but was interrupted by security forces (Walker, 2013). However, that does not seem to be enough, as radical environmentalist groups involved in green violence have seen unprecedented growth partly due to individuals’ frustration with the lack of government-led action in the face of climate change. Moreover, the typical political climate protests have been viewed as seemingly futile with very few considerable wins (Bartlett, 2017). As consequences of climate change become more palpable than ever before, activists may resort to green violence (Kaplan, 2020). Environmental violence, often committed by activists, is a relatively new phenomenon that emerged in recent decades, but it has been amplified by globalisation due to increased social interconnectedness, which has also given rise to “ecoterrorism.” In order to fully explain the connection between globalisation and the rise in environmental violence, the paper will first review the history of environmental violence, the role of the media and activism in a globalised world, and finally the emergence of ecoterrorism.

A Historical Overview of Environmental Violence

While environmentalism as a fleeting concept had been occupying the minds of individuals for many decades, a historical examination of radical environmentalism in its birthplace, the United States, begins in the 1960s with the rising popularity of environmental politics (Woodhouse, 2018). The new environmental movement was created as a result of the public’s awareness of the harmful effects of nuclear tests that were being conducted. Sills (1975) explained how Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, published in 1962, acted as a major wake up call for millions of individuals in Western societies about the far-reaching harmful effects of DDT, which was a commonly used pesticide. At that point, the public began to realise that human health and the environment are irreversibly intertwined, which pushed environmentalism to the forefront of their minds and drove them to act (Mihaylov & Perkins, 2015). The public’s efforts seemingly came to fruition in the 1970s as environmental concerns were beginning to be taken seriously by the United Nations and governments worldwide, as seen by the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the US in 1970 (Sills, 1975). This development did not satisfy the whole spectrum of the environmentalist movement. Instead, it arguably led to the emergence of radical environmentalist groups that utilised different forms of environmental violence.

The first radical environmentalist organisation, Earth First!, was formed by a group of conservationists in the 1980s because of the democratisation and ineffectiveness of mainstream environmental organisations (Woodhouse, 2018). Thus, Earth First! adopted an uncompromising position that prioritised, as the name suggests, the Earth’s condition and favoured violent action over political lobbying (Woodhouse, 2018). Since then, the proliferation and growth of radical environmentalist organisations has shown no signs of slowing down; it has been estimated that Radical Environmentalist and Animal Rights (REAR) cells occupy a minimum of 25 countries and have committed more than 1,000 criminal acts in the United States between 1970 and 2007 (Bartlett, 2017). The increase in the size of radical environmentalist movements would not have been possible without globalisation and the enhanced social interconnectedness it presented. In fact, Dalton & Rohrschneider (1999) found that the formation of multinational environmental groups that spanned across continents and shared resources and information is indicative of the creation of a Transnational Social Movement concerned solely with environmental issues.

Media and Organising in the Age of Contemporary Globalisation

The intensification of contemporary globalisation that has occurred over the last forty years has played a key role in creating a global imaginary and the strengthening of social connections (Steger, 2017). One phenomenon that paved the path for the emergence of the global imaginary is the spread of media, both mass media for the public’s consumption and social media for personal use (Karat, n.d.). Mass media has created a global imaginary with access to more information than was ever available before. Therefore, the public has become more aware of global developments due to the mass media’s coverage. One such issue where media coverage is significantly influential is climate change, as Boykoff (2011) explains that “People throughout civil society rely upon media representations to help interpret and make sense of the many complexities relating to climate science” (p. 3). The mainstream media clarifies the significance of climate change and some of its potential impacts, like the creation of tens of millions of climate refugees (Taylor, 2017). As the headlines increase in urgency, there could be a global rise in the number of individuals who could be mobilised in the fight against climate change, meaning that more people could be willing to commit environmental violence as a response to the dire climate situation.

In addition to mainstream and mass media usage, the use of social media facilitates the creation of social linkages which has implications for the global activism. In the age of contemporary globalisation, the growth of social movements presents an intersection of global and local activism, which forms a global-local nexus of transnational activists who interact with the state, local and foreign groups, and communities (Alonso, 2009). Ironically, while analyses of globalisation have actually anticipated the demise of global protest movements, including radical environmentalist groups, global movements continue to grow in size (della Porta et al., 2006). One notable example of a current global social movement is the climate strikes, which were initially started by Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg and now involve millions of students protesting for the sake of the climate and their future every Friday (Taylor et al., 2019). The climate strikes exemplify the global-local nexuses created by protesting for the same globalised issues in different localities as part of a larger global movement. Furthermore, while the climate strike is non-violent, it shows the impact of globalisation on the growth of social movements, especially those related to the environment, as can additionally be seen by the importance of the environment within the Global Justice Movement (Steger & Wilson, 2012). Although not all environmental movements condone the use of violence, the general growth of environmental movements may increase exposure to the concept, and justification, of green violence.

The Birth of ‘Ecoterrorism’

As green violence becomes more prevalent, there are rising concerns about the phenomenon termed as ecoterrorism. The Federal Bureau of Investigation in the United States (FBI) defined ecoterrorism as “The use or threatened use of violence of a criminal nature against innocent victims or property by an environmentally-oriented, subnational group for environmental-political reasons, or aimed at an audience beyond the target, often of a symbolic nature” (Hirsch-Hoefler & Mudde, 2014, p. 588). In light of the FBI’s definition, it is of significance to note that no individuals have been murdered in the name of radical environmentalist activism (Brown, 2019). Yet, as Taylor (1998) explains, law enforcement officials are using the Unabomber’s expressed sympathy for radical environmental groups as evidence of their terrorist nature. In order to evaluate the validity of ecoterrorism, the alleged terrorist actions should be assessed: in addition to large-scale civil disobedience demonstrations, radical environmentalists commit acts of tree spiking, powerline sabotage, and arson that do not cause any harm to humans (Taylor, 1998). 

Therefore, it becomes clear that the concept of ecoterrorism was created for other reasons. In fact, it may show the intersection of political and ecological dimensions of globalisation, such that the term ecoterrorism is a direct product of modern-day politicisation of climate change. After all, Fletcher (2018) states that the “ecoterrorist” label was created because the actions of radical environmentalists pose a direct challenge to the state’s own monopoly on the use of legitimate violence. Thus, the phenomenon of so-called ecoterrorism shows how destruction resulting from the ecological dimension of globalisation could empower individuals enough to take action that the state perceives as a threat to its sovereignty and security. In fact, Vanderhein (2018) argues that the creation of the word “ecoterrorist” serves the sole purpose of “directing the increased law enforcement powers of the US ‘war on terror’ against this form of resistance and conflating in the public mind a tactic that inflicts only property damage with one that aims its violence against innocent persons” (p. 299). Thus, there is no tangible difference between environmental violence and ecoterrorism as they both refer to the same thing, but one term is heavily politicised and created by the state while the other one is not, as all of the components that facilitated environmental violence culminated in the appearance of ecoterrorism.


There is a strong argument to be made that globalisation has amplified environmental violence by looking at the various dimensions of globalisation and how they affect radical environmentalist groups. An examination of the history of green violence uncovers its roots to show that it was born out of the inadequacies of the mainstream environmental movement which alienated some of its followers by the lack of radical action. Thus, environmental violence uses tactics that neither injure or kill humans as a way to draw attention to the cause nor threaten any environmental harm. Furthermore, the multiplication of social connections, partly due to different forms of media, has resulted in greater awareness of activist circles and the creation of a global imaginary participating in social movements. This gives the radical environmentalist groups greater exposure and a larger platform to promote green violence. Lastly, because of the increase in incidents of green violence, the FBI has used the term “ecoterrorism” to refer to certain acts of environmental violence despite its misleading meaning. Therefore, the intensification of globalisation and the consequences of the political and ecological dimensions of globalisation have ultimately resulted in the growth of the environmental violence movement.


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Steger, M., & Wilson, E. (2012). Anti-Globalization or Alter-Globalization? Mapping the Political Ideology of the Global Justice Movement. International Studies Quarterly, 56(3), 439-454. doi:10.1111 /j.l46&2478.2012.00740

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Woodhouse, K. (2018). Introduction. In The Ecocentrists: A History of Radical Environmentalism (pp. 1-10). New York: Columbia University Press. doi:10.7312/wood16588.4

INSpire Call for Papers

Our journal welcomes undergraduate research in any Humanities and Social Science discipline and welcomes interdisciplinary submissions.

You can submit your paper at any time: the editors will review your submission and issue a decision within 90 days.

Accepted papers will be published in the next issue, no later than within six months of submission.

To submit your paper, please format it according to our guidelines and send it to

Head of Department’s Letter

Dr. Vernon Pedersen

I am delighted to introduce to you the inaugural issue of the International Studies on-line journal, INSpire.  The International Studies department is multi-disciplinary incorporating Anthropology, History, Philosophy, Political Science and Sociology with-in a single major program.  The Department is also home to the new Psychology major allowing International Studies students to take electives in psychology. The diversity of specializations and perspectives inspires our students to expand their horizons and investigate subjects from many different perspectives, as you will discover in this issue of the journal.

In the pages below are articles about how the British influenced the patriarchal system in Kerala and how they in turn were changed by Indian cuisine.  Other articles explore women’s roles in Lebanese politics, the propaganda efforts of the Taliban and ethnic conflict in the Caucasus.

Whichever subject you choose to read about be assured that, thanks to the high standards of our faculty and the hard work of our students, the article will be well written, meticulously researched, and peer-reviewed.

This journal would not be possible without the efforts of a dedicated team of student editors who worked under the supervision of two of our faculty members.  Their work exemplifies the dedication and sense of community that makes the International Studies Department a dynamic and exciting place to study and work.

The Consolidation of Patriarchy in Kerala as a Consequence of British Colonial Influence

By Ashwati Kartha


“Women… always had a voice; and in Kerala, a woman knew how to make herself heard” (Jeffrey, 1992). The rise of feminist consciousness in India has sparked new tangents within the discourse about the conditions of women within the subcontinent. Kerala, located in Southeastern India, currently boasts of exemplary statistics in gender parity indicators, such as highest female literacy rate, longest life expectancy, and lowest infant and maternal mortality rates. Most notably, Kerala boasts of a sex ratio of 1084 females per 1000 males, as opposed to the national average of 946. Kerala’s developmental processes has been rather unique, as displayed by excellent performance in Human Development Indicators despite persistently low GDP per capita (Jeffrey, 2004). Further research on the “Kerala model” of development allows researchers to delve into the rich culture of matrilineal inheritance followed by large sections of the Keralite population. Within the context of feminist consciousness, Keralites, particularly Nair families, describe their matrilineal system with great pride.  

The joint-family matrilineal inheritance system, called the marumukkatayam system, is a practice in which family property is passed down through the female line. It is markedly different from the rest of Kerala, which followed patrilineal and patrilocal systems of family governance. However, the significance of the system diminished sharply under British colonial rule. Today, the system has been abolished legally, and the joint family system is rarely ever practiced. This paper contends that British influence led to the decline of matriliny through shifting legal, economic, and social systems away from pre-colonial modes of governance, and through popularizing the patriarchal family structures. The paper begins by throwing light on the functioning of the matrilineal system, thereby establishing a base upon which the rest of the argument stands. The second section of the paper describes the reasons for the shift away from the marumukkatayam system towards a patrilineal inheritance system. Finally, the paper traces the legal reforms which led to the breaking up of joint families and the dissolution of matrilineal practice in Kerala.

Historical Background

The matrilineal system in Kerala, according to some historians, grew out of the martial significance of the Nair (Kshatriya) caste. It is hypothesized that this unique system of family governance grew out of an extended war between the Chola and Chera dynasties (11th century CE) (Jeffrey, 2004). The Kshatriyas gained training in the art of warfare from the age of eight until their (preferred) demise on the battlefield, which left little time for familial engagements. The men would conduct visits purely for sexual purposes (called sambandhams) and become fathers while continuing to focus on their military training. As a result, the children would be under the sole care of the mother, and property would thus be passed down through the generations through the female line (Jeffrey, 2004; Pillai, 2016).

This marumukkatayam system meant that the freedom experienced by women in Kerala was unlike any other community or region in India. Women possessed the unique ability to manage their affairs largely independent of male influence. Women were not dependent on their husbands and were not considered transient members of their families, as they had the security of their familial home (their mother’s house) throughout their lives (Saradamoni, 1999). They were further allowed a degree of sexual freedom, as displayed by the acceptance of polyandry and termination of sambandhams (Jeffrey, 2004).

The system followed in Kerala, however, was not matriarchal. The karanavan (the senior male of the family) controlled the assets of the joint family as though he was the sole owner (Menon, 2012). Originally, the broader decision-making authority was often split between the senior women of the family and the karanavan. Age was the determining factor in shaping the power relations within the family. If the karanavan was the son or younger brother of a senior woman, she would be the head of the family (or the karnavatti); otherwise, it would be the male (Gough, 1961; Pillai, 2016). The karanavan, in this case, was extremely important to the family structure and exercised extensive social and economic control over his nieces and nephews (Menon, 2012). The karanavan’s children, however, lived with their mother, outside the realm of his influence. However, this system was in no way limited to Nair families. In an effort towards upward social mobility in the caste system, people of lower castes would also imitate higher castes. Prior to colonization, the matrilineal system had turned into a cultural tradition of the Malabar region, followed by a diverse group of individuals, including Muslims, such as the Mapillas[1] (Jeffrey, 2004; Menon, 2012). The matrilineal system was thus seen as a Malabar custom, largely free of religious affirmation (Saradamoni, 1999). “At the end of the nineteenth century, … 56 per cent of all families in Travancore, regardless of religion, were matrilineal. The proportion in Cochin and Malabar would have been at least that high. Obviously, the majority of Hindu families were matrilineal” (Jeffrey, 1992). Christians, however, exclusively followed the patriarchal system.

Pre-Conditions for the Shift to a Patrilineal Structure

This section of the paper traces the history of matriliny in Kerala’s society, particularly in the case of Hindu Nair families, and the systematic destruction of the marumukkatayam system as a result of shifting familial structures brought about under British rule. It first describes the way in which British influence led to rigidity in political and social structures that were previously fluid and dynamic, thereby causing issues that may have naturally been circumvented. Next, it describes the economic reasons for the decline of the matrilineal system, owing to British policies of development and economic administration. Finally, this section discusses the effect of cultural imperialism by the British in shifting popular opinion in favor of a patriarchal system, similar to that of England between the 18th and 20th centuries.

Rigid Legal System

British theories of jurisprudence that gained significance during the Enlightenment were in stark contrast to the pre-colonial Indian legal system. While the British focused on rationality and a codified system of rules and regulations, Indians focused on a more contextual and discretionary approach (Jeffrey, 2004). The Malabar region of India was governed primarily by the Houses of Cochin and Travancore, where the rulers, internal administration committees in each village, or people of higher castes would be involved in the arbitration of disputes and provision of justice. This was done on a case-by-case basis, keeping in mind the unique cultural traditions of each family (Jeffrey, 2004; Pillai, 2016; Galanter & Dhavan, 1989). The British, in turn, attempted to centralize the earlier modes of dispute arbitration into a multi-tiered judicial system. British rule, as well as British influence in the princely states, worked towards the systematic codification of laws pertaining to the governance of Indians, which was to be used in dispute arbitration along with customary law. In fact, it is theorized that a written legal text may not have come about if not for colonial perceptions of proper jurisprudence (Derrett, 1968).  As a consequence, a series of changes were made in the Kerala joint families’ modus operandi. For example, as described in A Treatise on Malabar and Aliyasantana Law (1922),

While the law of property among the marumakkatayis was based entirely on usages, British exponents of the law allowed little weight to the views of the people and were guided by their own notions of a perfect system of marumakkatayam law. (p.13)

Thus, this codification led to rigidity in legally accepted methods of functioning. An example of this rigidity was the colonial-era law related to the division of the joint family. Prior to the law, large taravads (matrilineal joint families)would split into fragments as the number of members grew to a point where family affairs became difficult to control. The new law, however, required that matrilineal joint families are “impartible” units, where “no member can claim any specific part or share of it as his own”. This put immense pressure on taravads, as all members of the family had to agree unanimously upon the mode of division of assets (Jeffrey, 2004). This made the matrilineal joint-family system highly impractical, as such issues could easily be circumvented by a shift towards a nuclear family system.

Further, the codification was often done within the context of British ideals of gendered power differences and “morality,” which changed the power relations within the taravad. During the latter half of the 19th century, the Madras High Court issued a decree legitimizing only male control of the taravad, effectively stripping karnavattis of their authority. This was done as a testament to Western ideals of the “natural dominance of males.” In fact, according to Arunima (1995),

A landmark judgement of 1855 argued that it would be a “violent interference” on the part of the court to “allow a precedent for women” to head households, as there was insufficient proof to determine the authority of a female over a male. (p.160)

Arunima further explains that this law served as an avenue for exploitation, in which “petty disputes flared up into legal cases”. Thus, this decree led to turbulence in the natural functioning of the taravad system where custom and legislation were in opposition to each other. Thus, the new rigid laws about the “perfect” matrilineal joint family system made the rather contextual working of this system difficult, which facilitated a shift towards the patrilineal system of inheritance.

New Economic System

The shifting economic structures further highlighted the futility of the matrilineal system, owing to the preponderance of salaried administrative jobs (Jeffrey, 2004). There were two primary modes of income for Nairs: military service and land revenue. Nair men would often be paid in cash by kings in exchange for military service. Landed income was also crucial to the maintenance of the joint family system. Traditionally, Nairs derived most of their income as land managers (long- term, non-cultivating tenants of land), who would receive rent from agricultural laborers and pay a smaller sum as rent to land owners, often Nambudiri Brahmins or kings. They would sometimes be outright owners of land. In this way, the economic situation of Nairs mandated that all members were jointly dependent upon the karnawan (or the karanavatti) and land for their material needs. However, there was a significant shift to a capitalist structure in the 19th century, due to British efforts to expand their centers of manufacturing, and to increase their trade. This period was characterized by wage occupations and a variety of jobs in the rising industrial and agricultural occupations. These forms of salaried occupations allowed multiple people within the taravad to earn an income, which facilitated the split to smaller nuclear families. Nairs often found jobs in different towns, and their sole income allowed them to buy or rent houses and land, where they would live with a small section of the family that was dependent on them as the sole provider (Gough, 1952).  The joint taravad system no longer held the same level of significance.

Further, a shift in Nair males’ primary modes of employment from warriors to salaried occupations allowed them to live with their families and raise their children. The earlier need for a matrilineal system of property inheritance had declined considerably. Men now wanted their share of the ancestral property, as well as their individual property, to go to their children rather than their sisters’ children. This was carried out in practice from time to time, but the idealized British notions of the marumakkatayam system considered this to be “against the law” (Jeffrey, 2004). This, particularly in cases of disputes, symbolized a new need for the legal recognition of patriliny in the Malabar region.

Cultural Imperialism

Finally, this period was characterized by an imposition of Enlightenment-era reasoning of correct family structures onto the Indian population. Enlightenment thinkers in Europe believed strongly in the natural dominance of males, which automatically put female-headed households in an inferior position. They also believed strongly in monogamy and the consecration of marriage, which was in direct contrast with Kerala women’s sexual freedom, and the practices of polyandry and “divorce” (termination of sambandhams), followed by pre-colonial Keralites. There was also intense discourse about the proper place of women, which was believed to be in service of the surrounding males, which directly contrasted with Kerala women’s independence (Hawkesworth, 2012). These schools of thought were brought to Kerala through the aid of Christian missionaries, who had grown in prominence and had begun to conduct sermons in an attempt to bring patriarchal family structures into the “backward” Keralite system of family governance. Their influence cannot be discounted as being aimed towards a select portion of Kerala’s population, as they had set up schools which were attended by a large section of the people. Literacy had always been an integral part of Kerala’s society, as even women received an education. It was in these schools that children were taught that matriliny is an abomination which would earn its practitioners a place in hell (Jeffrey, 1992). Thus, the blow to the matrilineal system through Christian influence in schools had been severe. However, matriliny was not only ridiculed by those under British influence. Hindus from other states and provinces who followed a patriarchal system were also highly critical of the marumukkatayis. Nairs were forced to deal with criticism from other caste-Hindus as well, who would say that “[Nairs’] wives are concubines and [their] sons are bastards” (Jeffrey, 1992).

Colonial influence in Kerala, in combination with the influence of other Hindus, constructed contemporary notations of morality and barbarity, which were slowly integrated into Nairs’ identities. By the end of the 19th century, the Nairs’ matrilineal kinship system began to take on negative connotations to the Nairs themselves. In line with the English ideology, Nair men too began to believe strongly in the importance of the family as a conjugal unit, characterized by control of female sexuality. Within the context of a newfound significance of women’s chastity and consecration of monogamous marriage, women also supported a shift towards the patrilineal structure, asserting that this would improve the “self-respect” of the Kerala woman (Jeffrey, 1990). The patrilineal inheritance system became popularly accepted as the proper method of kinship, and significant efforts were made to shift from the “barbaric” matrilineal system towards the “modern” and “progressive” patrilineal system (Arunima, 1995). In fact, one of the main goals for the Nair Service Society, a caste-based advocacy group, was the abolition of the matrilineal system in Kerala (Jeffrey, 1990). Thus, Christian European influence, combined with the other factors, served to convince large sections of the young population of the need to shift away from matrilineal systems to the system of patriarchy.

Legal Dissolution of Matriliny

Even after Indian independence in 1947, the rigid legal system and the negative attitudes towards marumukkatayis persisted. Numerous efforts had been made, by the Nair elites as well as the courts of Independent India, between the 19th and 20th centuries to reform Kerala’s family law. As the matrilineal system came under scrutiny within the context of the larger system of family structure, efforts were made to “legitimize” sambandhams. One of the earliest instances of legal reform can be traced back to 1896, when the Malabar Marriage Act was passed, which allowed couples to register legally their marriage. However, this Act had little impact, as less than 100 marriages were actually registered (Arunima, 1995; Jeffrey, 1990). Those who practiced matriliny had little reason to begin registering their sambandham, except for particular cases of legal dispute. Thus, the Nair elites’ effort to make matriliny “respectable” again had failed. The Travancore Marumakkattayam Act, or Nair Regulation Act I of 1912 was the next legal step towards the propagation of a nuclear, patrilineal family system, against the marumukkatayam system of bequeathal of assets in the princely state of Travancore. It describes laws for marriage as recognized by the state, the children’s right to the succession of their father’s separate or self-acquired property, and legal guardianship of the father to his minor children, and husband to his minor wife (Puthenkalam,1966). In 1914, Mannath Padmanabhan founded the aforementioned Nair Service Society (NSS), which advocated for further action on legal recognition of patriliny, legal rights to family property, and the abolition of the “evils” of the matrilineal practice. The NSS served as an organized front for the Nair community to engage in activism, particularly in a legal context. A second bill was set to be passed as per the request of what seemed to be the “community as a whole.” As a result, the Nair Regulation Act II of 1925 was passed in Travancore, which facilitated the partition of the joint family into smaller units. Every adult member was now guaranteed a right to individual partition, with safeguards such as separate shares based on the number of children per nuclear unit. This Act was extremely successful to their cause. During the period of 1925 to 1947, over 100,000 partition deeds had been registered in Travancore (Puthenkalam,1966). The Malabar Marumakkatayam Act of 1933 then allowed men to claim their share of the ancestral property in the rest of the Malabar region. On 1st December 1976, the Kerala Joint Hindu Family System (Abolition) Act was passed, which considered joint families as simply co-tenants of land (Jeffrey, 2004). Thus, patriarchy in Kerala was fully consolidated.

It is crucial to reiterate the point that legislation passed during the British rule only solidified and consolidated this decline. It was not an imposition of legislation that signaled the customary end of the matrilineal system. Rather, the legal consolidation of the patriarchy was a consequence of Hindu efforts to counteract the negativity surrounding the matrilineal system, by shifting to the more widely accepted (and respected) system of patriliny (Jeffrey, 1990). Further, perhaps as a natural succession to matriliny, daughters were given the same right as sons to be inheritors of their father’s property – a privilege unavailable to a large proportion of women in the rest of India until 2005.


In conclusion, this paper explains the ways in which British influence led to the systematic destruction of the matrilineal system in Kerala. First, British rule led to the imposition of rigid codified laws of the ideal type of the taravad system, which highlighted, if not created, impracticalities of a matrilineal kinship system. Further, the British expansion of their economy into Kerala had the effect of changing economic systems from joint income to individual salaried occupations, which allowed taravad systems to break down into smaller nuclear units. Finally, cultural imperialism by the British shifted public opinion away from matriliny towards the system of patrilineal kinship. In an effort to reform the system of family governance in Kerala, Nairs began to advocate for the legal dissolution of matriliny. Gradual systematic reforms were passed by the concerned legislative bodies, both in. Travancore and Malabar prior to independence and by the Kerala High Court after independence. These factors contributed to the consolidation of the patriarchy in Kerala, as Nair families today follow a patrilineal inheritance system.


[1] Mapillas are members of the native Muslim community in Kerala.


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Saradamoni, K. (1999). Matriliny Transformed: Family, Law and Ideology in Twentieth Century Travancore. London: Sage and Altam

Women’s Political Representation in Lebanon: An Ongoing Struggle Amid a Consociational State and a Patriarchal Society

by Natasha Nazi

Abstract: The reasons behind the mismatch between women’s economic and educational triumph and staggering low political participation rates in Lebanon have been debated extensively. They have been a focal point for many scholars who, in light of the achievements of Lebanese women in other sectors, consider Lebanon a fertile ground for women to succeed similarly in the political arena. However, the Lebanese political system is structurally inhospitable to women. A sectarian electoral system breeds hegemonic sectarian leadership, clientelist networks, and a patriarchal society. Various electoral reforms have been debated and applied, yet all have failed at addressing gender inequality. This paper argues that Lebanon’s electoral law needs reform, and that the familial-political scene and patriarchal principles must be challenged. Based on all the factors hindering women from reaching political leadership, the paper suggests quotas as a way to remove the obstacles to a more gender-equal political scene in Lebanon. 


Amongst the several political predicaments Lebanon faces today, low political representation of women is one that withstood historical, cultural, and political developments. The existing dilemma is reflected in the disparity present between high levels of economic participation and educational levels amongst Lebanese women, and drastically low political representation.

This matter has become a focal point for many scholars who consider Lebanon ready for women to be effectively represented in the political arena (Sharif, 2017). However, despite the triumphs of Lebanese women in other sectors, adequate representation of women is the political sphere has yet to be realized.

The sectarian political system is one of the main reasons for the marginalization of women. Further factors include the patriarchal society and the familial affiliations that define Lebanese politics. It is important to note that during the most recent parliamentary elections of May 2018, the government reformed the electoral law to make the electoral process more democratic and inclusive. This came in the form of a major shift from the former majoritarian system to a new tailored proportional system (Lebanese Republic, 2017). However, the reform neglected to introduce much-debated reforms such as a quota for women and lowering the voting age from 21 to 18. Still, the latest election showed the eagerness of Lebanese women for expanded political representation: a striking 111 women ran for office, as opposed to 12 in the preceding elections of 2009.

However, despite this desire for participation, women’s representation did not increase significantly. Women in Lebanon are still alarmingly restricted from entering the political sphere: without reform, no substantial change is likely to take place. The purpose of this paper is to suggest solutions.

Discrimination against Lebanese women within formal politics is a function of a sectarian electoral system and patriarchal and familial political culture. This structure is amplified and sustained by the consociational power-sharing elitist formula which supplements sectarian divides and sectarian leadership. This paper argues that Lebanon’s sectarian electoral law, its familial-political scene, and its patriarchal principles help sustain an alarming gender inequality in politics. Based on the intricate system in place, this paper will suggest the introduction of a reserved seat gender quota to raise the low representation of women in the next election and to accustom the Lebanese society to women in political leadership. For the same purpose, it will also suggest the introduction of a voluntary party zipper quota.


This paper will approach the analysis by answering the following questions: what are the most significant political reforms proposed in the literature? In what ways would they work? How would they address gender-bias in the electoral system? What are other impediments to Lebanese women’s political participation in formal politics? These questions will be answered from an analytical feminist perspective In particular, the paper will utilize Farid Jalalzai’s framework to analyze the challenges that women face when attempting to enter formal politics, which are institutional, structural, cultural and historical (Jalalzai, 2009).

Historical Overview/ Background

Lebanon’s political and electoral systems have been historically based on sectarian patronage. With the tai’f reform agreement of 1990, the electoral law aimed to stabilizing the country after a long and bloody civil war (Najem, 2012). The ta’if agreement focused exclusively on reinforcing sectarian representation rather than anything else, including gender equality in political representation (Salloukh et al., 2015, p.22).Parliamentary seats are assigned based on sects (Salloukh et al., 2015, p.22). The Lebanese parliament consists of 128 parliamentary seats, of which 64 are assigned to Christians, and 64 to Muslims. Within these two primary groups, seats are further broken down into religious subgroups. Muslims seats are split between Shiites (27), Sunnis (27) Druzes (10) and the ‘Alawis (2). Christian representation is much more dispersed: with Maronites making up the largest group with only 34 seats (Salloukh et al., 2015, p.22). Historically, Lebanon had been divided into 26 districts (qadaa), however, for the May 2018 elections, the number was reduced to 15. Within these districts, seats are distributed based on the number of citizens and their religious affiliations. Another reform introduced for the May 2018 elections was the replacement of the majoritarian system (winner-takes-all) by a proportional system combined with preferential voting.

Despite the reform and a ten-fold increase in the number of women candidates in the May 2018 elections, few women candidates were elected. The results can be explained by the lack of any specific attempt to address gender inequality as part of the reform. No quota system was introduced, and most major political parties did not implement voluntary party quotas either, hence no real change was seen. The issue has been extensively discussed by party leaders and in parliament, but no action was taken, suggesting that the discussion was geared toward maintaining a modern public image.

After being unrepresented for thirty years, women in Lebanon have held parliamentary seats uninterruptedly since 1992 (Abu-Zayd, 1998). Nevertheless, elected women have frequently played a descriptive role as part of continuing a family legacy or ask tokens within their political parties. Historically, the percentage of women in the Lebanese parliament has never exceeded 5%, which does not reflect the reality of women’s active economic and social presence (Abu-Zayd, 1998). Within the Middle East, Lebanon stands out as a country that enjoys relative political and social openness, religious liberty, and partial press freedom, and yet it has one of the lowest representation of women in politics in the region and the world (Henderson, Nelson & Chemali, 2015). For example, Algerian, Jordanian, Iraqi, and Moroccan women gained suffrage over a decade after Lebanese women, yet their countries have notably higher numbers of political representation of women (UNDP, 2017).  Today in Lebanon, women account for 4.6% of the members in parliament, namely six women out of 128 members. Moreover, they account for only 13% of the ministers in the council of ministers, with four women out of thirty ministers.

The Sectarian Context

“There is an inextricable connection between women’s discrimination and the sectarianism system” said Dr. Saadeh, a Lebanese professor of History. Many scholars agree this connection is a major obstacle to women’s political participation (Kingston, 2011). With parliamentary seats molded into sectarian fronts, hegemonic sectarian leaders present themselves as the protectors of the sect and dominate elections. Such patterns have been continuous since the formation of Lebanon. Both Saadeh and Kingston (2011) argue that the lack of a civic identity in Lebanese politics makes non-confessional political parties and movements powerless, and entrenches sectarian identities within political parties. In turn, gender equality issues have been neglected, in the face of sectarianism and the sustenance of the sectarian system which is deemed as “existentialist” (Sharif, 2017).

Political parties have been inhospitable institutions for women in Lebanon; indications such as the exclusion of women from decision-making positions point to gender equality not being a main concern (Kingston, 2011). Kingston further explains that the sectarian electoral system in Lebanon works to reproduce the existing order because of the “locally based nature” of representation, which ties families and male figures in a “patron-clientelist” manner.

Moreover, democratic gaps within the existing majoritarian electoral system have been a subject of debate in the literature. The existing law was deemed as “outdated and controversial,” undermining democracy, and exacerbating sectarian tensions (El Machnouk, 2017). Reforms to the Lebanese electoral law have been implemented since the formation of Lebanon in 1943 (El Machnouk, 2017). However none have addressed gender equality and women’s low representation in parliament. In the May 2018 election, the electoral system shifted to a proportional law, which also granted voters a preferential candidate vote. Nevertheless, although many parties campaigned for the idea of introducing a quota for women, the reformed law did not include one, and women and women’s issues remain marginalized in the political scene. Over the years, several reforms have been proposed, however, none publicly endorsed a gender quota. The main proposals included a mixed-member proportional law, an orthodox gathering proposal, and a nationwide PR proposal, all of which centered on sectarianism.

The orthodox gathering law, which was initially approved by the major Christian political parties in Lebanon, is said to have emerged from the roots of Christian grievances (El Machnouk, 2017). Based on the proposal, Lebanon would comprised one large district where every sectarian group would elect candidates from its own sect to parliament regardless of their district affiliations. The system calls upon a proportional law while preserving regional sectarian quotas. The Orthodox proposal has been characterized as “morally questionable” as it is seen as drowning Lebanon further into ethnic and sectarian divides. It would probably intensify tensions based on sectarianism by incentivizing candidates to “play the ethnic and sectarian card” while appealing to voters (Reilly, 2002, p. 156). Overall, the proposal is reflective of the preoccupation with sectarianism and neglects to address the gender inequality.

The abolishment of the sectarian system, as suggested by the nationwide PR proposal, was faced with backlash as it was said to aggravate sectarian and ethnic tension in a community ingrained in sectarianism such as the Lebanese community (El Machnouk, 2017). The nationwide PR proposal suggested an electoral reform whereby the proportional law would be applied to Lebanon as one district with no sectarian quotas in place. This proposal embodies the longing desire to abolish the contemporaneous sectarianism within the Lebanese political and electoral systems. Nonetheless, the proposal is not free from sectarian ambitions as it would benefit Muslim-majority groups present in Lebanon today (El Machnouk, 2017). Due to the rising share of the Muslim population in Lebanon accompanied by the Shia’ religious parties large influence, this proposal falls into Lebanon’s sectarian whirlpool. According to the literature, this system would help the main ethnic or sectarian community become hegemonic (Reilly, 2013, p. 1). In short, the nationwide PR reform, while masked as a way to leave the historical sectarian hole Lebanon has been trapped in since its formation, would leave Lebanon worse off, possibly on the verge of a new civil war.

Lebanon’s deep-rooted sectarianism is usually debated as a chicken or the egg dilemma: should sectarianism be overcome by law, partly as suggested by the nationwide PR electoral law, or should it be eradicated from everyday life and people’s self-segregation first? The literature suggests that one cannot entirely precede the other (El Machnouk, 2017), as the “complex, multi-directional system of causality” ties institutions and the culture in complex ways (Almond, & Verba, 1989, p.35). With people beginning to move away from the religious divides, with, for example, relative openness indicated by higher-level mixed religious marriages, now it might be a good time to reduce the sectarian composition from the house of parliament. This would come as the first step in a long journey of eradicating one of the major factors contributing to various difficulties Lebanon faces today, one of which is gender inequality.

Sharif (2017) explains “Attaining women’s full rights in Lebanon would threaten the basis of the sectarian system and the correlation between sectarian and political interests.” As such, gender equality and sectarianism are in divergence in Lebanon. Lebanese women lack full citizenship, as they are not sanctioned to pass their citizenship to their children and partners. This is due to the historical fear of Palestinian settlement which would “endanger the demographic distribution that the sectarian system is founded upon.” Hence, Lebanese women are not given the same rights as Lebanese men. Sharif (2017) points out that “excluding women who would be competent at delivering change from high decision-making positions is arguably “safer” for maintaining the current political sectarian system and status quo”.

The Patriarchal Society and Familialism

Patriarchal practices within societies worldwide have detrimental impacts on women and men. Patriarchy can be understood as “the privileging of males and seniors and the legitimating of those privileges in the morality and idiom of kinship.” (Sharif, 2017). The centrality and domination of the “father figure” stems from the notion that the father is the head of the family and the household, thus responsible for all members of that family and their affairs (Library of Congress, 2004). Younger males are also reared to grow up and adopt such characteristics dictated by societal gender roles (Sharif, 2017). In the Lebanese context, some patriarchal practices which marginalize women’s rights are clear in the political arena, as well as in personal status laws and religious institutions.

Jalazai explains that women’s participation is bound to sets of challenges which restrict them from entering formal politics; such challenges include institutional, structural, cultural and specific views, and historical factors (Jalalzai, 2009). All of these restricting factors exist in Lebanon and obstruct Lebanese women’s paths into political careers. Institutional factors are based on electoral systems as explained by Jalazai. The impediment of women’s participation is clearly linked to the electoral system in place. Institutionally, with the system being governed by sectarianism, women and other marginalized groups in society do not have equal opportunity in representation. “Most men and women suffer from the sectarian system’s disciplinary techniques, women far more extensively and violently than men” (Salloukh et al., 2015, p.7). Women, even if present as candidates on electoral lists, are usually positioned in unwinnable seats.

“Gender assessment identified the structural constraints that carry the seeds of discrimination and women’s vulnerability, as rooted in laws and regulations, sectarian dynamics, socio-cultural values, decision-making structures, and public policies and development strategies ongoing conflict and security problems, and a rise in social conservatism” (Avis, 2017). In other words, structural constraints are rooted in various fundamental areas in Lebanon. Although the majority of people believe it is time for women to step into political roles (UN Women, 2017), in practice women are still discriminated. Jalalzai (2009) explains that “even when women’s education and professions fit the background of politicians, women are still less likely than men to run for office, often feeling unqualified.” Furthermore, women face additional pressures as part of the traditional “family demands” which often put a political career out of reach. In Lebanon, 92% of women say they are the ones who perform most of the household work, putting them at a disadvantage from perusing a political career (UN Women, 2017).

“The longer women have been habituated in political roles, the more likely they will be political contenders” Jalazai (2009) explains. Historically, women have never occupied more than six seats in the Lebanese parliament. As such, the continuous underrepresentation of women fosters continuous underrepresentation.

Helou argues that Lebanese political parties mirror the country’s patriarchal and sectarian social characteristics. Most parties have a “central, patriarchal figure, who is the leader of the party” which reinforce patriarchal practices (Helou, 2011). Parties are viewed as a reproduction of the social system present in society. Familial-type loyalties which are present within the parties reflect society’s male-controls. She explains that the social system gives males a privilege, especially those who are older and thus subsequently discriminating against women and the youth. Wafaa’ Dikah Hamzeh, a former Lebanese minister remarked that gender stereotypes form a “key obstacle to women in politics”; especially since traditionally society does not assign women the role of political agents (Sharif, 2017). Kingston (2011) explains that the personal status laws and religious courts reflect the patriarchal notions present in Lebanon, which hinder women from having their full rights. Such practices along with institutionalized patriarchy are culturally obstructing women from making their way into the political arena.

The nature of Lebanon’s political familialism factors into the historical exclusion of women in politics. Suad Joseph (2011), defines “political familialism” as:

“The deployment of family institutions, ideologies, practices and relationships by citizens to activate their demands in relation to the state, and by the state actors to mobilize moral grounds for governance based on a civic myth of kinship and a public discourse that privileges family.”

Political familialism is exercised within political parties in Lebanon, where political positions are inherited, they are passed on from father to son, sometimes through more than one generation. Some examples include the Harriri family, the Frangieh family, the Gemayel family, and the Jumblatt family. In the absence of a male heir, a son-in-law, daughter, wife, or sister might step in to ensure the continuation of the political and familial legacy. In the Lebanese context, it is generally presumed that political positions will be passed down within the family which “institutionalizes political familialism within the state apparatus and promotes electoral familial politics” (Joseph, 2011). Political familialism could be exemplified with the Gemayel family, whereby Pierre Gemayel founded a political party, after which both his sons, Bachir Gemayel and Amine Gemayel, followed in his footsteps and took politics as a career, becoming presidents of the Lebanese Republic. Following Bachir Gemayel’s assassination, his wife Solange Gemayel took on a political career and became a member of parliament. Today, Pierre’s grandchildren Samy Gemayel and Nadim Gemayel are also members of parliament and continue to hold the highest positions in the political party, established by their grandfather.

The case of Solange Gemayel, a widow continuing on the political legacy of her husband is not a unique case. “Women in Lebanon often come to power in mourning clothes, stepping into a seat vacated by an assassinated father or spouse” (Iborscheva, 2012). A former member of parliament Nayla Tueini campaigned under the slogan “My father gave his life for the freedom of the country so I decided to continue and try to accomplish what he wanted” (Biedermann & Fifield, 2009). Women like Solange Gemayel and Nayla Tueini often play a descriptive role when in political leadership positions as they are merely centered on keeping the husband’s or the father’s legacy alive rather than constructing their own (Iborscheva, 2012). As such, even when women reach high political positions they often do not represent women, rather they represent their family and male relatives’ goals. Lebanese women hailing from political families are regarded as “household names” continuing the long historical establishment of their family in political affairs (Iborscheva, 2012).


Women’s political participation is one of the indicators of gender equality within a country. Despite being relatively open in its societal social practices, Lebanon ranks very low on the political indicators of women’s participation because of a sectarian electoral system, patriarchal practices, and political familialism. Based on the influence of political parties in Lebanon, voluntary party quotas following a zipper system would make the most impact especially in parties which win high numbers of seats. The zipper system is defined by Hawkesworth (2012) as a system ensuring “men and women alternate from the top to the bottom of the list”. Voluntary party quotas of 30%, which is the critical mass for women to represent a substantive role, alongside a zipper system is most likely to create the most substantive tip in the gendered political scene. Kingston explains political parties are “embedded within the country’s political system” as such could play an intricate role in promoting gender equality. Being parts of the problem, political parties would transform to become part of the solution. Helou explains that parties, as well as men within these parties, have the responsibility to promote such internal quotas to raise the number of women involved in the Lebanese political life (Helou, 2011).

Alongside the voluntary internal quota, the literature points toward reserved seats quotas which would ensure a rise in the number of women representatives in the next election. Saadeh (2011) highlights the importance of “demolishing sectarianism” which is tied to women’s advancements. Moreover, she suggests a quota system granting women a minimum level representation. A reserved seat quota may be beneficial to implement in Lebanon, however, only if the seats exceed 30 to 35% of the total number of MPs to reach a critical mass.  Women in reserved seats are inclined to be more loyal to the men who appointed them than to an electorate. This, therefore, undermines chances of substantive representation for women (Hawkesworth, 2015, p.199). Thus, critical mass is needed to see a difference in women’s behavior in political affairs. (Jalalzai, 2009). Although a reserved seat quota would ultimately lead to the promotion of women tied to political families into power, a critical mass of women in parliament could ensure otherwise. Moreover, the representation would accustom the Lebanese society to women in positions of political power, hence continuing the device of this representation with the election of substantive candidates in preceding elections. Furthermore, “women support policies that are beneficial to women and minority groups” (Jalalzai, 2009). As such, the inclusion of women, even if playing descriptive roles at first, would ultimately benefit the country’s gender equality status.

Given that the main reason for women’s underrepresentation in formal politics in Lebanon is the sectarian and electoral system in place, reform to the system on a structural and institutional level is the main solution to the issue of gender biases as well as other biases that affect people’s representation in parliament (Salloukh et al., 2015). Reform of the electoral law would be the most transformational since even if a quota system is applied with the echoes of the sectarian system and the corruption currently in place it is doubtful that it would produce sufficient result by itself. A new and reformed non-sectarian electoral system is the way Lebanese women among other marginalized groups would get the chance to join the political life (Salloukh et al., 2015, p.176). Decentralization alongside other institutional and structural reforms would also be necessary to reach a “new kind of Lebanon” (Salloukh et al., 2015, p.176). Namely a Lebanon with a more open electoral system and a less sectarian approach to politics. However, as quotas have worked in other part of the world to raise the numbers of women in politics, quotas would be reasonable in the Lebanese context as an initial step towards resolving the issue in place.


Article seven of the Lebanese constitution states that “All Lebanese shall be equal before the law. They shall equally enjoy civic and political rights and shall equally be bound by public obligations and duties without any distinction” (The Lebanese Constitution, 1997). The dilemma Lebanon is facing today is one that displays a mismatch of the relative freedom it enjoys in both its democratic political system and its culture. As such, the question of why openness is not translated into formal politics with a high number of women’s representations is one that is critical. All the reforms suggested to the electoral laws are fixated on coinsurance of the elite to keep their political standing rather than on serious suggestions for better representation of the people, including women and the youth. As such, and with the electoral system, the patriarchal practices and the familialism preventing women’s advancement, quotas seem to appropriately disentangle women’s low representation in Lebanese politics. Through quotas such as the voluntary party quota, or the reserved seat quota a change could transpire.


Abu-Zayd, G. (1998). In search of political power: Women in parliament in Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon. Women in Parliament: Beyond Numbers.

Almond, G., & Verba, S. (1989). The civic culture: Political attitudes and democracy in five nations. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

Avis, W. (2017). Gender equality and women’s empowerment in Lebanon.

El Machnouk, S. (2017). Electoral System Reform in Lebanon: Dilemmas of a Consociational State. Ethnopolitics.

Hawkesworth, M. (2012). Political worlds of women: Activism, advocacy, and governance in the twenty-first century. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Helou, M. (2011). Emerging Voices: Young Women in Lebanese Politics. International Alert.

Henderson, T., Nelson, C., & Chemali, Z. (2015). Increasing Women’s Political Participation in Lebanon: Reflections on Hurdles, Opportunities and Hope. Journal of Politics and Law, 8(4), 233. doi:10.5539/jpl.v8n4p233

Iborscheva, E. (2012). Peeking Through the Looking Glass: A Comparative Analysis of Women, Politics and Media in Lebanon and Bulgaria. Middle East Media Educator, 1(2), 19-29.

Jalalzai, F. (2009). Political Development and Women’s Status around the World. Women and Politics around the world: a comparative history and survey.

Joseph, S. (2011). Political Familism in Lebanon. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science.

Kingston, P. (2011). Emerging Voices: Young Women in Lebanese Politics. International Alert.

Lebanese Republic. Parliament. (2017). Law on the election of members of the House of Representatives.

Library of Congress. Federal Research Division. (2004). Lebanon: A country study (Kessinger publishing’s rare reprints). Whitefish, M.T: Kessinger Publishing.

Najem, T. (2012). Lebanon: The politics of a penetrated society (The contemporary middle east). London: Routledge.

Reilly, B. (2002). Electoral systems for divided societies. Journal of Democracy, 13, 156–170.

Reilly, B. (2013). Identity politics: Democratic institutions in ethnically divided states. World Politics Review, 9.

Saadeh, S. (2011). Emerging Voices: Young Women in Lebanese Politics. International Alert.

Salloukh, B., Barakat, R., Al-Habbal, J., Khattab, L., & Mikaelian, S. (2015). Politics of sectarianism in postwar Lebanon. London: Pluto Press.

Sharif, H. (2017). The origin of women’s segregation in Lebanon’s political life between patriarchy and consociational democracy (Master’s dissertation, Saint Joseph University, Beirut).

The Lebanese Constitution. (1997). Arab Law Quarterly, 12(2), 224-261.

UNDP. (2017). Women’s Quota Parliamentary Elections 2017.

UN Women (2017). Understanding Masculinities. Retrieved, from

‘T’ is for ‘Topak’: How the Taliban are Winning the Propaganda War

By Rija Habib

Abstract: September 2017 marked sixteen years since the start of the War on Terror, America’s longest war. In 2001, US-led coalition forces successfully toppled the Taliban government and ended the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. Many years later, despite the continued American presence in the country, the Taliban have managed a remarkable resurgence and their territorial control is strengthening. This paper argues that the insurgency’s increasingly sophisticated propaganda efforts, including the effective exploitation of dominant Pashtun and Islamic principles, have largely contributed to their resurgence. The paper uses content analysis to study the effectiveness of propaganda methods used by the insurgency including madrassas, poetry, and shabnamas (night letters) as well as the underlying themes of their messages. Findings suggest that Taliban propaganda is extensive and continues to adapt to the changing social and political conditions of its target population—the Pashtuns. American and Afghan anti-Taliban propaganda efforts, on the other hand, have been limited and often culturally and religiously insensitive, leading to further backlash against foreign intervention and the Afghan government.


Since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, the regime’s remnants have persevered and made significant efforts to re-establish themselves as a political and military force. The war in Afghanistan has become the longest war in U.S. history. The Taliban have returned to power in many parts of the country from which they had been earlier expelled. Reports from The Long War Journal, an agency reporting on the War on Terror, show that as of September 2017, the Taliban control areas in 16 of the 34 provinces of Afghanistan (refer to Appendix 1). The Taliban have managed not only to survive after the fall of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan but also steadily expand their influence and authority over the Afghan population, despite continued American military presence.

The economic and political conditions in Afghanistan have empowered the Taliban and facilitated its resurgence. James Fearon and David Laitin have argued that financially, structurally, and politically weak governments assist the rise of insurgencies due to weak local control or inept counterinsurgency practices.[1] Similarly, Kareem Kamel pointed out that the rise of the Taliban can be partially attributed to the failure of state-building and the inability of the Afghan government to secure and stabilize the rural areas of the country in order for development and reconstruction to proceed.[2] Instead, Tim Foxley argued that Pakistani financial and military assistance as well as strategic planning from the Pakistan Inter-Services intelligence (ISI) (as part of its attempts to sustain influence in Afghanistan) have played a crucial role for the survival and resurgence of the insurgency.[3]

At the core of an insurgency is a battle of wills and determination to retain power and not military might. In most conflicts, effective use of media to advance and promote goals, activities, and intentions can be key in winning the population’s support. Retired British general, Rupert Smith, argued that most contemporary battles are primarily about winning the will of the people on whose land a conflict is being fought.[4] The Taliban have realized this and devised a sophisticated propaganda operation that capitalizes on local frustration toward foreign presence and the corrupt Afghan government. They have also exploited the weakening support for future involvement in Afghanistan among the public opinion of the countries involved. The Taliban insurgency has been able to survive due to its ability to garner genuine support for its mission, notably from villagers in rural areas of Afghanistan willing to sacrifice themselves for its cause.[5] The tone and narrative of the Taliban propaganda also resonates with pre-existing values and traditions (Pashtunwali) of the Pashtun people—the target audience of Taliban propaganda.

Pashtuns are the largest ethnic group of Afghanistan and have been the dominant ethno-linguistic group for more than 300 years. The Pashtun language, Pashto, is one of the official languages of Afghanistan. The majority of Pashtuns are followers of Sunni Islam and adhere to pakhtunwali, their traditional lifestyle or ethical code. 

There are several key components of pakhtunwali that are widely practiced and strictly followed. Melmastia (hospitality) entails the providing of hospitality to all visitors, regardless of race, religion, national affiliation, or economic status. Nyaw aw badal (justice and revenge) refers to seeking justice or taking revenge against the wrongdoer.  Turah aw sabat (bravery and loyalty), according to which a Pashtun must be loyal to his country, family and tribe, and must defend them from incursions.[6] Groh (faith) entails a wider notion of trust or faith in god (ibid.). Disloyalty to any of these principles results in shame for any non-abiding individual and his family

Tribal culture is very strong in Afghanistan and the shifting of allegiance by powerful tribes and warlords can be crucial to determining victory and influencing people’s perceptions and support for the Taliban. Crucial to the shaping of popular opinion is the manner and nature of the Taliban’s efforts to communicate their goals, views, and values. This paper analyses the message Taliban propaganda seeks to present and the means used to do so. It also evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of the Taliban’s efforts to communicate with and influence local Pashtun communities, both supporters and opponents alike. The paper argues that Taliban propaganda in the Pashtun regions of Afghanistan has evolved with increasing sophistication and has adapted its message to evolving local conditions by taking into account the political, economic, and socio-cultural predicaments of its intended audience.

Literature review

The Taliban insurgency has a complicated past with many successes and failures. Gohari traces the origins of their ideology to the madrassas of Pakistan during the 1980s. Gohari’s discussion of the hardships that Afghan refugees faced during the Soviet invasion has helped understand the conditions that allowed the Taliban to gain a strong footing amongst the Afghan population in its early days. The author describes the miserable state of refugee camps and the lack of schools and employment opportunities in refugee areas which led to radicalization of Afghans and growing hatred toward foreign military presence and interference in Afghan affairs.

Kareem Kamel argues that Taliban’s success lies in their capacity to act as resourceful ethnic entrepreneurs through selective usage of dominant Pashtun and Islamic mythomoteurs (constitutive myth that gives an ethnic group its sense of purpose) in the process of symbolic cultivation. He shows the ability of the Taliban to adapt their propaganda means and fine-tune their messages to appeal to local sensitivities and grievances. In addition, the report by the International Crisis Group “Taliban Propaganda Winning the War of Words” sheds light on both the messages the Taliban wish to convey to the public and their media strategies. Thomas Johnson has showed how the shabnama have a long history in Afghanistan and are still effectively used today to deliver threats and instill fear. Johnson’s discussion of Taliban poetry identified several themes present in their chants and poetry. He also highlighted the Afghan government’s failure to address these efforts and its naïve dismissal of these poems as simply “entertainment.” To the contrary, the Taliban exploit these inexpensive but effective tools to successfully spread their propaganda. Of a different opinion is Tim Foxley who argues that Taliban propaganda is neither particularly complex nor even effective, but appears so because of the inefficacy of both foreign and government propaganda.

Means of Propaganda

Since the rise of the Taliban in 1996, propaganda means have evolved over time. From the use of traditional methods targeting limited audiences to adopting more advanced approaches reaching larger numbers of people in Afghanistan and the world over, the Taliban have shown increasing sophistication in their media tactics. The Taliban issue print magazines but also operate their own website and social media accounts, including Twitter and Facebook. However, high rates of illiteracy in rural areas compel the Taliban to rely on more traditional means of communication, such as issuing pamphlets, delivering sermons in mosques, teaching Taliban ideology in madrassas, issuing of threats in shabnama, and circulating poetry.[7] 


In the 1980s, hundreds of Afghan refugees in Pakistan enrolled their male children into madrassas or religious schools. According to Neamatollah Njoumi, attending these schools provided a source of income for many refugee families as they offered free rooms, daily meals, and a monthly stipend, which the students used to support their families.[8] Since refugee camps were often located far from town, finding jobs was almost impossible and families relied on this type of income.[9] Over the course of the Afghan conflict, mujahideen groups such as Hezb-e-Islami and Jamaat-e-Islami became involved in these schools and even opened their own.[10] Gradually, madrassas became affiliated with the war effort and provided military training to students, who often went on to fight in Afghanistan against the Soviets.[11]

The ideological formation of the Taliban has historical roots in the emergence of thousands of madrassas across Pakistan. Like other mujahideen groups, members of the Taliban including the senior leadership such as the former supreme commander Mullah Mohammad Omar, have received their education and training in these institutions.[12] When the Taliban came to power in 1994, public schools were shut down and replaced with madrassas and it was declared that students of these schools would be entrusted with the duty of jihad-fi-sabeelillah (War in Allah’s path).[13]

Although the Taliban initially banned girls from attending classes and threatened any individual who would teach girls privately, they have softened their stance in recent years. Women and girls now attend segregated classes at these madrassas or in separate schools for girls.[14] Their curriculums are typically limited to Quran memorisation, the study of Hadith, Islamic law as well as languages such as Arabic and Pashto[15].

In most rural areas, madrassas are the only form of institutionalized education and a critical means to promote Taliban ideology. Since secular knowledge is unavailable and literacy rates are low in these regions, children easily absorb these schools’ teachings. Additionally, for the poorest families, it is the added benefits of free daily meals and basic provisions that make these institutions attractive for their children.

Poetry and Chants

Poetry and chants form a strong component of Pashtun culture; throughout history they have been a means of entertainment, art, and storytelling. Even during Taliban rule, despite the ban on several forms of entertainment and media (such as music and television) poetry and chants were permitted – in particular religious chants and taranas oremotional, martial, nationalistic songs without musical accompaniment.[16] Over time, these became a powerful Taliban tool for “instructing” and intimidating the Afghan population.

The Taliban regularly compose powerful lengthy poetry and chants on a variety of topics, including the importance of jihad, the long and honourable history of Afghanistan’s struggle  against foreign “infidels,” Pashtun traditions, Islam, and even love.[17] While some poetry points directly to Taliban activities, others aim to intensify and applaud resistance to foreigners and appeal to nationalism. Since Taliban members are primarily Pashtun, these poems and chants are mostly composed in Pashto (and sometimes in Dari), thus making them easily accessible to the population.[18]

Johnson and Waheed described Taliban chants as melodic with catchy tunes; often with repeating sections that have a tendency to persist in people’s consciousness.[19] The authors claim that the catchy rhymes, rhythm, and lyrics of the chants are easily memorized and passed on as they are one of the key sources of entertainment in communal gatherings and celebratory events. As such, poetry has become a crucial means of promoting propaganda, especially for the illiterate. According to Johnson and Waheed, several local singers and musicians have also decided to sing Taliban chants, thereby further increasing their popularity. They have also come to the attention of an increasing number of Pashtun youth, especially in areas where the Taliban have a substantial presence.[20]

The Taliban have been able to keep up with the modernizing population by ensuring that these chants and poems are widely available to rural and urban populations through a wide variety of mediums such as poetry books, Taliban magazines, CDs, audio cassettes, websites, and YouTube. Chants are now also available as downloadable ringtones on the internet.[21]


Shabnama (night letters) are a traditional means of communication in Afghanistan. These letters consist of printed or handwritten pages delivered to targeted individuals, distributed throughout towns and villages, or even blanketed over entire provinces. The letters are usually posted to the walls of mosques, government buildings, or other important landmarks, and promise death to anyone who disobeys their threats and instructions.[22] Night letters were a particularly useful technique employed by the mujahideen to influence and intimidate their recipients chiefly during times of turmoil, such as during the Soviet invasion. Nelofer Pazira, in her book A Bed of Red Flowers, describes the use of night letters to coordinate shop closings or similar activities intended to generate solidarity among the Afghan population in their anti-Soviet conflict.[23]

The Taliban adopted this highly cost-effective means to deliver threats to warn villages of the “wrath” they would face if they cooperated with international forces or the government. Often the targets of these letters are the villagers seen talking to ISAF soldiers, or the victims of local Taliban settling old tribal scores. While such methods do not win the hearts of local villagers, they are successful in instilling fear and making villagers reluctant to engage with the international community or the Afghan Government.[24] The Taliban rely on the educated populace to communicate the shabnama to illiterate villagers. Typically, shabnama are directed to figures of authority and supporters of the current government and often read as the following: “Once this government falls, we will be in power. We have your documents, your names and your addresses. We will come and punish you.”[25]

Night letters are often accompanied by direct action, such as school burnings and the execution of locals accused of spying for American forces. There have been countless cases of Taliban beheading villagers and innocent children for “spying for the government.” For instance, in 2013, the Taliban beheaded two boys aged 10 and 16 as a warning to villagers not to cooperate with the Afghan government.[26] The increasing use of such means demonstrates the Taliban’s ability to learn from other insurgent groups and benefit from the growth of local industries for the  production of audio-visual propaganda.

Themes and Messages of Taliban Propaganda

While the means of propaganda is important to reach the intended audiences, it is ultimately the message that will determine whether intentions will turn into actions. There are clear recurring themes within Taliban’s propaganda that are directed toward the local population, including the call to jihad, resistance to foreign forces, and the local government. The Taliban use their interpretation of Islam as a basis to back their ideology and claims.

Foreign Presence and Afghan Government

The Taliban promote the notion that it is the Islamic duty of Afghans to attack the foreign military presence thus undermining the legitimacy of foreign presence and boasting its ability to attack it.[27] Exaggeration and distortion on the following issues are commonplace: (a) the numbers of casualties inflicted on foreign forces, (b) the numbers of casualties inflicted on Afghan civilians by foreign forces, (c) claims to have brought down foreign aircraft, (d) kidnappings or capturing of military personnel, and (e) weapons systems available to the Taliban.[28]

The following is an extract from an online publication on the Taliban website and entitled “Intelligence Ploys of the Enemy, a Sign of their Despair and Failure,” published on October 2, 2017:

We want to remind America and their stooges that when you had 150,000 troops in Afghanistan in 2010-2012 and turned to all kind of terror and brutalities, did any leader of the Islamic Emirate seek asylum in any other country? Did they abandon their resistance? It is to be mentioned that all leaders of the Islamic Emirate have been refined and hardened in the furnace of time. Have your generals not admitted many a times that defeating Taliban is not an easy task. They are resilient, always emerging with new tactics to confront us. Therefore, do not waste your money on such failed intelligence efforts and meaningless wars anymore. It is not worth it.

Readily, America seeks to extricate herself of due financial share in the NATO and the United Nations under one pretext or the other because of economic problems. This is the result of your meaningless wars in Afghanistan and other Islamic countries which have made you weak and discredited to such an extent… So, there is still time to realize and abandon your imperialistic schemes before you face the same fate of the former Soviet Union.[3]

The publication includes several significant messages directed toward the American government, but also to the local population. Firstly, it aims to commend the strength and resilience of the Taliban for not abandoning the fight despite the heavy presence of foreign soldiers. Secondly, it hopes to make apparent the growing weakness of the Americans by revealing their reluctance to financially contribute to NATO and the UN as a consequence of their “meaningless wars.” Lastly, the publication seeks to remind the Americans and more importantly the Afghan population, of its earlier victory against the Soviet Union in an attempt to further illustrate the nation’s success against foreigners.

Taliban strength is also demonstrated in their poems.

wali pa gondo shwali?
sar pa narido shwali?
ta kho wel che za super kuwat pa tol jahan ki yem
nan kho sta makhi ta watalei nagyalei Talib,
har chata warzi da nangyali Talib.[30]


Why did you go to your knees?
Began to drop on your head?
You claimed you are the superpower of the world.
Today, you encountered a young Talib,
Facing everyone proudly, this young Talib.

The poem is from the viewpoint of a talib (single of Taliban) fighter and is addressed to an American soldier who drops down to his knees in agony upon the death of his comrade. The talib asks the Americans why they drop to their knees after claiming to be all-powerful. He further explains that it is because the soldier saw a Talib, who courageously faced him and brought him to his knees.

Figure 1: A page from a fourth grade Pashto textbook used by the Taliban

Anti-foreigner propaganda is also present in madrassas, where textbooks used by the Taliban are filled with violent messages and images, exposing children from an early age to a culture of violence. Figure 1 shows a page for the letter “K” from a Pashto alphabet book. The text reads “K” for Kor (house/home), Afghanistan is the home of Muslims. Kaafirs are the enemies of our religion and our nation. We will not let enemies enter our pure home.”[31]

The Taliban perceive the Afghan governments succeeding their rule as “puppets” of the Americans and have devoted much of their efforts to shifting local support and opinion against the government. The Afghan government, particularly under Karzai was presented as corrupt, as run by non-Muslims who are directing Afghanistan toward un-Islamic western values. This is further evident from the highly degrading language used by the Taliban when referring to government forces. Members of the Afghan National Army (ANA) and the Afghan National Police (ANP) are labelled munafiq (hypocrite), and other members of the administration are called ghulam (slave/servant), ajir (agent), and gawdagai (puppet)[32].

The Taliban seeks to portray itself as resolute and its violence as legitimate. The growing discontent with corruption within the government further fuels grievances and presents the Taliban as a viable alternative, even to people who do not like the Taliban. The Taliban have realised this and have created parallel governments that enforce Sharia law and established Islamic courts to solve disputes among residents.[33] Taliban courts are perceived as quicker, fairer, more effective and less corrupt than the secular courts, a further proof of the Afghan government’s inability to impose law and order, and its negligence of the rural areas.[34]

Figure 2: A Taliban shabnama threatening an individual seen to be cooperating with foreigners

Taliban shabnama are also used to threaten any individuals, groups or organizations that are cooperating with foreign forces. Figure 2 shows a shabnama with the Taliban seal on the top of the page. The shabnama is addressed to Neamatullah Rekazai, working for an aid organization, “ABM,” which helps women find work.[35] The text threatens Neamatullah to stop cooperating with foreigners or “face the consequences.” It further clarifies that the Taliban are aware of where he lives and works. In a culture that emphasizes loyalty to the state and tribe, such public shaming of individuals is an effective tool for the Taliban.

Jihad and Islam

Another major topic of discussion in Taliban propaganda is jihad and the duty of every Afghan and Muslim to perform it. The Taliban present jihad as a vital part of one’s belief in Islam and an “honor” for a Muslim. Figure 3 is a page discussing the letter “T” from a children’s Pashto textbook used in madrassas. The text reads “T” for “Topak” (weapon/gun), “My uncle has a gun. He does jihad with the gun.”[36] Figure 4 shows a page from a mathematics book which teaches children to count using images of Kalashnikovs, handguns, knives and bullets.[37] Such messages are specially designed to instil a culture of violence in young minds and teach children from a young age their “duty” as a Muslim and an Afghan.

Na ba Jari grani mori sta zakhmuna me che giri,
Za shahid pa Shariat yet pa winu ke lat pat yam,
Janaza ta me ratel ka spin pagrei and stergei ye tori.
Handagha khafar de bad dei,
nan sa ham na dei hawas dei,
Ghbargi hoori mi tarsang di,
pa ma kri da zulfo syuri[38].


Don’t cry my dear mother when you see my red scars,
I am shaheed (a martyr) by Shariah all covered in blood,
Gather white turbans and black eyes for my funeral,
This is enough pride for you,
Today isn’t a day of sorrow it is a celebration,
There are Hoori around me,
their long hair is giving me shade.

Jihad and Islam are also strong themes in Taliban poems and chants. Poem 2 is a chant from a talib fighter’s viewpoint telling his mother not to cry because he is a shaheed (martyr) in the name of Islam. The mention of “red scars” and “blood” is intentional to instill a sense of pride a soldier or martyr should feel from their battle wounds. The soldier tells his mother that his martyrdom or jihad should be a cause for celebration and that he is now in paradise surrounded by hoori, the women of heaven.

Evaluating Taliban Propaganda

Reliable information in Afghanistan is scarcely available and high levels of illiteracy coupled with poor access to modern media lead to reliance on messages spread through word of mouth. This means that information is often imprecise, out of date, and second hand. For such an audience, any claims of military success by the Taliban will be deemed credible. Secondly, the Taliban have dominated the narrative as its spokesmen reach out to journalists and media outlets with detailed accounts of insurgent attacks in real-time while the Kabul government stays silent.[39] Bureaucratic lethargy often prevents Afghan officials from issuing timely responses to Taliban claims. Government forces cannot publish photos and videos from the battlefield and must follow formal approval procedures prior to any publication, which limits their ability to contest Taliban’s claims. Their prompt responses along with their ability to threaten journalists, allow the Taliban to claim attacks and present exaggerated accounts of incidents to their benefit.[40] 

In addition, the Taliban benefit from the damage and civilian casualties resulting from foreign military operations and from the perceived lack of respect for local people, property and tribal customs by Western military tactics. The Taliban publish monthly reports detailing the number of casualties per day along with the location and a brief description of each incident. The following is an excerpt from a post on the Taliban website titled “War crimes of savage foreign invaders and their internal mercenaries” for the month of September 2017:

“On Wednesday 13th September, main gates of civilian houses were blasted in bombs; the houses were thoroughly searched out; local people were badly beaten; their valuables were stolen; and eventually 4 innocent villagers were taken away as prisoners during a brutal raid of the savage foreign invaders escorted by their internal stooge forces in Abu-Bakar village of Wazir area in Khogyani district of Nangarhar province.”[41]

Often the figures in these reports are highly exaggerated in an attempt to create resentment toward the foreign forces. These reports are not only published on the Taliban websites but also in the Taliban magazines and broadcasted on Taliban run radio stations.

Taliban propaganda has shown to adapt to the changing conditions within Afghanistan and address contemporary issues, in particular on the role of women. Mullah Omar guaranteed that the new Taliban regime would “respect the rights of all people in the country, including women.” Accordingly, in Taliban controlled regions, the number of girls’ madrassas has been growing. Jelani Zwak, an Afghan political analyst who studied Taliban propaganda stated that “these days their propaganda has changed. They are not only talking about the occupation and civilian casualties. They are acting like an alternative to this government.”[42] Referring to the Karzai administration, which many Afghans perceived as corrupt, Mullah Omar had vowed that the Taliban would also “bring about administrative transparency in all government departments.”[43]

Although Taliban propaganda has evolved and strengthened over time, it does have its limitations. The message is often inadequate and lacking clear insight as little effort is made to appeal to a wider Afghan and western audience. Though the means used reach a wide international audience, the message is nevertheless directed toward the local Pashtun population. While the Taliban have gradually embraced modern communications technology, they struggle to modify and develop their message. Most importantly, the Taliban do not appear to propose any clear political or governance ideas and policies and seem to lack a broad strategic overview.[44] There seems to exist minimal interest in, or understanding of, wider global issues that could potentially assist them. As medical and food aid as well as reconstruction efforts reach larger parts of the country, the Taliban argument which claims foreign and government forces seek to cause destruction in Afghanistan are beginning to lose weight amongst the population. In addition, the messages are often muddled and contradictory. A spokesman would claim an attack only to have another spokesman counter the claim, particularly if the incident resulted in civilian casualties. In June 2005, then Taliban spokesman Hakimi, denied that the group had carried out a suicide attack at a funeral in Kandahar that killed at least 20 Afghans. He instead falsely claimed that the Taliban had only assassinated one target at the funeral, the man for whom the funeral was being held.[45]

However, little effort has been made to counter Taliban propaganda, particularly in rural regions. Opposition propaganda (chiefly American propaganda) has only assisted to further the Taliban’s cause as it is severely limited in terms of both quantity and quality. American anti-Taliban propaganda has often backfired, where any efforts to portray a negative image of the Taliban have instead resulted in insulting Islam or local values, something the Pashtun people cannot tolerate. For instance, in early 2017, American forces distributed leaflets to homes in Parwan province (north of Kabul). The leaflets depicted a lion representing the American-led coalition forces, chasing a dog (an animal considered impure in Islam) wrapped in the Taliban flag. The writing on the flag is the shahada, the most sacred of texts in Islam, the foundational declaration of faith in God. The leaflets worked in the favour of the Taliban, sparked anti-American anger and violence, and led to the suicide bombing at the American air base in Bagram[46].

Arturo Munoz, studied American anti-Taliban propaganda in Afghanistan and found that most efforts produced no significant results. Munoz argues that early propaganda disseminated in 2001, immediately after the War on Terror was declared, attempted to justify the war to the Afghans but failed to gain local support as they felt Al-Qaeda was to blame and not the Taliban. The Afghans held the “Arabs” accountable and felt the war was unjust. American propaganda then evolved to include pictures of the plane crashes of September 11. Munoz states that due to lack of televisions and other media outlets, many Afghans had never seen tall buildings before and could not comprehend the images. Furthermore, the concept of commercial airplanes did not resonate with the locals who had largely seen American fighter planes in their skies. Therefore, many Afghans were perplexed as to why American fighter planes were crashing into their own buildings. Eventually American anti-Taliban propaganda sought another approach by portraying pictures of the Taliban crossed out with bright red ink or images of rockets directed toward a talib. Figure 6 shows an American anti-Taliban leaflet where Afghan men are seen to be buried in underground caves due to American missiles. The images do not distinguish these men as Taliban fighters and to the average Afghan it seemed like the Americans were targeting ordinary Afghan men. Several variations of these leaflets emerged with images of Taliban members however, since the locals had not seen the faces of any of the Taliban members, they could not recognise them, and the leaflets were misinterpreted[47].

However, the opposition’s costliest propaganda mistake had been made before the Taliban even came to power. Beginning in the 1980s, the Americans spent millions of dollars to produce anti-Soviet textbooks for Afghan children, which served as useful propaganda against the Soviets during the cold war.[48] The very books examined previously in the paper under “messages of Taliban propaganda” became part of the core curriculum of Afghan schools and encouraged a jihadist outlook against Soviet “infidels.”[49] They were produced with the support of the U.S. Agency for International Development by the University of Nebraska at Omaha and smuggled into Afghanistan through networks built by the CIA and ISI, Pakistan’s military intelligence agency.[50] The very tools created by the Americans to influence Afghan opinion on the Soviets were later used by the Taliban to shift public opinion against Americans. The Taliban continue to use the millions of copies still circulating in the madrassas they control.


The Taliban have demonstrated remarkable success in projecting themselves as much stronger than they actually are in terms of numbers and resources. The group seem to be learning from its mistakes and is quick to exploit the weaknesses of its opponents. The Taliban are increasingly controlling more land and constructing a parallel administration, while Afghans in conflict-hit areas are evaluating options amid a sense of insurgent momentum.

American and Afghan government forces tend to view information operations as complementing military operations, whereas for the Taliban information objectives tend to drive military operations:  most military operations are designed to influence attitudes or perceptions. The American War on Terror has focused on military victories and neglected the fight to win Afghan hearts and minds. The Americans are highly capable of producing effective propaganda as demonstrated by the extensive textbook program of USAID. However, recent efforts have been careless and ineffective. The Taliban, on the other hand, cannot win on the battlefield, but they do not have to. All they must do is wear out their opponents and influencing perceptions at home and abroad are a vital component of this strategy.[51] For the Taliban, the battle for the Islamic emirate of Afghanistan is one worth fighting, and all efforts are directed toward achieving this goal.

The Taliban have proved skilful at fuelling existing grievances and uncertainties in their attempt to turn the Afghan people against the “puppet” government and its international supporters. However, the Afghan government and American forces did not make much of an effort to exploit Taliban weaknesses and winning over the population. The Taliban must be confronted to explain their actions, tactics and intentions as well as their authority and interpretation of Islam.  The Afghan government must be truly accountable and act in the best interests of the people. It must work on development of institutions and provide services and security in the rural areas which will garner public support and thus deny any opportunities for insurgents to exploit local frustrations and grievances.

Simply increasing military troop numbers is pointless if there is not a strategic plan in which building local capacity is the priority. US President Donald Trump recently announced that he will be sending more troops to Afghanistan as part of his strategy to “win” the war. Trump stated that “We are not nation-building again. We are killing terrorists.” Such a policy is bound to create further destruction and instability as well as alienate the rural population even more.[52] International forces must also demonstrate accountability to the public for their actions and create more transparency in investigating civilian casualties. If this is not achieved, talks of long-term foreign military presence will only feed into nationalistic resistance and further strengthen Taliban support.

Afghans are a pragmatic people and flexible with their allegiances, therefore their assessment as to the strength of the Taliban is crucial in determining whether they will take a pro-, anti- or neutral stance towards them. The focus must shift from a military victory towards a battle for the hearts and minds of the Afghan people.


[1] James Fearon and David Laitin, Ethnicity, Insurgency, and Civil War, American Political Science Review.97, no. 01 (2003): 85.

[2] Kareem Kamel, Understanding Taliban Resurgence, 2015, p. 3.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Tim Foxley, The Taliban’s Propaganda Activities, (Stockholm, SIPRI, 2007), p. 2.

[5] Kamel, Understanding Taliban, p. 3.

[6] Erinn Banting, Afghanistan the People. (Crabtree Publishing Company, 2003), p. 14.

[7] According to the 2018 statistics provided by UNESCO, literacy rates in Afghanistan are as low as 13.3% for individuals aged 65 and above and 42% for those aged 15-65 years.

[8] Neamatollah Nojumi, The Rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan (New York, Palgrave, 2002), p. 126.

[9] Home Office, Country Policy and Information Note Afghanistan: Unaccompanied children, 2018, p.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Human Rights Watch, Afghanistan: Taliban Child Soldier Recruitment Surges, 2016.

[12] Ibid., p. 128.

[13] Mohammad Gohari, The Taliban: Ascent to Power, (Karachi, Oxford University Press, 2002), p. 101.

[14] Lianne Gutcher, Turnaround by Taliban Gives Girls a Chance: News, (The Times Educational Supplement Scotland , 2219:11, 2011).

[15] Nojumi, The Rise, p. 128.

[16] International Crisis Group, Taliban Propaganda; Winning the War of Words?, (Kabul, ICG, 2008), p. 21.

[17] Strick van Linschoten et. al., Poetry of the Taliban, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012).

[18] Ibid.

[19] Thomas Johnson and Ahmad Waheed, Analyzing Taliban Taranas (Chants): An Effective Afghan Propaganda Artifact, 2011, p. 4.

[20] Ibid., p.3

[21] Ibid., p. 6.

[22] Thomas Johnson, The Taliban Insurgency and an Analysis of Shabnamas, 2007, p. 321.

[23] Ibid., p. 320.

[24] Foxley, The Taliban, p. 16.

[25] Johnson, Shabnama, p. 321.

[26]  Reuters, Taliban beheads two boys in southern Afghanistan, (Kabul, 2013).

[27] International Crisis Group, Taliban Propaganda, p. 18.

[28] Foxley, The Taliban, p. 8.

[29] Al-Emarah, Intelligence Ploys of the Enemy, a Sign of their Despair and Failure (2017).

[30] Strick van Linschoten et. al., Poetry of the Taliban, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012), p. 109.

[31] Syed Hazrat, Pashto for the fourth grade, (Afghanistan: Ministry of Education, 1999).

[32] International Crisis Group, Taliban Propaganda, p. 17.

[33] Foxley, The Taliban, p. 10.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Abubakar Siddique, Afghan Aid Worker Not Blind To Taliban Threats, Radio Liberty, 2017.

[36] A.H. ‘Not Yet History’, (Bamyan, The Economist, 2012),

[37] Strick van Linschoten et. al., Poetry of the Taliban, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012), p. 115.

[38] Ibid., p. 157.

[39] Jason Motlagh, Why the Taliban Is Winning the Propaganda War, (Kabul, The Times, 2009).,8599,1895496,00.html

[40] Rod Nordland, Taliban Threats to Afghan Journalists Show Shift in Tactics, The New York Times, 2015.

[41] Al-Emarah, War crimes of savage foreign invaders and their internal mercenaries, (Kabul, 2017).

[42] Londono, Ernesto. Taliban steps up propaganda war. The Washington Post. 2010.

[43] Dorronsoro, Gilles. “Taliban Narratives: The Use and Power Of Stories In The Afghanistan Conflict.” Politique Etrangere, no. 4 (2018), p. 27.

[44] Foxley, The Taliban, p. 14.

[45] Ibid.

[46] Mujib Mashal, Afghan Anger Simmers Over U.S. Leaflets Seen as Insulting Islam, The New York Times, 2017.

[47] Arturo Munoz, U.S. Military Information Operations in Afghanistan: Effectiveness of Psychological Operations 2001-2010. (Santa Monica: RAND Corporation, 2012), pp. 44-112.

[48] News Rescue. Genesis of Islamic Radicalism: The US Textbook Project That Taught Afghan Children Terror, 2012.

[49] Joe Stephens and David Ottoway, From U.S., the ABC’s of Jihad; Violent Soviet-Era Textbooks Complicate Afghan Education Efforts, The Washington Post. (2002). ttps://

[50] Ibid.

[51] International Crisis Group, Taliban Propaganda, p. 33.

[52] David Nakamura and  Abby Phillip, Trump announces new strategy for Afghanistan that calls for a troop increase. The Washington Post. 2017.


A.H. The Economist. “Not Yet History”, 2012.

Al-Emarat. Intelligence Ploys of the Enemy, a Sign of their Despair and Failure. Kabul. 2017.

Al-Emarah, War crimes of savage foreign invaders and their internal mercenaries, (Kabul, 2017).

Banting, Erinn. 2003. Afghanistan the People. Crabtree Publishing Company.

Dorronsoro, Gilles. “Taliban Narratives: The Use and Power Of Stories In The Afghanistan Conflict.” Politique Etrangere, no. 4 (2018).

Fearon, James D, And David D Laitin. Ethnicity, Insurgency, and Civil War. American Political Science Review.97, no. 01 (2003): 75-90.

Foxley, Tim. The Taliban’s Propaganda Activities How Well Is the Afghan Insurgency Communicating and What Is It Saying? Stockholm: SIPRI, 2007.

Gohari, M. J. 2000. The Taliban: Ascent to Power. Karachi: Oxford University Press.

Gutcher, Lianne. 2011. “Turnaround by Taliban Gives Girls a Chance: News.” The Times Educational Supplement Scotland (2219) (Jun 17): 11.

Haltiwanger, J. (2018). America’s ‘war on terror’ has cost the US nearly $6 trillion and killed roughly half a million people, and there’s no end in sight. [online] Business Insider. Available at:

Hazrat, Syed. 1999. Pashto for the fourth grade. Afghanistan: Ministry of Education.

Home Office, ‘Country Policy and Information Note Afghanistan: Unaccompanied children’, 2018.

Human Rights Watch, Afghanistan: Taliban Child Soldier Recruitment Surges, 2016.

International Crisis Group. 2008. Taliban Propaganda Winning the War of Words? Asia Report, No. 158. Kabul: International Crisis Group.

Johnson, Thomas H, and Ahmad Waheed. 2011. Analyzing Taliban Taranas (Chants): An Effective Afghan Propaganda Artifact.

Johnson, Thomas H. 2007. “The Taliban Insurgency and an Analysis of Shabnamas (Night Letters)”. Small Wars & Insurgencies 18 (3): 317-344.

Kamel, Kareem. “Understanding Taliban Resurgence: Ethno-Symbolism and Revolutionary Mobilization.” Studies in Ethnicity and Nationalism 15, no. 1 (2015): 66-82.

Kolhatkar, S., & Ingalls, J. Bleeding Afghanistan: Washington, warlords, and the propaganda of silence (Seven Stories Press 1st ed.). New York: Seven Stories Press. (2006). 

Londono, Ernesto. Taliban steps up propaganda war. The Washington Post. 2010

Motlagh, Jason. Why the Taliban are Winning the Propaganda War. Kabul, The Times. 2009

Mujib Mashal, Afghan Anger Simmers Over U.S. Leaflets Seen as Insulting Islam, The New York Times, 2017.

Munoz, Arturo. 2012. U.S. Military Information Operations in Afghanistan: Effectiveness of Psychological Operations 2001-2010. Santa Monica: RAND Corporation.

Naheed Bashardost. 49,000 girl students enrolled in Kabul-based religious schools. Kabul, Pajhwok News. 2016.

Nakamura, David and  Phillip, Abby. Trump announces new strategy for Afghanistan that calls for a troop increase. The Washington Post. 2017

Nojumi, Neamatollah. The Rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan: Mass Mobilization, Civil War, and the Future of the Region. 1st Ed. ed. New York: Palgrave, 2002.

Roggio, Bill. Afghan Taliban lists ‘Percent of Country under the control of Mujahideen’. Long War Journal. 2017.

Siddique, Abubakar. “Afghan Aid Worker Not Blind to Taliban Threats”. Radio Liberty, 2017.

Stephens, Joe and Ottoway, David. “From U.S., the ABC’s of Jihad; Violent Soviet-Era Textbooks Complicate Afghan Education Efforts.” The Washington Post A.01 (2002): 01.

Strick van Linschoten, Alex, Felix Kuehn, Mirwais Rahmany, Hamid Stanikzai, and Faisal Devji. 2012. Poetry of the Taliban. New York: Columbia University Press.


A map from a Taliban report which accurately replicates results as those from the Long War Journal depicts the extent of Taliban control in Afghanistan.

Source: Roggio, Bill. Afghan Taliban lists ‘Percent of Country under the control of Mujahideen’. Long War Journal. 2017.

Nagorno-Karabakh: The Hidden Motives Behind Ethnic Conflict

By Dayana Shaybazyan

Abstract: This paper attempts to explain the persistence of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan by using instrumentalist and constructivist theories of ethnic identity. It argues that conflict resolution is impeded by the promotion of ethnic differences by the opposing states and also by international actors, who exploit the region for political and economic gains.


After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Caucasus region witnessed a number of disputes. Clashes over sovereignty, complex ethnic claims, and the growing hostility towards minorities and their legitimate demands dominated the political agenda of states. A number of studies have sought to explain the roots of post-Soviet conflicts and the failure of actors to come to a peaceful resolution. It is important to promote research and facilitate discussion on frozen conflicts, a persistent phenomenon in the international arena, as they pose significant security challenges, result in large numbers of refugees and fatalities, and worsen the economic, political and social conditions in opposing states (Pokalova, 2015).

The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan was one of the disputes that arose in the Caucasus in the late 1980s. With the weakening of the Soviet Union, the majority Armenian population in the Nagorno-Karabakh region, officially recognized as part of Azerbaijan, began to demand for its unification with Armenia. The protests led to a six-year war between the two states that left over a million Armenian and Azerbaijani civilians displaced. Both countries accused each other of committing war crimes. A Russian-brokered ceasefire, signed in 1994, led to numerous peace initiatives which aimed to negotiate a lasting solution to the conflict. Nevertheless, under the auspices of the OSCE Minsk group, set up in 1992 as the main institution responsible for the peace process in Nagorno-Karabakh, the dispute has not been resolved. The past 25 years have failed to produce stable peace, with continuous violations of the ceasefire and the refusal of Armenia and Azerbaijan to reach a peaceful agreement (Cornell, 1997).

Figure 1: Map of the Nagorno-Karabakh region.Reprinted from “Karabakh map”, Achemish, 2016, Retrieved from Copyright 2013 by Achemish CC-BY-SA-4.0 (

This paper aims to examine the underlying factors of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict by applying the instrumentalist and constructivist theories of ethnic identity. It also aims to test which of the two theories is more effective in explaining the failure to achieve a peaceful settlement. With no clear solution or foreseeable end to the conflict, world powers have ignored the issue until circumstances force them to act, while the danger of yet another violent uprising continues to plague the two nations. This paper argues that while the promotion of ethnic “hate narratives” by the governments of Azerbaijan and Armenia plays a significant role in preventing a peaceful conflict resolution, the ethnic conflict cannot be resolved until the international actors refrain from exploiting the region for political and economic gains. It further suggests that the failure to negotiate a lasting peace in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is best explained by the instrumentalist theory, as the conflict is the result of modern factors. Ethnic identity was used as a mere tool for acquisition of power and benefits by the international community and the two sparring governments.

Historical Background

The Nagorno-Karabakh War

In 1988, the population of Nagorno-Karabakh, an autonomous province within the Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan, was made up of a 75% Armenian population (Minority Rights Group International, 2018). The Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (NKAO) was separated physically from the Soviet Republic of Armenia by a strip of land referred to as the “Lachin corridor.” The corridor was exclusively inhabited by Azeris and Kurds, hence shaping the NKAO as an Armenian exclave. The Azeri community, a local minority within the region, was considerably smaller than the Armenian population, despite it being part of the larger Azeri majority in the Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan (Melander, 2001).

In an attempt to preserve the Soviet state and its communist ideas, Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union, approved significant reforms in the 1980s, including the policy of glasnost, which called for openness and improved freedom of speech and the press in the Soviet republics. As a consequence of this policy and the reduction in Soviet control, the Armenian population in Nagorno-Karabakh began to freely express its resentment towards the Azerbaijani government, rioting against oppression with the claim that Azerbaijan neglects and discriminates against the Armenian community in the NKAO. As a result of continuous protests and the struggle to unite with Armenia, Armenians in the region were targeted by the Azeri community, with massacres and pogroms escalating into a full-fledged war.

In 1991, following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Russia withdrew its troops from Nagorno-Karabakh: the development allowed Azerbaijani troops to intensify their attacks on the region. Despite continued fighting, Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh declared their de facto independence from Azerbaijan in 1992, which was never recognized (Volkan, 1998). Azerbaijan unsuccessfully attempted to restore control by launching a military operation against the capital of the NKAO in 1992; however, it witnessed major losses as the Lachin Corridor was lost to Armenians, and Nagorno-Karabakh was no longer separated from Armenia by Azerbaijani land. The continuous warfare between the years of 1988 and 1994 resulted in an estimated 35,000 deaths and approximately one million refugees on both sides (Kambeck & Ghazaryan, 2013).

History of Mediations

The international community expressed significant disapproval of the occupation of Azerbaijani territory by Armenia. Four UN Security Council resolutions were adopted after the war, instructing the occupying Armenian forces to withdraw from Azerbaijani land and reminding the warring parties of “the inviolability of international borders and the inadmissibility of the use of force for the acquisition of territory” (Cornell, 1997, p. 16). The UNSC resolutions also requested the return of the Azeri refugees, who had been driven out by Armenians, back to the region, and prohibited Armenia and Azerbaijan to provide any military assistance to the region. On the 5th of May 1994, the Republic of Armenia, the Republic of Azerbaijan, and the Nagorno-Karabakh de facto government signed a ceasefire agreement ending the war, but not the conflict itself, as Azerbaijan refused to accept the continued control of over 20% of their de jure territory by Armenians (Kaufman, 2016).

The OSCE Minsk Group, co-chaired by France, the Russian Federation, and the United States, was established as the focal point for multilateral consultations on Karabakh in 1992. In 1995, the OSCE passed a resolution calling for the “highest degree of autonomy” of Mountainous Karabakh within Azerbaijan, the territorial integrity of which was to be preserved. In 1997, it further proposed the withdrawal of the Armenian troops from occupied territories, along with a buffer zone to be patrolled by the OSCE peacekeeping force and an OSCE-administered lease of the “Lachin corridor” from Azerbaijan to Karabakh. Azerbaijan accepted the terms as a basis for negotiation, but Armenia and Karabakh refused them. Armenia and Azerbaijan further rejected the proposal by OSCE for a “common state”, meaning a de facto independent Karabakh.

Despite some attempts to negotiate a resolution, , the momentum for a settlement has nevertheless been lost (Cutler, 2003) and sporadic fighting continues. In 2016, heavy fighting along the Nagorno-Karabakh frontline left over 350 soldiers and civilians dead on both sides (U.S. Department of State, 2016). As sporadic and low intensity fighting at the border continues, it negatively impacts the peace process. The Azerbaijani government maintains the position that Armenia is occupying part of its territory, thereby keeping the two neighboring states at war (Melander, 2001). The Armenian government claims that the conflict represents a struggle for independence and self-determination of the Armenian people. To understand the impasse,  the next section will explore competing ethnic identities, which play a significant role in the ongoing tensions between the nation-states and act as barriers against a peaceful settlement.

The Role of Ethnicity in Generating and Maintaining Conflicts

Complex ethnic identities can generate conflict by associating different groups with different interests. However, as argued by Stuart J. Kaufman (2001), it is misleading to believe that ethnicity itself is the cause of any conflict, whether it is violent or not: in inter-state ethnic conflicts, political figures and international powers seek tangible interests. On the other hand, for the masses, the issues at stake are often purely symbolic ones. Psychocultural theorists point out that, in psychological experiments, people randomly assigned to groups tend to evaluate their own group more highly than other groups, even when they are told that they are not competing. Hence, what is at stake for the group is not just absolute benefits but group self-esteem, group worth, and legitimacy (Horowitz, 1985).

There is hardly consensus among scholars who have been studying ethnic conflicts and it is important to consider multiple schools of thought. The instrumentalist theory sees ethnic identity as a mere tool used by elites to pursue competition over tangible goods such as economic opportunities. This perspective suggests that there is no such thing as an “ethnic conflict” at all and ethnicity does not generate conflict (Kaufman, 2001). The instrumentalist theory further argues that elites exploit the ethnic allegiance of the masses, stoke ethnic tensions and, in some cases, intentionally provoke ethnic violence as a method to seize power, protect existing authority, or as defense against group threats (Blanton, 2015). From an instrumentalist viewpoint the self-interest of international powers and the state promotion of ethnic hate narratives in Armenia and Azerbaijan are the principal obstacles in the way of peace..

Instead, primordialist theorists suggest that many ethnic identities have existed for thousands of years and that ethnic conflict is based on “ancient hatreds”, which are impossible to eradicate and nearly impossible to manage (Isaacs, 1975). Finally, constructivists locate themselves somewhere in-between instrumentalism and primordialism by emphasizing the degree to which people create their own identities, pointing out that ethnic identities are “socially constructed” (Hardin, 2001). Constructivists argue that history, culture, and myths of ancient homeland provide motives for conflict and are not simply pretexts used for manipulation of the masses. They further believe that instrumentalists exaggerate the manipulating power of elites while neglecting the importance and genuine character of popular beliefs and mass action.

A constructivist theorist, Anthony Smith (1999) argued that social constructions are created through a “myth-symbol complex”, which establishes the “accepted” history of the group and the criteria for distinguishing its members. Individuals identify heroes and enemies and glorify symbols of the group’s identity, selecting “chosen traumas” to work as morally defining experiences for people (Volkan, 1998). While the myths do not necessarily arise from selfish interests and instead can be genuine in nature and can stem from the masses, the instrumentalist theorists might argue that the myths can be rediscovered and reinterpreted by the modern nationalist intelligentsias for selfish motives. However, it is important to consider the constructivist theory, because the manipulation of one’s identity often succeeds only when it works in tandem with a previously constructed social perception of the conflict (Smith, 1999). The constructivist theory aids in understanding the claims made by opposing governments on an ancient homeland, and helps to explain how an “accepted” history of the group prevents the conflict from reaching a peaceful resolution. The next section of the paper applies these interpretative toolsto the frozen state of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.


Role of the International Community

The persistence of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is largely a result of the lack of response from the international actors to the unfolding events. For over a decade, the conflict has served the interest of several powerful states, including the Russian Federation, Turkey and the United States, who have been very successful in influencing the actions of the international community.

The United Nations was involved in the conflict only superficially, allocating its resolution to the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which established the OSCE Minsk Group, co-chaired by Russia, France and the United States in 1992. However, while the Group attempts to defend and justify the official recognition of Nagorno-Karabakh as Azerbaijan’s territory, it has been unable to promote resolutions due to the self-interests of its powerful co-chairs. The OSCE Minsk Group has further proven to ignore the complex nature of the conflict and failed to provide security guarantees (De Waal, 2013). In 1997, the Minsk Group proposed the withdrawal of Armenian troops from the occupied territories and a Karabakh self-government within Azerbaijan. As part of the proposition, all ethnic-Azeri displaced persons were to return to the occupied region. Azerbaijan accepted the document as a basis for negotiations, but Armenia responded that adequate guarantees of security were necessary to facilitate withdrawal from the occupied territories (Cutler, 2003). This proposition is one of many examples in which the peacekeepers have failed to recognize and incorporate the complexity of the conflict in carrying out decisions for peace.

When the economic status of Armenia and Azerbaijan is examined, the significance of security guarantees becomes evident. Over the years, Azerbaijan, propelled by oil and gas, embarked in a military build-up. In 2015 alone, Baku spent 3 billion dollars on its military, more than Armenia’s entire national budget (Kambeck & Ghazaryan, 2012). Hence, OSCE’s propositions to remove the self-government in Karabakh is seen as unmanageable for the local Armenian officials and does not provide the assurance of their secure withdrawal (Behlül, 2008). As the frozen conflict is continuously interrupted by violations of the ceasefire, the threat of escalation is always present (Melander, 2001). However, when considering the lack of security guarantees, it can be argued that a full-scale war can be avoided if strategic uncertainties and security dilemmas are addressed by the international mediators, which merely do not consider the resolution as beneficial for their own interests, exemplifying the instrumentalist theory.

Russia’s direct interest in the conflict became visible soon after the independence of Armenia and Azerbaijan in 1991. Territorially, in its efforts to prevent competing powers, Turkey and Iran, from getting a foothold in the Caucasus, Russia found Armenia to be the single reliable ally in the region. The early presidents of Georgia and Azerbaijan, Zviad Gamsakhurdia and Abulfaz Elchibey, were strong anti-Russian nationalists who initially refused to join the newly formed Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). Therefore, Armenia and the Karabakh Armenians acted as levers for Russia to bring Georgia and Azerbaijan into the CIS and consequently allowed Russian troops to develop stations near the Iran and Turkey borders in Armenia and Azerbaijan to “guard” the common CIS border (Goltz, 1993).

The lack of interest in the resolution of the conflict and the self-centered approach of Russia was similarly visible prior to the Nagorno-Karabakh war, when Joseph Stalin and the “Kavburo” of the Soviet Union made the decision to “leave” or “make” the Nagorno-Karabakh region as part of Azerbaijan. While the region was allocated to Azerbaijan, the Russian rule ordered official business to be conducted in Armenian, elevating a class of Armenian elite, which later sought to merge the region back with Armenia (Pokalova, 2015). Hence, Russia played a significant role in establishing the initial formations, which escalated into the conflict, but did not try to solve them, as under the USSR such problems could be contained. This Russian policy of first assigning the majority-Armenian Karabakh to Azerbaijan and then establishing a class of Armenian elite in the region is known as divide et impera, a strategy of asserting control over a territory by breaking up large concentrations of power into smaller and more manageable units.

Through the years of mediations, as a co-chair of the Minsk Group, Russia has demonstrated a general lack of interest in the joint mediation of the conflict. It considers the OSCE as an intruder in its sphere of influence and prefers to conduct a Russian-only mediation (Cornell, 1997). Russia’s instrumentalist attempt to manipulate the conflict for its own territorial security and economic interests became particularly visible in 2016.Russia’s Prime Minister Dimitry Medvedev stated that Russia would continue to sell arms to both Azerbaijan and Armenia, and justified the decision as an attempt to preserve the existing balance of forces in the conflict (Puddington, Repucci, Dunham, Nelson & Roylance, 2016). This policy betrayes Russia’s focus on its national interest: as the region witnessed renewed fighting in 2016, Moscow continued to sell its weapons to both sides as well as to provide extensive military support to Armenia, where it maintains a base. While Armenia expressed strong disapproval for Russia’s supply of arms to Azerbaijan, the Armenian government cannot speak out against these selfish motives due to its dependence on Russia as a means of overcoming its territorial encirclement by Azerbaijan and Turkey. Hence, international powers outweigh Armenia’s national leadership in the conflict. Russia supplies Armenia not only with military aid and territorial support but also with cheaply priced gas, goods, and acts as a primary destination for Armenian migrant labor (Torbakov, 2010). Russia’s direct interest in maintaining positive ties with both Azerbaijan and Armenia prevents the country from implementing decisive strategies to end the tensions in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Another prominent actor in the resolution of the conflict is Turkey, whose role can be examined through its domestic appeal and its relations with the US and Russia. Turkey’s initial interest in the conflict arose as an attempt to deal with domestic pressures, as huge anti-Armenian demonstrations took place in the country during the Nagorno-Karabakh war in 1992. Turkish people demanded its government to interfere on Azerbaijan’s behalf, accusing the leaders of undermining Turkey’s prestige in Azerbaijan and amongst the fellow Muslim states in Central Asia. Hence, in its efforts to improve its domestic public image, the Turkish government began to demonstrate its strong support for Azerbaijan (Behlül, 2008).

While Turkey’s president Tayyip Erdogan remains very vocal on his belief that Armenian territories historically belong to Azerbaijan, the government has not provided decisive support to Azerbaijan. The lack of interference can be partially explained by Turkey’s interest in gaining full membership in the European Union, which requires normalization of relations with Armenia. Furthermore, Turkey attempts to respect the neutrality of the US towards the conflict, fearing that if it extends further support to Azerbaijan and disrupts the current balance of powers in the region, the US will cut its military aid- which is vital for Turkey’s fight against the Kurds (Pearson, 2018).

Turkish relations with Russia further play an important role, in particular with the recent improvement in military and economic relations between the two states. In 2017, Turkey purchased the S-400 surface-to-air missile system from Russia, a step which was condemned by the US but is beneficial for Turkish military development (Pearson, 2018). Turkey’s interest in maintaining positive economic and military relations with both Russia and the United States prevents it from attempting to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. The case of Turkey’s involvement demonstrates the complicated web of relations between the international actors involved and the large number of hidden motives, which block them from an unbiased and fair mediation process.

As for the United States, who is also part of the OCSE Minsk Group, its policy towards the conflict has largely been defined by its recognition of the Caucasus as the “backyard of Russia” and a policy of non-interference (Mooradian & Druckman, 1999). Whilst ostensibly playing a significant role in conflict resolution, Russia, Turkey and the US have further cultivated tensions and used the conflict to pursue economic and military opportunities, and security guarantees (Blanton, 2015). The complex relations and pursuits of national benefits demonstrate that international actors, more importantly Russia and Turkey, play a more important role in sustaining the conflict than Armenia and Azerbaijan, where these external actors achieved a high level of dependency, power and guardianship. While Azerbaijan condemns Turkey’s attempt to maintain positive relations with all the involved powers, and while Armenia condemns Russia’s sale of arms to Azerbaijan, both Russia and Turkey continue to value their own interests over their perception in Armenia and Azerbaijan and treat the tensions between the two ethnic groups as means for personal gains.

On the other hand, the constructivist theory of ethnic conflict helps in explaining the social constructs which arose from the failure of the international community to impose proper punishments for the war-crimes committed between 1988 and 1994 in Nagorno-Karabakh. As described by the International Committee of the Red Cross (1993), “there has been a complete lack of knowledge of international humanitarian law among the combatants. The conflict violated the law of war of the most gruesome kind and included mass killings of unarmed civilians, bargaining in dead bodies, de facto ethnic cleansing and restrictions imposed on the civilian population’s freedom of movement.” Upon the signing of the ceasefire, the participants of the conflict were not subject to firm punishments, which could have eased people’s emotional trauma and attachment to the hostilities. Hence, the failure of the international mediators to impose proper punishments allowed for the creation of what constructivists call a “myth-symbol complex”, which established an “accepted” history for both ethnicities and created a criterion through which they labelled each other’s ethnicity as the “enemy.”

The Armenian and the Azerbaijani masses feel that their enemies were not penalized for their atrocities and, hence, continuously push against any proposal of peaceful resolution that threaten their  group identity while glorifying their opponents’(Pokalova, 2015). While the common people in Armenia and Azerbaijan do not have much influence on the trajectory of events, their “accepted history” and social constructs, which formed in the periods of ethnic violence, enable international actors and their respective national governments to pursue their selfish motives and promote ethnic hate narratives in both countries.

Promotion of Ethnic Differences in Armenia and Azerbaijan

While external factors and the selfish attitudes of the international community largely determine the negotiation process and impede the resolution of the conflict, the governments of Armenia and Azerbaijan have also exploited the conflict for national gains. To unite the country under one leadership and protect their existing authority, both governments promote ethnic differences, manipulate the ethnic allegiance of the masses and provoke ethnic tensions. Upon the collapse of the Soviet Union, the issues of independence from various Soviet Republics and the accompanying ethnonationalistic sentiments began to escalate as leaders strived to mobilize their masses in favor of the state (Blanton, 2015). The everchanging political climate in the region, which requires leaders to preserve the loyalties of the people, resulted in the promotion of common identity and a shared history by the governments of Azerbaijan and Armenia against those who threatened their existing authority. Because this promotion of ethnic differences has been exercised for over a decade and shapes the social constructs of individuals in both states, any just solution to the dispute today will entail painful compromises and will have to balance radically opposing principles.

As stated by Elkhan Mehdiyev, the director of Baku’s Peace and Conflict Resolution Centre, in 2016, “Peace for Azerbaijan means the liberation of its territory, restoration of its sovereignty and peaceful coexistence with Armenia… a ceasefire is not peace” (Safarova & Grigoryan, 2016). However, the institutionalization of ethnic differences by the government of Azerbaijan and the anti-Armenian propaganda continues to close the remaining bridges between the two nations and their people. Ilham Aliyev, the acting president of Azerbaijan, actively uses academic circles to promote the myth of Armenia’s occupation of its historic homeland territories. In “Nation and History in Azerbaijani textbooks” (2005), Yasemin Kilit Aklar demonstrates that Azerbaijani textbooks misuse history to encourage hatred and feelings of ethnic and national superiority, by portraying Armenians as historical enemies. These ethnic hate narratives result in growing hatred within the masses and contribute to consolidates the long-standing enmity between the countries. From a constructivist viewpoint, these state-sponsored textbooks contribute to the “social construction” of political identities and “invented traditions.” They lead younger generations to embrace strong anti-Armenian sentiment, and ethnic hatred between the two groups (Horowitz, 1985).

The media serves as the most important outlet for the dissemination of the anti-Armenian propaganda by Aliyev’s government. The state distributes special grants to individuals and outlets who engage in the so-called “dissemination of truth about Azerbaijan.” The European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI), which published a report on Azerbaijan in 2016, studied hate speech in the media and concluded that out of the 679 Azerbaijani news items examined, 196 items were targeted directly at Armenians and connected directly with the conflict over the Nagorno-Karabakh region (ECRI, 2016).Furthermore, continuous rejection of the legitimacy of Armenian sovereignty is also promoted in the country, as visible through the quote by an Azerbaijani former Defense Minister, Safar Abiyev, in 2004, who stated that “Within the next 25 years there will be no state of Armenia in the South Caucasus. Modern Armenia was built on historical Azerbaijani lands. I think that in 25 years its territory will again come under Azerbaijan’s jurisdiction” (The Caucasus: Frozen conflicts and closed borders: Hearing before the Committee on Foreign Affairs, 2008).

The purpose of Aliyev’s hate dissemination and his hardening confrontation with regards to the conflict can be explained by the interest of the state to use ethnicity as a tool for distraction against the flaws of the authoritarian Azerbaijani government in light of the democratic revolution in the near-by Armenia (Blanton, 2015). The prime minister of Armenia, Nikol Pashinyan, supports this argument, as he stated in his interview with Al Jazeera in 2018 that “Azerbaijan became more aggressive in its push for the Nagorno-Karabakh region after the Armenian democratic revolution against the corrupt government, because Ilham Aliyev has a fear that Azerbaijani people will likewise rebel against his authoritarian rule” (N. Pashinyan, personal communication, July 27, 2018). When the instrumentalist theory is applied to Aliyev’s fear of losing power, it is clear that the promotion of ethnic differences by the state is intended to exploit the ethnic allegiance of the masses and defend the existing regime by uniting the people against a common enemy and under a common goal of acquiring the contested lands in Nagorno-Karabakh.

The tools used by Azerbaijan to promote ethnic differences have been successful in influencing the public opinion. The ECRI report (2016) demonstrated that 91% of the surveyed Azeris perceived Armenia as their state’s greatest enemy. The anti-Armenian sentiment in the country is visible through frequent demonstrations organized in Baku. At one of such events in 2016, Islam Shikhali, an Azerbaijani freelance reporter, said “Karabakh is the value that connects all Azeris. Everyone with different backgrounds, from different political groups, come together and become one nation when it comes to Karabakh” (Safarova & Grigoryan, 2016). While most Azerbaijanis refuse to cooperate with Armenia, some civil society organizations and individuals attempt to maintain ties; however, they do not have the power to do so, as Aliyev prohibits such contact. This demonstrates the lack of influence of the common people, who attempt to establish peaceful communication with Armenians, in fostering the peace negotiations.

In Armenia, the conflict sits deep within the public national consciousness. In 2018, the charismatic Nikol Pashinyan came to power after leading a successful democratic revolution. However, he was faced with the problem of preserving his public support and maintaining the anti-Azerbaijani construct in the country while refraining from angering its security patron, Russia. While in the beginning of his term, he was seen to be a cautious diplomat interested in democratic negotiations with Azerbaijan, the strong national consciousness turned him into a nationalist leader. His recent rhetoric includes powerful messages about the “Armenian cause”, and he began to incorporate the Armenian name for Karabakh, “Artsakh”, as well as chants for the union of Karabakh with Armenia in his speeches (Kucera, 2019).

Pashinyan’s interest also lies in the economic benefits, which the potential unification of Karabakh would bring to Armenia. During his Nagorno-Karabakh visit in August 2019, Pashinyan stated that “In the period until 2050 we have to manage to solve the following issues – increase the population of Armenia to at least 5 million, create 1.5 million jobs, and eliminate poverty, transform Armenia into an industrial country…”. When asked about his failure to comment on his future vision of Nagorno-Karabakh, he added “’The answer is very simple, Artsakh is Armenia and there is no alternative” (Kucera, 2019, para. 10). Pashinyan’s attempt to link the myth of “ancient homeland”, and his belief that Karabakh belongs to Armenia, with his future economic goals in Armenia was effective in impressing the Armenian public. His statement was highly condemned by all of the involved actors, and Azerbaijan in particular, further impeding the negotiations which began to flourish when he first started his term.

The ECRI report on racism and intolerance in Armenia, points out that, similar to the government of Azerbaijan, Armenian leaders have demonstrated intolerance by actions such as the prohibition of screenings of Azerbaijani films in the Armenian capital and the lack of efforts to adopt priority housing programme for persons forcibly displaced from Azerbaijan (ECRI, 2016). Such actions are also actively supported by the public in Yerevan, which, through the state-sponsored promotion of ethnic “hate narratives”, continuously glorifies its group identity by diminishing the powers of the “enemy” group (Kaufman, 2001). The effectiveness of the promotion of ethnic differences in Armenia could also be seen earlier in 1999, when the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan came close to an agreement somewhat resembling a common state. However, the political situation in Armenia became stalemated after a Yerevani journalist entered the Armenian Parliament building, while it was in session, and assassinated numerous members of the national leadership who took part in the peaceful negotiations (Cutler, 2003). This demonstrates the constructivist theory, as Armenians identify as enemies not only the Azerbaijanis, but also the Armenians who went against the group and tried to shift the constructed understanding of the accepted history in favor of a compromise.

Territorially, the reasons provided by the Armenian government for the violations of the ceasefire usually include protection and security of the Armenian population. However, the Armenian troops in the region have actively pushed for more territories and continue to engage in military engagements, moving away from simple defense towards strategies of deterrence. This further showcases the presence of national interests in extending the sphere of influence, resources, and power under the claim of ethnic protection (Volkan, 1998). The interconnection between constructivism and instrumentalism is visible in both states. They exploit the social constructs of the public on the existence of a common enemy and manipulate ethnic allegiances and sentiments to secure their power. Hence, although the international actors who have influence in Armenia and Azerbaijan largely decide the outcomes of the conflict, the state promotion of ethnic differences in both countries further impedes the mediation process.


As demonstrated by the arguments on the role of the international community and the promotion of ethnic differences in Armenia and Azerbaijan, the failure to reach a peaceful resolution in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is best explained by the instrumentalist approach. While the constructivist theory of ethnic identity is useful in explaining the deep-rooted beliefs and social constructs which prologue the conflict, instrumentalism powerfully demonstrates the use of ethnicity as a tool by the Armenian and the Azerbaijani governments and by the international community to attain political, economic and territorial gains. Armenia and Azerbaijan face difficult decisions that potentially carry political risks; however, the establishment of a dialogue is critical as any additional delay will only further strengthen the ethnic conceptions within each country and make an already difficult decision-making environment even more challenging. Therefore, the co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group and the international community as a whole should shift their attention away from pursuing hidden motives and towards maximizing efforts to help Armenia and Azerbaijan in reaching fruitful agreements as the start of a lasting peace.


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Curried Appropriation

by Nada Nassereddin

Abstract: This paper argues that through cultural appropriation, the British constructed the term “curry,” which led to the creation of their own perception of Indian cuisine. After exploring the origins and the development of the idea of curry, the paper shows how the British reduced Indian cuisine to curry and reshaped Indian identity and culture.


In 1998, a song titled “Vindaloo,” which is a spicy Indian dish, became the national anthem of the British football team and reached number two on the United Kingdom Single Charts (Westcott & Sims, 2014). In 2001, the then Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, declared chicken tikka masala as Britain’s national dish (Collingham, 2006). Britain is known to be a nation of curry lovers since one in four Britons eat an Indian meal once a week (Kanjilal, 2016). These dishes, considerably regarded as South Asian, are signature meals in restaurants across the UK. This shows that while certain foods tend to be associated with certain places, cultures still borrow, appropriate, and recreate from one another. Among the major actions that have altered culinary cultures, cultural appropriation stands out as the most common. It occurs when members of a dominant culture adopt parts of another culture, and it generally results from colonialism, globalization, and interconnection (Cole, 2017; Dirlik, 2002). While some argue that to appropriate cultural food elements is to express appreciation, it is problematic when the people of the dominant culture decide the narrative that surrounds the culinary experience (Cheung, 2019). One of the most enduring appropriated food concepts is the British idea of curry (Kanjilal, 2016). While curry is the British expression of Indian cuisine, the word curry has no real meaning in authentic South Asian cuisine. Therefore, this paper aims to present the different perceptions of curry in Indian and British context. It will also elaborate on the origins and the development of the idea of curry. Finally, the paper will argue that throughout the British construction of the term “curry,” the trade of curry powder around the world, and the use of cookbooks, the British appropriated the culinary wisdom of the colonized and constructed their own perception of Indian cuisine. Through that, the British reduced Indian cuisine to curry and reshaped Indian identity and culture.

The Term “Curry”

The word “curry” is widely misunderstood and is defined differently in separate regions. Initially, it is important to acknowledge that there exist curry leaves along with the famous curry spices or powder, and that curry could also refer to a type of stewed dish. This means that a “curry’s consistency varies anywhere between a soupy concoction to a dry mixture that coats the meat, fish, or vegetables in the dish” (Waldrop, 2007, p.32). Curry powder, which is a combination of different spices, is regarded by the British as the main ingredient in making a dish Indian (Thomas, 2014). They created the curry powder to have a quick and ready flavor that resembles the South Asian tastes that the British colonists of India experienced. However, in India, the idea of singular curry powder is nonexistent since numerous spices with varying formulas are prepared to suit different tastes (Balaramdas, 1966). Furthermore, “the range of culinary styles within India means that authenticity is more accurately tied to a region” (Collingham, 2006, p.3). Through the notion of curry powder, the British homogenized distinctive Indian foods into one concept (Narayan, 1995). Consequently, the British reshaped an aspect of Indian culture by regarding the word curry as a collective term that encompasses the cuisine of an entire and widely diverse nation.

There are conflicting opinions on the meaning and the origin of the term “curry.” One possibility is that it was derived from the word “Kari,” which is a common etymology for the word sauce in Tamil, a South Indian language (Sen, 2009).  The word “Kari” is also used as a terminology for the different ways locals prepare their food (Davidson, 1999). However, the meaning of curry in the Victorian cookbook that first officially used the term is different. In the book, The Forme of Cury, “the English word curry is used to describe cuisine based on French ‘curie’ meaning to cook, boil, or grill” (Kohli, 2015). This is assumed to have led the word to become popular, and it was slowly associated with stew. Alternatively, for Collingham (2016), “Kari” means to bite and can be used as a noun for meats and vegetables. While the meaning of the word is debated, it is affirmed that the Portuguese initially encountered the spiced “curry” dishes. In 1498, the Portuguese sailed to India, more specifically Kerala, a South Indian state, in search for spices and commodities. Therefore, it is also believed that the Portuguese were introduced to the spicy, thickened stews and then named it carel and applied it to many Portuguese dishes. However, it is also important to acknowledge that Indian cuisine was also influenced by goods that the Portuguese empire brought in and infused into the country’s culture. For instance, the Portuguese introduced spices such as sweet and chili peppers that are seen as an essential part of Indian food today (Ramos, n.d.). Moreover, Portuguese dishes, similar to British dishes today, were adapted to Indian culinary techniques and tastes. While the concept of curry evolved through a process of transculturation before the British reached South Asia, it was only until the British settled that curry was fully constructed under British terms. With regard to the term, some concluded that “the British Anglicized the term into curry when they colonized the subcontinent” (Waldrop, 2007). Regardless of where exactly the word originated from, curry eventually embodied Britishness under the guise of being authentically Indian.  

Demand for Curry

Curry became more than just a beloved taste; it also was a successful commodity of British production. Demand rose from housewives in London to British subjects in India. Furthermore, curry has eventually gained a lot of popularity in Asia. For instance, in Thailand, cooks have taken in a local dish, “transformed” it into an Indian dish, and referred to it as yellow curry by adding curry powder and other Indian spices (Synder, 2018). It is important to note that these spices were not new to the region, but rather they were traded with them years ago. However, the term “curry” that has come with the powder was unfamiliar. Still, curry became assimilated into the cultures of Fiji, Japan, Singapore, South Africa, Jamaica, Guyana, and it even made its way into Germany, Scandinavia, and America (Sen, 2009). Curiously enough, India was one of the few countries in the world without a dish with “curry.” This was due to the fact that “curry” is not a valid representation of Indian cuisine since the food, like the country, is not a homogenous entity, rather it stems from multiple regions. As can be seen, while it might be easy to identify the source of curry powder, the origination and the reason for the term “curry” are more complex.

Appropriation through Cookbooks and Households

In British India, cookbooks have weighed in on the creation of the British construction of curry. The British have taken over this nation-building tool in India and further strengthened their hold on Indian culture and identity. By identifying what belongs to a certain cuisine and what does not, cookbooks have the ability to create a unique relationship between food and nationalized boundaries (Kanjilal, 2016). Through a means of cultural exchange, appropriation of Indian culture became more prevalent in British households. British women had an important role here, since they incorporated Indian food, mostly rice and curry, into their national diet (Zlotnick, 1996). By their efforts, any dish with curry powder was identified as Indian. One example of a British Indian dish could be curry mixed with chicken and mayonnaise placed in slices of spongy bread or onions, apples, stock, and curry powder stewed with meat, thickened with butter and flour, and finished with a mortifying splash of cream (Collingham, 2016). Furthermore, in the nineteenth century, it would have been difficult to locate a British cookbook without a curry recipe or a food store without curry powder. To entertain colonizer terms in cookbooks that reduce the complexity of Indian cuisine is critical as it recreates a culture on the colonizer’s terms.

In order to further demonstrate British ownership over curry, it is important to look at how curry recipes began appearing in British middle-class cookbooks. While some authors emphasize that the dish is foreign by calling it Indian curry, it is still evident that the British have already appropriated their favorite aspects of Indian cuisines to create curries. Whether it was for the taste, its practicality, or its nutritional values, the curry was firmly established as part of the British culinary landscape by the 1850s (Colllingham, 2006, p.72). Curry was completely nationalized in Britain, where Englishwoman at home converted exotic flavors into familiar ones, and that was possible through their use of cookbooks, especially those authored by women (Zltonick, 1996). This shows how Indian culture started to enter the homes of ordinary British people through the appropriation of curry into the national diet and the transmission of aspects of Indian culinary culture.

Eliza Acton’s book, Modern Cookery for Private Families, first published in 1845, acts as the perfect example of a cookbook that transforms curry into a national dish of the British Isles. Initially, Acton provides definitions of certain cooking items but she does not define the term curry. However, she still features curry in many of her recipes, and uses it together with many British ingredients like eggs and oysters. For instance, in one of her chapters, she presents the recipe for “Brown Apple Sauce,” a dish  that contains marmalade, which is a preserve made from citrus fruits, apples, pears, and a pint of rich brown gravy. Acton (1845) then states in her cookbook that “Curry sauce will make an excellent substitute of the gravy when a piquant accompaniment is needed for pork or other rich meat” (p. 125). The author’s use of curry with ingredients common for the British shows that the recipe was adapted to suit the palates of the British at home. Furthermore, Acton offers the recipe of another form of curry, referred to as “Bengal Currie Powder no.1”. The recipe provides specific proportions of different spices such as black pepper, coriander seeds, and cayenne seeds that should be finely reduced and mixed to create her own version of curry powder (Acton, 1845, p.614). These recipes make it clear that during the nineteenth century, curry was used as both a powder and a paste: the British were dependent on the flavors of India in their dishes, and they properly appropriated and perfected them to their interests (as cited in Waldrop, 2007). Finally, Acton showed her ownership of curry in her cookbook by presenting it both as a British idea and a British meal, where most of her recipes include British ingredients being curried.

Another popular cookbook is The Wife’s Help to Indian Cookery, written by W. H Dawe in 1888, which provides recipes for curries from different regions in India. “Dawe seemingly appreciated the foods that he experienced in India, so much that he not only made notes about the regional differences that he noticed but also of the construction of the meal, down to the correct process of adding ingredients” (Waldrop, 2007, p.65). Therefore, he primarily offered recipes to show the differences between Madras curry, Bengali curry, and Malay curry. For the Madras curry, it was a powder that consisted of turmeric, ginger powder, coriander seed, cayenne powder, black pepper, cumin seed, and cardamoms. On the contrary, the Bengali curry was a paste that was composed of onion, cayenne pepper, and coriander seeds (Dawe, 1888). Throughout his cookbook, he went into detail on how each curry was cooked and mixed using the exact pieces of cooking equipment. For the Malay curry, it is different because it includes garlic and coriander. While Dawe tried to present curry in the most Indian way possible, he still incorporated British ingredients such as breadcrumbs and fruits to his curry recipes. Furthermore, despite his careful emphasis on the regional differences in curry, the British palate was still unaware of the subtle variety of different dishes. To conclude, the women of the British empire and cookbooks were active actors in incorporating Indian elements into British cooking and making curry, in essence, culturally British. Through this process, cookbooks have worked in popularizing the British idea of Indian cuisine on a global scale. 


To complete this overview of the discussion of British cultural appropriation of Indian cuisine, this section will examine other arguments with respect to the construction of curry. It could be argued that over four hundred years of interaction, Britain celebrated tolerance and appreciation of  Indian culture by incorporating Indian cuisine. In a sense, sharing another culture’s food allows one to experience a taste of familiarity and comfort. This becomes all the more positive as one acknowledges the presence of Indian diaspora in Britain. In the 1950s, a significant number of South Asians have found themselves in Britain (Waldrop, 2017). Many Indians have found jobs as chefs in Indian restaurants in Britain (Trueger, 2018). With that, the authenticity of traditional Indian food would be preserved to an extent by Indian cooks, and Indians would become appreciative of a familiar element of culture from home. Therefore, the British creation of curry can be seen as a symbol of a multicultural Britain that opened its borders and culture to Indians. Some scholars also argue that “although curry was adopted and adapted by the colonizers, it was not invented by them. Essentially, curry figured prominently in the colonial imagination; its culinary creation was a collective but haphazard effort of both the colonizer and the colonized” (Leong-Salobir, 2011, p.40). Furthermore, with the collaboration of women who cook in households, there was respect for Indian and Southeast Asian foodways (Leong-Salobir, 2011). 

However, while the British might have not deliberately set out to appropriate elements of Indian cuisine and construct curry in order to domesticate the colonial environment, they still managed to oversimplify Indian food and impose the notion of curry on India’s food culture. For instance, while Indian cooks served the British Indian dishes like rogan josh, dopiaza, and qorma, the British “lumped all these together under the heading of curry” (as cited in Chaki, 2019, para.2). Instantly, the diversity and range of Indian cuisine were disregarded, and a British construction is created based on British terms. Furthermore, several instances prove that there was not much respect for the foodways of Indians. The army officers and the wives of the British Army used to refuse to eat the curry and rice served at dinners hosted by families of the Indian Army regiment (Leong-Salobir, 2011).  Furthermore, the British gave French names to curry dishes as an effort to add prestige and sophistication to a menu, “further demonstrating that the British, having appropriated curry as part of their culinary repertoire, went one step further and formally legitimized it, by giving the different curries French names”(Leong-Salobir, 2011). This was a deliberate attempt to elevate Indian food, particularly curry, to high culinary art. For example, in Nancy Lake’s book of 1930, the recipe of Kabobs à l’Indienne includes pieces of curried mutton on skewers with small whole onions and slices of tomatoes, served with rice and curry sauce (as cited in Leong-Salobir, 2011). By giving a French name to a dish that is supposedly Indian, the British further expanded the power structure that surrounds the appropriation.

For centuries, food culture has been heavily co-opted and appropriated, and this is not limited to Indian cuisine. Many other post-colonial, marginalized or minority cuisines have been appropriated and reinvented to appeal to other tastes to the extent of disregarding were the origins of these foods came from. Once the acknowledgment of a country’s traditional cuisine is taken away from it, the nation loses a part of its identity. Two other popular examples would be that between Palestine and Israel and China and the United States of America. Firstly, Israel has taken multiple Palestinian dishes such as jameed, freekah, and za’atar, and called them its own (Zion, 2019). Similarly, in the United States, elements of Chinese cuisine have been taken and reintroduced to suit the likes of the public (Cheung, 2019). This is harmful in that it takes away from the genuine recognition of Chinese identity and culture. In many cases, there is a lack of respect that goes hand in hand with cultural appropriation.


The process by which curry became one of the most popular dishes in the UK is a complicated one entailing appropriation, invention, and transformation. While many look into the incorporation of curry in British cuisine as a celebratory act of tolerance, it can still be argued that curry is a pure British construction. Although it is certainly common for cultures to borrow and recreate from one another, appropriating part of cuisine and representing it as one’s own acts as a continued form of dominance and is disrespectful to its legitimate owners. By creating the term ‘curry,’ trading curry powder, and incorporating the dish into national cookbooks, the British misrepresented the complexities of Indian culture and overlooked the nuances of multiple Indian culinary paradigms. Many Indian culinary traditions have yet to be explored, and what is a rich and diverse cuisine remains reduced in foreign minds to the meaningless category of “curry.” 


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