The Responsibility to Protect: Fundamentally Flawed Or Simply Awaiting Reform?

Libya’s ongoing instability is a direct result of NATO’s controversial intervention under the Responsibility to Protect.

The following essay was originally submitted as an assignment for my university and was graded as a 2:1.

Since modernity, the Westphalian System has defined international relations. In principle, the treaties of Westphalia assert that every state, no matter how big or small, has exclusive sovereignty over its territories, as enshrined in Article 2 of the United Nations Charter (UN, 1945, p. 2). Thus, it remained until the 2005 World Summit, where the world’s nations gathered together to institute a new global commitment, the Responsibility to Protect (RtoP), aimed at preventing human atrocities.

Despite its noble goals, the RtoP has been subject to considerable criticism, with many accusing the doctrine of infringing on national sovereignty and legitimising Western interventionism. On the other hand, proponents of the RtoP like to point towards successful missions in Kenya and the Ivory Coast as exemplary models of diplomatic action. Given the doctrine’s controversial legacy, this essay aims to explain, assess, and review refinements to the RtoP. In the first section, I explore the ethical principles and legal framework of the RtoP. In the second section, I discuss its political implications and practical limitations. Following this, I briefly review refinements to the RtoP before concluding with my final thoughts on why the RtoP is a fundamentally good idea in need of reform.

Explaining the Responsibility to Protect

Prior to the RtoP, there was no legal framework for carrying out intervention on an international level. Instead, states were expected to manage humanitarian atrocities on a unilateral and bilateral level without the input of the wider global community. For example, the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War, which saw the genocide of 300,000 to 3,000,000 Bengalis at the hands of the Pakistani government, was only stopped by rival India’s timely military intervention (Rummel, 1998, pp. 153-163). Despite international condemnation, the United Nations (UN) failed to organise any humanitarian efforts.

However, even in instances when the UN attempted to play a more active role in managing human atrocities, it proved largely ineffective. The 1992-1995 Bosnian War involved the genocide of over 30,000 Bosniaks despite a sizable UN presence (Calic, 2013, p. 140). Similarly, the UN Assistance Mission to Rwanda is regarded as a complete debacle for failing to prevent the Rwandan genocide, in which well over 500,000 Tutsi were killed, due to limitations in its rules of engagement (Guichaoua, 2020). Without a recognised framework to work within, the UN and international community were left to stand by and watch as human atrocities unfolded around the world.

Policymakers sought to change this by developing a legal framework that would commit states to collectively intervene to prevent human atrocities. The first call for such a commitment can be attributed to the late UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s millennial report entitled We the peoples: the role of the United Nations in the twenty-first century (Annan, 2000, pp. 31-39). Within the same year, the African Union (AU) became the first multi-national union to adopt the commitment under Article 4 of its constitutive act, which permits the AU to intervene in a member state under “grave circumstances” (AU, 2000, p. 7).

The following year, the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) released its report on the RtoP. This report outlined three specific sub-responsibilities that together form the overall RtoP (ICISS, 2001, p. XI):

  1. The Responsibility to Prevent: States must address the root causes and direct causes of human atrocities. Prevention options should always be exhausted before intervention is considered.
  1. The Responsibility to React: States must respond to human atrocities with the appropriate measures, including sanctions, international prosecution, and, in extreme cases, military intervention. Less coercive and intrusive measures should be applied before more coercive and intrusive measures.
  1. The Responsibility to Rebuild: States must provide full assistance with recovery, reconstruction and reconciliation following an intervention. The rebuilding process should include measures to prevent human atrocities from occurring in the future.

More importantly, the ICISS report also outlined four criteria that must be met for military intervention to be considered legitimate (ICISS, 2001, pp. XII-XIII):

  1. Just Cause Threshold: Military intervention must only be pursued if a serious and imminent threat of human atrocity exists due to deliberate state action, neglect, or failure.
  1. Precautionary Principles: Military intervention must be primarily motivated by the need to protect human life, a last resort after all other options have been exhausted, proportional to the situation at hand, and have a reasonable chance of success.
  1. Right Authority: Military intervention must require the approval of the UN security council.
  1. Operational Principles: Military intervention must have an unambiguous mandate at all times, clear communication among all involved parties, maximum possible coordination with humanitarian organisations, incrementally apply force, follow appropriate rules of engagement, and accept that force protection cannot become the primary objective.

The RtoP was subsequently enshrined in paragraphs 138 and 139 of the 2005 World Summit Outcome, defining human atrocity as “genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity” (UN, 2005, p. 30). In addition to stressing the need for state cooperation in exercising the RtoP and establishing early warning capabilities, the 2005 World Summit emphasised the importance of acting in accordance with the United Nations Charter, notably Chapters VI, VII, and VIII (UN, 1945, pp. 8-11). Four years later, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon introduced the three pillars as a way to operationalise the RtoP (Ki-moon, 2009, pp. 8-10):

  1. Pillar I – The Protection Responsibilities of the State: States are responsible for protecting their population from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity.
  1. Pillar II – International Assistance and Capacity-building: States must assist each other in their protection responsibilities.
  1. Pillar III – Timely and Decisive Response: If any state fails to fulfil its protection responsibilities, other states must take collective action to protect the population.

Assessing the Responsibility to Protect

On a fundamental level, the RtoP is predicated on the radical idea that state sovereignty implies responsibility for state populations, including citizens and non-citizens. Therefore, when a situation arises that endangers a state’s population, and the state fails to act, it falls to the international community to intervene. In such a situation, “the principle of non-intervention yields to the international responsibility to protect” (ICISS, 2001, p. XI). In doing so, RtoP tacitly challenges the core ideal of the Westphalian System – the sacrosanctity of state sovereignty – by creating room for legitimate intervention on humanitarian grounds.

In theory, no matter how powerful or weak a state is, it must ensure the safety of its population lest it forfeits its right to inviolable sovereignty. For this reason, the RtoP represents a paradigm shift in international law (Slaughter, 2006). Under the Westphalian System, states were free to do whatever they pleased within their territories so long as they did not harm another sovereign. Sovereignty was unconditional. Of course, in practice, powerful states could still interfere in the internal workings of weaker states with impunity. In contrast, under the RtoP, sovereignty is now conditional on the state protecting its population from human atrocity, and every state is to be held accountable to the international community.

As highlighted before, the world without the RtoP saw countless human atrocities, from the Armenian genocide in the Ottoman Empire to the Holocaust in Nazi Germany. But what does the world with RtoP look like? And is this world really any different from the one before?

The RtoP was first implemented during the 2007 Kenyan Crisis (GCR2P, 2022). Following dubious elections, President Mwai Kibaki of the Party of National Unity (PNU) was sworn in as the president of Kenya in late December 2007. Supporters of the opposition, the Orange Democratic Party (ODM) led by Raila Odinga, immediately contested the election by arranging mass protests across the country. These protests eventually escalated into violence between ethnic Kikuyus, Luos and Kalenjins, resulting in the deaths of over 1,000 people and the displacement of a further 300,000 by early February the following year (Gettleman, 2008).

The international community sprung into action almost immediately. Within two weeks, the AU, supported by the UN and other key international groups, appointed a three-member Panel of Eminent African Personalities to mediate the conflict and find a peaceful solution. Former UN Secretary-General Annan led the panel alongside former Tanzanian President Benjamin Mkapa and humanitarian Graça Machel, wife of Nelson Mandela. They arrived in Kenya on the 22nd January, and by the end of the week, Kibaki and Odinga agreed to a 41-day mediation period. On the 28th February, following lengthy negotiations, both parties agreed to a power-sharing arrangement with Kibaki as President and Odinga as Prime Minister, finally ending the violence (Weiss, 2010).

The 2007 Kenyan Crisis demonstrates just how effective the RtoP can be when the international community rallies together. With diplomatic intervention, the PNU and ODM were able to overcome their differences without the need for military intervention. Had the international community refused to diplomatically intervene on the grounds of respecting Kenya’s sovereignty, there is no doubt that the violence would have continued to spiral out of control, and countless more people would have been killed. Unfortunately, not every case of intervention under the RtoP ends as it did in Kenya.

The first military intervention under the RtoP occurred during the first year of the ongoing 2011 Libyan Crisis (GCR2P, 2022). After 42 years of authoritarian rule under Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, civil war broke out in Libya as part of the wider Arab Spring. On the 15th February 2011, anti-government rallies were held in Benghazi, protesting the arrest of human rights lawyer Fethi Tarbel. Libyan security forces violently suppressed the demonstrations, intensifying anti-government sentiment and provoking nationwide revolts. By March, rebel forces had taken control of large swathes of eastern Libya, forming the National Transitional Council (NTC) in Benghazi. Five days later, Gaddafi initiated a gruelling counter-offensive, taking back most rebel-held cities before advancing on the rebel stronghold of Benghazi. By this point in the conflict, over 1,000 people had been killed, and at least 37,000 people had been displaced (Ki-moon, 2011).

With the death toll mounting, the UN security council passed Resolution 1973 on the 17th March, authorising military intervention “to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack” (UNSC, 2011, p. 3). Two days later, French fighter jets destroyed several pro-Gaddaffi vehicles advancing on Benghazi, followed by the firing of over 110 cruise missiles by American and British submarines that destroyed the regime’s air defence capabilities. With the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) now in command of the intervention, the NTC were able to halt the regime’s counter-offensive and begin advancing on Tripoli, ending the war on the 20th October with the death of Colonel Gaddafi. By the war’s end, 21,490 people were killed, with an additional 19,700 injured and 435,000 displaced (Daw, et al., 2015).

In the aftermath of the First Libyan Civil War, the country’s transition to stable democracy has been considerably hindered. Despite the international community formally recognising the NTC as Libya’s governing body, the reality on the ground was quite different, with various militias and armed groups taking control of different parts of the country. These groups eventually formed two competing factions during the 2014 elections, leading to the Second Libyan Civil War (Fitzgerald & Toaldo, 2016). Despite agreeing to a ceasefire on 21st August 2020, the future of Libya still looks pretty grim, with many arguing that life under Gaddafi was much more tolerable than the current state of affairs (Baspineiro, 2020).

The 2011 Libyan Crisis demonstrates just how damaging military intervention under RtoP can be. By simply propping up a new government and calling it a day, the international community left the country in a worse state than before the intervention. Had the UN security council respected Libya’s sovereignty by refusing to intervene, perhaps Gaddafi would have been able to defeat the rebels and institute peace. And while it is true that Gaddafi’s government would have continued to kill many people, it’s unlikely the number would have been much higher than those killed following the intervention and second civil war.

And so, the question must be asked: why did the RtoP work in Kenya but not in Libya?

One possible explanation is the spiral model, which asserts that peace is best preserved via appeasement and conciliation, as it was in the case of Kenya, rather than through the threat of punishment and military intervention used in Libya (Jervis, 1976, pp. 58-114). However, this analysis ignores the case-specific conditions that allowed intervention to succeed in Kenya and fail in Libya.

In Libya, longstanding grievances about Gaddafi’s controversial foreign policy had isolated him from the international community for most of his reign (Solomon & Swart, 2005). So, when the opportunity arose for those same aggrieved states to overthrow Gaddafi’s regime, they happily jumped at it. Gaddafi was too volatile for the international system. Meanwhile, in Kenya, the international community was relatively impartial between the ODM and PNU, so it didn’t matter what the intervention’s outcome looked like so long as peace was restored (Weiss, 2010). In short, the international community had the right intentions with Kenya and the wrong ones with Libya. As a result, no matter the nature of the intervention, diplomatic or military, it was destined for success in Kenya and doomed to fail in Libya. Ultimately, the disparity in outcome between Kenya and Libya is indicative of broader systemic issues that must be reformed if the RtoP is to be realised (Paris, 2014):

  • The Mixed-motives Problem: The RtoP rests on states having purely altruistic aims; however, states more often than not look out for their own self-interest, leading to botched interventions.
  • The Counterfactual Problem: The RtoP has to rely on counterfactual arguments to justify intervention, making it much harder to rally international support in those situations it is desperately needed.
  • The Conspicuous Harm Problem: When interventions are proposed, the immediate costs will be more apparent than the immediate benefits, causing support to dwindle.
  • The End-state Problem: Intervention can be a long process that may require states to take on extended mandates long after a human atrocity has been averted.
  • The Inconsistency Problem: The RtoP has been wholly inconsistent in its application, with many ongoing human atrocities receiving virtually no attention under the doctrine.

Refining the Responsibility to Protect

As the smoke cleared after the Frist Libyan Civil War, Brazil submitted its Responsibility while Protecting (RwP) note to the UN security council. While the RwP note was largely redundant for repeating a lot of the same points as the ICISS report, it did call for the strict chronological sequencing of RtoP’s three pillars and stressed a distinction between collective responsibility and collective security (Serbin & Pont, 2015, p. 175). The aim was to establish greater accountability under the RtoP by forcing the UN security council to conduct “comprehensive and judicious analysis of the possible consequences of military action on a case-by-case basis” and “to monitor and assess the manner in which resolutions are interpreted and implemented” (Viotti, 2011, p. 3). Doing so would have ensured that intervening states could no longer abuse the RtoP for their own self-interest as they did in Libya. On the other hand, such stringent regulation can take a lot of time to fulfil, something the victims of human atrocity do not have. As a result, detractors have accused RwP of paralysing the RtoP (Avezov, 2013).

Ultimately, the RwP note misses the point. While greater oversight may make some headway in solving the mixed-motives problem, it does not tackle the heart of what is holding back the RtoP: the permanent members of the UN security council, namely their right to veto. This is especially damaging in cases where permanent members or their allies are found to be violating the RtoP. For instance, the US and Russia have historically vetoed resolutions on Israeli-occupied Palestinian territory and the Syrian Civil War. Similarly, China has blocked every attempt to get the Uyghur Genocide on the international agenda (Rizvi, 2020). With this in mind, any effort to reform the RtoP must require the reformation of the UN security council itself, which ties into the wider debate surrounding UN institutional reform.


To recap, the RtoP was devised to prevent genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. Under the doctrine, states are expected to cooperate in implementing the appropriate measures to prevent, react to and rebuild following such human atrocities. Furthermore, the international community may be called upon to carry out military intervention should the need arise. In such an event, strict rules outlining a just cause threshold, precautionary principles, the right authority and operational principles must be followed.

In theory, the RtoP challenges the very heart of the Westphalian System; however, in practice, systemic issues have meant that the doctrine has seen little success in tackling human atrocity and the Westphalian norms that allow it to continue. As exemplified by NATO during the First Libyan Civil War, powerful states and their allies can still do as they wish with impunity. Therefore, as it stands, the world with the RtoP is not very different from the one without it, especially when you consider the multitude of human atrocities that the RtoP has failed to address, from the Rohingya Genocide in Myanmar to the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians by the Israeli government.

In an attempt to reform the RtoP, Brazil proposed the idea of RwP to increase the accountability of intervening states. However, the concept misses the heart of the issue and only serves to justify encumbering oversight by the security council. The only way to truly realise the RtoP is through the institutional reform of the UN. Unfortunately, such reforms will take years of negotiation. In the meantime, victims of human atrocity will continue to suffer as the world looks away in the typical Westphalian manner.

While it is easy to fall into abject pessimism over all this, it is important to remember that, at the very least, the RtoP has spotlighted the issue of human atrocity on the international stage. This reason alone is enough to warrant it a fundamentally good idea. With time, I’m confident that the international community will find a way to streamline the RtoP into force for good that makes human atrocity a distant memory. And, for those staunch advocates of the Westphalia System, I’d like to end with the words of Annan: “if humanitarian intervention is, indeed, an unacceptable assault on sovereignty, how should we respond to a Rwanda, to a Srebrenica – to gross and systematic violations of human rights that offend every precept of our common humanity?” (Annan, 2000, p. 34).


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Poking the Bear: Explaining Russia-NATO Hostilities

In February 2022, Russian forces began a full-blown military invasion of Ukrainian territory.

The following essay was originally submitted as an assignment for my university and was graded as a 1st class essay.

The post-2014 hostility between Russia and NATO results from two conflicting geostrategic policies that have contributed to a negative relationship spiral between the two sides: NATO expansionism and Russian irredentism. To illustrate this, I demonstrate how the Russo-Georgian War and the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian War were borne out of necessity to counter NATO expansionism, giving rise to Russian irredentism. Following this, I present counterarguments to alternative explanations for the source of the ongoing conflict. To conclude, I assert that the spiral model best explains the rising hostilities between Russia and NATO.

Following the end of the cold war, NATO gradually extended membership to former Eastern Bloc states, traditionally considered part of Russia’s sphere of influence. Coupled with long-standing grievances over NATO’s involvement in the Kosovo War and concerns over NATO’s missile defence program, Russia viewed this expansion into eastern Europe as a threat to its security. This eventually came to a head at the 2008 Bucharest Summit, where NATO agreed to extend membership to Georgia and Ukraine. Doing so would have left Russia surrounded by what it views as a hostile military bloc. In response, Russia militarily supported separatist groups in Georgia later that year, recognising South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states. This effectively blocked Georgia from entry into NATO as other member states were unwilling to inherit the country’s ongoing territorial disputes. Thus, the Russo-Georgian War served as a way for Russia to protect itself from NATO expansionism and any threats it would pose to Russian security.

In a similar vein to the Russo-Georgian War, the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian War also halts NATO’s expansion by preventing Ukraine from joining the alliance. That said, there is one key difference between the two conflicts. In the case of Georgia, Russia did not annex any territory, instead opting to support the South Ossetia and Abkhazia separatists without absorbing them into the Russian Federation. Lending legitimacy to their respective causes was enough to dash Georgia’s hopes of joining NATO. However, if all Russia has to do to stop NATO expansion is support and recognise separatist states in Ukraine, why did Russia choose to annex Crimea in 2014? The answer lies in a critical change in Russian geostrategic policy post-2008: Russian irredentism.

Irredentism is a type of expansionist policy in which a state desires to annex territory based on shared history and strong ethnic ties. While both Ukraine and Georgia were formerly part of the Russian Empire and USSR, the ethnic Russian population of Georgia is only 0.7% compared to Ukraine’s 17.3%. Therefore, it would not have been strategically justified for Russia to annex Georgian territory during the Russo-Georgian War. In contrast, Russia has far stronger irredentist claims on Ukraine due to a sizable number of ethnic Russians and Russian-speaking Ukrainians concentrated in Crimea and eastern Ukraine. This irredentist reasoning subsequently formed the basis of Russia’s rationale for annexing Crimea. As Vladimir Putin stated in his Presidential Address on the 18th March 2014: “In people’s hearts and minds, Crimea has always been an inseparable part of Russia.” In years since the annexation, Russian support for the war remains strong, thereby illustrating Russian irredentism’s effectiveness as a counterweight to NATO expansionism.

To recap, what started as a mutual desire for security has since spiralled into a conflict of competing geostrategic policies. In the post-Cold War period, both NATO and Russia sought to improve their individual security. For NATO, this meant following an expansionist policy of extending membership to former Eastern Bloc states. However, this threatened Russia’s security, provoking Russia to launch the Russo-Georgian War and begin following an irredentist policy of responsibility over Russians living in neighbouring countries. In response, the only way for NATO to ensure its security was to double down on its expansionist policy and strengthen ties between existing member states. This posed an even greater threat to Russia, provoking Russia to launch the Russo-Ukrainian War, the current source of hostility between Russia and NATO. In short, both parties have become increasingly hostile in response to the actions of the other, a clear example of the spiral model in effect.

That being said, geostrategic conflict is not the only reason cited as a cause of the Russo-Ukrainian War and ongoing hostilities between NATO and Russia. Some political commentators argue that there exists a fundamental rift between the democratic world and the authoritarian world. In their worldview, NATO represents the democratic ideal to which Russia’s authoritarian regime is an anathema. Hence why cooperation is impossible, and hostility is inevitable. However, when one considers that NATO enjoys close ties with authoritarian regimes such as Jordan and includes flawed democracies and hybrid regimes such as Romania and Turkey, the merit of this argument is considerably weakened. Evidently, NATO is more than willing to work with authoritarian regimes if it is to the advantage of its expansionist policy. Similarly, Russian supporters often claim that the recent invasion of Ukraine was done under a moral obligation to combat Neo-Nazism embodied by groups such as Ukraine’s Azov Regiment. This is also a weak argument given the prevalence of Neo-Nazism throughout Europe and Russia itself.

In conclusion, the hostility between Russia and NATO results from competing geostrategic policies and is best exemplified using the spiral model. NATO expansionism and Russian irredentism contributed to the escalating tension in the post-Cold War period. While other reasons have been cited for the conflict, such as the democracy-authoritarianism dichotomy and the moral problem of Neo-Nazism, evidence suggests that these factors take a backseat to the geopolitical realities. Ultimately, the solution to the NATO-Russia conflict lies in reconciling the mutual security interests of both parties via negotiation and compromise. Until this is realised, the spiral model will continue to play out, with each side responding to the other in a never-ending cycle of conflict.

Terrorism: An Interdisciplinary Approach

The September 11 Attacks sparked global outrage and prompted the US to initiate the War on Terror.

The following essay was originally submitted as an assignment for my university and was graded as a 2:1.

In this essay, I aim to utilise Allen Repko and James Welch’s interdisciplinary approach to examine the global issue of terrorism (Repko & Welch, 2005). First, I will begin by defining terrorism and outlining my specific research questions. Then I will introduce the concept of interdisciplinarity, discussing its advantages and disadvantages. Following this, I will study terrorism in isolation through the lens of social policy, politics, and economics, highlighting how each discipline answers my research questions. To conclude, I will combine these insights to construct a more integrated understanding of terrorism before reflecting on how I found the process of using an interdisciplinary approach.

Defining Terrorism

In the absence of a single internationally agreed-upon definition, the UN minimally defines terrorism as “the intimidation or coercion of populations or governments through the threat or perpetration of violence, causing death, serious injury or the taking of hostages” (United Nations, 2023). Over the last decade, the global death toll from terrorism ranged from 8,200 in 2011 to 44,600 in 2014, averaging 26,000 people a year. In addition, terrorism poses a significant security risk to countries worldwide, particularly in the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia, which accounted for 95% of the deaths caused by terrorism in 2019 (Ritchie, et al., 2022). Given its global nature, it is imperative that scholars become accustomed to studying terrorism in the hopes of finding a sustainable solution. With this in mind, I aim to utilise interdisciplinarity to answer the following research questions:

What are the causes of terrorism?

What is the solution to terrorism?

Introducing Interdisciplinarity

In 1994, Michael Gibbons and his colleagues posited a new theory concerning the production of knowledge. They argued that knowledge production was undergoing a fundamental change at the end of the twentieth century, moving from what they called ‘Mode 1’ to ‘Mode 2’. Mode 1 refers to traditional knowledge generated within discrete disciplines (Gibbons, et al., 1994). A discipline is any self-contained domain of human experience with its own community of experts and distinctive components (Nissani, 1995). Furthermore, disciplines often focus on a specific subject area with their own rules and boundaries (Bridges, 2006). For example, geology is a discipline concerned with studying Earth and other astronomical objects. It has a community of experts known as geologists and distinctive components, such as geophysical surveys and the Theory of Plate Tectonics.

Meanwhile, Mode 2 refers to knowledge generated by different disciplines working together to solve a specific problem via a process known as interdisciplinarity (Gibbons, et al., 1994). Interdisciplinarity can be minimally defined as bringing together the distinctive components of two or more disciplines (Nissani, 1995). More precisely, interdisciplinarity involves integrating and synthesising knowledge and methods from different disciplines (Jensenius, 2012). For instance, environmental science practices interdisciplinarity by synthesising knowledge and methods from geology, ecology, and oceanography. Much of the knowledge generated in environmental science has gone on to inform policy surrounding climate change.

Before discussing the advantages and disadvantages of interdisciplinarity, it is worth noting how it differs from other knowledge production methods, such as multidisciplinarity and cross-disciplinarity. Multidisciplinarity involves different disciplines working together for a common purpose, each drawing on its own body of knowledge (Jensenius, 2012). Thus, unlike interdisciplinary studies, where a single researcher must become acquainted with different disciplines, multidisciplinary studies require a group of researchers to focus on a common issue, viewing it from the perspective of their individual disciplines. This parallel approach to study is considerably less integrative than interdisciplinarity, making it difficult for researchers to consolidate their knowledge and ideas (Borrego & Newswander, 2010).

Similarly, cross-disciplinarity involves engaging with the subject area of one discipline using the methods and knowledge from another (Jensenius, 2012). Therefore, cross-disciplinarity is the least integrative as it does not require researchers to engage with the tools or perspectives of another discipline, only its subject area. Given this, cross-disciplinarity is far less likely to produce any new meaningful insights regarding a particular topic or issue. Therefore, both multidisciplinarity and cross-disciplinarity fall short of interdisciplinarity when it comes to successful knowledge production.

The benefits and challenges of interdisciplinarity are best encapsulated by the term ‘breadth-over-depth’. If the different knowledge production methods were to exist on a spectrum, then traditional disciplinarity would have the most depth and least breadth, followed by cross-disciplinarity and multidisciplinarity. Interdisciplinarity exists on the other side of the spectrum with the most breadth but least depth. Accordingly, traditional disciplinarity is often characterised as having a narrow focus that poses an “obstacle to fluid and imaginative intellectual endeavour” (Bridges, 2006, p. 262). Meanwhile, interdisciplinary studies come across as “characteristically shallow” (Benson, 1982, p. 43).

The main challenge of using an interdisciplinary approach is limited time and resources. Traditional disciplinarity allows students and researchers to pool all their time and resources into a single subject, allowing for greater mastery over their chosen discipline. In contrast, interdisciplinarity requires students and researchers to divide their time and resources across multiple disciplines, preventing them from fully understanding any one discipline. Interdisciplinary research projects have significantly longer production times and increased ambiguity compared to traditional research projects. Consequently, interdisciplinary studies tend to receive limited recognition and support within traditional academic structures (Leahey, 2018). Therefore, interdisciplinarity is the least efficient method of knowledge production.

On the other hand, the main benefit of an interdisciplinary approach is its ability to recognise the multifaceted nature of complex global issues such as terrorism. Using a single discipline to address a global issue will only highlight the elements that are relevant to that discipline. For instance, strict economists will only notice the economic causes of terrorism, leading them to wrongly conclude that terrorism is solely the result of economic deprivation. Therefore, traditional disciplinarity is insufficient when addressing global issues (Okamura, 2019). However, interdisciplinarity encourages individuals to critically engage with the theories and methodologies of multiple disciplines, opening them up to fresh perspectives whilst simultaneously overcoming the inadequacies of any one discipline (Klein, 1990). Furthermore, interdisciplinary learning has the added benefit of developing advanced epistemological beliefs, metacognitive skills, creativity, and critical thinking (Stentoft, 2017). Thus, making it the ideal method for effectively addressing global issues.

In summary, the future of knowledge production lies in interdisciplinarity – the integration and synthesis of different disciplines – as opposed to multidisciplinarity and cross-disciplinarity. While interdisciplinary approaches may not be as efficient as traditional disciplinary approaches, they are more effective at addressing complex global issues. Accordingly, an interdisciplinary approach is crucial for highlighting the multiplicity of factors causing terrorism which is conducive to devising a viable solution that covers all bases.

Perspectives from Social Policy

Over the last two decades, social policy has become increasingly invested in the study of terrorism and how it relates to issues surrounding social welfare. Primarily drawing from the discipline of criminology, social policy recognises that terrorism has changed over time. In recent years, a growing number of social policy practitioners have begun distinguishing between what they term ‘old’ terrorism and ‘new’ terrorism.

According to David Rapoport, the history of modern terrorism can be divided into four waves: anarchist, nationalist/anti-colonial, new left, and religious (Rapoport, 2004). Each of these four waves of terrorism is characterised by unique socio-cultural environments, methodologies, ideologies, and organisational structures. For instance, the current religious wave, exemplified by Al-Qaeda, directly appeals to religious faith for its justification, whereas the nationalist wave, exemplified by the IRA, appealed to ideas about emancipatory struggle (Kaplan, 2016). Rapoport’s religious wave of terrorism coincides with what social policy practitioners call ‘new’ terrorism: the “anti-order of the new world order of the 21st century” (Juergensmeyer, 2000, p. 158). It is characterised by amorphous structures of organisation and indiscriminate violent spectacles inspired by religious extremism (Hattotuwa, 2007). Given these conclusions, it is clear that social policy views religious fanaticism as a major cause of modern terrorism. That being said, a growing minority of scholars have begun categorising a fifth wave of terrorism, the right-wing wave, centred around ideas about white supremacy (Auger, 2020).

In social policy, the purpose of terrorism studies is to determine how much of a threat it poses to social welfare. In the UK, this has spurred policymakers to create the UK Terror Threat Levels, a scale of five alert states ranging from low to critical that determine national security responses. Since its introduction in 2006, the UK threat level from international terrorism has not dropped below substantial (MI5, 2023). This is but a reflection of much greater anxiety and moral panic surrounding the threat of terrorism on a global scale that has pushed policymakers worldwide to devise increasingly authoritarian measures to address it via a process known as securitisation.

Securitisation refers to the state’s ability to transform common political issues into matters of national security, allowing it to pass extraordinary measures it would not be able to do otherwise (Buzan, et al., 1998). It is a practice that dates back to the early waves of terrorism when colonial powers instituted increasingly draconian methods in an attempt to stem the tide of nationalistic fervour. For example, the British Raj passed the Defence of India Act 1915, extending it under the Rowlatt Act in 1919, which allowed for the censorship of the press, arrests without warrant, indefinite detention without trial, and juryless trials for anyone engaged in acts of revolutionary nationalism (Ghani, 2020).

In a similar fashion, the UK government gradually rolled back on the public’s civil liberties in the interest of national security during the early 2000s. The Terrorism Act 2000 gave the police the power to stop and search without reasonable suspicion. A few years later, the Terrorism Act 2006 gave the police the power to arrest and detain without charge for up to 28 days. These powers have subsequently been abused by police, especially when shutting down political dissent. For example, in March 2003, anti-war protestors were prevented from protesting outside RAF Fairford and were sent back to London under heavy police escort (BBC, 2013). Furthermore, in June 2013, documents leaked by Edward Snowden revealed that GCHQ had been spying on the British public (Amnesty International UK, 2020). This practice of mass surveillance has since been formalised under the Investigatory Powers Act 2016, which gave 48 state authorities, including GCHQ, the power to access the general public’s internet connection records without a warrant.

Alongside this general erosion of civil liberties, the UK government has also begun implementing special measures targeting specific suspect communities, most notably British Muslims. Introduced in 2011, the Prevent programme has since faced considerable criticism for its “negative and discriminatory effects on Muslim communities” (Nezirevic, 2022). Most notably, Prevent has been found to be inherently Islamophobic, contributing to the marginalisation of the Muslim community, which only increases the risk of radicalisation (Holmwood & Aitlhadj, 2022). Despite specifically targeting Muslim communities, the Prevent programme still failed to stop Salman Abedi from committing the 2017 Manchester Arena Bombing (Perraudin, 2017). Therefore, much like the Rowlatt Act of 1919, modern UK government policy has proven ineffective in addressing terrorism, in many ways exacerbating the very conditions that lead to radicalisation.

In summary, social policy firmly places religion, particularly Islam, at the heart of modern terrorism. This, in turn, has fuelled moral panic, allowing governments to implement increasingly authoritarian laws that cut back on individual liberty. In doing so, governments have contributed to the very same socio-economic conditions that allow for the radicalisation of individuals.

Perspectives from Politics

Since the War on Terror began, terrorism has become an increasingly popular area of research in political science, particularly where its subdisciplines of international relations, security studies and strategic studies are concerned. Consequently, numerous studies have been conducted on the causes of terrorism. Overall, political science recognises three main categories of factors that cause or exacerbate modern terrorism: ideological factors, socio-economic factors, and psychological factors (Wojciechowski, 2017).

Terrorists identify with ideologies centred around ideas regarding politics, ethnicity, and religion. Broadly speaking, terrorists fall into two categories: nationalists and ideologists (Segaller, 1987). Nationalists are radicalised by perceived national injustices and supported by their communities, utilising violent means where peaceful means have proven ineffective. For example, the IRA sought to free Ireland from British colonial rule. Meanwhile, ideologists hold distinctly minority views and are often ostracised from their communities. For example, ISIS follows a very extreme interpretation of Islam that is rejected by the vast majority of Muslims.

For terrorism to thrive, it requires socio-economic conditions that generate and intensify radical attitudes. While experts disagree on the importance of specific socio-economic conditions, globalisation stands out as a critical factor underpinning modern terrorism. Globalisation threatens local communities’ societal norms and economic position, leading to intercultural conflict, particularly in the global ‘south’ (Stevens, 2002). In addition, globalisation has brought into stark focus the development disparity between the rich global ‘north’ and the poor global ‘south’. As it stands, less-developed states experience the greatest threat from terrorist activity (Institute for Economics & Peace, 2022). Furthermore, terrorist organisations rely on financial backing from various international sources, from individual donors to foreign regimes. For example, the Afghan Taliban relies on donations from sympathisers abroad and the opium trade to fund its activities (Clarke, 2015). I will elaborate on the financial aspect of terrorism in the economics section of this essay.

People at risk of being radicalised by terrorist groups exhibit certain psychological processes such as hatred, prejudice, injustice, and trauma, among others. This is evidenced by the fact that many terrorists follow some variation of the ‘us versus them’ mentality. For example, Brenton Tarrant was influenced by anti-Muslim sentiment and white supremacy, leading him to commit the 2019 Christchurch Mosque Shootings (Ehsan & Stott, 2020). Another commonality amongst terrorist groups is the idea that everything, including one’s life, comes second to ‘the cause’. As a result, terrorists willingly assume responsibility for and engage in violently destructive activities (Horgan, 2003).

Given its vast range of causal factors, political scientists have advocated for different solutions to address terrorism, depending on their ontological and epistemological positions. The most popular position is that of the realists who call for direct military intervention in countries facing terrorist threats. For instance, following the September 11th Attacks, the USA launched its War on Terror, increasing its global military presence, particularly in the Middle East. As of 2021, the USA controls around 750 overseas military bases (Vine, 2021). Despite eliminating high-value targets like Osama Bin Laden, the USA’s War on Terror is often considered a strategic failure. During the Arab Spring, the USA failed to protect its strategic allies, such as Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was deposed in 2012 (Riedel, 2017). After the USA’s withdrawal in late 2021, the Taliban effectively took over Afghanistan, demonstrating how twenty years of military intervention proved ineffective at addressing terrorism (Center for Preventive Action, 2022). Not to mention the 387,072 civilian deaths caused by the USA’s post-9/11 wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Syria, and Pakistan (Watson Institute, 2021). As a result of this fervent interventionism, many countries belonging to the global ‘south’ view the USA and its allies with suspicion (Simon & Stevenson, 2015).

In response to the War on Terror’s strategic failure, post-modernists have begun to question how society perceives terrorism. As academics have increasingly highlighted, western media outlets consistently associate terrorism with Islam and Muslims (Scrivens, 2018). Atrocities committed by Islamist extremists receive six times more coverage and are nine times more likely to be associated with the term ‘terrorism’ than those committed by far-right extremists despite using similar methods of violence (Hanif, 2020). This failure to frame far-right extremism as terrorism is reflected in the lack of adequate policy measures to address it. Furthermore, associating Islam with terrorism has prompted anti-Muslim sentiment worldwide, fuelling justification for state-sponsored aggression towards Muslim minorities (Werleman, 2021). This only further marginalises Muslim populations, creating the socio-economic conditions that precipitate terrorist activity. Therefore, post-modernists assert that the way the international community currently frames terrorism is detrimental to the process of solving it.

To summarise, political science asserts that terrorism results from various ideological, socio-economic, and psychological factors. Following the failure of the USA’s War on Terror, the mainstream realist advocacy for direct military intervention has been increasingly questioned, prompting post-modernists to call for a revaluation of terrorism discourse.

Perspectives from Economics

In economics, terrorism is primarily studied from a utility perspective, analysing the rational choices of terrorist organisations. Hence, economists make no distinction between terrorists and other criminals. Therefore, to understand the root cause of terrorism, one must familiarise themselves with the economic theory of crime.

Initially conceived by Jeremy Bentham in 1789, the economic theory of crime was later formalised by Gary Becker in 1968. According to Bentham, “the profit of the crime urges a man to delinquency: the pain of punishment is the force employed to restrain him from it”. Furthermore, “if the first of these forces be the greater, the crime will be committed; if the second, the crime will not be committed” (Bentham, 1789, p. 399). Similarly, in Becker’s model, criminal acts are preferred when the expected benefits of a crime exceed its expected costs, including the costs of any foregone legal alternatives (Becker, 1968). Thus, criminals are presented as rational utility maximisers. In the case of terrorism, this is no different: terrorists aim to maximise their utility. For instance, the Taliban still exported opium to the USA despite fighting a war against them, as it was the course of action that maximised their utility (Clarke, 2015). 

One of the main conclusions drawn from the economic theory of crime is the idea that poverty breeds crime. According to the theory, criminals wish to engage in criminal activities that provide a benefit exceeding the benefit they would receive engaging in legal activities (Becker, 1968). Therefore, the lower an individual’s legal income, the more likely they are to engage in crime or terrorism. This is clearly reflected in the fact that less-developed, low-income countries experience greater levels of terrorist activity (Institute for Economics & Peace, 2022). Furthermore, during the onset of the 2007-2008 Financial crisis, the number of terrorist attacks worldwide reached an all-time high of 14,414 (Statista Research Department, 2023). Given this, economists generally believe that the solution to terrorism – as with all things – lies in economic growth. However, economists disagree on how to bring about said economic growth and are broadly divided into two schools of economic philosophy: Keynesian economics and laissez-faire economics.

Named after its founder John Keynes, the Keynesian school of economics asserts that a healthy economy is the result of private sector and government help. Therefore, it falls to governments to implement the appropriate monetary and fiscal policies to maintain high aggregate demand, avoiding unemployment and economic recessions (The Investopedia Team, 2022). According to Keynes, an economy’s output is the sum of consumption, investment, government expenditure, and net exports. Therefore, any increase in one of these components leads to an increase in output, leading to an increase in aggregate demand. In addition, Keynesian economic models also include a multiplier effect, so any change in output is a multiple of the increase or decrease in spending that caused the change (Jahan, et al., 2014). Keynesian economists typically advocate for higher social spending, lower taxes, and lower interest rates during economic recessions and the opposite during economic booms (The Investopedia Team, 2022).

On the other hand, the laissez-faire school of economics rejects government intervention, preferring to let the free market naturally regulate itself. Laissez-faire economists believe economic competition constitutes a natural order, the best type of economic regulation (The Investopedia Team, 2022). Take, for example, the theory of comparative advantage, which refers to a country’s ability to produce goods and services at a lower opportunity cost than its trade partners. In a global free market economy, every country would be forced to specialise in whichever industry they have a comparative advantage and trade in whichever industry they lack a comparative advantage. In theory, doing so would increase global productivity and economic growth (The Economist, 1998). As a result, laissez-faire economists are typically against minimum wages, trade restrictions, and corporate taxes, viewing them as penalties on production. Therefore, governments should only intervene to preserve property, life, and individual freedom, allowing ‘the invisible hand’ to proceed unhindered (The Investopedia Team, 2022).

In summary, economics solely recognises poverty as the driving force behind terrorism and other crimes. Therefore, the solution to terrorism lies in increased economic growth that alleviates poverty, thereby removing the incentive to engage in criminal activity. Laissez-faire economic policies have classically led to meagre wages, unsafe working conditions, significant wealth gaps and other socio-economic conditions that breed crime and terrorism. Meanwhile, Keynesian economists seek to solve terrorism by addressing market inequalities and reducing the economic marginalisation that pushes individuals to commit acts of terror.


In conclusion, interdisciplinarity is the most appropriate method for addressing any multifaceted global issue, such as terrorism, given its inherent appreciation for different disciplinary viewpoints. As far as social policy, politics, and economics are concerned, each discipline recognises different causes and solutions to the problem of terrorism. Therefore, it falls to interdisciplinarity to synthesise these various viewpoints to devise a viable solution to terrorism.

To devise a solution, we must first understand the causes of terrorism. Of the three disciplines examined in this essay, politics has the broadest range of factors contributing to the issue of terrorism: ideological factors, socio-economic factors, and psychological factors. Meanwhile, social policy and economics place more emphasis on religious extremism (an ideological factor) and poverty (a socio-economic factor), respectively. Regardless, all three disciplines recognise social and economic marginalisation as a critical factor behind radicalisation. Therefore, any attempt to solve terrorism must address the factors contributing to marginalisation.

As discussed in social policy, UK government policy has contributed to the social marginalisation of the Muslim community. Similarly, on a wider scale, the western media often demonises Muslims as the sole perpetrators of terrorist activity. Therefore, as highlighted in politics, there is a desperate need to change the way terrorism and Islam are framed as social discourses. To do this, I would recommend that media outlets begin reporting more fairly on terrorist activities committed by non-Muslim groups such as the far-right. Furthermore, media outlets should also portray Muslims in a more positive light to counteract the decades of negative stereotypes which have fuelled anti-Muslim sentiment. In addition, economics has highlighted a need for reduced wealth inequality and increased economic growth to deter terrorism. To achieve this, I suggest governments invest more money into communities at risk of radicalisation.

Overall, using an interdisciplinary approach has proven to be both a challenging and informative experience. While it has equipped me with a broad range of knowledge, I do not feel I am particularly well-versed in any one of the disciplines studied in this essay. Furthermore, the time constraints of this particular project meant that I could not devise a fully-fledged solution to the problem of terrorism. I am sure I could devise a much better solution if I had more time and resources. Thus, my experience with interdisciplinarity reflects the primary issue associated with the approach: ‘breadth-over-depth’.


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The Islamicate Gunpowder Empires: A Comparative Study

The Islamicate Gunpowder Empires were the most powerful and stable polities of the early modern period.

The following essay was originally submitted as an assignment for my university and was graded as a 2:1.

Empires have played a significant role in shaping the modern world and continue to influence global politics today. In recent years, a growing number of political scientists have turned to the study of empire to gain insights into how dominant political powers have shaped international relations and global economic systems. In doing so, they aim to uncover the root causes of contemporary political issues and develop the necessary strategies for addressing them.

In this essay, I aim to engage with the study of empire through a relatively new theoretical lens: Karen Barkey’s three conditions of imperial rule. To do this, I will begin by introducing the subject of my comparison: the Islamicate Gunpowder Empires. This will be followed by an explanation of Barkey’s conditions: legitimate sovereignty claims, rule over diversity, and control over elites. Then, I will go through each of Barkey’s conditions, comparing how they present in each empire before concluding with my view on which empire was most successful.

The Islamicate Gunpowder Empires: The Ottomans, Safavids and Mughals

In the early modern period, three empires represented the pinnacle of Islamicate civilisation: the Ottomans, Safavids and Mughals. Originally coined by Marshall Hodgson, the Islamicate Gunpowder Empires were amongst the world’s most powerful and stable polities, known for their proficiency in using gunpowder weaponry (Hodgson, 1977). Furthermore, all three empires were born of the same Turkic-Persian tradition, inheriting the systems of ‘Turko-Irano-Islamic statecraft’ that came with it (Streusand, 2011, pp. 11-28).

The Blue Mosque in Istanbul, Turkey, was constructed between 1609 and 1616 during the reign of Ahmed I.

The first of these great empires were the Ottomans, founded in 1299 by Osman I and lasting over six hundred years. The empire reached its zenith under the rule of Suleiman the Magnificent, ruling over large swathes of the Middle East and North Africa with a sizable foothold in Eastern Europe. The Ottomans maintained a robust and flexible economy, society, and military until the late 18th century, after which it began to be surpassed by its European neighbours (Faroqhi, 1994, p. 553). Its unravelling occurred during World War One, and the Ottoman Empire soon evolved into the Republic of Turkey in 1923.

The Shah Mosque in Isfahan, Iran, was constructed between 1611 and 1629 during the reign of Abbas I.

The next great empire, the Safavids, entered the scene two hundred years later, in 1501, under the leadership of Ismail I. Often considered the beginning of modern Iranian history, the Safavids are most famous for establishing Twelver Shia Islam in Iran, spreading its doctrines to other parts of the Islamicate world in the process (Arjomand, 1979). At its height, the empire’s borders stretched latitudinally from the Euphrates to Balochistan and longitudinally from the eastern Caucasus to the Persian Gulf. The Safavid Empire was formally dissolved in 1760 at the hands of the Zand dynasty.

The Badshahi Mosque in Lahore, Pakistan, was constructed between 1671 and 1673 during the reign of Aurangzeb.

The last and most affluent of the Islamicate gunpowder empires were the Mughals. Founded in 1526 by Babur, the Mughal Empire grew to control most of the Indian Subcontinent. Despite being a Muslim dynasty ruling over a majority Hindu population, the Mughals were able to usher in a golden age for the Indian subcontinent. By 1700, Mughal India accounted for 24.4% of the world’s GDP (Maddison, 2003, p. 261). The British formally abolished the Mughal Empire following the Indian Rebellion of 1857.

The Three Conditions of Imperial Rule

Before Barkey’s Empire of Difference, most empire studies followed the familiar rise-decline narrative popularised by Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. In short, all empires experience the same periods of rise, apogee, stagnation, and decline (Glubb, 1976, p. 24). Barkey sought to challenge this entrenched historiographical tradition by devising a new analytical framework to engage with the study of empire. She argues that three conditions are needed to maintain the imperial form:

1. Legitimate Sovereignty Claims

Empires must maintain authority over their populations by ensuring the participation of elites. This is achieved by devising a supranational ideology to provide cohesion amongst the upper classes. These ideologies often frame empires as upholders of religion and civilisation or as descendants of notable lineages with a divine right to rule. Regardless, the supranational ideology legitimises imperial sovereignty, encouraging elites to carry out imperial policy (Barkey, 2008, p. 13). For example, the mission civilisatrice doctrine of the French Empire acted as cultural justification for the colonial exploitation of Africa and Asia (Burrows, 1986).

2. Rule Over Diversity

Empires must maintain rule over multi-religious and multi-ethnic populations via policies designed to manage diversity. The purpose of said policies is to institute boundaries of varying permeability between different communities, arranging them according to different classificatory systems. It falls to state makers to meet with various groups to negotiate the terms of separation, difference, similarity, and cooperation (Barkey, 2008, p. 13). For example, the British Raj utilised ‘divide and conquer’ strategies to divide their Indian subjects along religious lines (Tharoor, 2017, pp. 101-148).

3. Control Over Elites

Empires must maintain control over elites politically and economically tied to the centre. Politically, elites are vertically integrated into the empire, dependent on the centre yet kept separate and distinct from one another on the horizontal level. Economically, the structure of elite arrangement determines how an empire provides for its fiscal and military needs (Barkey, 2008, p. 13). For example, the encomienda system of the Spanish Empire provided elites with the right to extract tribute from the conquered populations of South America in return for their loyalty to the Spanish Crown (Batchelder & Sanchez, 2013).

Condition 1: Legitimate Sovereignty Claims

According to Barkey, an empire must devise a convincing supranational ideology to legitimise its sovereignty. The methods through which the Islamicate Gunpowder Empires justified their sovereignty underwent significant changes in response to different audiences.

In the early days of the Ottoman Empire, Osman I had no specific claim to sovereignty; his legitimacy came from his military success in raiding the lands of non-Muslims, earning him respect from followers and opponents alike. However, as former Rum Seljuk officials entered Ottoman service, the Ottomans began demonstrating their legitimacy in Irano-Islamic terms through victory against other rulers, just governance per Persian traditions and the enforcement of Islamic law (Streusand, 2011, pp. 64-65). As the Ottomans expanded their domain, they began articulating their sovereignty in different ways to appeal to the new populations they encountered.

Upon encountering other Turkic polities like the Timurids, the Ottomans began legitimising their sovereignty in Turko-Mongol terms by relying on a genealogy that tied Osman I to the legendary Turkic leader Oghuz Khan (Barkey, 2008, p. 99). According to Turkic tradition, God had designated Oghuz Khan and his descendants as the legitimate rulers of the world (Kamola, 2015). After conquering Constantinople in 1453, Ottoman rulers claimed to be legitimate successors to the Roman Empire to appeal to their former Byzantine subjects. Less than a century later, the Ottomans conquered the Mamluks gaining control over the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, solidifying their claim as defenders of Islam (Streusand, 2011, pp. 67-68).

During the post-Suleimanic years, the Ottomans began to espouse a more sedentary Irano-Islamic ideology. Rather than basing their legitimacy on martial glory, the Ottoman emperors made the patronage of Sunni Islam the basis of their sovereignty (Peirce, 1993, p. 185). This eventually culminated in the Ottoman claim to the title of caliph, making them the pre-eminent rulers in the Islamicate world (Imber, 1997, pp. 98-112).

Like the Ottomans, the Safavid Empire’s claims to sovereignty also underwent an ideological evolution, albeit a far less complex one. The ideology of Safaviyya, the Sufi order to which Ismail I belonged and led, fell under the category of ghulat: a world view of opposition against mainstream Islamic doctrine and the institutions that supported it. Safaviyya ghulat, in particular, drew upon Turkic shaman-Sufi practices and the lasting tradition of nomadic dissent against settled rule to appeal to its Turkmen followers, who made up the bulk of the Safavid Qizilbash tribes (Babayan, 2003, p. xxiii). Thus, Ismail I presented himself as a revolutionary messianic figure who sought to address two grievances: the nomadic Turkmen against the bureaucratic Aq Qoyunlu Confederation and the Shia against the Sunni ruling elite (Streusand, 2011, p. 160). To further support their claim as harbingers of a new purified Islamic polity, the Safavids claimed descendency from Prophet Muhammad ﷺ through his daughter Fatima and son-in-law Ali (Blake, 2013, p. 23).

Upon conquering Tabriz in 1501, Ismail I chose orthodox Twelver Shia Islam as the state religion over the Safaviyya’s religious teachings. The reasons for this are unclear though I would suspect it had to do with the fact that Safaviyya ghulat did not have the doctrinal capacity to bring law and order to the Safavid’s settled non-Turkic subjects. Thus, the early Safavid Empire espoused a dual religious ideology: Safaviyya ghulat for the nomadic Turkmen and Twelver Shia Islam for the settled population (Streusand, 2011, p. 161). As later Safavid rulers became increasingly accustomed to a settled lifestyle, they began to distance themselves from Safaviyya teachings, becoming patrons of Shia Islam in a similar vein to their Ottoman cousins in the west (Arjomand, 1979).

Like the early Ottoman and Safavid rulers, the Mughals also claimed descendency from a noble lineage as the basis of their sovereignty. In his autobiography, Babur-Nama, Babur claimed to be a descendant of both Timur and Ghengis Khan (Hiro, 2006, pp. 8-9). The early Mughal rulers viewed themselves as a continuation of the Timurid legacy – hence their claim to the former Timurid territory of Hindustan – and continued the standard Irano-Islamic practices of previous Indo-Muslim rulers (Streusand, 2011, pp. 244-245). It was not until the construction of Fatehpur Sikri in 1571 under Akbar that anything resembling a distinctly Mughal ideology started being articulated.

Akbar’s political ideology, known as Sulh-i-kul, had a uniquely syncretic nature unlike anything seen hitherto in the Islamicate world and sought to legitimise Mughal sovereignty in both Muslim and Hindu terms (Habib, 1998). In 1579, he promulgated the Mazhar, an imperial order designating the Mughal emperor as a mujtahid and Amir al-Mu’minin. Doing so allowed the Mughals to occupy the same position as the early Muslim caliphs, who acted as both sovereign and chief religious authority. Analogously, Akbar introduced Hindu practices such as Jharokha Darshan and Rajyabhiseka into the Mughal court to state their sovereignty in Hindu terms. Despite the effectiveness of Sulh-i-kul in appeasing the majority Hindu population, succeeding Mughal emperors gradually returned to the tried and tested ideological customs of previous Indo-Muslim polities, with a complete reversal under Aurangzeb, a patron of Sunni Islam (Streusand, 2011, pp. 246-253).

In summary, all three empires underwent similar ideological evolutions. The basis of each empire’s sovereignty lay in its noble lineage and the personal exploits of its founder. As the empires grew, their legitimising ideologies responded to their changing audiences until, at the height of their power, each empire’s sovereignty was firmly based on religious patronage.

Condition 2: Rule Over Diversity

Barkey’s second condition of imperial rule states that empires must implement appropriate policies to manage their diverse populations. In the case of the Islamicate gunpowder empires, these policies ranged from tolerance to forced conversion.

Overall, the Ottomans practised a policy of religious pluralism best exemplified by the millet system. Under this system, religious groups were divided into autonomous units, called millets, with the right to enact religious law and collect taxes so long as they recognised Ottoman sovereignty. Alongside the central Muslim millet, 16 other millets were recognised by the Ottoman Empire, including the Greek Orthodox, Armenian, and Jewish millets, each with their own leading authority and institutions (Rassam & Bates, 2001, p. 103). Thus, the Ottoman Empire was an empire of nations under the protection and management of the central state.

Like the Ottomans, the Mughals also practised a general policy of tolerance for religious diversity. While Mughal attitudes towards non-Muslims varied over time – best exemplified by the abolishment of the jizya in 1564 and its reinstatement in 1679 – non-Muslims continuously played an active role in Mughal politics, making up a sizable segment of the ruling class. The Mughal mansabdari system made no distinction between Hindus and Muslims. As a matter of fact, when independent Hindu rulers, such as the Rajput chiefs, were defeated by the Mughals, they were incorporated into this same system and treated as equals on par with their fellow Muslim mansabdars (Zaidi, 1994).

It is worth noting here the difference in the tolerant approaches of the Ottomans and Mughals. Where the Ottomans demarked boundaries between different religious groups, the Mughals made no such distinctions. I would argue that this is the result of the differing nature of the communities each empire found itself managing. The Greek Orthodox Church religiously led the Greek Orthodox community. Therefore, if the Ottomans wanted to maintain control over their new Greek Orthodox subjects, they had to absorb the Greek Orthodox Church into its governance structure rather than abolish it. Hence, the creation of the Greek Orthodox millet. Meanwhile, the various Hindu communities of South Asia had no such central authority for the Mughals to absorb or abolish. Hence, the Mughal administration’s ‘colour-blind’ approach to religion.

In stark contrast to their neighbours, the Safavids practised a policy of forced conversion so effective that it led to a fundamental change in the demographics of Persia. Before Safavid rule, Sunni Islam dominated Persia, so much so that the Ottomans used to send their ulama there to study (Inalcik, 1973, p. 167). Following the Safavid imposition of Twelver Shia Islam as the state religion, most of Persia’s Sunni ulama converted, while the remainder either fled or were executed. To further their efforts, the Safavid establishment began importing foreign Shia scholars to convert the masses. Ritual cursing, extortion, intimidation, and harassment were also employed by the Safavid authorities to enforce their particular brand of Shia Islam (Babayan, 2003, p. 299). The programme proved successful, and by the end of Safavid rule, the majority of the general population identified as Twelver Shia.

In summary, all three empires took differing approaches to manage diversity. The Ottomans sought to divide their population into discrete groupings so they could be easily managed. The Mughals preferred assimilating new religious communities into the existing structure, keeping everyone equal under the sovereign. Meanwhile, the Safavids ambitiously opted to impose conformity and were successful.

Condition 3: Control Over Elites

As the final condition of imperial rule, Barkey asserts that an empire must devise a suitable structure of elite arrangement to provide for its fiscal and military needs. In the Islamicate Gunpowder Empires, new elites were incorporated into the imperial structure through systems of land revenue assignments adapted from the Abbasid iqta: grants that bestow holders with administrative responsibility over a particular tract of land owned by the state in return for a share of its revenue.

Broadly speaking, the Ottomans incorporated elites into the imperial structure in two stages. Newly conquered elites would start as vassals, paying tribute to the imperial treasury and providing troops in Ottoman campaigns. Given time and the expansion of the empire’s borders, these elites and their land would be incorporated into the Ottoman timar system (Inalcik, 1954). Under this system, new and existing elites would receive land revenue assignments, called timar, in return for their continued military service (Streusand, 2011, pp. 80-81).

During early Safavid rule, the centre had virtually no administrative control over the Qizilbash tribes, who governed the provinces and constantly waged war against one another to assert their dominance over the sovereign (Dale, 2009, pp. 88-89). This situation remained unchanged until the reforms of Abbas I, which significantly decreased Qizilbash influence by breaking them down into smaller groupings and transferring their land to non-Qizilbash tribes. Furthermore, his successors gradually increased the number of khass provinces, land controlled by the state, as opposed to mamalik provinces, land controlled by tribal chieftains (Streusand, 2011, pp. 180-182). The Safavids then distributed khass territory as land revenue assignments, called tuyul, amongst their new non-tribal regiments recruited from the Caucuses (Banani, 1978).

In India, the Mughal mansabdari system integrated the nobility, military and bureaucracy into a single hierarchy based on two numerical representations: zat, which denoted a mansabdar’s pay, and sawar, which denoted the number of cavalrymen they must maintain (Moosvi, 1981). Mansabdars were personally appointed and promoted by the Mughal emperor to carry out any civil or military responsibility. In return, they would receive payment through cash salaries or land revenue assignments called jagir (Rezavi, 1998). Newly conquered elites were often permitted to keep their land as jagir so long as they became mansabdars under the emperor (Streusand, 2011, p. 258).

Despite land revenue assignments playing a significant role in all three empires’ elite structures, there were still some fundamental differences between timar, tuyul and jagir assignments. The Ottoman timariot was a single soldier who could expect to hold the same timar for their entire career and often had family roots in the land they were assigned. In contrast, Mughal jagirdars often retained large private armies and typically shifted jagir every few years (Streusand, 2011, pp. 291-292). Meanwhile, Safavid tuyul could be inherited and were introduced with the sole purpose of creating a new military class to challenge the authority of the Qizilbash tribes (Banani, 1978).

In summary, all three empires employed the use of land revenue assignments to manage elites. Doing so allowed the Islamicate Gunpowder Empires to rapidly expand their territories without sacrificing central authority. A sharp contrast to the European feudal system, which conferred ownership of the land itself, allowing imperial elites to become the de facto rulers of their respective fiefs.


In conclusion, the Islamicate Gunpowder Empires drew from their shared ‘Turko-Irano-Islamic’ heritage, adapting it to their distinct circumstances to maintain Barkey’s three conditions of imperial rule:

1. Legitimate Sovereignty Claims

All three empires underwent similar ideological evolutions, from Turkic-Persian ideas about noble lineage and just governance to the patronage of Islamic institutions. While the Safavids and Mughals maintained their legitimacy as puppets long after the end of their effective governance, the Ottoman ideology was perhaps the most effective. Their claim to caliphate appealed to Muslims the world over; during the Khilafat Movement of the early 1920s, Indian Muslims were more concerned with protecting the status of the Ottoman caliph than with the reinstatement of the Mughal emperor (Qureshi, 1978).

2. Rule Over Diversity

All three empires took differing approaches to manage diversity, from tolerance to conversion. The Mughal ‘colour-blind’ approach allowed for the easy absorption of Hindu elites but failed to assimilate the Hindu masses. Meanwhile, the Safavid conversion initiatives successfully enforced conformity amongst the Persian population but failed to tame the Afghan tribes along the eastern frontier. In contrast, the Ottoman millet system successfully assimilated the elites and masses of religious minorities, solidifying their identity as subjects of the Ottoman Empire.

3. Control Over Elites

All three empires relied on variations of the Abbasid iqta to incorporate elites into their imperial structures. The timar, tuyul and jagir assignments played a vital role in centralising power. Unfortunately, in the case of the Safavids and Mughals, this process of centralisation eventually backfired due to the lax administration of later rulers, causing a collapse of central authority by the early 18th century and the eventual dissolution of both empires. Meanwhile, the Ottomans avoided this predicament by scrapping the timar system in the early 17th century in favour of cash salaries paid directly from the treasury.

All things considered, while the Safavids and Mughals played a significant role in shaping modern Iran and India, the Ottomans were the most successful in maintaining the conditions of empire, having ruled over vast territories and diverse populations for over six hundred years. Unlike its counterparts, the Ottoman Empire was not usurped by another imperial power but instead underwent the inevitable transition from empire to nation-state.


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2022: A Middle Year

It’s currently four a.m., and I’ve just realised I haven’t prepared an end-of-year post for this here blog of mine. This is understandable, given that I amassed four posts this year. Three were recycled essays I wrote for my university, and the last one was a short story I was hoping to adapt into a novel but haven’t gotten around to yet. Truth be told, I kind of forgot this place existed. Which is rather sad, considering it’s named after me. This brings me to the main point of this post: there isn’t one.

When I first realised it was 31st December about an hour ago, I began questioning myself. How did I let this happen? How could I forget something that used to be such a central part of my life? I started this blog in June 2020, back when Miss Rona first showed up. It saw me through those early lockdown days. Through the A-level kerfuffle. Through my gap year. Now Miss Rona is gone, and I’m still here, and this blog just ain’t blogging. But why? What happened in the last year that stopped me from writing? Ironically, the answer is university.

Looking back, it’s clear that university has dramatically impacted this blog’s output. Before starting university in September 2021, I put out an average of three to four posts per month, sometimes five or six. Since starting, I’ve only made six. That’s six posts in just over a year! Now, I could sit here and keep berating myself for letting this happen, or I could do a little self-reflection and unpack this. Alternatively, I could just close the laptop and go to sleep, but where’s the fun in that?

Let’s start from the beginning. Why did I start this blog? It’s not really an easy question to answer. Partly because there were multiple contributing factors but mainly because the largest of those factors is a little embarrassing. You see… the truth is… damn, how do I say this? I… I started this blog because I had a crush on someone. There we go. I said it. The cat is out of the bag. I repeat the cat is out of the bag.

I’m not gonna go into detail about who this person was – I say “was” because I haven’t spoken to her in nearly two years, not because she’s, you know – that’s not important. All you need to know is that your boy was down bad for a girl. She liked writing, so he started a blog to impress her. She wasn’t impressed, but your boy did find a new hobby, and ultimately that’s the real love story in all this.

I started this blog with my first post: Founding of the All-India Muslim League. Technically Was the British Raj good or bad for the Subcontinent? was my first post, but I don’t count that, seeing as it was just a recycled essay I wrote in year 12. Alas, I digress. So, I started this blog with my series Jinnah’s Pakistan: Revisiting the Pakistan Movement. The intention was clear: this was going to be a history blog and I was going to be the next greatest historian since Herodotus. At least, that was until A-levels results day.

To put it mildly, A-level results day was not a good day. To put it frankly, A-levels results day was $#*% day. So $#*% in fact, I had to take a month’s hiatus to process it. And after a lot of processing and self-reflection, I came back with my first thought piece: Limbo. It was a great success. So great it got both a single like and a single comment. Which was one more like and comment than any of my previous history posts. No. It was a great success because it revealed to me one of the greatest feelings known to man: catharsis.

And so, after Limbo, my blog began to branch out. I continued writing about history; the difference was that now my writing had a lot more character. A lot more pizzazz, if you will. Then on 25th November 2020, I discovered a new passion: storytelling. Admittedly, my first attempt at storytelling was a little confusing. I read back Shaheen today, and just like when I was writing it, I still don’t know what’s going on. But people liked it. Friends called me up, telling me they thought it was deep and meaningful and that I should write more fiction. And so, I end 2020 on a high note with A Reflection on Loneliness and How to Punch.

Going into 2021, I had the ambition of taking my blog more seriously. I aimed to write at least twice as many posts as I did in 2020. I start the year with a few book reviews and another instalment of Jinnah’s Pakistan. Then at the start of April, I begin my first real crack at fiction writing: Midnights In London, an episodic story set in 17th-century Victorian London.

By this point in my blogging career, things were going well. Posts were pretty much going out on a weekly basis. During this period, I posted some of my best work. Notable mentions include The Fourth Battle of Panipat, Iron Brothers: Assessing the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and Storytime with Aqil: The Three Fights. Then in late September, I started university, and things went downhill.

Uni life got the better of me. The first semester of university was an absolute rollercoaster. It had everything: action, drama, intrigue. So much happened there wouldn’t be enough gigabytes on my computer to record it. Alas, I will have to save those stories for another day. All you need to know is that, between all the craziness and university assignments, I had no time to write blog posts. And the one post I did write, Mass Surveillance and the Erosion of Our Civil Liberties: Why You Should Be Concerned, was part of a university assignment. It was safe to say my streak had been broken, and I finished 2021 with what I’d honestly call a lazy cop-out post, The Aqil Ghani Media Awards 2021.

I went into 2022 with less enthusiasm and time for my blog. In many ways, this place became a landfill for me to dump my university essays into. After all, university essays were the only things I had time to write. I finish the academic year in June and begin my summer holidays. During the summer, I wrote another story called Wishes which served as a proof of concept for a novel I intended to write. I still intend to write a novel, just one based on a different idea. And now here we are, 6 a.m. on a Saturday morning, the last day of 2022.

As far as my writing goes, it’s fair to say 2022 wasn’t a good year for Aqil Ghani (the blog). In fact, one could put it frankly and say 2022 was a $#*% year for Aqil Ghani (the blog). But was it a $#*% year for Aqil Ghani (the person)?

To be fair to myself, I did achieve some personal milestones this year. For one, I’ve finally started eating and going gym consistently. I’ve gained 3kg in the past two months, and I’m the strongest and fittest I’ve ever been in my entire life. As far as acting is concerned, 2022 has been a great success. I filmed my first paid role as one of the leads in an anthology film, and I’m currently booked in for another two projects I’m gonna film in the new year.

Overall, I’d say 2022 was a middle year. A year of metamorphosis. In some regards, I’ve stagnated. In others, I’ve excelled. But regardless, I have learned. A lot. And that’s what life is all about.

So, what am I going to do differently next year? I’d love to promise to start posting consistently again, but, truth be told, I don’t know if I can stick to that promise. I’m already swamped with uni work as it is, with an exam to prepare for and two essays to write. They may soon end up on this blog, depending on how good they are. However, I will promise myself this: to take at least a little time out to write, not for university, not for the blog, but for myself.

I made this blog to impress the girl I liked and discovered a passion I didn’t know I had. I started with a story of the past and ended with a story of my imagination. And as the story of my own life unfolded, this blog took a backseat. Whether this blog continues to wither or makes a resurgence remains to be seen. Regardless, though it may be little, I’m content with what I’ve achieved here.

That’s enough corniness from me this year, folks. May y’all have a blessed 2023 and achieve everything you set out to achieve. Keep learning. Keep growing. Keep smiling. And if I see, I see you.

Peace be with you.


Ali squeezed his way through the gap in the chain-link fence, careful not to get caught on the protruding metal. The abandoned youth centre was the only place he could guarantee was empty on a Monday morning, and for what he was about to do, empty was ideal.
It was Ali’s first time skipping school, but he didn’t do it without good reason. You see, Ali was a good kid, a smart kid. But like all kids, the lingering pressure of fast approaching A-levels made him anxious. And when kids get anxious, they do drastic things; they act out. For most kids, this meant a little bit of bad behaviour here and there. For Ali, it meant doing the unthinkable. It meant enlisting the help of the unseen.
If there was one thing Ali learnt in his short eighteen years of existence, it was communicating with jinn was a no-go. His family made sure of that with all the jinn possession stories they told him as a child. The story of his father’s second cousin’s father-in-law’s brother used to send shivers down his spine. Yet here he was, bunking off school to break into the local youth centre and summon a jinni.
Ali walked across the main hall, plonked his duffle bag on the stage and retrieved the cheap ornamental oil lamp from within. Despite its appearance, the guy who sold it to him promised it contained a wish jinni. Usually, Ali would ignore such people, passing them off as addicts looking for a quick score. But this guy was wearing a tuxedo and looked like he meant business. He also wasn’t asking for a lot: only ten quid. And so, Ali’s knowledge of A-level economics told him the risk was worth the potential reward.     
Ali quietly recited Ayat-al-Kursi and, with a deep anticipatory breath, slowly rubbed the lamp. For a few moments, there was nothing but silence. Realising he’d been duped, Ali released his anticipatory breath in a zephyr of disappointment. How could he be so stupid? Soon, that zephyr of disappointment morphed into a pile of shame which caught alight, fuelling a fit of anger that ended with Ali lobbing the lamp across the hall, crashing into the far wall in a cloud of purple smoke.
“What the fuck?!” exclaimed Ali.
Once the smoke cleared, in its place stood a balding middle-aged man staring into the wall with his back towards Ali. This wasn’t at all what Ali was expecting. For one, his feet didn’t face backwards but forwards like a regular person. In fact, everything about the man standing in front of him seemed pretty regular. He wore a regular white button-down shirt over a regular-sized pot belly, tucked into regular blue jeans secured by a regular belt alongside a regular pair of flip-flops which altogether made for an admittedly irregular choice of clothing but nothing one would expect from beings who were supposedly immortal and wielded immense power. The regular man turned to face Ali, revealing a regular face with regular features neither ugly nor beautiful.
“Oh, there you are,” said the regular man in a regular voice, “you must be the human who summoned me. What be thy name?”
“Ali Deen,” answered Ali, “what’s yours?”
“Will Williams. It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance Ali Deen.” Will extended a hand in greeting, which Ali reluctantly accepted. “Tell me, young Ali Deen, where are we?”
“You can call me Ali, and we’re in Mile End.”
“I see. So if this is where the mile ends, where does it begin?”
“Huh?” Ali was visibly confused.
“Oh, don’t mind me, just a little bit of jinni humour for you,” Will awkwardly chuckled, “So tell me, young Ali Deen, why did you summon yours truly?”
Ali wasn’t sure what to make of this. The being who stood before him contradicted every account of what jinn were supposed to be like. Even the name Will Williams didn’t sound very jinni-like. Then again, he did emerge from the inside of a magical lamp. Perhaps, it was the stories that were wrong. After all, he didn’t personally know anyone who had seen a jinni.
“Umm… I summoned you to grant me wishes innit.”
“Why yes, of course!” beamed Will, “it is what we jinn are known for. Allow me to inform you of the terms and conditions though I’m well aware you may already know them given their prevalence in popular culture, Ali Deen.”
In the next moment, Will was suddenly wearing glasses Ali didn’t remember seeing him put on and reading a sheet of paperwork which had to have materialised from thin air. That settled it then. The being who stood in front of Ali was most certainly a jinni.
“‘I, Will Williams, promise to fulfil three wishes for Ali Deen so long as they abide by the following conditions. Condition number one: No wishing death upon anyone, no matter how evil they may be. Condition number two: No wishing anyone to fall in love, no matter how beautiful they may be. Condition number three: No wishing to bring anyone back from the dead, no matter how missed they may be. Condition number four: No wishing for more wishes, no matter what they be.’ And lastly, ‘condition number five: Ali Deen is to pay Will Williams five hundred British pounds sterling prior to the fulfilment of any wishes.’ Any questions?”
“Uhh… Yeah, about that last one. Why I gotta pay you for?” questioned Ali, “like, I’m pretty sure you’re supposed to grant wishes for free, right? At least that’s what happens in the movies.”
“Well, in the movies, jinn don’t have to pay rent, nor do they have to cope with an ever-increasing cost of living either.”
“That’s true, but don’t you have, like, I don’t know, a magical home or whatever, where you don’t have to pay rent? Plus, I’m pretty sure I just freed you from that lamp, so you kinda owe me.”
“Oh, please! If I wanted to leave that bloody lamp, I could’ve done so whenever I wanted,” sneered Will, “Now, do you want the wishes or not? Because I could leave and give them to someone who’ll pay me for my services and isn’t such a stingy little git.”
“Okay, okay, I’ll pay,” capitulated Ali, “it’s just, I’m a student. I ain’t got that kind of money lying around.”
“Well, how much do you have then?”
“Umm… I’ve got about fifty quid in my bank account.”
Will paused for a moment to consider the offer.
“Okay, done. Transfer me the money, and we’ll get started,” agreed Will, handing Ali a piece of paper with his bank details.
Ali got out his phone and began inputting the information. He learned a lot today. Lesson number one being that jinn were nothing like how the stories or movies portrayed them. He never considered jinn would have any need for money, let alone have to pay rent. Who would’ve thought beings made of smokeless fire had to deal with the same problems as mere mortals? Not Ali, that’s for sure. He was about to hit transfer when an unfamiliar voice spoke up from behind the stage curtains.
“You know he can’t actually grant you wishes, right?”
After pausing for dramatic effect, the voice’s owner revealed themselves to be a young woman dressed in a navy blue suit with a matching headscarf. She looked like an FBI agent, which wouldn’t have made any sense seeing as they were in London. She must be MI6 then. Or MI5. Whichever one dealt with stuff domestically. Ali wasn’t sure.
“Ah shit,” cursed Will, “Not you again.”
“Hey there, Will. I hope you’re keeping out of trouble,” waved the newcomer, “although it doesn’t seem like it.”
“Of course not. I was only just giving this young man some directions.”
“Yes, directions,” asserted Will, “you see, young Ali got lost on his way to school and wound up here in Mile End. Luckily, I was here to help him. Isn’t that right, Ali?”
Ali was lost for words. His day was getting more and more perplexing by the hour.
“Well, is that what’s happening here, Ali?” interrogated the newcomer, “was Will giving you directions?”
The hall was silent, the newcomer staring into Ali’s soul in anticipation of an answer.
“He doesn’t seem to speak, Will. Are you sure he’s okay?”
“The boy is a little shy, is all. But I assure you, nothing untoward is going on here.”
Despite his frazzled mind, Ali finally put together enough words to blurt out a coherent sentence.
“Are you a jinni too?”
“Me? No,” giggled the newcomer, “I’m Detective Anayra Ansari of the Arbitration Agency; we’re the ones who keep the peace between humans and jinn. Unfortunately, your friend Will here is suspected of running a wish scam.”
“Wish scam?”
“Yes. Hundreds of unsuspecting humans fall victim every year. Basically, a jinni seeking to earn some quick cash finds a gullible human, charms them with a few simple jinni illusions and promises to grant them wishes. However, the truth is jinn cannot grant real wishes, only the illusion of wishes. If Will could really grant you wishes, he wouldn’t be asking you for your money. Instead, he’d magically create some himself. But the truth is: Will cannot make real money, so he resorts to scams like these,” tutted Anayra, “in fact, he already has­— how many strikes is it now? Two?”
“She doesn’t know what she’s talking about,” scorned Will.
“Will already has two strikes,” continued Anayra, “and if he gets a third? Well, then he’s gonna have to do time. Isn’t that right, Will?”
Will refused to answer, his arms crossed to express his disdain.
“So tell me, Ali. Did Will promise he’ll grant you wishes in exchange for money?”
“He did,” answered Ali, “but the donny came in a lamp and everything. Some guy in a tuxedo sold it to me.”
“Seriously, Will? You’re resulting to that orientalist garbage? That’s a new low, man,” sighed Anayra.
“It was certainly enough to fool the Beni Adam,” murmured Will.
Anayra ignored the fleer of bigotry coming from the guilty jinni.
“Who’s your accomplice in the tux?”
“I’m not telling you,” rebuffed Will.
“You know we’ll find out soon enough,” promised Anayra, “ anyway, it looks like I’m gonna have to arrest you.”
Will paused, eyeing the detective, who now held a pair of pellucid blue handcuffs. After a few moments of consideration, the jinni placed his arms out front. Whatever it was he thought of doing, he decided against it. Anayra clicked the handcuffs into place, the pellucid blue turning to a translucent red.
“Thanks for coming quietly.”
“We both know how it would turn out otherwise.”
Anayra nodded her appreciation and began leading Will out of the hall. However, she stopped short of the fire exit before returning to Ali, seriousness etched into her face.
“Forget what you saw here today. Officially, jinn don’t exist. Officially, I don’t exist. Trust me, if you go around telling people, it’s only gonna bring trouble your way. So it’s better for everyone if you pretend today never happened. For your own sake at least, if nobody else’s.”
Ali was still trying to make sense of it all. A jinni with regular feet. A detective with glow-in-the-dark handcuffs. An agency tasked with maintaining peace between humans and jinn. If he couldn’t make sense of it, how could anyone else? And even if he were to tell someone, who would believe him?
“Aight. I promise I won’t tell anyone.”
“Thank you, Ali,” smiled Anayra, “If you don’t mind me asking, what was it you were going to wish for anyway?”
“Oh, that? Don’t worry about it. It was pretty stupid anyway.”
“Stupid enough to enlist the help of a jinni?”
“Yeah, I guess it was,” chuckled Ali, “I was gonna ask him to give me A-stars for my A-levels.”
“Ah, A-levels. I know the feeling, kid. Trust me, you’re better off putting in the work. The reward isn’t in the result; it’s in the journey.”
“Safe,” smiled Ali.
“My pleasure. And good luck with your exams. Anyway, I better get this one back to the— OH SHIT!”
Will was missing, the fire exit wide open. Without wasting another moment, Anayra immediately bolted out the door, leaving Ali alone with his thoughts. After taking a moment to process everything he’d witnessed, Ali picked up his bag and made his way back to school. He had exams to prepare for.

Dissonances in Approaches to Power: Poststructuralism and Mainstream IR Theory

The following essay was originally submitted as an assignment for my university and was graded as a 1st class essay.

Power is a critical area of study in political science and the broader social sciences. Much of our conceptualisation of the world around us revolves around power, particularly when it comes to disparities between different entities. This is no different when it comes to the field of International Relations (IR), in which the study of power plays a huge role. With this in mind, it is vital that we, as IR theorists, appreciate different approaches to the study of power and how these different approaches affect our understanding of the social world. As such, this essay aims to highlight the dissonances between mainstream IR and Poststructuralism in regard to power.

To do this, we will begin by outlining the main features of Poststructuralism’s understanding of power: discourse, deconstruction, genealogy, and intertextuality. We will then look at Orientalism as a case study of Poststructuralism’s understanding of power. Following this, we will contrast Poststructuralism’s understanding of power with that of mainstream IR theory. To finish, we will conclude by summarising the key points made in this essay.

Power According to Poststructuralism

Poststructuralism is a theoretical perspective that emerged during the 1960s as a response and critique of Structuralism. It is based upon a relativist ontology which asserts that reality does not exist beyond subjects (the observers), leading us to a subjectivist epistemology which asserts that subjects impose meaning on objects (the things that are observed) (Moon & Blackman, 2014). Simply put, no objective reality exists outside observation; reality is constructed by observers. Thus, knowledge is not discovered; it is created. As a result, Poststructuralism aims to deconstruct conceptions of reality to understand the social world and the power dynamics that exist therein.

Poststructuralism’s conception of power is primarily linked to knowledge creation and centres around four main concepts: discourse, deconstruction, genealogy, and intertextuality. These four concepts amalgamate to produce subjectivities (the vantage points from which an observer observes the world). Thus, power is understood as the productive capacity to constitute particular subjectivities as natural, objective conceptions of reality (Hansen, 2020).

During the late 1960s, philosopher Michel Foucault introduced the concept of discourse. As defined by Foucault, discourse refers to ‘ways of constituting knowledge, together with the social practices, forms of subjectivity and power relations which inhere in such knowledges and relations between them’ (Weedon, 1987). According to Poststructualism’s ontological basis, reality does not exist beyond observation. Instead, reality is constructed by the meaning imposed upon objects via language. Depending on the language used to describe an object, the meaning of the object changes. For example, a person firing a gun may be labelled as either a ‘soldier’ or a ‘terrorist’. A ‘terrorist’ firing a gun has different connotations than a ‘soldier’ firing a gun, even though, at the fundamental level, it is just a person firing a gun. In other words, discourse asserts that objects do not have a given essence; their essence is produced by language.

Around the same time as Foucault, another philosopher Jacque Derrida introduced the concept of deconstruction. Derrida posited that language is a system of unstable dichotomies where one term is valued as superior (Hansen, 2020). Words only make sense in relation to other words. To understand the meaning of one word, we must look at where it is positioned in relation to other words. For example, we cannot understand what ‘chimpanzee’ means without other words, such as ‘animal’. Similarly, we cannot understand what ‘chimpanzee’ means without comparing it to what it is not, such as ‘human’. However, these connections between words are unstable because they are never attributed indefinitely. For instance, while the ‘chimpanzee’ may be an ‘animal’, it is often seen as more ‘human’ than other ‘animals’. Therefore, its ‘animalness’ is unstable and may change within a given context. Thus, a ‘human-animal’ dichotomy exists, where ‘human’ is valued as superior to ‘animal’. In other words, deconstruction asserts that a system of unstable dichotomies artificially produces the essence of an object.

Alongside discourse, Foucault also developed the concept of genealogy by building upon the work of renowned philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. Foucault and Nietzsche argued that mainstream history is far too homogenous and misrepresentative of a past comprised of gradual, contested, and often forgotten histories. Therefore, genealogy is concerned with drawing attention to the politics involved in making the past look a certain way to understand the discursive and material structures of the present (Hansen, 2020). For instance, understanding and critiquing colonial myths concerning world history can help us better understand the current power dynamics between Europe and its ex-colonies (Halperin, 2006). In other words, genealogy asserts that knowledge of the past is constructed and informs the meaning subjects impose upon objects in the present.

In 1969, philosopher Julia Kristeva introduced the concept of intertextuality. According to Kristeva, the social world can be understood as being comprised of texts that form broader intertexts (the knowledge produced by a body of texts) (Kristeva, 1980). The meaning that a subject imposes upon an object is enshrined in an intertext. Intertexts are developed over time and inform the observations that subjects make about objects. For example, to say that ‘Africa’ is ‘backwards’ is to draw upon the intertext that constitutes ‘Africa’ as ‘pre-modern’, ‘barbaric’ and ‘savage’. Whenever a new text references ‘Africa’, it builds upon the old body of texts that constitute ‘Africa’ as ‘backwards’. This intertext then informs any observations that subjects make of ‘Africa’. In other words, intertextuality asserts that the meaning a subject imposes upon an object is reinforced, preserved, and propagated by a wider intertext.

Poststructuralism’s four concepts of discourse, deconstruction, genealogy, and intertextuality overlap to produce subjectivities. The essence of an object is produced by language (discourse). Language is a system of unstable dichotomies (deconstruction). These unstable dichotomies are constructed over time by controlling our knowledge of the past (genealogy). This knowledge is reinforced, preserved, and propagated by intertexts (intertextuality). These intertexts produce subjectivities which are adopted by subjects, informing their conception of reality. Consequently, power emerges when particular subjectivities are produced and constituted as an objective conception of reality when no such objective reality exists.

In summary, power, according to Poststructuralism, can be understood as the creation and propagation of knowledge. Ontologically, Poststructuralism posits that there is no objective reality outside observation. Epistemologically, therefore, any conception of reality is the result of subjectivities. Thus, power is the capacity to produce subjectivities and constitute them as objective reality via the creation and propagation of knowledge through language: a system of unstable dichotomies propped up by homogenous accounts of history reinforced by intertexts.

Orientalism: A Case Study in Poststructuralist Power

Orientalism refers to the body of knowledge propping up the dichotomous relationship between ‘Occident’ and ‘Orient’. As this essay will demonstrate, this body of knowledge is created via the amalgamation of discourse, deconstruction, genealogy and intertextuality. It is then used to produce subjectivities regarding the ‘Orient’, which are, in turn, presented as objective reality. Thus, Orientalism can be understood as a form of power that privileges the Western conception of reality.

In his 1978 book Orientalism, philosopher Edward Said established Orientalism as “a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient” (Said, 1978). Said posited that the existence and development of every culture impels the existence of a different and inevitably competitive ‘other’. In endeavouring to build its self-image, the West created the ‘Orient’ to serve as its ‘other’. Consequently, Orientalists have constructed subjectivities surrounding the ‘Occident’ and ‘Orient’ to explain why Eastern societies are dominated by Western societies, establishing this hierarchy as a natural truth. In doing so, the ‘Occident’ is justified in speaking for and controlling the resources of the ‘Orient’ (Said, 1978).

As discussed in the previous section of this essay, subjectivities are the product of knowledge created via discourse, deconstruction, genealogy and intertextuality. In the case of Orientalism, this is no different.

The object being observed are the people, cultures, and countries that encompass the geographical regions commonly defined as Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. The essence of the object is captured in the term ‘Orient’ (discourse). The ‘Orient’ is constituted as ‘irrational’, ‘regressive’, and ‘unjust’ in contrast to the ‘rational’, ‘progressive’, and ‘just’ ‘Occident’, those people, cultures, and countries that encompass the geographical regions commonly defined as Europe, North America, and Australasia. Thus, an unstable ‘Occident-Orient’ dichotomy exists, where ‘Orient’ is positioned as inferior to ‘Occident’ (deconstruction).

The ‘Occident’ and ‘Orient’ are presented as continuously antagonistic objectivities stretching back to antiquity in the form of ancient Greece, the birthplace of Western civilisation, and ancient Persia, the birthplace of Eastern civilisation (Said, 1978). The ‘Occident-Orient’ dichotomy is constructed by homogenous Western accounts of world history (genealogy). This grand narrative has been built up and propagated over time by a wide body of Western scholarly and creative works (intertextuality). Notable Orientalist works include Jean-Leon Gerome’s The Snake Charmer, Rudyard Kipling’s The White Man’s Burden, and Disney’s Aladdin. Thus, knowledge of the ‘Orient’ and the ‘Occident’ is the artificial creation of the West.

As a body of knowledge, Orientalism has been propagated by Western societies as an objective conception of reality and imposed upon non-Western societies. In turn, Orientalist knowledge helps justify superior ‘Occidental’ intervention and domination over the inferior ‘Oriental’, framing it as being in the best interests of the ‘Oriental’ and the moral duty of the ‘Occidental’ as it coincides with the natural reality constructed by Orientalism (Said, 1978). It has been so effective in its purpose that writers who belong to the communities that constitute the ‘Orient’ have begun internalising Orientalist ideas in their works (Lau, 2009). Thus, Orientalism acts as a pervasive form of power that impacts all areas of the social world, from government policy to pop culture.

In summary, Orientalism refers to a specific type of knowledge creation and propagation process that is servile to Western power. To produce subjectivities, it draws upon the four central concepts of Poststructuralism: discourse, deconstruction, genealogy, and intertextuality. Orientalism serves as the perfect medium through which IR theorists can study and apply Poststructuralist power. In doing so, IR theorists will be able to broaden their understanding of the social world and the power dynamics that exist therein.

Dissonances in Approaches to Power

The foundation of difference between Poststructuralism and mainstream IR theory lies in their ontological and epistemological positions. Where Poststructuralism follows a relativist ontology and subjectivist epistemology, mainstream IR theory largely follows a realist ontology and objectivist epistemology. A realist ontology asserts that reality does exist beyond subjects. Building on this, an objectivist epistemology asserts that meaning exists within objects (Moon & Blackman, 2014). Simply put, a single objective reality does exist; reality is not constructed by observers. Thus, knowledge is not created; it is discovered. These starkly contrasting ontological and epistemological positions explain why there is a difference in methodology between the two approaches. Poststructuralism seeks to deconstruct conceptions of reality. Meanwhile, mainstream IR theory seeks to understand and explain the single apparent conception of reality.

In regards to power, mainstream IR theory follows a more straightforward approach centred around political scientist Robert Dahl’s definition: “A has power over B to the extent that he can get B to do something that B would not otherwise do” (Dahl, 1957). In an IR context, power is something that is possessed by a country, allowing it to force another country to do something it would not otherwise do. It is usually measured using a comparative indicator, such as Gross National Product (GNP) or military capabilities (Sterling-Folker & Shinko, 2007). If country A has a higher GNP or military capabilities than country B, it can force country B to do something it would not otherwise do. Thus, country A has power over country B. For mainstream IR theory, power is apparent and measurable on a case-by-case basis. However, for Poststructuralism, power must be uncovered and cannot be easily measured.

Mainstream IR theory locates power in objects. However, these objects must affect other objects (Sterling-Folker & Shinko, 2007). For instance, a tank does not have power if it is not used to destroy buildings, kill people, or deter attackers. Therefore, mainstream IR theory recognises the importance of action. The object must act in order for it to have power. Country A must use its tanks to force country B to do something it would not otherwise do. In response, country B may decide to fight back against country A with its own tanks to resist doing what country A wants it to do. As a result, a disruption of the balance of power occurs, and then more power is used to re-establish balance. At the end of the day, the country with the greater quantity or quality of tanks (the greater power) is the one that will win out in the end. As political scientist Stefano Guzzini summarises: “power implies potential change, which in turn implies a counterfactual situation of potential continuity” (Guzzini, 1993).

Meanwhile, Poststructuralism locates power in subjects. However, these subjects require structures – albeit fluid structures that are susceptible to change – to impose their subjectivities on other subjects. Orientalists rely on the knowledge base of Orientalism to spread their subjectivities regarding the ‘Orient’. Due to power’s abstract nature, subjects can resist powerful subjectivities like Orientalism by producing their own or by even reconfiguring the structures that impose such subjectivities (Sterling-Folker & Shinko, 2007). For instance, Occidentalism, a counter-discourse to Orientalism, has produced subjectivities that constitute the ‘Occident’ as inferior to the ‘Orient’ (Margalit & Buruma, 2004).

Mainstream IR theory and Poststructuralism recognise resistance to power imposed by structures as a critical point of analysis; the difference lies in their approach. Mainstream IR theory is focused on two or more competing structures (country A and B) using their power (tanks) to resist one another. Poststructuralism is focused on how resistance to a structure (Orientalism) is a form of power itself and how it has the potential to reconfigure existing structures (Occidentalism). In other words, mainstream IR theory focuses on the competition of structures that want to stay in being. Poststructuralism focuses on resistance to structural ways of being (Sterling-Folker & Shinko, 2007).

Mainstream IR theorists separate the analysis of power from its practice. On the other hand, Poststructuralists argue that analysing power is practising power because taking structures as analytical givens only rectifies them. Therefore, there exists an ethical dimension to all Poststructuralist analyses of power, and heeding the voices that contest given structures is central to Poststructuralist analysis. However, mainstream IR theory can ignore these voices entirely because it is sceptical of the displacement of existing structures and accepts structural reconstitution as an objective reality. This makes the prospect of reconciliation between the two approaches challenging as mainstream IR theory views the study of power as a morally neutral endeavour, whereas Poststructuralism views it as morally corrupt (Sterling-Folker & Shinko, 2007).

In summary, the dissonances between mainstream IR theory and Poststructuralism lie in their ontological and epistemological foundations. Mainstream IR theory is based on a realist ontology and objectivist epistemology. Poststructuralism is based on a relativist ontology and subjectivist epistemology. While common points of analysis may exist, both approaches lead theorists in different methodological directions. Mainstream IR theory focuses on competing structures that want to stay in being. Poststructuralism focuses on structural ways of being. As a result of these stark differences in ontology, epistemology, and methodology, an ethical dilemma prevents reconciliation between the two approaches.


To recap, we began this essay by outlining the main features of Poststructuralism’s understanding of power. According to Poststructuralism, power is the capacity to produce subjectivities and constitute them as objective reality via the creation and propagation of knowledge through language: a system of unstable dichotomies propped up by homogenous accounts of history reinforced by intertexts. This was followed by an overview of one type of Poststructuralist form of power: Orientalism. As a body of knowledge, Orientalism constructs a natural, objective reality to justify superior ‘Occidental’ intervention and domination over the inferior ‘Oriental’, framing it as being in the best interests of the ‘Oriental’ and the moral duty of the ‘Occidental’.

After this, we contrasted Poststructuralism’s understanding of power with that of mainstream IR theory. The root of dissonance between the two approaches lies in their ontological and epistemological foundations, which inform two starkly contrasting methodologies. For mainstream IR theory, power works on the surface. For Poststructuralism, power works beneath the surface. While simultaneously following both approaches is near impossible due to ethical complications, mainstream IR theorists should at the very least familiarise themselves with the approaches of Poststructuralists and vice versa. Doing so will provide both camps with a broader understanding of the social world, which only serves to enrich the field of IR and the broader social sciences.


Dahl, R., 1957. The Concept of Power. Systems Research and Behavioral Science, 2(3), pp. 201-215.

Guzzini, S., 1993. Structural Power: the Limits of Neorealist Power Analysis. International Organization, 47(3), pp. 443-478.

Halperin, S., 2006. International Relations Theory and the Hegemony of Western Conceptions of Modernity. In: B. G. Jones, ed. Decolonizing International Relations. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Hansen, L., 2020. Postructualism. In: J. Baylis, S. Smith & P. Owens, eds. The Globalization of World Politics: An Introduction to International Relations. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kristeva, J., 1980. Desire in Language: A Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art. New York: Columbia University Press.

Lau, L., 2009. Re-Orientalism: The Perpetration and Development of Orientalism by Orientals. Modern Asian Studies, 43(2), pp. 571-590.

Margalit, A. & Buruma, I., 2004. Occidentalism: The West in the Eyes of Its Enemies. New York: Penguin Press.

Moon, K. & Blackman, D., 2014. A Guide to Understanding Social Science Research for Natural Scientists. Conservation Biology, 28(5), pp. 1167-1177.

Said, E. W., 1978. Orientalism. New York: Pantheon Books.

Sterling-Folker, J. & Shinko, R. E., 2007. Discourses of power: Traversing the realist-postmodern divide. In: F. Berenskoetter & M. J. Williams, eds. Power in World Politics. Oxfordshire: Routledge.

Weedon, C., 1987. Feminist Practice and Poststructuralist Theory. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

International Relations Theory and the Hegemony of Western Conceptions of Modernity: A Critical Review

The following critical review was originally submitted as an assignment for my university and was graded as a 2:1.

Halperin, S., 2006. International Relations Theory and the Hegemony of Western Conceptions of Modernity. In: B. G. Jones, ed., Decolonizing International Relations. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, pp.62-88.

This essay aims to critically review the arguments presented in chapter two of Decolonizing International Relations. First, I will provide a concise summary of the chapter detailing how the author structures their overarching argument. Then, I will analyse the critical points posited in their argument before concluding with my opinion on the chapter.

In her chapter, Halperin aims to provide an alternative history and ontology to critique mainstream IR theory by examining areas left wholly untouched by other critical theorists. Halperin asserts that critical IR theory fails to critique much of mainstream IR theory’s historical and ontological basis, reproducing many of its misrepresentations. She then exposes the myths surrounding the “rise of Europe” and the industrial revolution by highlighting how it would not have been possible without the legacy left by the Islamicate world. Halperin concludes that to challenge the Western hegemonic perspective, one must view progress as a product of transnational classes/networks rather than individual states/regions as done in mainstream IR.

Halperin begins her chapter by asserting that critical IR theory has failed in challenging the misconceptions brought about by the prevailing Eurocentric narratives of mainstream IR. Henceforth, critical theorists must ensure that they cover the pitfalls Halperin discusses in her chapter. Namely, a lack of examination concerning Europe’s representation of itself and the outdated notion that progress has historically occurred on a national/regional scale rather than a transnational/global scale. Should critical theorists meet these new requirements in their analysis, they will be able to challenge the Western hegemonic project without drawing from the same classical misrepresentations of the Eurocentric narrative. Furthermore, by pushing the benchmark of critical theory, Halperin forces theorists to become critical of themselves and their shortcomings. Through this continual self-critique, a more accurate picture of history can be painted and new ideas generated in IR theory.

In the main body, Halperin debunks the myths surrounding the “rise of Europe” and the industrial revolution to highlight the gross inaccuracies of the Eurocentric narrative. By choosing to focus on the European experience and contrasting it with that of the post-classical Islamicate world, Halperin demonstrates how later developments were not as unique and exclusive to the West as mainstream IR theory would have us believe. Halperin’s analysis clarifies that the progress in early-modern Europe was simply a continuation of the Islamicate legacy, fitting more broadly into a grander narrative of global human advancement. Furthermore, Halperin points out that the false Eurocentric history of enlightenment is an imperialist tool used to cover up the reality of Western predation. If the wider IR community adopts this approach, it will debunk all notions of Western exceptionalism in progress; instead framing progress as an international human endeavour. Doing so would lay the groundwork for new ideas in IR theory that are not tainted with old fashioned ideas of colonial superiority.

Halperin concludes that to avoid contributing to the falsity of the mainstream Western hegemonic project, critical theorists must develop a new account of world history with a different ontological basis. This different ontological basis should be that of transnational/cross-regional exchange between ruling groups and elites both in and outside Europe. Progress should be viewed as being spearheaded by the urbanised industrial societies located all over the globe, rather than the sole achievement of one particular nation/region such as Europe. This new approach will allow IR theory to uncover much of what is obscured by the mainstream Western hegemonic project, allowing for a more nuanced understanding of social power and its many forms seen across the world. Furthermore, Halperin’s approach would let us better acknowledge the impact of colonialism on non-Western societies, the roles non-Western elites played in it, and the limited nature of Europe’s industrialisation. Lastly, it will also challenge the view that modernity was the achievement of the West alone; instead, making modernity the achievement of humanity as a whole.

Overall, I largely agree with Halperin’s argument. To challenge the Western hegemonic project, we must rebuild our account of world history with a new ontological basis; otherwise, we risk propagating the Eurocentric narrative of mainstream IR. However, in this regard, Halperin’s chapter falls short in two ways.

Firstly, much of Halperin’s account of world history still relies on a comparison to the Eurocentric narrative. While the comparison helps highlight where the Eurocentric narrative is incorrect, continuing to include it when attempting to build a new narrative will position the new narrative in relation to the old one, thereby allowing the Eurocentric narrative to propagate further rather than be forgotten. The next step for Halperin would be to write up a brand-new account of world history from the ground up using the ontological basis she discusses in this chapter. Doing so will provide a new foundation for other critical theorists to build upon.

Secondly, Halperin’s new ontological basis does not explain Europe’s exceptionalism; it only reframes it as exceptionalism in domination rather than progress. If we were to use it to construct a new account of world history, we would still be left with the question of how European urbanised industrial societies came to dominate those of other parts of the world. To remedy this, we should view the predation of European societies as a “mutation” in societal evolution. Similarly, we can view the Islamicate exceptionalism in scholarship as another societal “mutation”. Then, we can link these “mutations” together by highlighting how one is dependent on the other. For instance, early-modern European exceptionalism in colonial dominance depended on the scientific advancements of post-classical Islamicate exceptionalism in scholarship, which relied on adopting classical Persia’s exceptionalism in administration. In other words, we would remove the notion of European exceptionalism by demonstrating the exceptionalism of other societies. Western civilisation can no longer be exceptional and independent if all civilisation is exceptional yet dependent.

Despite these shortcomings, Halperin still delivers a much-needed evaluation of the critical theorists’ approach. Without her contribution, we would not understand how critical IR theory fails to challenge the Western hegemonic project. As a result, IR would continue to stagnate where other social sciences are not. I hope that Halperin’s ideas are taken up by the wider IR community so that theorists can acknowledge the Eurocentricity of mainstream thought and begin actively dismantling it as is done in other social sciences.

What Is Power and Who Has It?

The following essay was originally submitted as an assignment for my university and was graded as a 2:1.

One of the critical areas of study in political science is power, its forms, sources, distribution, modes of exercise, and effects. Therefore, it is not unreasonable to assert that political science itself is very much the study of power given its preoccupation with constitutions and institutions, which are themselves simply ways of regularising and defining its distribution and exercise (Partridge, 1963). With this in mind, it is vital that we, as political scientists, can define what we mean by power and determine who or what it is that has it. As such, this essay aims to arrive at a qualified definition for power and explain its mechanics. Following this, the essay makes the case that the distribution of power follows an elitist-leaning framework and that, while almost any entity can exercise power, the majority of absolute power is held by the ruling class.

Definition of Power

In 1957, political scientist and originator of pluralist theory Robert Dahl defined power as follows: “A has power over B to the extent that he can get B to do something that B would not otherwise do” (Dahl, 1957). For example, a teacher has power over a student to the extent that they can get the student to complete their classwork. Both the teacher and student are agents who decide what actions to take, and both command a relative degree of agency – the freedom and autonomy to decide what actions to take. It just so happens that within the classroom – the structure within which these agents operate – the teacher commands more agency than the student and can utilise their greater agency to make the student complete their classwork. Therefore, power can be viewed as the disparity in agency between two or more agents, allowing one agent to influence or compel the actions of others.

The major flaw in Dahl’s definition is the use of the pronoun ‘he’, which is problematic for two reasons. Firstly, Dahl’s definition implies that the entity exercising power must always be masculine. By associating power with masculinity, political scientists who strictly follow Dahl’s definition will be blind to situations where women exercise power. Secondly, by using a pronoun typically associated with humans, Dahl’s definition implies that the entity exercising power must also always be human. As a result, political scientists will also be blind to situations in which non-human entities exert power. For instance, the power culture and religion have in shaping our preferences. Therefore, the pronoun ‘he’ limits our understanding of power, constricting political science as a field of study. Given this, Dahl’s definition of power should be amended: “A has power over B to the extent that A can get B to do something that B would not otherwise do”. By replacing ‘he’ with ‘A’, the application for Dahl’s definition is now widened in its scope.

Mechanics of Power

Between 1959 and 1965, social psychologists John French and Bertram Raven developed a set of six bases to analyse how power operates in specific relationships (French & Raven, 1959) (Raven, 2008). According to French and Raven, power depends on the specific understandings that A and B apply to their relationship. A must draw on a base or combination of bases of power appropriate to their relationship to motivate B to change in the way A intends. Failure to use the correct bases of power may result in a reduction of A’s power. These six bases include:

Legitimate power – power due to one’s authority given by their relative position in a power structure. Military generals use legitimate power to command their soldiers.

Referent power – power due to one’s charismatic ability to attract followers. Celebrities use referent power to influence consumers into buying their sponsors’ products.

Expert power – power due to one’s skills or expertise. Doctors use expert power to convince patients to take their medication.

Reward power – power due to one’s ability to provide incentives. Employers use reward power to incentivise employees to work harder.

Coercive power – power due to one’s ability to negatively impact another. Dictators use coercive power to oppress and threaten their citizens into doing what they say.

Informational power – power due to one’s access to information. Social media platforms use informational power to influence the type of content their users interact with.

In 1974, political and social theorist Steven Lukes proposed that power has three distinct dimensions: the three faces of power (Lukes, 1974). The first face of power refers to its direct decision-making capabilities to identify an issue and respond to it. When the government implements new COVID-19 restrictions, it is clear who makes decisions and why they are making them. The second face of power refers to its indirect agenda-setting capabilities to control the context in which decisions are made. When lobbying groups influence government policy behind closed doors, it is unclear who makes decisions and for whose benefit. The third face of power refers to its subtle manipulation capabilities to shape preferences and control responses to new decisions. When the government uses propaganda and rhetoric to deliberately shape people’s values before a new law is passed, it is not always clear to people that they are being influenced.

In 1992, political scientist Peter Digeser expanded upon Lukes’ three faces of power by introducing a fourth face of power (Digeser, 1992). The fourth face of power refers to its capability to control and shape the current paradigm. A paradigm is an unquestioned set of fundamental beliefs that shape the reality of everyone in society. All actions and decisions taken by agents will indefinitely be influenced by the parameters set by the paradigm in which they operate. Controlling the paradigm allows one to, in effect, control all agents operating within the paradigm. The actions of any government will inevitably always be the result of the cultural paradigm it operates in. For example, it would be improbable for the United Kingdom’s government to criminalise alcohol consumption, given how pubs are central to British culture.

Digeser’s fourth face of power is synonymous with Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci’s idea of cultural hegemony, which he developed during his imprisonment under Italy’s National Fascist Party (Gramsci, 1929-1935). According to Gramsci, the ruling class manipulate society’s culture so that their worldview becomes the accepted cultural norm. This universal dominant ideology presents the social, political and economic status quo as natural conditions that benefit every social class. In reality, the status quo only benefits the ruling class. Currently, the USA has a global cultural hegemony evidenced by its considerable social, political and economic influence in countries worldwide. The USA maintains its geopolitical dominance by using its media to present its goals as righteous and for the greater good. In addition, the threat that the US military poses to subordinate states also ensures that they do not step out of line.

In summary, power has two aspects: bases and faces. For A to get B to do something that B would otherwise not do, A must draw on the appropriate power base or combination of power bases. This is A’s source of power. There are six potential power bases: legitimate, referent, expert, reward, coercive and informational. A’s source of power can then be used in four distinct ways: the four faces of power. To illustrate this conceptualisation of power, one can refer to the example of the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica Data Scandal.

Social media platform Facebook exposed the data of up to 87 million of its users to political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica which utilised it to influence the outcome of the 2016 United States presidential election in favour of Donald Trump (Vox, 2018). The main power base that Cambridge Analytica drew from was informational power in the form of user data. Cambridge Analytica then utilised the third face of this informational power to shape the preferences of Facebook users in favour of Trump without them knowing. When it came to election time, these same users voted for Trump. Therefore, Cambridge Analytica had power over Facebook users as it could get them to vote for Trump, which they may not have done otherwise.

Based on this essay’s conceptualisation of power, it can be concluded that any entity can exercise power so long as it has access to a sufficient base of power. Almost anyone can exercise the first two faces of power. For example, a child has the power to decide which flavour of ice cream they wish to consume (first face of power). Similarly, the child’s parent decides whether the child is allowed to consume ice cream in the first place (second face of power). However, the last two faces of power, which are far more absolute in nature, are usually reserved for entities with access to far larger power bases, namely the state. As such, the remainder of this essay concerns the distribution of state power, focusing on the third and fourth faces of power.

Distribution of Power

There are two predominant theories for the distribution of state power: elitism and pluralism. The main difference is that pluralists assert power is horizontally dispersed, whereas elitists assert power is vertically concentrated. Therefore, pluralism and elitism can be viewed as two extremes on the same scale. However, as we will come to see, the truth is really a mix of both views with a slight leaning towards the elitist framework.

Classical pluralism is predicated on the idea that society comprises vastly different groups vying for power (Smith, 2006). These groups compete to influence different parts of the state; however, no single group is able to dominate policy-making. Power is dispersed between these different groups. As a result, the state remains relatively neutral, balancing the weight of different demands in the national interest. Classical pluralism thus sees all groups as having an equal say in the decisions taken by the state.

The fundamental flaw in classical pluralism is that certain groups’ interests are not reflected in the national agenda, having zero say in policy-making decisions because they lack the necessary resources to influence the state. In other words, some groups lack the necessary power bases to exercise the third and fourth faces of power while others do. For instance, the championing of neo-liberal ideas under the Thatcher governments of the 1980s led to increased depoliticisation as many decision-making powers were given to non-governmental organisations, taking them out of the purview of the general public. In addition, tax and welfare reductions transferred resources from poor groups to wealthy groups (Harvey, 2005). Subsequently, some groups felt their concerns were not being addressed by the state leading to widespread dissatisfaction, particularly amongst the working class. The continuation of depoliticisation measures in the decades since has contributed to anti-politics and the recent rise in populism (Hay, 2007).

Reformed pluralism addressed this flaw in the pluralist model by conceding that certain groups exercise greater influence over the state than others. (Smith, 2006). Groups achieve this by forming close relationships with the state and pooling their resources together in policy networks, such as the British Chambers of Commerce. Power is still dispersed but only amongst a particular set of groups. Despite this, reformed pluralism maintains that countervailing powers can develop in other parts of the state to challenge the position of the dominant groups. Overall, this concession moves pluralism closer to the position held by elitists; power is concentrated.

Classical elitism is predicated on the idea that there are two classes in every society: the ruling class that holds power and the subordinate class that does not (Evans, 2006). The ruling class constitutes a single socially cohesive group territorially closed-off from the subordinate class. Power is concentrated amongst the ruling class. As a result, the state is dominated by a single group, whose ideas become the ruling ideas of society. This is an inevitability in all societies making direct government by the masses impossible. Classical elitism thus sees society as the dictatorship of the majority by the minority.

The major flaw in elitism is that the ruling class is one homogeneous group with a single goal in mind. If this were the case, opposition parties would not exist, and all democracies would be reduced to single-party systems. In addition, if power were concentrated in a single group, they would do as they please without anyone having the power to challenge them. In reality, the decisions made by the executive are checked and balanced by the legislature and judiciary. For example, in 2017, the Supreme Court ruled that introducing employment tribunal fees of up to £1,200 in 2013 was unlawful (BBC, 2017). Therefore, it would be disingenuous to reject the pluralist’s ideas outright. In other words, power bases must exist outside the control of a single homogenous group.

Contemporary elitism rectified this flaw by conceding that the ruling class comprises multiple factions engaged in an ongoing process of competitive elitism (Evans, 2006). These factions must retain links with global elite networks, such as the European Commission, to maintain their power bases in society. Power is still concentrated, but it is now concentrated amongst a particular set of groups rather than a single group. Overall, this concession moves elitism closer to the position held by pluralism; power is dispersed.

By consolidating these two opposing viewpoints, one can assert that power is distributed at three different levels (Evans, 2006). Each level consists of competing factions vying for state control with different degrees of power at their disposal. At the bottom level, there is the politically fragmented society of the masses. Agents only have access to the sufficient power bases needed to exercise the first two faces of power. At the middle level, there is the semi-organised stalemate of interest groups and legislative politics. Groups have access to the sufficient power bases needed to exercise the first three faces of power. At the top level, there are those in command of major institutional hierarchies, otherwise known as the ruling class. The ruling class has access to the sufficient power bases needed to exercise all the faces of power. The vast majority of absolute power is concentrated amongst the dominant ruling faction. However, there is still the potential for other ruling factions to amass countervailing powers, keeping the dominant ruling faction in check. Therefore, the distribution of power follows an elitist-leaning framework; power is concentrated in its dispersal. To illustrate this power distribution model, one can refer to the United Kingdom.

At the bottom level, there is the British public. In everyday life, British citizens can exercise the first two faces of power as they make direct decisions about their own lives as well as exert nominal control over those around them, whether it be family, friends or colleagues. At the middle level, there are multiple interest groups and political parties with varying degrees of influence competing to exert their control over the state. These groups can exercise the first three faces of power as they have the resources to produce propaganda and influence the values of the British public. For example, UKIP’s political rhetoric concerning immigration significantly influenced the outcome of the EU referendum. At the top level, there is the political elite with control over the United Kingdom’s major institutions. The political elite is divided into multiple factions and can exercise all four faces of power. Currently, the dominant faction is the Conservative Party, with control over the executive and the majority of the legislature. The Conservative Party’s power is countervailed by other factions of the political elite, such as the Labour Party with its control over the remaining legislature and the Supreme Court with its control over the judiciary. Despite this, all factions of the political elite remain part of the same ruling class.

Based on this model for the distribution of power, it can be concluded that the ruling class holds the most absolute power. They have access to the sufficient power bases needed to control and shape the current paradigm. By shaping the paradigm, they control all the agents operating within it. In other words, only the ruling class can exercise the fourth face of power. In addition, the ruling class retains the greatest degree of agency as they are at the top of the state structure. Overall, the ruling class are the most powerful actors in society.


To summarise, power is the extent to which one entity can influence another to do something it otherwise would not do. The entity must draw on the appropriate power base or combination of power bases to exercise power over another and achieve its desired outcome. There are six such power bases (legitimate, referent, expert, reward, coercive and informational) that can be utilised in four distinct ways (the four faces of power). While almost any entity can exercise the first two faces of power, only certain entities have the necessary agency and sufficient power bases to exercise the third and fourth faces of power. These entities are best typified by the ruling class. Therefore, it can be concluded that absolute power is an influencing force concentrated and dispersed amongst the political elite.


BBC, 2017. Employment tribunal fees unlawful, Supreme Court rules. [Online]
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Dahl, R., 1957. The Concept of Power. Systems Research and Behavioral Science, 2(3), pp. 201-215.

Digeser, P., 1992. The Fourth Face of Power. The Journal of Politics, 54(4), pp. 977-1007.

Evans, M., 2006. Elitism. In: C. Hay, M. Lister & D. Marsh, eds. The State: Theories and Issues. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 39-58.

French, J. & Raven, B., 1959. The Bases of Social Power. In: D. Cartwright, ed. Studies in Social Power. s.l.:University of Michigan, pp. 150-167.

Gramsci, A., 1929-1935. Prison Notebooks. s.l.:s.n.

Harvey, D., 2005. A Brief History of Neoliberalism. New York: Oxford University Press.

Hay, C., 2007. Why We Hate Politics. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Lukes, S., 1974. Power: A Radical View. s.l.:Macmillan.

Partridge, P. H., 1963. Politics and Power. Philosophy, 38(144), pp. 117-135.

Raven, B., 2008. The Bases of Power and the Power/Interaction Model of Interpersonal Influence. Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy, 8(1), pp. 1-22.

Smith, M., 2006. Pluralism. In: C. Hay, M. Lister & D. Marsh, eds. The State: Theories and Issues. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 21-38.

Vox, 2018. The Facebook and Cambridge Analytica scandal, explained with a simple diagram. [Online]
Available at:

The Aqil Ghani Media Awards 2021

Alas, we have arrived at the end of yet another year of pandemics, environmental crises, and political turmoil. But despite the doom and gloom that has accompanied 2020 2.0, there were still moments to be enjoyed and memories to be treasured. And so, to commemorate the end of 2021, I’m going to share with you my favourite media from this year.

This year I’ve seen a total of 70 movies, read 44 books, listened to 28,428 minutes of music, binged an uncountable number of TV series and played a troubling amount of video games. Given this and my exhaustive credentials as a media critic, it seems fitting that I give my verdict on the top movies, books, songs, TV series and video games of 2021. Without further ado, I’d like to give you all a warm welcome to the Aqil Ghani Media Awards!

DISCLAIMER: Not everything on this list came out this year, but I did consume them this year, and that’s what really matters. We like to do things differently here at the Aqil Ghani Media Awards.

First up, we have Video Game of the Year. This year marks the eighth year since I made my Steam account and started gaming properly. According to the platform, I’ve amassed over 4,254 hours across 110 games, and that’s just what I’ve played on Steam. During this time, I’ve come across a lot of great games. My honourable mentions for this year include Mount and Blade II: Bannerlord, Wasteland 3, Crusader Kings III, and League of Legends. But my Video Game of the Year for 2021 has to be Amplitude’s new turn-based, 4X (explore, expand, exploit, exterminate) strategy game, Humankind.

Humankind takes the 4X genre to a new level by moving away from the standard mechanics of other 4X games like Civilisation. My favourite mechanic has to be Humankind’s culture feature. Instead of picking a single faction to play for the entire game, you choose a different culture for each era. For example, you can start the game as the Ancient Egyptians, switch to the Romans, then the Aztecs, the Mughals, and the Zulu before finishing off as the Soviets. This, alongside many other innovative mechanics, makes for a refreshing take on a genre that’s long been stagnating.

For our second category, we have TV Series of the Year. By TV series, I mean both series that can be found on regular television and streaming services like Netflix, Disney+ and Amazon Prime. This year I watched lots of series, so much so that I lost count. That being said, the series that stood out to me this year include Black-ish, Loki, Star Wars: The Bad Batch, and The Walking Dead. However, the best TV series of 2021 has to be animated Amazon Original Invincible.

Based on the comic book series of the same name by Robert Kirkman, Cory Walker and Ryan Ottley, Invincible is a new spin on the classic superhero genre. The animation style is superb, the story arc is a masterpiece in storytelling, the final episode was shockingly entertaining, and let’s not forget the glorious memes that it generated. I don’t wanna give away too much, so be sure to check it out yourself. Just know that it bangs.

Next up, we have Song, Album and Artist of the Year. According to Spotify Wrapped, my most played track this year was All I Want by Olivia Rodrigo. Which, to be honest, I have no explanation for. Seems I’ve been channelling my inner teenage girl a little too much. Other honourable mentions for Song of the Year include Meet Me At Our Spot by Willow Smith and Tyler Cole, Freedom by Pharrell Williams and Letter to the 1% by Lowkey. But if I had to pick my top song of 2021, it would have to be Koi toh miley ga by Pakistani band The Tamaashbeens.

When it comes to albums, it’s no competition; Hamilton by Lin-Manuel Miranda reigns supreme. There’s pretty much a song for any occasion in this album, whether it be a gym workout or sad boy hours. If you haven’t already, I highly encourage you to watch the play on Disney+. Insha’Allah, I’ll get to see it live one day.

Our Artist of the Year is someone I’ve been listening to since year 8. It’s the alphabet assassin, the lyrical genius, the one and only Lowkey. He was the first music artist I ever really followed and the key to my political awakening. I was fortunate to be able to go see him live in Birmingham earlier this month to celebrate 10 years since the release of his album Soundtrack to the Struggle. Seeing one of my idols up close was a most surreal experience indeed.

For our sixth and seventh categories, we have Fiction and Non-fiction Book of the Year. This year I set out to read 60 books; however, since starting university, finding time to read amidst assignment deadlines and rampant socialising has been difficult, meaning I fell short of my goal by 16 books. Still, 44 books are quite an achievement for a man like myself, so I’m not particularly disappointed. Before we announce our winners, though, a few honourable mentions are in order.

For fiction, we have Train to Pakistan by Khushwant Singh, I stared at the Night of the City by Bakhtiyar Ali, Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson, and The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. For non-fiction, we have Azadi by Arundhati Roy, Thoughts on Pakistan by BR Ambedkar, The Anarchy by William Dalrymple, and The Hundred Year’s War on Palestine by Rashid Khalidi. But of course, only two books will reign supreme this year, and those are Bitter Fruit by the legendary Saadat Hasan Manto (fiction) and Destiny Disrupted by Tamim Ansary (non-fiction). Check out my bookshelf to find out why I love these books so much.

For our final category, we have Movie of the Year. Many good movies were watched this year, including One Night in Miami…, Mogul Mowgli, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, and The Mauritanian. Still, only one movie can be crowned king, and that king is the phenomenal Spider-Man: No Way Home.

Without saying too much, Spider-Man: No Way Home was like a coming together of my childhood. Not only did it redeem what came before, but it was also a crucial moment for Tom Holland’s Spider-Man. Plus, any movie that can get UK audiences cheering and shouting in the cinema is most definitely a special movie indeed. I can’t wait to see where the MCU takes Spider-Man next.

Video Game of the Year: Humankind

TV Series of the Year: Invincible

Song of the Year: Koi toh miley ga by The Tamaashbeens

Album of the Year: Hamilton by Lin-Manuel Miranda

Artist of the Year: Lowkey

Fiction Book of the Year: Bitter Fruit by Saadat Hasan Manto

Non-Fiction Book of the Year: Destiny Disrupted by Tamim Ansary

Movie of the Year: Spider-Man: No Way Home

That concludes the Aqil Ghani Media Awards 2021. Happy new year to all those reading. May you grow and learn evermore.

That’s it from me this year. See y’all in 2022!

Peace be with you.