Whose Security? A Critical Analysis of the 2015 Migratory Crisis in the Mediterranean

3 June 2024 | | English


This essay seeks to make a methods-related point. The first part of my title, ‘whose security?’ already indicates that I approach the 2015 crisis from a Critical Security Studies (CSS) perspective (Booth, 1991; Bilgin et al., 1998; Booth, 2008). My methods-related point underscores the need for CSS to draw from Postcolonial Studies insights. I suggest that addressing Eurocentrism requires new methods; adding a few footnotes here and there would not suffice.

As a student of CSS, I have, over the years, grown increasingly dissatisfied with what CSS allows me to understand in regards to the international (Bilgin, 2016b). To seek further insights, I have turned to Postcolonial Studies. For the methods-related point I seek to make here, I propose that we utilize Edward Said’s ‘contrapuntal reading’ (1978; 1993). I will look at the 2015 crisis in the Mediterranean as an illustration of the point that I seek to make. That said, the 2015 crisis is no mere case illustration but also the research puzzle that got me started on this particular path.[1]

My research puzzle dates to a previous visit to Spain in early December 2015. I gave a talk that was based on a project that we had recently concluded on the European Union (EU)’s neighbourhood policies (Bilgin et al., 2011). That project had finished around the beginning of the Arab uprisings. I presented the results of our project in light of what transpired during the uprisings (Bilgin, 2016c). One of the questions that I was asked following my presentation is what got me thinking further on the refugee flow that was happening as I spoke in the seminar room. That question eventually became my research puzzle.

Here is a paraphrased version of the question I was asked: We in the EU could try to accept as many refugees from Syria and Libya as possible, but what about women’s security? The reasoning behind the question was that if the EU were to let more refugees in on humanitarian grounds, this would likely produce insecurities for women in the Union. The implication being that refugees coming from the south/east of the Mediterranean do not share the same set of ideas about the status of women in society and that this is likely to constitute vulnerabilities for women’s security in the north/west of the Mediterranean – either directly (inter-personal violence) or indirectly (by undermining already fragile gender balances).[2]

How to respond to such a question? My CSS background has oriented me to ask: ‘whose security?’ Critical approaches to security point to individuals and social groups (sub-state) and the environment (beyond the state) as referents that also deserve our attention. “It is illogical to place states at the centre of our thinking about security,” as Ken Booth (1991) argued. This is partly because many states fail to fulfil their duties. It is illogical to treat the state as the referent of security also because those states that seek to fulfil their duties do so at the expense of the people. The walls rising up around the world to monitor borders even at the expense of the most vulnerable is a prime indicator that state security practices oftentimes treat people as dispensable. In the case of those states that do fulfil their duties toward their own citizens, this does not render their security more important. Not the least because we live in a world of finite resources. Even great powers have to make difficult decisions when they transfer valuable resources away from education and healthcare and into the security sector. The choices may be even starker for those states with meagre resources. While state security is important by virtue of its agency, it is important not to confuse agents and referents, i.e. treating the state as an end in itself and not the means to an end (Bilgin, 2022c).

Prioritising human beings as referents of security is what led many EU members during the crisis to agree to receive refugees on humanitarian grounds. But then, the question I was asked in late 2015 highlighted that this time around the choice was one between two human insecurities: women’s security versus the refugees’ security. This is a question my CSS training did not prepare me for. Human beings versus citizens is a question that has busied the minds of CSS scholars, who express priority for the former (Booth, 2005). Prioritising human beings is also the rationale behind the human security approach. But what about women’s security?

At the time, some suggested that asking this latter question was disingenuous insofar as women’s security had not, until then, been on the top of any EU security agenda. Be that as it may, there is no denying the consequences that human mobility across the Mediterranean has had for women’s security – in both the sending and the receiving societies.

In true Coxian (Cox, 1981) critical theory fashion, which orients the researcher to step back from the problems as formulated by policy-makers and ask how we got to be where we are, I asked how we got to the point of being asked to choose between two human insecurities. While CSS is helpful in historicising and contextualising the crisis (Bilgin, 2022b), I found it wanting in addressing this particular research puzzle. Hence my search for a new method (Bilgin, 2016a).

Contrapuntal reading is a method that Edward Said (1993) developed to encourage his readers to study how things are connected. At a time when students of Postcolonial Studies were following his and other scholars’ lead to study how things are different, Said underscored that we are different but also connected, and that studying the ways in which we are connected is no mere academic preoccupation. “Survival in fact is about the connections between things,” Said (1993: 336) wrote. The first time I read it, I had found this line by Said intriguing – that uncovering connection is about ‘survival’. Thinking through the research puzzle I encountered in the wake of the 2015 crisis, I took Said’s line as my guide to figure a way to approach the crisis without having to choose between women’s security and refugees’ security – that is, through uncovering the ‘connections between things’.

What connections? Problem-solving approaches have portrayed the refugees as coming from not only ‘beyond Europe’ but also ‘before Europe’, to borrow Bernard McGrane’s (1989: 94) felicitous turn of phrase. That is to say, people who are arriving from outside are portrayed as having no connection whatsoever to ‘us’ insofar as they live in the past. The refugees were portrayed as ‘before Europe’ not only economically (as per usual in such debates) but also normatively, insofar as they were viewed as carrying values that belong to a past world that ‘Europe’ is understood to have left behind (Hindess, 2007). Viewed as such, there is no connection to uncover. The refugees are portrayed as people who are not coevals of EU citizens, to invoke Johannes Fabian (1983).

But then, such portrayal of refugees overlooks the fact that ‘before Europe’ is at the same time the ‘aftermath of Europe’ (Bilgin, 2022a). I mean this in terms of the colonial encounter, but not only. We learn from that literature that what some depict as perennial characteristics of sending societies in the south/east are oftentimes products of ‘define and rule’ (Mamdani, 2012) policies of earlier colonial encounters with the north/west. As important as studying the colonial encounter is studying more contemporary connections. Utilising Said’s contrapuntal reading as method, I submit that if some refugees coming from the south/east of the Mediterranean do not seem to share the same set of ideas as their north/western hosts about the status of women in society, this may be because women’s insecurities are constituted by contemporary connections between the two. Put differently, contra everyday portrayal, women’s insecurities in the south/east of the Mediterranean have not come about autonomously but are products of previous encounters with the north/west.

Said proposed ‘contrapuntal reading’ in his 1975 book Beginnings: Intention and Method, before reintroducing it fully in his 1993 study Culture and Imperialism. What was missing in literary criticism until then, according to Said, was inquiring into “involvements of culture with expanding empires” (1993: 12). Adopting ‘contrapuntal reading’ as a method, suggested Said, is the only way in which what he called “intertwined and overlapping histories” of the coloniser and the colonised could be grasped. To be able to recover ‘already existing connections’ as such, argued Said, the researcher needs to be equipped with what he termed ‘contrapuntal awareness’. As with counterpoint in music, the individual narratives make sense by themselves, but they also come together to form a story (Said, 1993). It is in this sense that ‘contrapuntal reading’ is a fitting method for our purposes – to answer our questions when other methods fail us.

In more practical terms, the idea is “to read texts from the metropolitan centre and from the peripheries contrapuntally, neither according the privilege of ‘objectivity’ to our side nor the encumbrance of ‘subjectivity’ to theirs” (Said, 1993: 312). This is what Said delivered in Culture and Imperialism, reading the products of, for example, the Subaltern Studies group (which he considers as examples of ‘the voyage in’) contrapuntally with those of the imperial metropole.

Toward addressing my own research puzzle, I sought to ‘think through and interpret together’ Moroccan sociologist Fatima Mernissi’s analyses of the status of women in the Muslim world with familiar portrayals of the 2015 crisis that portray ‘beyond Europe’ as ‘before Europe’. Mernissi’s narrative helps us see that ‘beyond Europe’ is (what I call) the aftermath of Europe –not only the postcolonial but also the post-Cold War aftermath of ‘Europe’.

In Fatima Mernissi’s (1991; 1996b) writings, we find an alternative narrative regarding the status of women in the Muslim world – not a cultural but a sociological explanation. If fundamentalism has been on the rise in the Muslim world, wrote Mernissi, this is owed largely to Saudi practices that were adopted in collaboration with the Kingdom’s North American and Western European allies during the Cold War. It is difficult to understand the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in the Muslim world independent of the strategic support of ‘the liberal democracies’ for conservative Islam, both as a bulwark against communism and as a tactical resource for controlling Arab oil from the 1950s onwards, Mernissi insisted (1996a: 251). Indeed, Mernissi’s preferred term ‘palace fundamentalism’ underscored the eventuality that fundamentalism in the Muslim world is not a perennial but a contemporary phenomenon. Mernissi argued that ‘palace fundamentalism’ originated in the 1950s, when Saudi Arabia began to offer support to non-state actors around the world. In the first half of the twentieth century, commitment to democracy, secularism and women’s rights was neither superficial nor unique to a marginal elite in the Arab world in general and Egypt in particular, Mernissi highlighted. The author’s point being that the prevalence of ideas and behaviour that debase women’s status in society are not perennial elements of Muslim ‘culture’ in the way it is portrayed by fundamentalists (or EU hosts of the refugees, see above) but products of contemporary politics. It was from the early 1950s onwards that democratic and secular ideas and ideals in the Arab world (and beyond) began to be overshadowed by Wahabi-style Islamist ideas and ideals in tandem with the flow of Saudi funds into conservative Islamist actors, including think tanks. Especially from the 1970s onwards, Mernissi (1992: 37) underscored, “petrodollars financed the propaganda that encouraged submission and repudiated reflection.”

In conclusion, unless we uncover the connections between the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in one part of the world, the Cold War security practices adopted by the United States and allies (including global corporations that are a part of the military industrial complex), the source of Mernissi’s frustration regarding representations of the rise of fundamentalism in the Muslim world as an instance of ‘irrationality’ cannot be located (Mernissi, 1996a). The contrapuntal reading I presented above allows a different take on the research puzzle I began with. We are not presented with a choice between women’s insecurities and refugees’ insecurities. What we are facing is the product of Cold War encounters between the north/west and the south/east of the Mediterranean. Studying how ‘things are connected’ highlights the multiplicity of actors’ involvement in bringing about the present-day state of insecurities – for women and refugees. The point is not about apportioning blame. Following Said (1993: 43), the idea is to go beyond the ‘rhetoric of blame’ and study “the interdependence of various histories on one another.”


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[1] I have since turned this research into an article; see Bilgin (2022a).

[2] This question was posed to me weeks before the so-called ‘Cologne incident’, the harassment and attacks experienced by women in Germany when celebrating during Christmas in 2015. Regarding the racial dynamics surrounding the reporting of the attacks, see Boulila and Carri (2017).

[1] This is an edited version of the lecture delivered at the IEMed in Barcelona on 25 April 2024 by Pinar Bilgin within the Aula Mediterrània series. Watch again the lecture.