Humanism and Humanitarianism over the Longue Durée

By Esra Özyürek, London School of Economics

Humanism in Ruins: Entangled Legacies of the Greek–Turkish Population Exchange, by Aslı Iğsız (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2018)

Life Lived in Relief: Humanitarian Predicaments and Palestinian Refugee Politics, by Ilana Feldman (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2018)

Over the last decade, a number of books in anthropology and its adjacent disciplines have begun to throw into relief the complex contemporary questions of humanitarianism (Ticktin 2011; Fassin 2012; Malkki 2015), human rights (Allen 2013; Babül 2017), humanism (Fassin 2018; Zigon 2018), and humanity (Feldman and Ticktin 2010; Çubukçu 2018). This essay reviews two recent books which continue the project of problematizing our present focus on humanity, each of which treat the after-effects of forcible population transfer and the legacies of postwar humanitarianism.

Iğsız’s Humanism in Ruins documents the use of the humanities and the social sciences, by national and international parties alike, to categorize, manage, and regulate human bodies through hierarchized and segregative repertoires of alterity. In the name of humanely restoring postwar peace, such repertoires have been translated into the demographic policies of forcible population transfer designed to unmix populations and, when unmixing was not possible, force assimilation so that peace and stability might be secured. Feldman’s Life Lived in Relief details the decades-long tragedy of the forcible movement and segregation of one such community, again in the name of providing peace and internationally sanctioned sovereignty. Whereas Humanism in Ruins tells the story of how the segregative logic of the 1923 Greek–Turkish exchange came to serve as the prototype for the management of mass population displacement after World War II, Life Lived in Relief tells the story of how such international refugee management regimes have brought only partial relief to one group of refugees in the face of long-term suffering. Although they appear to tell very different stories, when read together these two books provide a comprehensive genealogy of the segregationist logic of international humanitarian regimes, how it developed as a response to twentieth-century population displacement, its persistence in current population policies, and its checkered track record across time in delivering on the promise of relief. Both Iğsız and Feldman are interested in understanding how international humanitarian frameworks for refugee population management have been elaborated and how their original frameworks continue to shape population management and refugee and minority rights today.

In her interdisciplinary project—which builds on anthropology, history, sociology, political science, cultural studies, and literature—Aslı Iğsız demonstrates that although the idea of managing population movements in order to maintain peace was institutionalized with the establishment of the United Nations after World War II, its motives, methods, and international legal foundations were put in place with the 1923 population exchange between Turkey and Greece. With the establishment of modern Turkey in 1923, Greek-speaking Christian subjects living in Turkey and Turkish-speaking Muslim subjects living in Greece came to be seen as “outsiders” in their home countries, henceforth naturally belonging to the country on the other side of the Aegean. As the wars and revolutions of the first half of the twentieth century produced millions of displaced people and redrew international borders, the new human rights regime established after World War II consolidated this logic of national state sovereignty: a logic which held that minorities within national borders are sources of instability and obstacles to peace. The direct implication was that peace is possible when people are unmixed.

In Humanism in Ruins, Iğsız demonstrates that the cultural repertoire that aligns people with territories and informs the “who belongs where” logic of contemporary population management regimes has its roots in the nineteenth-century project of historicist humanism, which she defines as “a prominent historicist approach to human categorizationunambiguously connecting ancient peoples, their literary traditions, cultures, and arts to today” (14). This historicist humanism offered a cultural framework for biological arguments about racialized origins and genealogies, underwriting the assumption that national cultures are essences that can be racially hierarchized within the family tree of humanity. It further helped buttress the Eurocentric and teleological accounts of human development inherent to archaeology, anthropology, literary history, philology, architecture, and art. By the turn of the twentieth century, historicist humanism had become the ideological force behind the interrelated biopolitical sciences of eugenics, demography, and statistics, which proposed segregative solutions to social problems first in Europe and its colonies and later across the globe. The related idealization of Greek and Roman antiquity helped fuel  fascist and Nazi politics that located humanity’s historical degeneration in the mixing of populations and cultures, as well as violent attempts to return to unmixed essences.

Iğsız’s work is unique, moreover, in tracing the foundational imprint historicist humanism has made on liberal humanism, which emerged alongside the UN after World War II. She explores the dominant role this earlier, biopolitical ideology has played in the universalist discourse of humanity that currently underpins both UN multiculturalist policies and nationalist discourses. Liberal humanism’s founding idea is that humanity is unified through a shared and therefore dehistoricized “human essence,” a brotherly “unity in diversity” (19) that can function as the basis of peace and coexistence. A direct response to and negation of Nazi ideology and the Holocaust, liberal humanism became instrumental to the UN’s message of multicultural diversity, particularly as institutionalized by the UN’s cultural branch, UNESCO. Iğsız punctures the bright balloon of liberal humanism by showing how its management of alterity on the basis of demographic, spatial, and cultural segregation remains racialized. While post-1945 liberal humanism creates the illusion that the “legacies of biopolitics” are being engaged (27) and that “peace and coexistence” are possible (20), its lack of historicization of segregative biopolitics reproduces racialized taxonomies, foreclosing any prospect of peace based on social justice. Since it fails to address the structural ruins of segregative biopolitics upon which its multiculturalist discourses of brotherhood are built, liberal humanism gets entangled in cultural notions of heritage that are easily reconfigured within frameworks that range from visa bans to wall-building and the mass incarceration of refugees. Liberal humanism’s depoliticized solutions offer only temporary reductions in suffering, violence, and dispossession, leaving unaddressed underlying segregative logics that foreclose forms of social justice upon which long-lasting peace depends. “At the heart of all peace processes,” Iğsız tells us, “lies biopolitics” (20).

While the cultural politics of UNESCO is one focus of Iğsız’s book, Ilana Feldman examines the humanitarian politics practiced by and within the camps of another UN body, UNRWA, the relief organization dedicated to helping Palestinians displaced in the 1948 and 1967 wars. Feldman begins her book with the question of how to reconcile the long duration of Palestinian refugeehood, which has lasted for over seven decades, with humanitarian aid imagined and designed for the short term. Iğsız’s historical thesis about the origins of the depoliticized segregative logic inherent in contemporary humanism can be read as providing a powerful discursive and institutional backdrop to Feldman’s study. By the end of World War II, population management and resettlement had come to be seen as a way to end conflict and bring about long-lasting peace. When in the course of 1948–1949 it became clear that neither a refugee return nor an end to the territorial conflict could be secured, the UN General Assembly created UNRWA. The 750,000 Palestinians who left their homes in 1948 during the war that ended the British Mandate and established the state of Israel were to live separately, because of the idea that mixing Arabs with Jews would be a threat to regional stability and peace. But with the bracketing of the social justice questions posed by displacement and repatriation, and in the absence of both a sovereign territory where Palestinians could live as a unified nation and assimilation of refugees into other host countries, the peaceful equilibrium predicted by the segregationist logic of historical humanism could not emerge. As a result, over five million registered Palestinian refugees still live in UNRWA camps.

Life Lived in Relief examines the long history of how displaced Palestinians have survived within the humanitarian space of UNRWA refugee camps through a “politics of living” and how, at the same time, they have been governed as a population through aid delivery’s “politics of life” (4). Feldman’s account traces how the dynamics of such politics shift over time from acute to chronic and back again, developing a particular lived historical trajectory of their own. She describes as “punctuated humanitarianism” (15) this constant oscillation between the acuteness of a crisis-driven “humanitarian situation,” which mobilizes humanitarian machinery, and the everyday politics of a long-term “humanitarian condition” in which rights, services, and justice are provided and negotiated. “Punctuated humanitarianism” is a descriptive concept meant to capture the nonlinear timeframe in which conditions of long-term humanitarianism plays out. With the passage of time, UNRWA was forced to transform its services and expand its administrative apparatus from one that provided emergency aid to one that could mimic state administrative functions—UNRWA educates around half a million children in its school system every year—while still being able to respond to the repetitive humanitarian crises that regularly hit the refugee camps. This dynamic oscillation from acute to chronic humanitarian service provision is a challenge to humanitarianism’s minimalist approach, which is predicated on the notion that refugees and displaced people will settle down quickly if they are able to find their right address. “Humanitarianism is a persisting condition, despite hopes it would be otherwise, and it is also a political formation, despite efforts to render it neutral or anodyne” (25).

To tell this complicated story, Feldman has brought together archival research on the history of humanitarian aid to Palestinian refugees and deep ethnographic research conducted in refugee camps in Lebanon, Jordan, and the West Bank. The book brings multiple dimensions of refugee and humanitarian life under its spotlight and demonstrates that what refugees do in such a suspended humanitarian condition—make their voices heard, engage in politics or survival—has also to do with what such conditions do to them. Attending to the many nitty-gritty aspects of managing aid and services to displaced people, Feldman’s work traces the interactions between the refugee agency’s governmentalized politics of life and Palestinian refugees’ politics of living—their acceptance, refusal, resistance, and reshaping of the aid they are given and the categories assigned to them.

These books have much to teach us, at a time when a revanchist far-right xenophobia exploits the racialized taxonomies embedded in our liberal notions of humanity. As we see the segregative logic of walls and fortresses emerging anew, as a response to the largest refugee crisis to occur since World War II, attending to the complex and contradictory histories and effects of existing humanitarian regimes takes on great urgency.



Allen, Lori. 2013. The Rise and Fall of Human Rights: Cynicism and Politics in Occupied Palestine. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Babül, Elif M. 2017. Bureaucratic Intimacies: Translating Human Rights in Turkey. Stanford University Press.

Çubukçu, Ayça. 2018. For the Love of Humanity: The World Tribunal on Iraq. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Fassin, Didier. 2012. Humanitarian Reason: A Moral History of the Present. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Fassin, Didier. 2018. Life: A Critical User’s Manual. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Feldman, Ilana, and Miriam Ticktin, eds. 2010. In the Name of Humanity: The Government of Threat and Care. Duke University Press.

Malkki, Liisa. 2015. The Need to Help: The Domestic Arts of International Humanitarianism. Durham: Duke University Press.

Ticktin, Miriam. 2011. Causalities of Care: Immigration and the Politics of Humanitarianism in France. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Zigon, Jarrett. 2018. A War on People: Drug User Politics and a New Ethics of Community. Berkeley: University of California Press.

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