The Claims of Kinship: An Interview with Alyssa Miller

The November 2018 issue of Cultural Anthropology included the research article “Kin-Work in a Time of Jihad: Sustaining Bonds of Filiation and Care for Tunisian Foreign Combatants,” by Alyssa Miller, who received her PhD from the Department of Cultural Anthropology at Duke University. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of an interview that contributing editor Ola Galal conducted with Miller about the article and its relationship to wider currents of anthropological thought.

Ola Galal: In this article, you argue that Tunisian families employ kinship, both as genealogy and as an affective relationship, to make political claims on behalf of their sons, who have joined the fighting in Libya and Syria under the banner of jihad or holy war. How does this article fit into your broader research program?

Alyssa Miller: My research investigates the legacy of uneven development in Tunisia by focusing on the precarious labor of smuggling as performed by young men in the border region of Kasserine. Kasserine governorate occupies a symbolic location in the nation’s postrevolutionary imaginary, a so-called region of martyrs that is also, statistically speaking, the most underdeveloped in the republic. At the height of the 2010–2011 winter uprising, the massacre of protesters in Kasserine became a turning point in the revolution. Images of young men cut down by sniper fire outraged viewers and nationalized a protest movement that had been largely confined to the interior regions, speeding the downfall of the Ben Ali regime just a few days later. After the revolution, there was a sense of national consensus that underdevelopment had been a major cause of the uprising and required urgent redress. Marginalized regions like Kasserine therefore expected to receive a development dividend to repay their sacrifice during the revolution—and yet, for a variety of reasons, this did not come to pass.

In the Tunisian borderlands, the economy is largely sustained by informal and illicit activities such as smuggling, for which kinship and affective familial bonds are key to sustaining networks in the absence of state-led welfarism. Despite hope that the interior regions would receive increased resources from the newly democratic state, their abandonment has in fact been compounded by new forms of insecurity haunting Tunisia’s democratic transition. In frontier regions like Kasserine, efforts to secure the border against arms trafficking and footloose militants have often disrupted the smuggling economies that provide a livelihood for the most vulnerable. At the same time, the discourse of a war on terror has reinforced the representation of marginal young men in Kasserine and the suburbs of Tunis—precisely those unruly subjects who were once lauded as the protagonists of the revolution—as potentially violent smugglers and terrorists. In my article for Cultural Anthropology, I shift away from security struggles in the western-central interior and turn my gaze to the capital city of Tunis. I show how kinship takes on a political valence as the long-awaited rights of citizenship remain elusive for many.

OG: There seems to be a revival of anthropological interest in the study of kinship, understood not as vestiges of archaic forms of social organization and solidarity but as central to modern social relations and subject-making. New studies are surfacing on alternative forms of kinlike bonds and reciprocal obligations. Can you talk about why you chose to focus on the families of Tunisian fighters and elaborate on the relevance of idioms of kinship at this historical conjuncture, whether in Tunisia or globally?

AM: The theme of kinship was an obvious choice for framing this part of my ethnography, given the central role that the family plays in state antiterrorism campaigns. As a metaphor for the nation, the family also indexes the intimate stakes of the war on terror. This message is clearly communicated in the television publicity I describe at the beginning of the article, but it isn’t difficult to find further iterations of this same idea. The billboard image below, for example, uses the idiom of family to express solidarity with Tunisian soldiers on the front lines, referring to the army and security forces as “our sons.” The boy, posed in a military salute, embodies the wholesome innocence that is vulnerable to terrorist violence, as well as the masculine promise of making a future contribution to national defense.

Image of a young, curly-haired boy giving a military salute against the background of the Tunisian flag
Billboard image appearing around Tunisia circa 2014. The Arabic caption reads “We all stand with our sons: the Tunisian people salutes our army and security forces.”

These representations, however, are strangely silent about who or what constitutes the terrorist threat. These entities remain off-stage, as a disembodied force construed as wholly foreign to Tunisian society. When engaging with such media, it is easy to forget that the terrorist who fights in Syria or who pursues military training in Libya before returning to Tunisia to carry out an attack is likely himself a Tunisian son. This raises troubling questions for Tunisia in the midst of its celebrated democratic transition: why, at precisely the moment that dictatorship has been overcome, have so many Tunisian youth been drawn to the idea of jihad? How are these representational regimes related to the forms of structural violence that make jihad an appealing life choice for many young Tunisians?

These questions are raised, in characteristically vulgar terms, by the Tunisian cartoonist Z in his reaction to a 2016 ISIS attack in the border city of Ben Guerdane. The cartoon, which bears the caption “when Tunisia no longer recognizes her children,” depicts a birth scene in which an infant jihadist has emerged from the nation’s womb only to find himself facing the lethal onslaught of security agents. The mother/nation denies any kinship with the monster to whom she has just given birth. Meanwhile, in the wings, we see a paternal lineage that links current president Beji Caid Essebsi with erstwhile dictator Zine El Abiine Ben Ali (a genealogy that is traced through the Ennahda party leader Rachid al-Ghannouchi). The implication is that, in exploiting the war on terror to reconsolidate executive power, the democratic regime is borrowing a page from an older, autocratic playbook. In order to stage a spectacle of terror that will be used to justify extraordinary security measures, an entire generation of marginalized youth must be sacrificed.

Cartoon of a mother giving birth to a two-headed baby holding a rifle, surrounded by soldiers pointing their own weapons at the baby
A 2016 political cartoon by the Tunisian cartoonist Z. The nation as mother cries: “This is not my son! Destroy him!”

Shedding light on the families of young men who have chosen to pursue jihad seemed to me an effective strategy for breaking out of these representational frames. Engaging seriously with familial loss makes it difficult to refuse the jihadi’s humanity; this is precisely why families of foreign combatants emphasize kinship in their activism. But what form of kinship are we talking about when the object of kin-feeling has possibly been killed or transformed into something that one no longer recognizes? One of the interesting things that happens with anthropological theory on kinship—starting with David Schneider’s (1980) American Kinship—is that once blood is understood as a metaphor rather than the substance of kinship, a more expansive exploration of the ways that kin-bonds are formed and sustained becomes possible, potentially extending to a future horizon when humans are no longer part of the equation. This insight (which arrives via Donna Haraway) allowed me to better grasp what was happening with kin-work as a mode of affective survival, in cases where the loved one might be beyond all recovery. More broadly, I would venture that the promise of kinship for contemporary anthropological theory is that it offers a way of thinking relations of power, care, mutual dependence, and obligation that takes neither the state nor even the human as a necessary point of reference.

OG: Your article shows how Tunisian mothers invoke emotions and love to make claims on the Tunisian state that are distinct from the legal-juridical rights discourse that is ubiquitous in postdictatorship Tunisia. Specifically, you argue that the affective labor of kin-work maintains the personhood and recovers the humanity of absent Tunisian combatants in the face of erasure by an official state narrative that dismisses them as undeserving terrorists. Here, would you go so far as to argue that affect in this context is political and, if so, in what particular ways?

AM: The way that I have made sense of the politics of kin-work is inspired by Partha Chatterjee’s understanding of political society. In The Politics of the Governed, Chatterjee (2004) describes a situation in which a community has no legal right to a particular good or service, but nevertheless solicits the state’s assistance by constituting themselves as a moral community in need of its care. This is where kinship has an important role to play, in casting the community as a kind of family whose very survival is at stake. The situation is more ambiguous for Tunisian parents of foreign combatants, since they are asking the state—and the wider national public—to forgive their sons’ transgressions in Syria without probing too closely as to what those might be. There was a sense among many activist families that this jihad had been enabled by the transitional government, whether through its failure to police national borders and regulate mosques, its refusal to recognize the Assad regime and negotiate the return of Tunisian fighters held in Syrian prisons, or its tolerance of Salafi violence during the Ennahda-led coalition government.

Joseph Masco (2014) has shown how any war on terror already engages in an affective politics insofar as the security state governs subject populations through the modulation of fear (of terror itself—which is, of course, another affect). Families of foreign combatants respond by showing that real terror consists in the sudden collapse of one’s world when a son is swept up in a jihad current that the state has done nothing to prevent. So yes, affect here—and the insistence on love—is profoundly political. Although they do make reference to Article 7 of the 2014 Constitution (the family is the basic structure of society and the State shall protect it), for these families to engage in rigorous argumentation on legal grounds would risk falling prey to a security logic holding that, under emergency conditions, the few must be sacrificed for the many. Instead, these activist families implore the national public to feel their pain—as well as their helplessness and outrage—as kin, in the hope that these infectious affects might pressure the state into mobilizing assistance.

OG: The figure of the jihadi is often caricatured as either the premodern ghoul or the disenchanted modern. The stories recounted in your article, however, give us the sense that the Tunisians who joined combat abroad are not necessarily driven by grand narratives and that decisions to join the war in Syria might have been swapped with a decision to cross the Mediterranean to look for a job in Europe. How did you navigate the treacherous terrain of telling these stories? More broadly, how has ethnography enabled you to produce a nuanced analysis of this figure and, in the same vein, what are the limitations of immersive fieldwork?

AM: Paul Amar (2011) offers a useful primer for studying men in a post–Arab Spring context, where tropes like sexual frustration or wounded masculinity often supplant more sophisticated analysis in explaining political upheaval. To avoid reproducing these overdetermined tropes, Amar recommends techniques of what he calls “sensory empiricism.” This is essentially a form of thick description that hones in on the cultivation of feelings and bodies within a distinct social milieu. When dealing with a subject as politically fraught as the jihadi in the age of ISIS, ethnography helps us to stay empirically grounded, clearly delimiting what we can access as researchers and what aspects of this social world remain beyond our reach.

In my research, direct contact with combatants was unavailable to me. They were either still in Syria, had fallen out of contact with their families, or had been killed. In the handful of cases where a family member had managed to return to Tunisia, they had either wound up in prison or refused to speak about their time in Syria. My approach has therefore been to examine the penumbra cast by the combatant, even as the absent figure at the center of the study remains necessarily opaque. This means that, much like families themselves, I have to contend with layers of uncertainty that cannot be resolved. When somebody recounts the story of their son’s departure, do they spin it so that their son appears innocent, an unwitting victim? Do they leave out crucial elements to shield the son from prosecution should he return to Tunisia one day? Are there aspects of the son’s self-fashioning as a combatant that the family cannot confront? It is also possible that family members have exaggerated certain sensationalist elements to make their stories more legible to me as an American researcher. Certainly, this dynamic seemed to be at play in my conversations with Faisal, who in his fury portrayed his son as a kind of bearded monster. But there are probably also elements of this in the way that Thoraya, as an outside observer, describes the activities of the Salafi counterpublic in her own neighborhood.

What initially drew me to investigate mobility under the rubric of jihad was my sense that it was an important part of the story of precarity for Tunisian youth after the revolution. I think you are right to suggest that jihad might represent an alternate vision of utopia for some disenfranchised youth, one that has come to supplant an earlier and increasingly dystopian ideal of European migration. But I might be inclined to take this insight in a slightly different direction. Tunisia’s position as a foyer of risky migration to Europe has received a lot of media attention—especially in the immediate aftermath of Ben Ali’s ouster, when the disarray of border policing permitted a massive wave of Tunisian departures. Yet it is important to recognize that Libya has been the second-largest destination country for Tunisian labor migrants. In research conducted on the eve of the 2011 uprising, Hamza Meddeb (2011) described how deepening conditions of economic precarity had pushed a growing number of Tunisians into informal schemes, particularly so-called suitcase commerce and other forms of smuggling across the Libyan border, to make ends meet. Rather than isolating jihad as anomaly or exception, we ought to situate the migration of would-be combatants toward the Mashreq (the eastern part of the Arab world) within a longer history of cross-border mobility for precarious and downwardly mobile Tunisians. I don’t mean to propose a simplistic equivalence, as though the smugglers have just changed professions and now practice jihad! Rather, I think that the form of migration toward militancy that we are today calling jihad emerges from a longer-standing disposition among underclass Tunisian youth, given that the experience of economic precarity has oriented them toward particularly risky forms of movement in order to survive.


Amar, Paul. 2011. “Middle East Masculinity Studies: Discourse of ‘Men in Crisis,’ Industries of Gender in Revolution.” Middle East Women’s Studies 7, no. 3: 36–70.

Chatterjee, Partha. 2004. The Politics of the Governed: Reflections on Popular Politics in Most of the World. New York: Columbia University Press.

Masco, Joseph. 2014. The Theater of Operations: National Security Affect from the Cold War to the War on Terror. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Meddeb, Hamza. 2011. “L’ambivalence de la ‘course à el-khobza’: Obéir et se révolter en Tunisie.” Politique Africaine 121, no. 1: 35–51.

Schneider, David M. 1980. American Kinship: A Cultural Account. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.