Focused Discussions, Race & Society, Regional Studies

Pluralism and Community in the Middle East Working Group II

Pluralism and Community in the Middle East Working Group II

On September 18–19, 2016, CIRS held a second working group under its research initiative on “Pluralism and Community in the Middle East.” Over the course of two days, working group participants presented draft papers examining pluralism and diversity within the contemporary Middle East, addressing amongst other things: how governance and legal regimes incorporate or engage with issues of plural communities; how architecture and urbanism in the Middle East reflect changing notions of identity and inclusion; iconoclasm and heritage destruction undertaken by the Islamic State (IS); education in plural societies of Lebanon and Syria; the economic conditions of Sunni communities in Iran; the evolution of Armenian nationalism and identity in the Middle East; race, ethnicity, and identity in Iran; and Qatari social structure.

The working group commenced with a presentation of Kathleen Cavanaugh’s paper on “Governance and Legal Regimes in the Middle Eastern Plural Society.” In her paper, Cavanaugh appraises the normative universalism of human rights principles in addressing issues of pluralism and inclusion, examines how these principles have influenced governance in the Middle East, and provides a robust critique of ‘secularism’ as being the prescriptive means by which to foster greater inclusion in the Middle East. Cavanaugh’s paper suggests that that there is a need to undertake a pragmatic assessment of the ways in which the language of the “universal” and the “secular” have actually suffocated voices of diversity and allowed states to suppress culture and identity.

Nezar Al Sayyad presented his paper “On the Changing Identity of Architecture and Urbanism in the Middle East during the Era of Globalization.” Al Sayyad argues that the Middle East serves as a convincing geographical space from which to argue that “universal modernism” is only or at least mainly a European phenomenon. The permanently hybrid and evolving nature of architecture and urbanism in the Middle East make it impossible to accept an inflexible or static idea of what is “universal.” Al Sayyad’s paper suggests that the history of the world demonstrates a movement towards greater cultural differentiation as opposed to homogenization, and at an individual level this means that a person considers himself or herself to simultaneously hold multiple affiliations and identities. If hybridity is also accepted as an inherent constituent of national identity, this means the ensuing forms of urbanism must be accepted as only a reflection of a specific transitional stage or era within any society. Since culture has become increasingly placeless, urbanism will likely become one of the few remaining arenas where one may observe how local communities and nations mediate the tensions between the local and the global.

James Barry tackled another facet of the question of identity in the Middle East through his paper on “Millet Ethnicity: Christianity, Islam, and the Politics of Armenian Identity in the Modern Middle East.” He claims that the Armenian perception of “Armenian Muslims” as a contradiction is gradually being challenged, although the centrality of Christianity, nominal or otherwise, to Armenian identity still holds fast. In the Turkish context, the ethnic gulf that separates the Armenian-Christian from the Turkish-Muslim remains a potent legacy of the millet system, which in the modern context has “ethicized” religious identities. He also argues that in the Armenian Diaspora, there has been a change in attitude towards Muslim people of Armenian descent who are living in Turkey. Finally he claims that the contemplation of the potential Armenian-ness of both the Hopa Hemshin and the Islamized Armenians, coupled with the enthusiastic engagement by the Diaspora with these two groups, demonstrates that there is a change afoot in modern conceptions of what it is to be an Armenian, and indeed to be a Turk.

Following Barry’s discussion, Taghreed Al-Deen discussed “Cultural Cleansing and Iconoclasm under the ‘Islamic State’: Attacks on Yezidi and Christian Humans/Heritage.” Al-Deen argues that the devastating brutality and heritage destruction carried out by the IS has included deliberate attacks against two of the most vulnerable minorities in Iraq and Syria: Yezidis and Christians. Such attacks on the human/heritage dimension of a given community ultimately rupture their identity, dismembering their connections to each other and to their collective past. More to the point, attacks by the IS on Christian sites such as the Armenian church in Deir ez-Zour and the villages along the Khabur River appear to be deliberately designed to conjure sharp memories of the Armenian Genocide and the Siemele massacre. Re-enacting earlier waves of genocide allows the IS to connect their contemporary brutality—ideologically, temporally, physically—to those moments in Yezidi and Christian history that are most sensitive and painful. These attacks also intends to erase any vestige of a cosmopolitan and diverse Middle East towards the creation of a monolithic and oppressive caliphate governed by the most perverse interpretations of Islamic law.

Annika Rabo presented a paper on “Educating Citizens in Lebanon and Syria.” Rabo paper draws attention to criticism that Arab educational systems have frequently received, particularly for inadequately preparing pupils for managing contemporary challenges, and for failing to create an educational environment that develops and nurtures open-minded and creative future citizens. Rabo argues that, in any context all, elements of an educational system—from public policies of education, to classroom learning practices and teaching methods, to curriculum development and teacher training—are an essential place to examine how a state and society are managing larger issues of inclusion and exclusion. Through an in-depth examination of two comparative case studies on the evolution of educational systems in Lebanon and Syria, Rabo presents evidence of two very different approaches to managing pluralism and identity. In Lebanon, a society where pluralism and a more open and liberal approach to politics co-exist with highly politicized and at times sectarian identity issues, the educational system reflects ongoing struggles over curriculum and a lack of harmonious adoption of texts and teaching methods. As a result there exist a proliferation of schools catering to the country’s many different religious, linguistic, and ethnic communities, with the end result that parochial citizens are created who are cosmopolitan and engaged with the outside and broader world, but ill-equipped to negotiate the challenges of their own complex plural society. Syria in its pre 2011 form offered a stark contrast to Lebanon, at least within its educational system where there was suppression of ethnic, linguistic and religious identity, and an ideological approach of flattening identity down to a nationalistic unified identity with no acceptance of differences.

Afshin Shahi shifted the discussion to examine notions of inclusion and exclusion in Iran through a paper on “Economic Conditions of the Sunni Community in Modern Iran.” Shahi claimed that Sunni Iranians’ economic situation in modern time is multi-angled and influenced by various elements. Each of these elements had different level of importance in various historical periods. In their paper, Afshin Shahi and Ehsan Abdoh Tabrizi focus on the contemporary era of Pahlavi monarchy (1925-1979) and the Islamic Republic of Iran. Although they shed light on the general economic situation of the Sunni Iranians in general, the main focus is on ethnic Sunni Iranians, including the Baloch, Turkmens and Kurds, who still comprise the majority of Iran’s Sunni population. The authors argue that the uneven modernization and imbalanced growth brought by Pahlavi policies automatically disfavored Iran’s Turkmen, Kurdish and Baloch ethnicities, yet these policies were not driven by sectarianism or anti Sunni sentiment. Under the Islamic Republic, although certain economic elements of rural Iranians—including Sunni ethnic Iranians—have improved, the State’s economic policies still disfavor Sunni Iranians, like the Pahlavi policies, but this time such policies are driven by sectarianism and discrimination.

Following up on Shahi and Tabrizi’s paper, Firoozeh Kashni-Sabet presented her paper on “Colorblind or Blinded by Color?: Race, Ethnicity, and Identity in Iran” providing a historical review of the evolution of notions of race and skin color in modern Iran. Kashani-Sabet’s analysis of archived graphics and texts suggests that conversations about race in Iran, while rooted initially in linguistic and ethnic differences, and while far from color-blind, became more politicized over the course of the twentieth century. She further suggests that the production of knowledge about race, ethnicity and identity in Iran over the twentieth century moved away from colonial actors and institutions, and became instead the function of Iran’s state institutions, which at times reproduced the prejudices first introduced by colonial administrators. By the 1960s, however, even as the state remained stunted in its understandings of culture, ethnicity, and race, key Iranian intellectuals moved away from discourses of Aryanism and participated instead in the larger struggles of peoples and nations who had long been subjected to colonialism or racial discrimination.

Islam Hassan concluded the working group’s discussions with his paper on “Qatari Social Structure and the State: Problems of Inclusion and Exclusion.” Hassan claims that the historical narrative of the composition and evolution of Qatari society is an imaginaire that contributed to the reproduction of the current social inclusion and exclusion scheme. This historical narrative emphasizes on the role of Arab tribes in the inhabitation process, evolution of governing authority, and creation of statehood in Qatar disregarding a major faction of the society, particularly those of slave and Persian backgrounds. He also argues that the Qatari State has been playing a major role, by adopting a social conservatist approach, in maintaining and further stimulating the existing social hierarchy and inclusion and exclusion scheme. This can be viewed by examining two main issues: the State’s effort to narrow down the definition of the Qatari national identity; and articles of the constitution and legal system, symbols, and official history of Qatar that have been perpetuating the social inclusion and exclusion scheme through resisting marriages that could challenge the existing social order.

Mehran Kamrava, Director of the Center for International and Regional Studies, concluded the working group meeting by highlighting the participants’ contributions to scholarship through their papers, which will be published in an edited volume by CIRS in the near future.


Participants and Discussants:

  • Taghreed Jamal Al-deen, Deakin University, Melbourne
  • Nezar Al Sayyad, University of California
  • Zahra Babar, CIRS – Georgetown University in Qatar
  • James Barry, Deakin University, Melbourne
  • Islam Hassan, CIRS – Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Mehran Kamrava, CIRS – Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Firoozeh Kashani-Sabet, University of Pennsylvania
  • Suzi Mirgani, CIRS – Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Firat Oruc, Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Annika Rabo, Stockholm University
  • Afshin Shahi, University of Bradford
  • Elizabeth Wanucha, CIRS – Georgetown University in Qatar

Article by Islam Hassan, Research Analyst at CIRS