Focused Discussions, Race & Society, Regional Studies

Pluralism and Community in the Middle East Working Group Meeting I

Pluralism and Community in the Middle East Working Group Meeting I

On March 6–7, 2016, the Center for International and Regional Studies (CIRS) held a working group on “Pluralism and Community in the Middle East.” Over the course of two days, a number of distinguished scholars discussed issues related to ethno-linguistic and religious pluralism in the Middle East, identified gaps in the existing literature, and pointed to potential areas of original research. Amongst the various topics discussed, Working Group participants examined pluralism and diversity as represented through governance and legal regimes; social inclusion/exclusion and policymaking; the role and symbolism of iconoclasm in the Middle East; architecture, the urban space, and identity; digital culture, political communication and regional notions of “multiculturalism;” language; and literature and cultural representation. Two specific case studies, the Amazighs and Armenian Christians, were also discussed.

The Middle East’s pluralistic social and political fabric has gone through several historical changes, and ethnicity, religion, language, and political ideologies play pivotal roles in contemporary identity affiliations across the region.

National and regional conflicts often intensify subnational identities, and this has especially been the case in the Middle East over the last several years. Working Group participants identified a series of original areas of research regarding the on-going intensification of identities in the Middle East, including the relationship between the conceptions of the state and inclusion of some identity groups and the exclusion of others; the impact of globalization and transnational communities; the historical legacy of the Ottoman millet system; sectarianism in the post-Arab Spring era; the role of intellectuals and social media in identity formation; and the underlying causes and consequences of increasing religiosity.

Governance and state policies impact the social, economic, and political inclusion or exclusion of communities in the Middle East. Working Group participants discussed the multiple linkages between statehood and identity-formation in the Middle East. They questioned the relationship between communities and sites of power; and challenges international law’s values and principles pose on states’ traditional governance. The participants also discussed topics related to the parallel development of local human rights traditions along with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a sort of self-determination in the decision-making processes, and the role of state institutions in enforcing social harmonization and cohesiveness.

State policies dealing with education, families, kinship and law, mobility of labor and capital can directly impact social inclusion and exclusion. In recent years, state policies have greatly impacted foreign, national and private educational institutions. Although this is not unique to the Middle East, there is limited literature on the notions of inclusion and exclusion in Middle Eastern educational curriculums. The relationship between policymaking and ways in which families are being constructed also has direct bearing on education. The participants claimed that the nature of communities’ relations both with each other and the state could be seen as a result of exclusionary and inclusionary policies. In addition, the participants discussed issues related to mobility of people and ideas, social representation in the education system, globalization, and war on terror and school curriculum in the Middle East.

Modern nation-building processes began roughly in the middle of the twentieth century in several states of the Middle East, such as Egypt and Iraq. Driven by ideology, politics and religious beliefs, states, and recently non-state actors like ISIS, have used iconoclasm as a tool to limit the multiple identities within the nation state, and reinforce a monolithic identity. The practice of iconoclasm has impacted the material culture and visual heritage of the different religious and ethno-linguistic communities that comprise the region’s demography. Archeological negligence, and inconsiderate urban planning have also contributed to this erasure of visual pluralism. In addition, participants also discussed the role of social media, media and film in encouraging and countering iconoclasm in the Middle East.

Urban spaces in the Middle East have been going through swift progression in some countries, and massive urban decay in others. Master planning of urban spaces is very politicized in the Middle East, with various socio-economic drivers and consequences. The planning of gated and smart cities, and new capitals segregates communities by nationality, class, ethnicity, and religion. The participants posed questions related to the definition of public good, social representation in master planning, public contestation, access to public information, democratic decentralization, communities’ quarters, gentrification of communities, security, citizenship, and urban equality and inequality.

Media is a tool of communication greatly influenced by states in the Middle East. It propagates certain convictions insofar as religious and ethno-linguistic communities in the Middle East are concerned. The participants identified four main topics that are insufficiently researched: labor and digital media; citizenship; border; and knowledge production. Within these four main topics, questions around the usage of media by migrant workers and expatriates in the Gulf, redesigning of borders, under-representation in political and media institutions, capitalism and cognitive knowledge, memory preservation, and production of knowledge were identified as important areas of original research.

Language and linguistics are germane to the discussion on pluralism in the Middle East. Members of ethno-linguistic communities have been attempting to maintain their languages and dialects despite attempts by states to undermine their languages and reinforce the official language of the state. The participants suggested research questions that examine the influence of local groups and authority over language, communities’ resistance to states’ language policies, unification and fragmentation among different ethno-linguistic communities, Shiite-Sunni dialect differences, preservation of dialects, linguistic class processing, media and film, and different usages of colloquial and classic languages.

“Minor literature” is literature produced by the colonized in the colonizer’s language that resists colonization. Post colonization, minor literatures have emerged as a form of resistance and denationalization produced by religious and ethno-linguistic communities in contestation to their marginalization by their respective states. Minor literatures in Turkey often refer to Greek, Jewish, Armenian, and Yazidi literature. The body of literature was always studied in relation to the past. The place and role of minor literature in the imagined futuristic social and political conditions of post nationalist Turkey remains understudied. Ethnographic studies on the readership of minor literature in Turkey also remain under-studied. Thus, the participants suggested original research questions that addressed the engagement with minor literature in Turkey, diasporic migrant experience and minor literature writers, representation of communities in mainstream literature, engagement of Turkish minor literature with the international literary community, engagement among different communities in Turkish minor literature, and targeted audience of Turkish minor literature.

Insofar as the Armenian Christian community in the Middle East is concerned, the participants discussed four original areas for research. These areas looked at the issue of Muslim Armenians, and whether Islam is not compatible with Armenian identity. They also discussed the question of Armenian citizenship and if practicing Christianity is a pre-requisite. The participants identified also other gaps in literature that included: the role of Armenian media, communal publications and propagation of Armenian political agenda, the tension between Eastern and Western Armenians, perception of Armenians in diaspora on the Armenian state, usage of national language, objectives of Armenian publications, Armenian urban space in the Middle East, Armenian scouts, Armenian transnational networks, media and film, Armenian progressive national movements, and the relationship between Armenians and Hezbollah.

Finally, the participants discussed the Amazigh community in North Africa. The participants claimed that the main gaps in research have less to do with how the Amazigh community has changed, but more with how to change the methodological lens through which the community and its struggles can be viewed and analyzed. Regional and transnational analysis can contribute to the study of the Amazigh community in North Africa as it addresses larger political questions, and recognizes the unintended consequences of pluralism. Four gaps in literature were identified: regionalism, transnationalism, localism, and language policy. Under these four main thematic topics, the participants posed questions that touched on topics that included: the relationship between foreign policy and identity formation, Amazigh activism, differences between first and second generation Amazigh immigrants, urban versus rural elitism, institutionalization and politicization of Amazigh as an ethno-linguistic minority, and concepts of inclusion and exclusion. 



Participants and Discussants:

  • Zahra Babar, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
  • James Barry, Deakin University
  • Kathleen Cavanaugh, National University of Ireland
  • Paolo D’Urbano, Doha Institute for Graduate Studies
  • Amanda Garrett, Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
  • Shak Hanish, National University, California
  • Islam Hassan, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
  • Mehran Kamrava, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
  • Umber Latafat, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
  • Catherine Miller, Aix-Marseille University
  • Suzi Mirgani, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
  • Firat Oruc, Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
  • Annika Rabo, Stockholm University
  • Diane Singerman, American University, Washington
  • Elizabeth Wanucha, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
  • Antonio Zarandona, Deakin University


Article by Islam Hassan, Research Analyst at CIRS