Background and Scope of the Project

Scholars and policy makers, struggling to make sense of the ongoing chaos that is the Middle East, have been focusing their attention on the possible causes for the escalation of both inter-state and intra-state conflict. This region bears the legacy of multiple imperial excursions and has traditionally demonstrated pronounced ethno-linguistic richness, religious diversity, and a depth of cultural intermingling. Three of the world’s major monotheistic religious traditions originated within the borders of the modern Middle East, allowing for the historic development of common foundations and exchange between them, but periodically also leading to friction and competition. The region has historically hosted multiple populations with distinctive ethnic and linguistic identities, preserved in previous eras under the loosely structured administrative bodies of different empires that were, as a result of their sprawling geography, multiethnic, multilingual, and multicultural.

Beginning in the twentieth century, when the emerging modern states of the Middle East were established, a degree of cultural and religious autonomy continued for the numerous sub-national communities that were absorbed within the folds of the new national borders. Over the course of second half of the twentieth century, while Middle Eastern states’ efforts at fostering homogenous national identities often yielded politically salient results, at times they also inadvertently magnified existing cleavages and agitated communal tensions. These tensions were particularly intensified at times of changing geopolitical realities, or increasing scarcity and competition over resources–political, economic, and otherwise.

At the current juncture, much of the study of pluralism and diversity in the Middle East revolves around examining identity as a source, rather than a consequence, of failing national projects. Syria, Libya, Iraq, and Yemen are currently in the grip of intense civil conflicts that are tearing apart the social and cultural fabric that historically held these nations and societies together. With increasing sectarianism spreading across much of the Middle East, the collapsing of state structures and evaporation of national borders, and open conflict and warfare engulfing whole swathes of the region’s geography, questions of the resilience of ethnicity and religion are becoming increasingly relevant. Within some policy circles the argument holds that it is the fundamental incompatibility between different ethno-linguistic and religious communities that is at the heart of the issue, and that it is these atavistic cleavages that are impeding any form of political resolution and social cohesion.

International organizations and policymakers have been calling on states to protect and assist the region’s “minority” groups, who are viewed as being at grave threat from transnational terrorist organizations with homogenizing ideological agendas that seek to eliminate any form of religious or cultural pluralism. Despite this galvanized public interest and discussions of “minority” rights and protections within the turbulent Middle East, there has been limited recent scholarship exploring these tensions around pluralism and diversity through an academic lens. In line with this, CIRS launchrf a research initiative on the topic of Pluralism and Community in the Middle East. This project aims to examine the significance of the ethnic, linguistic, cultural, and religious communities of the Middle East, and identify and address relevant research questions that need to be addressed within the current context.

At a broadest level, through this project we hope to examine the historic evolution of the diversity and pluralistic mosaic of the Middle East, and how this is influencing current political, economic, and social dynamics across the region. Among other topics we will study are the sociopolitical understandings of pluralism within the Middle East, and how notions and narratives of the term “minority” are themselves conceptually problematic within the region–and in fact are frequently contested. We aim to also reexamine the role of the state in reference to promoting or challenging national diversity, through the implementation of homogenizing national narratives, as well as through the development of institutional structures of the state which govern the economy, the political space, education, and other social sectors. Among other things, we seek to study the political, cultural, legal, and educational choices that states have implemented to protect (or not to protect) the national mosaic of its citizenry. This project will aim to bring greater focus to how pluralism and diversity are also reflected in “soft” spaces such as architecture and the urban landscape, in linguistics, literature, and social and cultural arenas.

Some Proposed Areas of Inquiry

Political and Economic Inclusion in the Pluralistic Society: How do communities contribute to the economy of Middle Eastern states? Is economy a driver for integration of communities into the nation state? And how do marginalized communities use economy to empower themselves, and enhance their position in the social and political realms? State-communities relations deserve study. Especially with the 2011 uprisings, state-communities relations changed dramatically. Some communities acted as political brokers, while others were considered as a threat to the nation-state. What characterizes state-communities relations in the Middle East? How are ethno-linguistic and religious communities marginalized or integrated in Middle Eastern nation states? Do communities in the Middle East serve as political brokers? Or do they challenge the nation state’s sovereignty? Are communities a source of instability? And can they play a role in peace-building and state-reconstruction post the 2011 upheavals? The drivers behind ethno-nationalism also deserve study. How has marginalization of communities reproduced in the Middle East? Do communities exert effort to maintain an exclusive identity different from the nation state’s rhetoric? Do dominant social powers tend to reproduce marginalization of specific communities? And what is the role of the political institutions of the state in the reproduction of marginalization against specific ethno-linguistic and religious minorities?

Architecture and Space: Cities in the Middle East have long served as a visual reminder of the diversity of the national populations and the complexity of cosmopolitan identities. With the heightened urbanization occurring across the Middle East over the past thirty years, is this space that was once reflective of a multiplicity of identities being encroached upon by broader, national agendas? To what extent are cities increasingly a space of competition and consolidation of communal identities, rather than spaces of interchange, collaboration, and cohesion? How has the rapid modernization of urban spaces of the Arab states of the Gulf influenced pluralism and diversity in these states? How have the Arab spring uprisings impacted urban areas in the Maghreb impacted ethno-linguistic and religious communities?

Media: The evolution of the media sector in the Middle East has also impacted the social and cultural dynamics across the region. In some Middle Eastern countries the media has transformed from being firmly lodged within the public sector and serving as a virtual extension of the state apparatus, to becoming much more privatized and independent. Traditional media which could be controlled and heavily censored has been to an extent overtaken by new media forms, and broadened the space for public expression and engagement. How has the expansion of social media, and the opportunities provided to speak out in virtual and cyber space engaged with or impacted diversity and pluralism in the region? Do these new forms of media allow for expanded space for pluralistic and diverse communities in the Middle East? How do ethno-linguistic and religious groups engage with this new space and how does the media influence identity formation?

Education: National education has been an instrument of power of states by which they shape and direct social opinions and perceptions. Parallel to national education and public schools, numerous communities have established schools that teach their traditions and culture. These community schools are not exclusive to the community’s members, but open for the public. With regards to pluralism and communities in the Middle East, how does national education address pluralism, and ethno-linguistic and religious communities of the nation state? How does it influence marginalization and integration efforts? And how do community schools stimulate marginalization or integration into the nation-state?

Language: Numerous communities across the Middle East have developed different linguistics and dialects. These differences are palpable not only among communities across the wider Middle East, but also within the same nation state. How did these linguistic and dialect differences evolve among different communities? How do linguistic differences stimulate marginalization and hinder efforts for pluralism? How do these differences impact social engagement and struggle among communities that share the same nation state? Do communities stimulate linguistics and dialect differences to distinct their identities? How does the State and dominant communities propagate these differences?

Literature/Cultural Production: Similarly, social engagement and struggle among different communities have been reflected in literature. Through literature, universal or individual ideals and interests are presented. Different communities across the Middle East have produced great writers and novelists who have presented their communities interests and struggles in their works. How does literature present communities in the Middle East? Does it influence the marginalization of specific communities? And how do ethno-linguistic and religious communities present their struggle in their literary works?

Religious Practice: Rituals and traditions are tolerated for some ethno-linguistic and religious communities, and banned for others. This depends on the tolerance level of the dominant social actors and the state, and the power of the community itself. This raises a series of questions: how do communities’ rituals and traditions perceived in the Middle East? Do popular rituals pose a threat to the nation state identity? Do popular rituals empower their communities? And how can popular rituals of different ethno-linguistic and religious communities co-exist?

Issues of Race and Color: Scholars have discussed issues of slavery in the Middle East until the early nineteenth century, and while slavery has mostly been eradicated its historical legacy has left its footprints on the regions social landscape. There is limited discussion on what race and color mean in terms of regional identity. Is there a salience to discussions of race and skin color translated into contemporary political, social, and cultural realms in the region? What are the differences between different Middle Eastern countries in how they address issues of race? Do issues of race and “fairness” of complexion impact social relations, family and marriage choices, and economic and political inclusion? How have narratives of race and skin color developed within the region?

In order to explore some of these areas mentioned above, the CIRS research initiative “Pluralism and Community in the Middle East” will adopt a multi-disciplinary approach. Over the course of the year, scholars will be invited to take part in an in-depth, scholarly analysis that will aim to address the critical gaps in the current literature. The final outcome of this project will be in the form of an edited volume.


Click here to read more about another related CIRS research initiative, “Nation Building in Central Asia: Legacies, Identities, and Institutions.”


Article by Islam Hassan, Research Analyst at CIRS