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Constructing Identity in Ethno-Religious Spaces

Session I-17, 2022 Annual Meeting

On Thursday, December 1 at 3:00 pm

Panel Description
  • The International Relations literature has given little attention to thoroughly conceptualizing external interventions in internal multi ethnoreligious conflicts. No sub-region can epitomize this complexity more than the Levant where hegemons along with their local agents are shaping these emerging trends rather than unitary state actors. This presentation conceptualizes how multiple hegemons seize the opportunity of political change to mobilize sub-national identities. The overarching objective is to assess these interventions in fragile social structures in a novel perspective with a focus on the contemporary Levant.
  • The goal of this paper is to anatomize the everyday resistance of Kurdish citizens of Iraq against state repression in the decades before the genocidal Anfal campaign, to lay the foundations for a clearer understanding of later relations between the central government of Baghdad and the autonomous Kurdistan region, as well as the development of ethnonationalism. The violence perpetrated against the Kurdish population of Iraq by the Ba’th regime under Saddam Hussein and the subsequent U.S.-backed emergence of autonomy for the Kurdistan region have received widespread attention both in the media and in historical research. However, the intricacies of state repression and everyday Kurdish resistance under Ba’ath Party rule, and the complex web of cross-border and overseas alliances the Kurds developed during the Cold War years to bolster such resistance, remain less well-documented. Through archival research in the North Iraq Data Set of the Ba’th Party collection at the Hoover Institution, newspaper and political party collections at the Zheen Archive Center in Suleimaniyah, and oral history interviews in Iraqi Kurdistan, this paper seeks to understand how state policies were experienced and resisted by Kurds on an everyday basis. How was the Iraqi state shaped by the institutionalization of repression and violence against ethnic and religious minorities, and what role did that play in the construction of national identity? When did ethnonationalism take hold among the Kurdish population during this period and does state repression account for its growing intensity, as some scholars have argued? On a more universal level, this paper will question what patterns of state repression and appeasement on the one hand, and Kurdish collaboration and resistance on the other, reveal about the dynamics between a nation and its minorities. Placing these processes and relationships within the context of decolonization, nationalism, Cold War politics, and the Human Rights revolution fit this story into a wider global history of minority politics in the twentieth century.
  • “The Hour will come, there is no doubt!” In many Druze shrines in Lebanon, calligraphies of this Qur'anic verse (Q 40:59) are found hanging on the walls and seem to be pointing out that something massive is going to happen. Not immediately obvious, in the Druze understanding, this pronouncement does not refer to the coming of Judgment Day in its common Islamic sense, but to the triumphant return of the Fatimid caliph al-Hakim bi-Amri llah who in Druze thinking was the final manifestation to humankind of God’s human aspect (nasut). Most dramatically, this second coming and triumphant return is imagined in a specific kind of millenarian Druze poetry which mostly seems to date from the 17th–19th century CE. These poems imagine how gigantic armies, led by the human manifestations of the five hypostases (hudud) of Druze cosmogony, will come marching in from the Far East, paving the way for the second appearance of al-Hakim, overthrowing an order which is perceived to be unjust, setting things right, taking revenge, and making justice prevail. Reflecting the centrality of these massive armies in the unfolding events, these poems are often referred to as 'Askariyyat, derived from Arabic 'askar “army.” This presentation seeks to achieve several goals: (1) Based on research on Druze manuscripts, it will offer a brief introduction to this relatively unknown kind of poetry and its relation to Druze theological thinking; (2) it will contend that, far from being of merely niche philological interest, knowledge of the imagery and the events figured in these poems (knowledge accessible only through hard and painstaking philological work) allows to understand pervasive elements of popular Druze iconography that would otherwise remain obscure; (3) it will, in the form of two concrete examples, show how this knowledge furthermore can render intelligible situations arising during the course of anthropological fieldwork; (4) finally, this presentation will insist on the importance of an interdisciplinary outlook, suggesting that experiences made and questions arising during philological research can be valuable with regard to anthropological research.
  • This paper builds on the scholarship on enslaved African Muslims by Jeffrey Einboden (2020), Munawar Ali Karim (2019), Sylviane Diouf (2013), Ala Alryyes (2011), and Michael Gomez (2005), to examine the interplay of representation, racism, and religion in the US. During the 19th century, enslaved African Muslims were elevated by Orientalists and ethnologists above enslaved Africans of different religions and language groups, further distancing African Muslim slaves from the canonical enslaved figure. This exoticist elevation of African Muslims led to their forced participation in public spectacles, where they offered performances of Christian piety. I argue that these performances must be understood in light of the practice of strategic dissimulation (taqiyya), under which many African Muslims appeared as assimilated Christians to avoid persecution or to obtain funds from Christian groups to return to Africa as missionaries. My paper seeks to recover the embedded traces of enslaved African Muslims’ cultural and religious identities which are typically effaced within the romanticized accounts of these figures and in translations of their works. Drawing on theories of Orientalism by Edward Said, counterhegemonic signification by Richard Turner, and James Scott’s “infrapolitics of resistance,” I analyze the lives and writings of enslaved African Muslims such as Omar ibn Said and Abd al-Rahman Sori illustrating how their categorization as “exceptional” Arabs/Moors led to their involuntary display as public spectacles. First, I examine The Life of Omar Ibn Said and Said himself, to illustrate how Said, despite being a slave, was allowed to participate in the public realm through performances of Christian piety. I claim that the ambivalence surrounding his faith within his narrative allows Said to create what Milette Shamir calls a “prosthetic narrative voice,” which aids him in maintaining his public persona of a converted Muslim, while ambivalently relaying private information about his Islamic beliefs without placing himself at risk. Second, I analyze the life of Abd al-Rahman Sori and his wife, Isabella, as they toured the Northeast to raise money to free their children. I examine how the advertisements, newspapers, and events in which Sori was displayed in, constructed an idealized image of Sori as a Muslim prince who also had the ability to write in Arabic. This public persona, I argue, aided Sori in his attempts to free his children and later gain passage back to Africa with the help of the American Colonization Society who believed he would preach the Gospel upon his return.
  • Recent work on the deadly 1934 anti-Jewish riots in Constantine, Algeria has tended to downplay tensions over the Palestine conflict in stirring violence in the interwar period. Instead, the most serious work has highlighted the specifically French contest; in other words, how the dynamics created within the local colonial hierarchy, as well as an electoral politics shaped by the rise of the far right—had far more to do with rising tensions between Algerian Muslims and Jews than events elsewhere in the Middle East. Yet other scholarship on Algeria during this period, notably that focusing on the Arabic press, has found that local interest in Palestine was a way journalists of the interwar Arabic-language press articulated their critique of colonialism and sympathy for a still-nascent nationalism in the shadow of censors. This cast a shadow on their Jewish neighbors, who were sometimes associated with the Zionist project. While the chief spokesperson of the emergent Islamic reformist movement (a movement that would influence Algerian nationalism), Abdelhamid Ben Badis, was deeply critical of the Zionist project in Palestine, his publication was also known to print articles that emphasized the value of coexistence and Jews’ deep roots in North Africa. Yet, he did not see the Jews as blameless in the 1934 violence against the Constantine community. This paper uses examples from reformist responses to the 1934 violence in Ben Badis’ journal al-Shihab to talk about how the dynamics of colonialism were affecting Algerian Muslim understandings of Jews in the 1930s. Journalists sometimes described Algerian Jews as profoundly rooted in Algeria, part and parcel of the “glorious” and “ancient” Maghrebi civilization. Other pieces saw Jews more as a subset of settler society; a group who benefited from the colonial dynamic and thus victimized Algerian Muslims. It was this latter portrayal that took center stage in the weeks following the rioting. However, this tendencywas mitigated by another current in reformist thinking: Muslims were profoundly loyal subjects of France deserving of better representation in government. Ultimately, Muslim reformist responses to the Constantine anti-Jewish riots serve as window into the tension between colonial factors (both local and wider, Middle Eastern) that endowed Muslims with a unique subjecthood, and the articulation of a North African identity that was supposedly older, tolerant, and multi-religious, a vision that was paradoxically not antithetical to French Republican notions of citizenship.
  • The neighborhood of Karantina —also known as Al Khodr or Maslakh part of the district of Medawar—is situated in north-eastern Beirut and is reputed for being one of the first refugee camps in the world, specifically as a host to Armenian refugees after World War I. By the early 1970s, Karantina had become a bustling workers' district which included Kurdish, Palestinian, Syrian, Southerners, and a mixed local population. Most importantly, this lower-income community was predominantly Muslim, forming a distinct pocket within an otherwise largely Christian eastern Beirut. This sectarian imbalance led, in part, to the first large-scale massacre and mass displacement of the Lebanese Civil War, in January of 1976. In this paper, I explore the transformation of Karantina from a laborer district to the center of power of the local right-wing militias, initially the Phalange/Kataeb, and later the Lebanese Forces. Following the displacement of the Muslim groups who lived in Karantina, the Christian militias took over the neighborhood and built a large paramilitary complex which included their headquarters, a security council, multiple barracks and training bases. I explore the spatial significance of Karantina within the newly subdivided Beirut, and the intrinsic connection between controlling the neighborhood and ascending to power. With Karantina becoming the seat of power of the de facto ruling class of east Beirut, the pre-war experiences of labor struggle and marginalization further stand out. I present findings from 17 months of fieldwork, including oral histories, archival research, and participant observation. I argue that the new elite derived their power from the appropriations of space and the social-material entanglement of their political mission.