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Ethnic and Religious Minorities in the Middle East

Panel VIII-27, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Saturday, November 4 at 11:00 am

Panel Description
  • Dr. Edith Szanto -- Presenter
  • Thomas Schmidinger -- Presenter
  • Molly Oringer -- Chair
  • Ms. Neslihan Akpinar -- Presenter
  • Janet Kestenberg Amighi -- Presenter
  • Dr. Mehrak Kamali Sarvestani -- Presenter
  • Mayada Madbouly -- Presenter
  • Menna Agha -- Presenter, Co-Author
  • Dr. Mehrak Kamali Sarvestani
    ‌Iranian Baha’is and the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988) Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988), one of the most significant events in Iranian history after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, motivated nationalistically and religiously most Iranians to go to the battlefields. Baha’is were an oppressed and isolated community that was not persuaded to participate in the war. The government policies were also based on the Baha’is segregation that included separating them from others even in military bases. This paper examines ‌Iranian Baha’is’ engagement in the Iran-Iraq War based on the power relationships between the Baha’i community and the Islamic Republic of Iran in the context of sociopolitical changing conditions of the country where the Iranian government acted as an oppressor and Baha’is were oppressed. On an official level, this research investigates the Islamic government's statements and acts to restrict the Iranian Baha’i community after the Revolution as well as analyses, recommendations, and instructions of the Iranian Baha’i representatives to their followers about the Iran-Iraq war. On an unofficial level, as the main part of this research, the ordinary Baha’is acts towards the Iran-Iraq war will be studied. Both official and unofficial levels show a unique power relationship between a rejected minority group and the dominant Islamic authority after the 1979 Islamic revolution. Two main questions of this research are why and how the Islamic Republic of Iran restricts the Baha’i community, and how Iranian Baha’is, as an oppressed banned community, act in a national crisis like the Iran-Iraq war. The methodology of this research is based on dividing the time frame of the Iran-Iraq war into three phases: beginning, middle, and ending. The beginning of the war was the phase of sociopolitical instability in Iran, its middle was the stage of the people’s strong ties to the Islamic government, and its ending was the time of people’s denial of the war. Although the ways of the Islamic government exercising its power and the Baha’i community of resistance differed from phase to phase, always the government’s dominant power determined the Baha’is reaction to the Iran-Iraq war.
  • Ms. Neslihan Akpinar
    Political transformations and devastating events such as migrations, civil wars, radicalization, and massacres in the Middle East over the last two decades have reshaped the relations between state, religious identities, communities, and individuals. Turkey has become a key place to observe, record, and understand the historical and contemporary patterns of this relationship. This broad conceptualization of the transformation of state-society relations led me to delve into how heterogeneous groups in Turkey, such as Alevis, Nusayris, and Yezidis, have experienced, lived, and remembered their religious and cultural identities, and how these identities have been changed and transformed during this period. Academic studies analyzing the relationship between state, religion, and heterodox groups have focused on the concepts of oppression, violence, and citizenship, but they fail to register the connection of these groups with their environment, non-heterodox groups, mainly Turkish Sunni Muslims. In my paper, I particularly examine religious conversion of some Kurdish Alevis to Sunni-Islam, whose conversion processes were largely affected by micro and macro-level socio-political influences. Based on narrative analysis using in-depth life story interviews with Kurdish Alevi respondents in Istanbul, my paper argues that the inability to adequately convey the information related to Alevi belief, customs, and norms to community members had been one of the most important reasons for the conversion of Kurdish Alevi individuals into Sunni Islam, and their conversions resulted from long-term state-sponsored projects to assimilate these groups. In addition, I examine that urbanization, migration, and ultimately formal and informal partnerships and institutions, such as workplaces, schools, and marriages, in which Alevi and Sunni religious identities were intertwined, led some Kurdish Alevi individuals to become dissatisfied with their religious upbringing and to be converted. According to the data, there were differences in the religious practices of converts based on their sexuality. Specifically, female converts began wearing headscarves, while male converts adopted the Islamic uniform through their clothing and beard styles. My research is the first case study to present conversion of some members of ethno-religious minority communities to Sunni-Islam in Turkey, and perhaps the most significant finding is that the concealment of ethnic, religious, and linguistic differences has had a significant impact on assimilation and change of faith practices. My paper contributes to broadening the impact of sectarian assimilation policies on ethnic and religious minority identities in the Middle East.
  • Thomas Schmidinger
    This paper explores the question of how, in the 21st century, the remaining Jews and their cultural and material heritage are treated in the Kurdish regions of Iraq, Turkey, Iran and Syria. It also discusses the discourse on Kurdistani Jews in Kurdish society, especially in the two Kurdish-dominated autonomous regions in Iraq and in northern and eastern Syria. The paper is based on a comprehensive literature review and several field studies in Syria, Iraq, Iran and Turkey, with a focus on Syria and Iraq. In these two parts of Kurdistan, remaining Jewish cultural sites known to the local population, such as (remnants of) synagogues, cemeteries, but also houses in the former Jewish quarters, were visited. Interviews were conducted with remaining Jews or their descendants. In addition, the public discourse about the Kurdish Jews was analysed by studying media reports and books published on the subject. In the Iranian part of Kurdistan, where the last remaining Jewish community in the Kurdish-speaking region can be found, narrative interviews were also conducted with members of this community. The project, which was still a work in progress when the abstract was submitted, has so far shown very ambivalent results. On the one hand, there is great sympathy for the Jews in large parts of the Kurdish population and the disappearance of the Jewish communities, after the founding of the state of Israel, is understood by many as a loss. On the other hand, hardly anything is being done to preserve the Jewish cultural heritage. In no part of Kurdistan today is there a Jewish museum. At least the most recently abandoned synagogues in Qamişlo and Sine were not destroyed and one synagogue in the Chaldean town of al-Qosh in the disputed territories of Iraq was recently renovated. Attempts to reorganise a Jewish community in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq have so far been hindered for fear of negative reactions. On the other hand, in 2017, in the run-up to the referendum on Kurdistan's independence, a small group of self-proclaimed Kurdish Jews were partially instrumentalised to win support for a diverse independent Kurdistan among the international public. This shows an instrumental approach to the Kurdistani Jews among the political elites.
  • Mayada Madbouly
    Co-Authors: Menna Agha
    Nubian studies have long been led by ethnologists and archaeologists interested in exploring questions related to ethnicity and material heritage. These studies flourished during the sixties as UNESCO embarked on the Nubia campaign, while anthropologists from all over the world travelled to document Nubians’ culture before their forced displacement after the construction of the High Dam in Egypt. These foreign explorations had significant implications on the community and its languages and traditions. The literature on Nubia is written mostly in English by non-Nubian scholars. These studies offer interesting academic archives where analysis intersects with memory-work. Nevertheless, these studies tend to objectify Nubian populations, homogenize them, and gloss over different forms of Nubian oral history and heritage-work.  Studies have seldom been presented from a Nubian perspective, and those who presented a narrative of solidarity have been focusing on material loss, overlooking Nubians and their agency, who recognized pain and mourning as work of reclaim. Academic production in the 20 th century had the common trait of invisibilizing Nubian agency, as the texts hinder the affective dimensions of the displacement, resettlement, and their afterlives. In this paper, we argue that an emotional analysis of Nubian performances of culture and community is a starting point to decolonize memory and heritage studies. To this aim, this paper will examine the role of “emotional capital” in establishing Nubian heritage-work and different forms of storytelling of the submerged past. It will adopt a critical sociological standpoint seeking to study emotions without essentializing populations and communities. Following critical heritage studies, this paper will also explore how nostalgia and the affective relationship to the past help us understand the emergence of different memorial practices by Nubian Youth born and raised in Egyptian cities.
  • Dr. Edith Szanto
    Several young men in Iraqi Kurdistan regularly wear a wooden cross on a faux leather strand around their necks. In the global north, such an act signifies a Christian, even Protestant, identity. But what does it mean in Iraqi Kurdistan? Are these converts to Christianity? No, not exactly. In this paper, I argue that what could be labeled as “conversion” in Iraqi Kurdistan should instead be viewed as a tactic that is part of upward social mobility. For these young men the adoption of “western cultural Christianity” constitutes a change in socio-economic class and communal affiliation, rather than a newfound conviction that “Christ saves.” There is a crucial distinction between the young men’s “western cultural Christianity,” and local, “traditional” Chaldean, Orthodox, and Catholic churches and communities, which remain marginalized. Notably, there has been a similar concurrent phenomenon, wherein at least nominally Muslim Kurds turned towards Zoroastrian practices and discourses following the rise of Da’esh in 2014. Disgusted with the ongoing violence, some Kurds turned away from Islam and even argued that the reason that Kurds are “backward” is Islam. Zoroastrianism in this context, similarly to western cultural Christianity, symbolized modernity, education, as well as upward class mobility. To theorize these phenomena, this paper draws on Bourdieu’s work on the relationship between taste and class. It argues that in this context, we must rethink the concept of religious conversion and more closely pay attention to class and class distinctions.
  • Janet Kestenberg Amighi
    The small Zoroastrian communities of Iran suffered various forms of persecution over centuries, particularly during the Qajar era (1789-1925) as did other non-Muslims. The succeeding rulers, the Pahlavi shahs (1925-1979) changed course, elevating Iran’s pre-Islamic Zoroastrian heritage as part of their effort to undercut the Muslim clergy and raise a nationalistic solidarity. Through this effort and gradual secularization of urban Iran, discrimination decreased considerably. Zoroastrians found themselves more integrated into Iranian life than had been possible previously. Religion and community cohesion lost much of their salience in the secular environment. With the formation of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and the re-imposition of much of Sharia law, conditions changed dramatically for most Iranians, especially non-Muslims. Although many Zoroastrians fled the country after the revolution, about 10,000 remained. Faced with an intense Islamization of the country, revived discriminatory laws, and population loss, many feared the end of the Zoroastrian community. But as Zoroastrians defensively turned inward, seeking internal solutions to social, spiritual, and economic needs, a revival took place. As one rabbi expressed, religious saliency permeated everywhere and we naturally partook as well. Anthony Wallace once theorized that faced with a culture distorted by oppression, communities may deliberately redefine their culture to function in a more adaptive manner. Patterns of change may include revivals, elimination of outside influences, and importation of new adaptive elements (Wallace, 1056:266-68). But we could not have predicted the form of changes that Zoroastrians orchestrated without consideration of the influences of the growing modernization that Iran underwent beginning in the 1990s. Educational levels rose rapidly, women were more integrated into diverse work spaces, and reformed politicians were being elected. Thus, there was an unusual confluence of governmental oppression, increase in religious salience, and an embrace of modernization and liberalism especially among the urban populations. Based largely on the author's ethnographic research, this paper will examine ways in which the community of Zoroastrians in Tehran responded to and interacted with these diverse, and at times contradictory influences, elaborating on Wallace’s theory of change. The findings illustrate how contradictory also have been the resultant changes including formalization along with revisiting of folk culture and centralization and decentralization tendencies, such centralization of leadership authority and increase of democratization and equality.