Temple of Baal Shamin in Palmyra, Syria. From Wikimedia Commons

Temple of Baal Shamin in Palmyra, Syria. From Wikimedia Commons

 
 

The project Striking from the Margins: Religion, State, and Disintegration in the Middle East seeks a nuanced and dynamic understanding of the transformations of religion in relation to those of state and social structures, most specifically in Syria and Iraq, over the past three decades. It aims to work towards conceptual and analytical vocabularies which would be more adequate to the situation than common recourse to culturalist and post-colonialist explanations, by lending keen attention to social dynamics, political economy, conjunctural developments and the global setting of comparable developments elsewhere.

The project is concerned centrally with processes and mechanisms whereby once marginal sets of social, cultural, political and geographical margins, including religious margins, have been moving to the political center. The conditions under which this is occurring are ones associated with the atrophy of state functions and the rise of neo-patrimonial communalist, including sectarian and tribal, formations. In analytical terms, the project deliberately intends to question assumptions about religious or sectarian ‘revivals,’ ‘returns of the repressed,’ and kindered analytical terms and categories. Religion had never been absent, but recent decades have witnessed the reconfiguration and redefinition of the religious field in the Middle East, as elsewhere, very visibly and tangibly and within the lifetime of one generation. One crucial aspect of this redefinition and reconfiguration is activist and puritanical forms of religion coming to present themselves and to appear as alternative systemic to existing social, cultural and political practices.

The main thematic areas of the project involve a number of parallel, analogous or intersecting trends: the reframing of religion and the devolution of religious authority to new actors; the atrophy and devolution of state functions, including some security functions, to informal patrimonial and private actors; structural marginalization and socio-economic, cultural and geographical segmentation. Transnational jihadist networks seem to lie at the various intersection points of these trends and to constitute a tendential fulfilment of the margins.

Two post-doctoral fellows Dr Harith Hasan Al-Qarawee and Dr Harout Akdedian are attached to this project and form the core group who will eventually be joined by doctoral students. The project is supervised by Professor Aziz Al-Azmeh and Professor Nadia Al-Bagdadi.

 

The need for a new language and innovative analytical frameworks

The explosion of violence in the name of religion following the Arab Spring, ever-multiplying factional fissures, and the disaggregation of states and societies have left parties active and interested in the region searching for instruments that might enable a more cogent and convincing understanding of a seemingly intractable tangle of interconnected conflicts. The two-year research project “Striking from the Margins” (SFM), located at the Center for Religious Studies at the Central European University and financed by the Carnegie Corporation of New York pursues a new language and analytical frameworks to facilitate greater understanding and contribute to discussion in research, policy and information communities.

SFM conducts research and outreach programs, has established a discussing forum on this webpage and is to publish conference proceedings and monographs with major research findings and ensure dissemination amongst research organisms and others at the research/policy interface.

 

What is the aim of SFM?

SFM seeks to generate, consolidate and disseminate a paradigm shift in studies of the volatile and mutating cultural, social and political landscape in the Middle East.

Started in September 2016, SFM’s aim is to diagnose and search for considered and plausible means of formulating possible public and eventually policy-related responses to the phenomena of system collapse and freelance para-state and non-state actors intensely evident after ‘the Arab Spring.’ The accent is placed on description in terms of a structural shift of margins against centers unleashing a new and for now chaotic dynamic. SFM is connected to a number of leading academic, public policy and media organizations in the region and internationally, in the pursuit of the new perspectives suggested and consequences and possibilities emerging from them.

SFM holds a bi-weekly research seminar in its Budapest seat. This is intended for the presentation of research results and the suggestion of analytical and comparative perspectives. The seminar will be addressed by both CEU and external experts.

The project will hold a major conference in the middle of 2018 to discuss its research and analytical outcomes. This will be preceded by a research consultative conference in Budapest in June 2017.

The project’s partner institutions are: