Bilingual SFM Conference at AUB Beirut January 15-17, 2019


Through a generous donation from Carnegie Corporation, the Central European University in collaboration with Issam Fares Institute at the American University in Beirut and the Arab Council for Social Sciences, held the bilingual international conference Striking from the Margins: Religion, State and Devolution of Authority in the Arab Middle East from January 15-17, 2019 in Beirut.

The conference tackled a variety of prevailing debates, including the atrophy of state functions and new reconfigurations of state-society relations; the devolution of religious authority and the emergence of new actors in the religious field; the characteristics and manifestations of neo-patrimonialist actors and the changing roles of traditional formations such as tribes and religious entities. Furthermore, the conference was concerned with virtual transnational solidarities created by new (social) media and their effect on reshaping collectivities and identity perceptions; the political economy of disintegration and devolution, such as clientalism and rentierism as well as social dislocation and fluidity caused by political, economic and environmental transformations. In the final panel we compared the global dimension of the current dynamics in the Middle East in light of the current shift towards populism and neo-nationalism seen worldwide.

Aziz Al-Azmeh (CEU Budapest), SFM Founding Director, opened the conference by providing an illuminating introduction of transformation in history, social and economic changes by way of local agency. He highlighted the new centers of attraction manifested through new phenomena of religiosity.

Panel I: States, political economies and systemic collapse
— Salih, Al-Khafaji, Collombier

Mudhir Muhammed Salih (Office of the Iraqi Prime Minister) labelled Iraq a “post nation state” in which the ethno-sectarian state replaced the nation state leading to the creation of a new political economy in a post globalization era.

Isam Al-Khafaji (University of Amsterdam) elaborated on the gradual rise of various forms of militant and puritanical Islam which had culminated in political dramas engulfing the Middle East to negotiate shifting power relations.

Virginie Collombier (EUI Florence) described how conflict settlement was adopted in Libya; questioning the priority to power-sharing agreements over consensus building on key divisive political and social challenges.

Panel II: The devolution of violence: Militias, security organisms and war economies
— Ashour, Dawood, Kalyvas, Wehrey

Omar Ashour (Doha Institute) analyzed why stronger state actors have sustained difficulties in defeating armed non-state actors on the tactical, operational and strategic levels.

Hosham Dawood (EHESS Paris) presented an Iraqi case study characterizing the state breakdown due to long internal crises, wars and military invasions and analyzing the subsequent role of the tribe in Iraqi state reconstruction.

Stathis Kalyvas (Oxford) put forward that the Arab Middle East stood at the forefront of the changes occurring when studying civil wars through combining macro-level analysis and case study material.

Frederic Wehrey (Carnegie Endowment for Peace) presented his concept of “hybridized security governance” in Libya, emphasizing the devolution and proliferation of coercive security actors and the malignant effect of external patronage to local armed groups.

Keynote address: From the margins to the center? How gender politics became a litmus test of governance
— Kandiyoti

For Deniz Kandiyoti (SOAS London) patriarchy as we know was on its last leg in the Arab Middle East. The more visibility women gain in the public domain, the less onerous for the powerful to maintain their patriarchal power system.

Panel III: Sectarianism, tribes and localities: From the margins to the center
— Balanche, El-Meehy, Saeed

Fabrice Balanche (University of Lyon) illustrated the repercussions of Syrian displacement on demographic trends and sectarian balance.

Asya El-Meehy (University of Lund) claimed that while local experiments are important, they are not symptoms of political crisis but rather "spaces of possibility", i.e. they are an indicator of activism in civil society.

Haider Saeed (Doha Institute) classified sectarianism as a cult creating an existential link for its believers rather than the simple idea of the belonging to a particular faith group.

Panel IV: Reconfigurations of religion
— Akdedian, Hanafi, Hasan, Nadhmi

Harout Akdedian (Striking from the Margins Research Fellow) analyzed the reconfiguration of the religious field and its role in Syria under neoliberal economic restructuring and the repercussions of war and fragmentation.

Sari Hanafi (IFI at AUB Beirut) postulated that Syrian legal education without linkage to social sciences in combination with the absence of a political space for public practice subsequently pushed students and faculty to join political protests.

Harith Hasan (Striking from the Margins Senior Fellow) undermined that following 2003, the collapse of the political order in Iraq caused by new geopolitical actors on the local and international levels, these actors were trying to fill in the vacuum left by the Saddam Hussein regime.

Faris Nadhmi (Salahaddin University) showed the decline of Islamist domination in Iraq and the emergence of antinationalist hegemony highlighting the effectiveness of the individual in the public space.

Panel V: Transnationalism and margins: Jihadism and local networks
— Mazur, Rajeed, Al-Racheed

Kevin Mazur (Oxford University) gave insight to the transformation of Jihadi groups in the Syrian province of Deir az-Zur in relation to recruitment, management of resources, coalitions and tribal connections.

Asmaa Rajeed (University of Baghdad) enlightened on the conditions of families whose members engaged with Daesh and the subsequent consequences faced by local communities and the government; she postulated that many faced discrimination leading to marginalization and possible violence against the entire family.

Loulouwa Al-Racheed (Carnegie Middle East) defined how a tribe can be located today: Tribes have relocated to big cities, establishing their headquarters and social influence in urban areas.

Discussion: How has the Machreq changed since 2011, and is there an end in sight to disaggregation?
— Al-Azmeh, Kodmani, Mitri

Bassma Kodmani (Arab Reform Initiative Paris) argued that the current Syrian regime did not expect to be challenged by grassroots movements. The regime seeked to destroy not only these social components, but the meaning ascribed to these social complements, i.e. to destroy the citizen, to destroy the human being.

Tarek Mitri (IFI at AUB) discussed the hopes and dangers associated with the term “Arab spring”: So-called revolutions  increased many people’s expectations who later compared their personal economic situations before and after the “Arab spring” and found their economic state had worsened.

Aziz Al-Azmeh (CEU Budapest) deconstructed the demographic shift that occurs in Syria as a result of waves of displacement where return is most likely to be scattered. This exemplifies the country’s demographic reshaping in the regime's interests.

Panel VI: State disaggregation and politics
— Kodmani, Saunders

Bassma Kodmani (Arab Reform Initiative Paris) highlighted the continuous governing element of fear introduced by Hafiz Al-Assad as an integral part to Syrian power structure leading to governmental mismanagement and the formation of alternative structures among the people.

Robert Saunders (Farmingdale State College) expounded the geopolitical dynamics of Russia's engagement in the Levant as "withholding chaos", a strategy which he deemed part of a long-held status of defending East Slavic tradition, religion, civilization, and culture in the Mashreq.

Conclusionary remarks

Striking from the Margins continues its strive for analytical tools to understand how marginal ideas take center stage and subsequently define what the center is. As awareness emerged, the project will continue to collaborate with those working structurally in order to translate day-to-day politics into strong practical solutions.