SFM Conference at AUB Beirut January 15-17, 2019

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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, will organize an international conference under the title: Striking from the Margins: Religion, State and Disintegration in the Middle East.

Emerging from the research project Striking from the Margins: Religion, State and Disintegration in the Middle East, located at the Central European University and supported by the Carnegie Corporation, the conference seeks a nuanced and dynamic understanding of the transformations of religion in relation to the state and social structures in the Middle East, and to disseminate such an understanding to a wider public. It aims to work towards conceptual and analytical vocabularies which would be more adequate to the present situation characterized by forms of civil strife, violence and disintegration, than the common recourse to ancestralist, culturalist and post-colonialist explanations. Keen attention will be lent to social dynamics, political economy, conjunctural developments and the global setting of comparable developments elsewhere.

The main thematic areas of the conference involve a number of parallel and 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 sponsored by third parties; privateering appropriation of national wealth and its associated structural marginalization and socio-economic, cultural and geographical segmentation. In addition, the conference situates transnational jihadist and religiously defined networks at the various intersection points of these trends. Internal segmentation no less than the virtual transnationalism of jihadist networks constitute a fulfilment of the margins tendentially in the post-1989 world, characterised by the consequences of neo-liberal economic arrangements, which involve centrally the shrinkage of state provision and the emergence of identity politics. All these tendencies have analogues elsewhere.

Both the project and the conference are concerned centrally with processes and mechanisms whereby 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 reconfiguration of power structures, atrophy of state functions and the rise of neo-patrimonial communalist, including sectarian and tribal, formations. In analytical terms, the project deliberately questions 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 appearing as alternative systems to the existing social, cultural and political order.

 

The conference themes include:

- 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 in the region and the changing roles of traditional formations such as tribes and religious entities.

- The virtual transnational solidarities created by new media and their effect on reshaping collectivities and identity perceptions.

- The political economy of disintegration and devolution, including the new forms of resource generation, clientalism and rentierism.

- The social dislocation and fluidity caused by political, economic and environmental transformations.

- The global dimension of the current dynamics in the Middle East, especially the impact of post-1989 political and economic order, and in light of the current shift towards populism and neo-nationalism in other regions.

The conference which will be held at the American University of Beirut will gather a selected group of academics and researchers who will present and discuss their original work conjointly with the project fellows. It aims to create a platform that connects academic and non-academic circles, transfers knowledge generated by exact research to wider constituencies, engages policy-oriented discussions and the wider public as well. Therefore, a selected group of representatives of media outlets, diplomats and policy makers will be invited to participate and to cover the proceedings. The proceedings of the conference will be published in book form and electronically, and in both English and Arabic.