SFM Roundtable at MESA Annual Meeting: November 16, 2018


On 16 November 2018, the research team of Striking from the Margins organized a roundtable discussion at the 2018 MESA annual meeting in San Antionio, Texas. The session was chaired by Project founder and director professor Nadia al-Bagdadi, who introduced the project Striking from the Margin: State, Religion and Disintergration in Syria and Iraq and its central foci and research questions, followed by interventions from senior research fellow Dr Harith Hasan and post-doctoral fellow Dr Harout Akdedian. [Due to weather conditions, the third speaker, Prof. Said Arjomand could not attend the session].


Director Prof Al-Bagdadi provided the background of the project’s overall direction and its basic premise that recent political events are novel phenomena which rose to prominence due to socio-political and socio-economic factors and developments. In response to rapid socio-economic transformations in the Middle East, the roundtable addressed apologetic redactions of Islamism and polemical disparagement of secularism in the Middle East that once again were brought to the forefront of public discussion, policy recommendations and academic debate and engaged with existing notions that the phenomena of religious awakening, Islamism and ethno-religious sectarianism constitute the revival of impulses long submerged by authoritarianism. discussed the evolving nature and role of the field of religion during the past 30 years, with an emphasis on transformations that accrued during the period after the popular uprisings. The two presenters documented how the radical and often violent reconfiguration of power structures in places such as Iraq and Syria has pushed the religious field to redefine and reposition itself vis-à-vis both state and society. Exploring practices and methods pursued by religious actors in a time of structural change and dynamic disarticulation of authority reveals patterns of ongoing transformations and future trajectories.

The contribution by the research fellows were founded on empirical studies of the phenomena in place.

Dr Hasan spoke about the transformation in the Iraqi religious field during the last three decades, shedding the light on the impact of structural factors such the devolution of state authority, foreign occupation, the shift toward identity politics and the weakness of civil society. By taking the Shiʿi religious authority as his primary case, Dr. Hasan explained how the processes of disarticulation and re-articulation have redefined the role and reshaped the structure of this authority, as well as the nature of its presence in the public space.

Dr Akdedian spoke about the reconfiguration of state-society relations in Syria and the role of the religious field before and after 2011. Dr. Akdedian’s main focus was to highlight the institutional autonomy of the religious domain by exploring its mechanisms of adaptation as well the reconfiguration of its bargaining power in the process of devolving state authority. Since the neoliberal shift after 2000, the religious field secured a greater presence in the public domain by expanding its economic and social exchanges. Despite the fact that processes of state atrophy after 2011 saw the rise of new religious actors and the demise of others, the growing role of the religious domain in local power structures and at a broader macro-institutional level remain uninterrupted.

In this way, the roundtable gave specific attention to the devolution of state authority to informal actors and the emerging constellation between formal and informal fields. The discussion and questions that followed the statements revolved around a broader and comparative assessment of the phenomena of religious or sectarian 'awakening' and new findings and research direction towards a more nuanced analysis of ongoing transformations and their implications.