External CFP: "Religion, Race, and Concepts of Difference in the Modern Middle East" Workshop


It has been said that “religion” is to the Middle East what “race” is to North America, and this in at least two senses. On the one hand, religion in the Middle East, some suggest, has less to do with belief—a conception often associated with Protestantism—and more to do with community, family, descent, and the like. It is said to involve, that is, a degree of givenness or immutability that approaches what one might associate more with kinds of ethnic or racial belonging in another context. Others have suggested that religion and race comprise, respectively, the most intransigent units of social differentiation across these two regions, with Ussama Makdisi recently arguing that racism in North America is structurally analogous to sectarianism in the Middle East. These phenomena, on this view, reflect how a formally similar social antagonism has taken particular shapes in historically distinct societies.

There are yet others who reject the analogy out of hand. To some, the category of race is not merely applicable to the study of Middle Eastern histories and societies but in fact constitutes an urgent analytical framework for it—this in light of the forms of racialized violence that continue to structure the contemporary Middle East and global modernity at large. Race, from this perspective, is not an essentially foreign category relative to the supposedly more indigenous “religion” but rather an equally germane and local category of analysis. To others, the rising popularity of inquiries into race in the Middle East represents an imposition of a category particular to the experience of the Atlantic world onto a region to which that category is foreign—simply the latest instance of the perennial problem of the hegemony of Euro-American terms and frameworks.

Part of an ERC-funded project on “Sectarianisms in the Global Middle East,” this workshop—to be held in Oxford in June 2024—aims to engage such debates through a collection of papers and discussions on religion, race, and concepts of difference in the late Ottoman Empire and modern Middle East. The intent is not to resolve the associated questions but to consider a central problem that undergirds them: the problem of the terms that scholars bring to bear on questions of belonging, relationality, and difference in the Middle East. What is sometimes missed in this regard is that the issue of categories of difference is not merely a methodological question to be debated within contemporary scholarship but a question internal to the modern history of the Middle East itself. As the late Ottoman Empire transformed under the dual pressures of European imperialism and defensive modernization, the “old Ottoman order” and the classificatory practices correlative to it began to give way to new modes of organizing society and conceiving difference. What had been a stratified imperial society organized under the authority of a divinely sanctioned sovereign was reordered around concepts like “nation,” “ethnicity,” “society,” as well as indeed “race.” These processes carried great consequences for gender, subjectivity, intercommunal relations, and much else in the post-Ottoman Middle East in ways that scholars continue to contemplate.

The present workshop seeks to continue this work by bringing together a small group of scholars interested in reconsidering the modernist narratives that remain hegemonic in the study of difference in the modern Middle East. Notable in this respect is the idea that the essential mode of belonging in the pre-modern Ottoman Middle East was “religion” before its halting displacement, or reconfiguration, by the racially infused ideas of “nation” and “ethnicity,” in addition of course to “race” itself. This narrative reinforces the idea that religion, as compared to race, is more indigenous to Middle Eastern societies. Yet as inquiries into secularism and the secular over the past two decades have suggested, the concept of “religion” may be as much the product of European colonial modernity as is that of “race,” and hence any straightforward narrative of the former’s displacement by the latter must be met with some degree of skepticism. Could it be that the categories of race and religion, rather than nominating distinct phenomena, are in fact epiphenomenal to some deeper historical process or lifeworld that has reordered the modern Middle East, be that identified as modernity, capitalism, the secular, or otherwise?

Funded by the European Research Council, this workshop proposes to untangle the foregoing concerns by attending to the problem of religion, race, and concepts of difference in the modern Middle East. What will bring the papers together is not necessarily an interest in “race” and “religion” as such but more so the question of concepts of difference raised by these two essential terms in scholarship on the Middle East. Proposals from across disciplinary perspectives are welcome, but we are especially interested in contributions that engage with the history of concepts of difference across the nineteenth- and twentieth-century Ottoman Empire and post-Ottoman Middle East. Examples of possible topics include but are not at all limited to:

- The transformation (or persistence) of concepts of difference rooted in terms like the Arabic jins, the Turkish millet, and so forth.
- The colonial racialization of Islam, Judaism, Eastern Christianity, and other traditions.
- Theoretical reflections on the relationship between race and religion in Middle Eastern contexts.
- The relationship between the classificatory practices of the late-Ottoman state, or the nation-states that emerged after its collapse, and the subjectivities of the peoples over whom they have ruled.
- The historical experience of communities from the Middle East as they encountered new concepts of difference upon migration to regions like North America.
- Anthropological considerations of modes of belonging in Middle Eastern contexts in relation to the categories of European social science.

Participants will be expected to pre-circulate papers of approximately 4,000–5,000 words, due by June 1, 2024. Each paper will be the focus of collective, seminar-style discussions over a two-day workshop, which will also bring together a wider set of colleagues working in Oxford. It is intended that these papers will be the basis for the publication of a collection of journal-length articles as part of a special issue on race, religion, and difference in the Middle East. Further details of publication will follow to participants.

To apply:

Proposals should include the following:

1. A brief (one-page max) statement of interest in the subject of the workshop;
2. A title and abstract of no more than 250 words for the proposed paper; and
3. A copy of your CV

Please send all the above as a single PDF file to the following address: movingstories@history.ox.ac.uk

**The deadline for all proposals is March 7, 2024**

All proposals will be reviewed by a small committee, and participants will be invited shortly thereafter.

Travel and accommodation:

At least two nights’ accommodation in Oxford will be provided for all participants. Travel expenses will be covered up to a limit, with preference given to early career researchers.

Please direct questions to:

Dr. Henry Clements
Research Associate, “Moving Stories: Sectarianisms in the Global Middle East” ERC-funded project
Junior Research Fellow, Jesus College
Faculty of History, Oxford University