Languages of Legitimation in the Middle East

Published July 08, 2019 by Christopher Cooper-Davies

Conference Report: Languages of Legitimation: Cambridge Middle East Conference, 2019

Organisers: Calum Humphreys, Cora Kyler, Will Ryle-Hodges, Christopher Cooper-Davies

Date & Location: 6 – 7 June 2019, Woolf Institute

The first Cambridge University Graduate Middle East conference took place at the Woolf Institute on 6 and 7 June 2019. This interdisciplinary conference, titled 'Languages of Legitimation', was a platform for PhD and MA students working on the Middle East to showcase original research on this broad theme. General research questions we hoped to address included: what does legitimacy mean in a Middle Eastern context? What institutions or individuals seek legitimacy and who do they legitimise themselves to? What does all this have to do with language? Our intention was not to focus exclusively on written language, but to encourage discussion around various types of human communication and expression, whether they be oral, artistic, satirical, musical, fashion related, expressive etc. At the same time, we were keen to discuss a range of different types of legitimacies, beyond the simply political, by showcasing papers on social, economic, cultural and religious issues.

The organisers and panellists (Credit: Will Ryle-Hodgers)

Tying some of these broad themes together was historian Yossef Rapoport's keynote address, titled 'Tribalisation, Conversion and Tribal Genealogy as a 'Language of Legitimation' in the Egyptian Countryside'. Dr Rapoport is a reader in Islamic History at Queen Mary University of London, specialising in the social, cultural and legal history of the Middle East in the Middle Ages. His paper offered a new and highly compelling interpretation of the Islamisation of Egypt in the tenth and eleventh centuries. Focusing on the Fayum, a fertile area on the Nile just south of Cairo, he showed how tribalisation and Islamisation were contemporaneous processes of conversion driven by changing economic and social conditions, rather than the result of mass migration. His argument, that Coptic Christians adopted tribal genealogies and, with them, Islam, as a 'language of legitimation' to enhance their socio-economic prospects, spoke directly to our main themes.

In order to make the conference a truly interdisciplinary affair, we arranged the panels thematically, instead of by discipline or period. This was a novel and risky approach, as we had received papers spanning 1400 years of Middle Eastern history from disciplines as diverse as anthropology, political science, linguistics, literature, history and theology. Nevertheless, it enabled us to group together scholars and subject matter which otherwise might never have been mixed and, we hope, facilitated a fruitful exchange of ideas and methodological approaches. Our thematic panels also ensured that discussions between panellists and audience did not drift too far into the intricate details of a given topic, maintaining instead a clear focus on the overall themes and research questions behind the conference.

Kicking off proceedings on the Thursday, our first panel, chaired by Dr Nathaniel Miller from the Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies (FAMES), was titled 'Literature and Politics'. Four panels took place on the Friday, following Dr Rapoport’s keynote on Thursday evening. These were titled: 'Establishing Authority and Governance', chaired by Dr Burcu Ozcelik from the POLIS Department; 'Questioning Law', chaired by Dr Rodrigo Garcia-Velasco from the Woolf Institute & History Faculty; 'Boundaries and Belonging', chaired by Dr Naures Atto from FAMES; and, last but not least, 'Language and Power', chaired by Dr Banu Turnaoglu from POLIS. All the papers were of a high standard and each panel was followed by stimulating and thought-provoking discussion. Detailed summaries of the panels can be found in the conference report, which will be published on the conference website in due course. Here, I will only sketch out some of the most exciting themes, questions, and discussions thrown up by the conference, with special focus on those which spoke directly to our key research questions.

The importance of legitimation for the exercise of power and governance was a dominant theme running through the conference. From Leone Pecorini's work on Caliphal succession in the Abbasid era, to Andreas Nabil Younan's exposition of the power struggle between the Sisi regime and al-Azhar, these papers explored the strategies adopted by state and non-state actors seeking to gain and maintain political legitimacy. The question of who seeks legitimacy and to whom they appeal was also tackled and often came up during the discussions. Melissa Gatter's paper on governance in the al-Azraq Syrian refugee camp in Jordan provided the most pertinent insight on this issue. When a regime of power – such as a refugee camp – is more concerned with legitimising its existence to national governments and international institutions than to the human subjects of its power, she argued, the implications can be highly damaging. In the al-Azraq camp, for example, this has led to the development of a non-sensical and obfuscating bureaucratic system which has worsened conditions for the inhabitants.

Ula Zeir presents her research on tribal settlement in late Ottoman Syria (Credit: Will Ryle-Hodgers)

The struggle to legitimise peripheral or marginalised identities was a recurring motif throughout the panels. Kaoutar Ghilani's work on language education policy in Morocco showed how minority (and majority) language advocates have adopted a universal discourse to legitimise competing demands. Dealing with the spatially remote, Neelam Khoja's and Ula Zeir's papers dovetailed neatly with Dr Rapoport's keynote address on tribalism. By presenting an account of tribal settlement and cultural exchange between the Ismailis and neighbouring tribes in nineteenth century Ottoman Syria, Zeir's paper showed how socio-economic circumstance are liable to affect tribal culture and identity. Challenging the use of the term tribe to describe Afghan groups in eighteenth century Hindustan, as well as colonialist and Mughal narratives about Afghan backwardness and identity, Khoja advocated genealogical affiliation as a more useful rubric for understanding Afghan social organisation. Another highlight was May Tamimova's paper on 'The Social Life of Islamism', which explored how communities in the Lebanese city of Tripoli are reacting to the return of Sunni Islamist fighters from Syria. These papers highlighted both subaltern efforts to legitimise difference, as well as the contested nature of micro interactions between minority ethnic, linguistic and political groups.

Several papers engaged with notions of social, economic and gender identity. Arafat Razzaque introduced the conference to jurisprudential debates over the Islamic concept of Adalah, which designates an individual's trustworthiness in court and as a Hadith transmitter. The application of the concept to different professions and classes, he argued, sheds new light on the social segmentation of medieval Islamic societies. Moving into the modern era, Ivana Cosmano discussed the ways that changing gender norms in Jordan have been reflected in the linguistic development of the educated middle class. Yunlong Jia's work on trading spaces and merchants in the garment trade between Iran and Turkey is also worthy of special note, as it was the only paper of the conference to engage with fashion as a means of communication.

Despite the intention not to fixate on text, it is fitting to end with an overview of those papers which highlighted the importance of the written word as a way of coming to terms with – and legitimising – one's place in the world. From Ummugulsum Kurukol's exposition of the medieval Islamic travel writer, to Gaston Arze's explanation of Pidal's contempt for Islamic Iberia in his literary and historical works, the place of the text as a mechanism of political and social legitimation was clear. Suja Sawafta's paper on the use of a middle language in the novels of Abdulrahman Munif is worthy of particular note in this regard, as it showed how modern Arabic literature often derives its most pertinent meaning from the use of non-modern standard modes of expression and grammar – or when a text emerges from the constraints of codified grammar to speak to and for a people.

We would like to take this opportunity to thank all the conference participants for their outstanding contributions, as well as Dr Rapoport for an inspiring keynote address. This conference would also have not been possible without the valuable support and assistance of several individuals and institutions, including our post-doctoral panel chairs, the Cambridge Faculty of Arts and Humanities and the Arts and Humanities Research Council for providing invaluable funds, and the Woolf Institute for kindly hosting us. We hope to see you all again next year.

Chris Cooper-Davies is an AHRC doctoral scholar in History at St John's College, Cambridge. He is also an Honorary PhD Scholar at the Woolf Institute. His research will explore the social, cultural and political manifestations of sectarian identities in mandatory and monarchical Iraq, looking specifically at how processes of colonialism and state and nation building facilitated the reconfiguration and politicisation of an Iraqi Shi'i identity.

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