Religion, Race, and Concepts of Difference in the Modern Middle East

The deadline for all proposals is 7 March 2024

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?