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Nieuw onderzoek naar minderheden in islam

Hoe bestudeer je de gecompliceerde verhouding die de religieuze minderheden in het Midden-Oosten door de tijd heen gehad hebben met de islamitische meerderheden? Welke rol speelt taal? Hoe reflecteren deze processen van in- en uitsluiting zich in de manier waarop mensen zich kleden?

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Hoe voorkom je dat je al te makkelijk hedendaagse conflicten en ideologieën als uitgangspunt neemt voor de verhoudingen in het verleden? En hoe en wanneer wordt een groep eigenlijk tot minderheid gemaakt?In de decemberronde 2011 van de Vrije Competitie Geesteswetenschappen van NWO zijn twee projecten over deze vragen gehonoreerd die zijn ingediend door onderzoekers van het Instituut Godsdienstwetenschappen, prof.dr. Bas ter Haar Romeny en prof.dr. Heleen Murre-van den Berg. In beide projecten wordt samengewerkt met collega’s uit andere instituten, respectievelijk LIAS en LUCL.

Fitting In/Standing Out: Comparing Majority and Minority Dress Codes among Egyptian Muslims and Christians

Foto C.T. Rooijakkers
Foto C.T. Rooijakkers

Bas ter Haar Romeny (main applicant; LIRS), Petra Sijpesteijn (LIAS), and  Maurits Berger (LIRS)

Discussions about headscarves and burqas in Western countries with Islamic minorities show the importance of dress in relations between majorities and minorities. However, this research project is not only interested in these obvious cases; it seeks to understand the complete picture. It is interested in both Muslims and Christians, women and men, past and present. The case of Egypt is eminently suitable for this purpose, as here Muslims and Christians have lived side by side for centuries. Moreover, members of both groups now live as minorities in the West.

Foto C.T. Rooijakkers
Foto C.T. Rooijakkers

The term dress includes clothing and all other additions and modifications to the body. These are signifiers of identity; they visually create distinctions. Therefore they have a function in the formation and negotiation of communal identities. The main aim of this project is to find out in what way the relative position of a group within society influences these processes: how and why do people stand out or fit in? Using actual material evidence, four researchers will study Egyptian Christians and Muslims from a comparative and diachronic perspective. For their respective periods they will analyse the dress codes and the way these function in relations between majority and minority. The focus is on the day-to-day reality of dress, and how it relates to such factors as sumptuary laws, foreign influences, or changing contexts.

We expect this interdisciplinary project to be an important stimulus not only to the field of dress studies but also a step forward in the understanding of minority and majority interactions. In addition to academic publications, the researchers will publish their experiences and preliminary findings on a weblog. Also, two open discussion events will be organized as well as an exhibition. In this way the project hopes to stimulate debate and understanding, and by focussing on the complete picture, put the issue of headscarves into context.

Arabic and its Alternatives: Religious Minorities in the Formative Years of the Modern Middle East (1920-1950)

Heleen Murre-van den Berg (LIRS), Karène Sanchez (LUCL).

This project aims to revisit the ways in which religious minorities in the Middle East participated in, contributed to, and opposed the Arab nationalism of the post-war years, when the British and French ruled the region via the Mandates. This period of societal modernization and competing nationalisms saw the emergence of new political structures that would define the Middle East for most of the twentieth century. While Arabic nationalism, predicated as it was on the Arabic language more than on Islam, was seen as a positive development by many Arabic-speaking Jews and Christians, others showed increasing uneasiness with its ramifications. This was more specifically the case among those non-Muslims that in addition to Arabic highly valued other languages, such as Syriac, Hebrew and Armenian, but also English and French. Would participation in Arab nationalism also imply giving up the allegiances symbolized by these languages?

Three case studies, into the Jews of Baghdad, the Syriac Christians of North Iraq and the Catholic Christians of Palestine, form the starting point of an inquiry into the linguistic practices and language ideologies of these religiously-defined minorities. How and why did they choose to use Arabic, and how and why did they prefer other languages? What was the role of religious elites, both local and foreign (such as missionaries) and how were their ideas picked up by others in the respective communities? How were these choices related to the strength of competing nationalisms (e.g., Zionist, Assyrian), to theological and ecclesial considerations (e.g., Catholic universalism versus Orthodox particularism?) and to global, local and regional alliances?

A more general analysis of the role of these non-Muslim minorities in the formative years of the Middle East will follow upon the study of these three particular cases. This in-depth analysis, informed by a network of international experts, expects to modify not only the sometimes all too straightforward accounts of Arab nationalism, but also the concept of religious and ethnic minorities itself, since language, in its practical and symbolic components, may well reflect a reality that blurs rather than underlines the seemingly sharp dividing lines between religious and national identities.

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