Arabic and its Alternatives

Arabic and its alternatives: Religious minorities in the formative years of the modern Middle East (1920-1950) – NWO Vrije Competitie (2012-2017). Project leader: Prof.dr Heleen Murre-van den Berg, with Karène Sanchez, Sasha Goldstein-Sabah and Tijmen Baarda

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, concerning the Jews of Baghdad (Sasha Goldstein-Sabah), the Syriac Christians of North Iraq (Tijmen Baarda) and the Catholic Christians of Palestine (Karène Sanchez), 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.

Mid-2015, the project is well underway, looking back at a number of interesting and fruitful exchanges, during conferences and one-day meetings:

  • September 2013: Conference , together with LUCIS (Leiden Centre for the Study of Islamic Societies): Common ground? Jews, Christians and Muslims in the Middle East
  • Nov 2013: panel at Graduierten Kolleg Geneva, organized by Jordi Tejel and Benjamin White: The Fragments Imagine the Nation
  • March 2014: One day seminar with prof. dr. Yasir Suleiman (University of Cambridge)
  • April 2015: One day seminar with dr. Peter Sluglett (University of Utah)

Two communal projects the group is now working on:

  • Edited volume with the contributions of the Common Ground conference (authors: Daniel Schroeter, Anais Massot, Aline Schlaepfer, Yair Wallach, Tijmen Baarda, Sasha Goldstein-Sabbah, Karène Sanchez, Laura Robson, Hannah Müller-Sommerfeld, Aomar Boum, Heleen Murre-van den Berg)
  • Final conference, Arabic and its Alternatives, June 2016

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