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Durham University

Open World Research Initiative (OWRI)

Transnational Language, Transient Identities, and the Crisis of the State in the Arab Region

The project, based at Durham University's School of Government and International Affairs (SGIA), and directed by Professor Anoush Ehteshami, traces the complexities of socio-cultural change at times of political upheaval, focusing on the most active and popular currents in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region - namely those loosely termed ‘political Islam’. The project’s unique interdisciplinary approach (philosophy and history combined with political science) and mixed research tools will aim to do two things:

(a) understand the place of IS (Daesh), as an example of radical Islamist currents, in Arab politics;

(b) capture the responses to IS at social and state levels in the Arab region.

This research will identify the intellectual roots and political origins of IS and explain what the rise of this group can tell us about the evolving nature and character of political Islam in the region. It will scrutinise the IS’s own narrative to better understand its self-declared place in the spectrum of Jihadi movements in the region. It will consider Islamist responses to the IS and its behaviour. Finally, it will consider state-level responses to IS. It will look at the narratives that such key states as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Tunisia, Jordan and others have used to delegitimise IS while also legitimising their own policies to their often sceptical domestic audiences and regional rivals. For further detail see the more elaborate project narrative.

The project includes research carried out by postdoctoral fellow Dr Amjed Rasheed, who is working on the politics of MENA, the state, and the evolution of political Islam and global Jihad. His work includes exploring the rise of IS and its effect on the regional dynamics. It also includes scrutinising transnational circulations of Islamist rhetoric mainly in Arab-language media. In the MENA region, where everyone can now ‘hear’ and challenge everyone else, no dominant narrative of political power and identity has established itself. This investigation looks at how the use of discourse shapes and propagates competing paradigms of identity, history and community. The research focuses on the whole MENA region.

As part of the overall project, Ehteshami is supervising the PhD project carried out by Miss Juline Beaujouan who is funded through Durham’s al-Sabah Programme. The thesis, with the working title 'The Effects of Islamic State’s Socio-Political Narrative in the Modern Middle East at a Time of Dynamic Change: An Analysis of the Formation and Recontextualization of an Islamist Narrative', interrogates the effects of IS's use of language on key issues characterizing the dynamic modern Middle East, such as diplomacy, migration, identity or social cohesion. Drawing on a three-dimensional approach to the analysis of narratives, this research provides a study of the formation and recontextualization by Middle Eastern media and population of IS’s socio-political narrative in order to assess the connections and interactions between this narrative and the broader understanding of the dynamics at work in the region.

The project is further supported by visiting scholars, such as Dr Mohammed Nuruzzaman, of the Gulf University of Science and Technology (GUST), Kuwait, who was COFUND Senior Research Fellow at Durham's University College in Apr-Jun 2017, working on a new theoretical framework for understanding present-day Shi’a–Sunni sectarian violence.

See also further details of the events and impact activities associated with the project.

For more information about this project contact: