Recent events, including the Arab Spring of 2011 and its aftermath, the Syrian civil war, and continuing instability in Iraq, have drawn attention to religious diversity within Middle Eastern societies, to the vulnerability of many small and minority religious communities, and to the socially and politically destabilizing effect of communal conflict. These trends indicate an urgent need for new initiatives to refocus the study of religion in the Middle East on the full religious diversity of the region, to encourage dialogue between religious communities, and to affirm the essential human values of freedom of conscience and freedom of religious expression articulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

As a response to this need the Institute for the Study of Religion in the Middle East (ISRME) was established in 2012 to encourage scholarship, academic collaboration and awareness of the diversity of religious life in the Middle East, and the ideas, belief systems, rituals, histories and social structures of religious communities. The Institute’s particular focus is on small, emergent, or threatened religious communities or movements and the interaction between such movements and majority or established traditions. On the premise that freedom of conscience and freedom of religious expression are essential human values, necessary to the well-being of human societies and individuals, the Institute encourages open discussion of religious ideas and opposes all forms of social, political, legal or economic coercion to restrict freedom of conscience, free expression of religious ideas, or freedom of worship.

What follows is a brief prospectus that outlines the background and potential themes of importance for the Institute. (For the sake of this proposal, and the purposes of the ISRME, the Middle East will be defined broadly to extend from Pakistan and Afghanistan in the East to North Africa in the West.)

The Study of Middle Eastern Religious communities

The religious landscape of the Middle East is often popularly portrayed as homogenous, or at best as a collection of religiously homogenous states – a Shi’ite state, a Jewish state, a Wahhabi state, a constellation of Sunni states. This impression of homogeneity has often accompanied and been furthered by ideologies of nationalism, and has frequently been a tool of the repression or marginalization of small, emergent or minority communities on the assumption that it is impossible, for example, for an Armenian Turk to be truly “Turkish”, a Bahai to be “Iranian”, or, most obviously, for a Christian or Shi’ite to be Saudi. Consequently, taken as a whole, the region suffers from what the Arab Human Development report labels a freedom deficit that is especially notable in the sphere of religion. Small religious movements are not the only communities to suffer. The Arab Spring of 2011 shed light on the vulnerability of even sizeable religious communities such as the Shi’ite majority community of Bahrain or the large Coptic minority in Egypt. The Iraq conflict and turmoil in Syria has similarly drawn attention to the fragility of many ancient Middle Eastern Christian communities. In spite of these realities, the scope and importance of religious plurality in the Middle East remains at best widely underappreciated, unacknowledged, and at worst violently opposed. Long-standing trends in western scholarship of Islam and the Middle East help to perpetuate the tendency to oversimplify and distort perceptions of this religious landscape. Christian scholars, for example, tend to think in theological terms about Islam and consequently to portray the two religions in the broad strokes of comparative theology. Similarly, college level teaching on Islam and the Middle East tends to condense and simplify the religious landscape into easily identifiable categories, and essential beliefs.

A large body of scholarly literature, and a wealth of on-going scholarly effort belies these popular perceptions. Yet at present much of this scholarship is dispersed among a variety of disciplines, with few institutions or journals to bring together, encourage or effectively disseminate such work on religious communities and the inter-faith dynamics of the region. Moreover, much of this scholarly work is done in western institutions and disseminated to western scholarly audiences, with limited interaction with, or input from, scholars and institutions geographically located in the Middle East.

Themes and Programs

Themes of significance to the ISRME will include:

  1. The history and sociology of minority religious communities in the Middle East
  2. The history of interaction amongst Middle Eastern religious communities.
  3. The possibilities and limits of interpretation across religious boundaries
  4. Historical, philosophical, theological, political and legal perspectives on freedom of conscience
  5. Religious pluralism in historical and theological perspective
  6. Missionary activity and proselytization
  7. Historical, theological, political, and legal perspectives on conversion

In keeping with these themes, the Institute initially seeks support in the following areas:

1. A Journal. We seek support for the establishment of a peer-reviewed, interdisciplinary, multi-lingual, online journal as a central means of encouraging scholarship, fostering community and maintaining communication among geographically dispersed scholars. The journal will seek to lower barriers to participation by scholars in the region by accepting contributions in Arabic, Turkish and English and by free online distribution, while at the same time maintaining high editorial standards and a responsible peer-review process.

2. Scholarly Interaction and Collaboration. We seek support for an annual academic workshop to be held in a major city of the Middle East. Each workshop will be focussed on one of the major themes of the Institute, will aim to bring together scholars from a variety of disciplines based in both western and middle eastern institutions whose contributions will be disseminated through the Journal of the ISRME. We also seek support for occasional symposia and lectures to bring substantial scholars to the Institute and to affiliated local universities.

3. Outreach. We seek support for a variety of activities to promote the values and communicate the themes of the Institute to a variety of constituencies, including religious leaders, institutions for religious education, journalists and opinion makers.