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SHORT REVIEW - Religion and the State: From the margins to the Arab Mashreq’s political centre

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Striking from the margins: State, religion and devolution of authority in the Middle East / edited by Aziz Al-Azmeh et al. - London: Saqi, 2021. - 335 p. - ISBN 978-0-86356-139-9; 978-0-86356-500-7 (ebk)

Over the last decade, there has been a proliferation of works that explain the developments in the Middle East through the lens of primordialism and ancestral enmities. Conversely, the objective to go beyond this simplistic view was at the centre of this book, edited by Aziz Al-Azmeh (Professor Emeritus at the Central European University – CEU), Nadia Al-Bagdadi (Director of the Institute of Advanced Studies and professor of History at CEU), Harout Akdedian (Carnegie Striking from the Margins Senior Post-doctoral Fellow at CEU and visiting scholar at Portland State University) and Harith Hasan (Non-residential senior Fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center). The book collects the results of the research programme “Striking from the Margins” that investigates how margins, such as religious ones, have moved to the political centre in the Arab Mashreq.

After an introduction describing the book’s approach and basic tenets and opposing the too simple and ideologically motivated prevailing interpretations of the developments occurring in the Mashreq, the book is divided in four parts and a conclusion. The first part – “Political Economies & Turmoil in the MENA Region” – includes three chapters. They respectively deal with an investigation on the causes of nineteen Arab civil wars after the Second World War, with how the processes of state formation within individual Arab states are shaped by the political economy of the region with a focus on the Gulf Cooperation Council, and with a post-conflict economic model instrumental for a durable and sustainable political and economic stability in Syria. The second part is titled “Reconfiguring Religion & the Local”. Two of its chapters focus on Syria, specifically on the socio-economic place of religion as an institutional domain in the power structures and on emerging new modes of local governance in areas of limited statehood. The remaining chapter analyses the movement from the margins to the centre of Shia religious authorities and clerical actors in Iraq. The third part deals with “Jihadi formations”. One chapter investigates the positions taken by Daesh in Syria with respect to the place of its emergence and the other factions in the conflict, and another chapter focuses on the local-level dynamics in the Syrian governorate of Dayr al-Zur. Finally, the last chapter of this section shifts the attention to the attitude of local authorities and society towards the women and children of Daesh members. The fourth part – “Beyond Locality” – includes two chapters on foreign policy: one on the Turkish policy in Syria and the other one on the Russian role in the Mashreq. Then, the third chapter talks about formal and informal security actors in Libya, including also some reflections on the role of external actors. Finally, the conclusion takes stock of the main findings of the book and addresses some criticisms to knowledge production.

Overall, the book succeeds in providing a different perspective to the issue of the transformation of the state in the Mashreq region. Notably, as also the authors of the conclusion pointed out, a positive feature of the book is that, differently from several works on this topic, it convincingly holds religious elements as novel phenomena connected to recent forms of state atrophy. In addition, the collaboration of several relevant scholars is an enriching factor, as it provides contributions from experts with different backgrounds, mainly political science, sociology and history. At the same time, it would have been interesting to include some chapters focusing on Lebanon and Jordan in order to give an all-encompassing overview of the region. Nevertheless, the book is definitely of interest for a specialised reader who aims at looking at the events in the Mashreq, especially Syria and Iraq, by focusing on some less common but worth considering aspects.

Sara Zanotta

Former research intern within the Mediterranean, Middle East and Africa programme

at the Instituto Affari Internazionali (IAI)


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