Doing Glocality: Area Studies in Marburg
By Achim Rohde
Hidden in a long drawn green valley in the lovely North-Hessian town of Marburg, in a region sometimes ironically termed “Hessian Siberia”, the Phillips-University Marburg is turning into a hotspot of area studies in Germany since the establishment of its Centre for Near and Middle East Studies (CNMS) in 2006.
As part of the centre’s efforts at strengthening its research profile, the research network “Re-Configurations. History, Remembrance and Transformation Processes in the Middle East and North Africa” was founded in 2013 with funding from the Federal Ministry for Education and Research (Bundesministerium für Bildung und Forschung, BMBF). Its founding was triggered by the developments in the MENA region known as the ‘Arab Spring’, or ‘Arabellion’, or ‘Arab Spring Revolutions’, which highlighted the need for a partial re-assessment of scholarship on MENA countries, for developing new perspectives and deepening our understanding of the events unfolding in the region, their underlying reasons, historic roots, and future perspectives.
“Re-Configurations” provides an institutional framework for an innovative, interdisciplinary, comparative, empirically-founded, and theory-led investigation of the transformation processes in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA region). The research programme consolidates the regional competencies at Philipps-Universität Marburg, in order to conduct interdisciplinary and cross-epochal research to address the current developments and their historical context, thereby enabling new perspectives to be identified and evaluated. For this end, stronger links are being developed between the systematic disciplines represented in the research network (including religious studies, history, political science, sociology, media studies, literary studies, law, peace and conflict research) and those faculties, involved with the region, that are located in the CNMS. The network currently consists of 20 members representing 10 institutions within Philipps-Universität Marburg.
The uprisings against the established order in a number of countries in the MENA region have exposed tectonic societal changes that had, until the moment they erupted at the surface, escaped the focus of most scholars and regional experts. Have we possibly overemphasized in our work during the last decade or so, the significance of the Islamic religion for understanding the region? As much as we might have highlighted the historical contingency and diversity of Islamic religiosity in this context, such a focus falls in line with and might actually have reinforced the Orientalist western master narrative of yore. What is more, the political systems in the MENA region have mostly been analysed in recent years through the prism of the emerging neo-authoritarianism paradigm, thus narrowing our focus to ruling elites, governing regimes, formal institutions and structures. This trend in western academia has occasionally been reminiscent of another time-worn western master narrative regarding non-European Others, i.e. the concept of Oriental despotism. As a consequence, a multiplicity of social and political developments below the level of the ruling elites has escaped our attention, and the relations between state and society have not been sufficiently recognized in their complexity and reciprocity even under authoritarian conditions.
In order to adequately assess the scope of the ongoing transformations in the region, western area studies would be well-advised to address these developments in a wider historical context (20th century) and to also look at contemporary debates within the MENA region concerning historiographical approaches and the politics of remembrance. These are central aims of the research network Re-Configurations. In order to systematically investigate the current re-configurations in the MENA-region, we identified four research fields: History from below, Re-configurations of cultural memory, Political transformations and transitional justice, Transregional Entanglements.
A further platform launched by Philipps-Universität Marburg for innovative approaches to area studies related to MENA countries is the open access online journal Middle East Topics & Arguments (META), published by the CNMS. META combines disciplinary and interdisciplinary approaches. Articles critically re-evaluate established scholarly traditions and think beyond entrenched disciplinary boundaries. META wants to encourage interdisciplinary discussion between social sciences and humanities within the field of Middle Eastern studies as well as between Middle Eastern studies and the systematic disciplines. The journal thus aims at integrating regional academic discourse into a global setting. It hopes to ensure trans-regional comparability, thus leaving behind the notion of cultural and religious exceptionalism which has for a long been connected with Middle Eastern studies.
Each issue of Middle East – Topics & Arguments focuses on one main topic. Currently, META is calling for submissions for its 4th issue, due to be published in spring 2015, which will be entitled “Area Studies”. The deadline for submitting abstracts is May 31, 2014. This issue will address both the historical evolution of area studies and related disciplines (in the case of the MENA region: Islamic studies, Oriental philology, Middle East Studies, etc.) as well as contemporary developments on a conceptual as well as an empirical level. META calls for submissions that are critically engaging with concepts and methods used in area studies programs (and related disciplines) and discuss the changing relations between area studies and systematic disciplines over the years. Also welcomed are contributions discussing what a self-reflective and critical area studies approach today might look like.
Achim Rohde is researcher in the Center for Near and Middle Eastern Studies (Centrum für Nah- und Mittelost-Studien) at Philipps-University Marburg, coordinator of the research network “Re-Configurations. History, remembrance and transformation processes in the Middle East and North-Africa“.