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An International and Collaborative Research Programme

The Historicity of Democracy in the Arab and Muslim Worlds

This academic blog aims at presenting the work of the international research team of the HISDEMAB project of the Leibniz Association. This collaborative project seeks to establish an innovative research network that connects three Leibniz institutes (Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient in Berlin –ZMO-, Leibniz-Institut für Europäische Geschichte in Mainz –IEG– and Leibniz-Zentrum für Zeithistorische Forschung in Potsdam –ZZF-) with two research institutions in the Arab world (Institut français du Proche-Orient –IFPO– in Amman, Jordan and Manouba University in Tunis, Tunisia), while also including guest researchers from the wider Arab and Muslim worlds. The project explores democracy and debates about democracy in the region from a historical perspective. While this topic is highly relevant for contemporary debates, it is often subject to culturalist interpretations that insist on the ontological incompatibility of democracy with political life in the region. The aim of HISDEMAB is to promote global reflections on democracy that go beyond cultural boundaries and discuss entanglements and circulations in a critical way. This network starts with the sources (archival records, chronicles, treaties, memoirs) and investigates diverse forms of deliberation, decision-making, and the mechanisms of representation in local societies, confronting this sphere with the question of democracy and its regimes of historicity. With historical case studies in Tunisia, Jordan, and other countries, from Syria to Algeria, the aim is first to investigate the medieval and Ottoman roots of deliberative processes within professional guilds, confessional communities (Muslim, Jewish, Greek, Armenian), and different institutions (assemblies, petitioning system). The network is also designed to critically relate these roots to the evolution of deliberation and representation in the modern era (late-Ottoman, colonial, and national periods) and to Eurocentric discourses that have developed since the 19th century. While the team based at Leibniz-ZMO explores democracy and discourses on democracy in three phases of the Ottoman Empire (early modern, 19th century, and early 20th century), the Leibniz-ZZF based team investigates the Turkish case in the post-Atatürk era under a historical perspective and the Leibniz-IEG investigates the relationship between democracy and Islam in theoretical discourses and political practices in the 19th and 20th century Arab world and particularly in Egypt. The Hisdemab Team Project at IEG is entitled: Self-Determination under Occupation? The formation of Modern Egypt (1879-1956). Partners at IFPO Amman focus on the case study on the Municipality of Jerusalem during the British Mandate, and on the legacy of Ottoman deliberative institutions and their interpretation in the 20th century as well as on the historicity of democracy in Iraq. Meanwhile, the project partners at Manouba University work on an analysis of democratization processes contemporary Tunisia, along with their (real and imagined) relationship with Europe. Contemporary debates on democracy in the Arab and Muslim worlds are dominated by bitter impressions following the return to authoritarian regimes after the short parenthesis of what mainstream media have labelled the “Arab Spring”. After a few months or years of sometimes naïve enthusiasm, considerations are now focusing again on the alleged incompatibility of democracy with societies of the broader region. This collaborative network moves beyond this dichotomy that responds to culturalist biases in both situations (enthusiasm and bitterness), by investigating the historicity of democracy and deliberative practices for what they are in the societies of the region and by combining reflections on this complex sphere with reflections on democracy in other contexts. Democracy in the Arab, Islamic, and Post-Ottoman worlds is currently mostly studied from the point of view of political science. It is also often the object of culturalist reifications. The aim of this network is therefore to explore this crucial issue by examining the forms of political organization and debate that were inherent to societies of the region, from North Africa to the Middle East and from Anatolia to the Balkans. The intention is also to discuss their impact on various forms of modernity, including late-Ottoman, colonial (British in Egypt, Iraq and Palestine; French in Algeria, Tunisia, Syria and Lebanon; Italian in Libya) and national (in all the independent countries that emerged with decolonization) in challenging the multiple layers of euro-centred, colonial and post-colonial interpretations that have accumulated since the 19th century. It is also to propose a critical examination of this heritage and its historical evolution between accommodation of circulating forms, negation of local existing forms, dilution of local governance schemes and ambiguous resurgences of old forms under the lens of ideologically oriented solutions. The forms of collective deliberation that are relevant in a discussion on inherent, early democratic impulses include various councils and assemblies at various scales, from villages and cities to provinces, deliberative institutions inside the world of guilds and inside confessional communities (Muslim, Jewish, Armenian, Orthodox, Maronite). This discussion, based upon archival research (documents on the functioning of deliberative institutions, documents pertaining to the organization of decision-making processes within guilds or confessional communities, court records) and the interpretation of original manuscripts (chronicles, treaties) focuses on the concept of ḥisba, the Islamic precept regulating commercial and social life, as well as on institutions like the majlis al-shūrā. As far as the impact with modernity is concerned, a focus is put on the debates surrounding the enactment of the first constitutions of the region in the mid-19th century, with the aim of reconnecting their interpretation with local historical roots. This angle of interpretation allows the scholars of the programme to take part in discussions about the relationship of societies of the region and power under an innovative perspective. Reflections also focus on the new definitions of citizenship and nationality that emerged and on their multiple ambiguities. A focus is also put on colonial visions of local societies under the lens of discourses on democracy or on the alleged impossibility thereof, as well as on the period of the independences, with debates on democracy being inserted into a Cold-War context. This effort allows researchers in the programme to propose alternative narratives of the evolution of the relationship between democracy and the Arab/Islamic/Post-Ottoman world, avoiding both neo-traditionalist visions, Islamist visions that tend to present religion as a unique source of social regulation and post-colonial trends that insist on the ontological externality of the notion to the region. In this collaborative programme, convergence in research aims at creating the heuristic space for theoretical and concrete dialogues. This includes theoretical and methodological reflections on the comparative method, entangled history, shared history and global history, but also very concrete practices of scholarly discussion as well as events in which all participants are invited to confront their research fields and questionings to the general theme of the programme.


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