by Lise Paulsen Galal
In August part of the DIMECCE team headed for Ankara and the World Congress of Middle Eastern Studies (WOCMES) to present some project findings. WOCMES is a huge five-day conference that attracts scholars from all over the world.
In Ankara universities and institutions from 74 countries were represented and more than 1500 participants attended. The conference takes place every fourth year with the previous conference being held in Barcelona in 2010. At that event, Fiona, Marta and I met for the first time when we participated in two panels on Christians in the Middle East organized by CME (Christians in the Middle East research network). Thus WOCMES 2010 became the first chapter of the DIMECCE project, while WOCMES 2014 became one of several chapters presenting the project and some of its findings. In Ankara, CME had organized four panels on Christians in the Middle East; one of them constituted by the DIMECCE team presenting three papers on each case country (UK, Sweden and Denmark).
The conference took place at EDTÜ, or METU (Middle East Technical University). The university was founded in 1956 and is placed a little bit outside the city center and can be approached by a recently opened metro. The campus area is green and spacious with all kinds of facilities. While the distances between the three venue buildings left us hiking between panels, it also gave us the opportunity to enjoy the sunny and warm weather. It was my first visit to Ankara and the city was a pleasant surprise to me. People were very friendly despite – or maybe because – of a general lack of tourists, and the city offered a well-functioning infrastructure and what seemed to be a high standard of living.
The five-day conference programme was huge and diverse. Not surprisingly many presentations were on Turkey, and a number of papers discussed the current political situation and conflicts in the Middle East. More surprisingly several papers had a focus on Shia’ rituals. Besides the four panels on Middle Eastern Christians, some of the most interesting panels in relation to the DIMECCE project which I attended presented different perspectives on Middle Eastern immigrants in Europe and the United States. Two sessions on conversion to Islam included several interesting country comparisons and discussions on religion and identity. Thus, one paper by Egdunas Racius explored converts in Lithuania, and another very interesting paper by Juliette Galonnier compared processes of racialization of converts in United States and France. The organizer Karin Van Nieuwkerk suggested conceptualizing conversion as moving, arguing that conversion is seldom the break or disruption that the term conversion connotes. Instead, we should rather look at how people move in and out of religion instead of religion as something that moves in and out of people.
The four panels on Middle Eastern Christians were organized according to different perspectives. The first panel included three papers on historical perspectives on Christians and not least Christian mission in Syria and Palestine. The discussion of Catholic language politics vis-à-vis the Melkite community (1920-1950) by Karene Sanchez made me reflect on the importance of language politics in the target groups of the DIMECCE project. Different language politics converge, as the language of the community, the language of God, the language of the majority community, and the language of the local context.
The DIMECCE panel was the second one in the series with a focus on Middle Eastern Christians in the three case countries and their relation to their country of origin (read more about the three presentations under ‘Outcomes’). The presentations were followed by time for questions and discussion and the team received useful comments and questions about identification with being Arab, gender specific narratives of Islamophobia, the influence of country specific asylum politics and much more!
The third panel examined changing identities among Palestinian Christians and Christians in Bethlehem respectively. Mark Calder’s focus on the meaning of place referring to Manger Square was interesting as it raised the question of how different religious and competing groups navigate their local environment by using place(s) in specific ways. This seems very relevant to the DIMECCE project, where Middle Eastern Christians in the case study countries use different ways to try to create their own places where they can practice or articulate their specific Christian identity.
The fourth and last panel on Middle Eastern Christians had two papers. One focused on Christians in Iran, another on Copts in Egypt after the 2011-revolution. Marcin Rzepka’s presentation on Christians in Iran demonstrated how Persian-speaking contrary to non-Persian-speaking Christians in Iran are unclassified minorities and as such they do not have any rights. The four panels complemented each other very well and gave wide and fruitful insights on the situation of Christians in the Middle East.
With most of the core team present in Ankara, we used the possibility to have a project meeting one evening which left us with still a few issues to discuss the following day after the conference finished. Two of the big issues were plans for publications and how to use the Nvivo software programme for analyzing interview material. Once again it made good sense to meet in person and elaborate on ideas and perspectives that we already dealt with via email. Since the conference took up most of our time with a very dense programme, sadly we didn’t really have time for sightseeing. However, the morning before the conference started, some of us managed to visit the citadel and some of the Roman remains. And, before going to the airport a few managed to visit Atatürk’s mausoleum which was impressive and perhaps more worthy of an emperor than the leader of a modern secular state! Overall, WOCMES was another successful outing for the DIMECCE team.