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Ribale Sleiman-Haidar

August 26th, 2015

Religious Identity and Social Science Research in the Middle East


Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Ribale Sleiman-Haidar

August 26th, 2015

Religious Identity and Social Science Research in the Middle East


Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

by David Mednicoff

This memo was presented at a workshop in Rabat on ‘The Ethics of Political Science Research and Teaching in MENA’, organised by the LSE Middle East Centre and King Mohammed V University in Rabat on 9-11 June 2015.

copyright Pablo Pecora, Cairo. Source:
copyright Pablo Pecora, Cairo. Source:

Do researchers’ positions on religion affect, or otherwise matter for, social scientific work on the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) that relates to religious phenomena? In a prior discussion of ethics in political science research in the MENA, one participant noted the inherent, sometimes insurmountable, challenges in quasi-experimental, human subjects research in religious settings (Nielsen 2014, 16-18).

Apart from this thoughtful reflection on one type of social science work research, the broad issue of religious positionality and research has received less discussion. Perhaps this is because it is a minefield. From a positivist perspective, it seems reasonable that social science work that touches on religion can be done without bias or the need to acknowledge the researcher’s connection to the object or subjects of study. At the same time, the highly polemical treatment of religious phenomena in the MENA in public discourse in the West and the region, especially with respect to Islam, suggests the use in knowing a researcher’s position vis-à-vis these phenomena.

Some of my recent work has grown within a network of sophisticated researchers who consider issues of religion, politics and law in comparative, global perspective (e.g., Mednicoff, forthcoming). On the whole, we have concluded that questions about religious identity are not necessarily distinct from other political questions that involve personal identity. Yet, I often encounter work on the spokes of our network that makes statistical correlations or cogent arguments that Islamic influences in Arab constitutions are harmful to rights or pluralism. These are examples of social science work analysing religious phenomena in the MENA that are both conducive to broad polemical appropriation and suggestive of the utility of understanding the researcher’s position with respect to phenomena under study.

I argue here that a researcher’s self-aware inquiry about the relationship between their posture towards religious phenomena in the MENA and their work is a first step to help avoid the twin concerns of having their research devalued as naively unaware of broader context, or seeing it appropriated and characterised simplistically to serve a polemical agenda. While I would not go so far as to assert that researchers have an ethical obligation to disclose their posture towards religious objects of study in their work, the high level of political misunderstandings around religion in the Middle East and their real human cost muddies the waters of defaulting to a posture of letting a piece of research on MENA religious phenomena simply speak for itself. A conscious self-inquiry and willingness, if circumstances demand, for a researcher to be open about their attitude towards religious phenomena would seem an intermediary stance in tricky political ethical terrain to avoid research being either reduced purely to a researcher’s position nor removed from broad global and MENA landscapes that encumber rational discourse.[1]

Analytical self-awareness around religious phenomena in the MENA has the added benefit of clarifying an important meta-issue, the basic conceptual map of how researchers are likely to approach questions around religion and politics. Discussion of this theme at the Rabat workshop, for instance, hinted that Moroccan academics studying religion in their own country may proceed from distinct research postures, given the likelihood that they are Muslims situated in a country with Morocco’s combination of embedded Islamic nationalism and plural religious practice. Whether this is the case, more open discussion around religious positionality and research is likely to contribute to a broader awareness of broader sociopolitical issues that connect or divide analysts across the Middle East and the West.

As a first cut on this, discussions about the relation of Islam to political phenomena in the MENA tend to cluster around two types of argument. The first asserts that Islamic political actors, processes and norms are at least in part distinct from, or at odds with, non-Islamist ones. Arguments of this type can differ from one another with respect to which set of phenomena to favor, with work from analysts based in the West most often grounded in an orientation that non-Islamic actors or norms are more democratic, progressive or rational, sometimes in non-essentialist, highly sophisticated ways (e.g., Sultany 2014) that move far beyond, but may still be appropriated by, politicised characterisations of Islam associated with earlier, less nuanced work (e.g., Huntington 1996).

A second, more common type of social science argument about religious phenomena in the MENA finds religion in the Middle East to be commensurable or consistent with other sociopolitical phenomena. In political science, excellent work on Islamist actors (e.g., Brown 2012, Masoud 2014, Schwedler 2006, Wickham 2013) sees ways in which these actors behave much like other political actors. With respect to law or legal actors, there are well-informed arguments that Islamic legal provisions (e.g., Lombardi 2013) or concrete links of the state to Islamic law (e.g., Moustafa 2013) are not necessarily unique or distinct. Work of this nature also embraces scholars who reconcile or compare Islamic and Western political norms and phenomena (e.g., al-Naim 2010, Mallat 2015, March 2009).

The diversity of work referenced above reinforces the need not to use researchers’ positions on religious phenomena in the MENA as an excuse to pigeonhole or dismiss careful arguments. At the same time, it underscores the possible linkage between positionality and the nature, and broader context for reception, of social scientific work with an emphasis on religious phenomena. Like human subjects review, willingness to self-examine and clarify one’s posture with respect to religious phenomena, rather than a burden, can be seen as a protection to maximise the possible analytical fairness and impact of a good argument.

If self-clarity around researchers’ position on MENA religious factors may be a useful starting point towards navigating the minefield it can represent, two other strategies that can help the research follow from this starting point. First, an awareness of one’s perspective and standing vis-à-vis religious phenomena can encourage further reflection about advantages and disadvantages in carrying out a particular project. For example, it could be that a non-Muslim religious identity may enjoy a combination of outsider status and credibility in interviewing Islamist actors in the MENA. Or, a researcher’s immediate religious community’s milieu may help frame his/her point of departure for a relevant inquiry on a subject like divorce law in Islam (Siddiqui 2012, Chapter 1).

More open awareness and discussion of the connection of researchers’ perspective on issues related to their inquiry on religious topics in the MENA not only is likely to hone research methodology and comparative advantage; it also can lead to fruitful collaboration. To the extent that particular positionality with respect to religious phenomena helps or hinders research, greater clarity and discussion of this can lead to the assembly of teams who can maximise different advantages, and minimise possible bias (or charges of bias).

In sum, it may run against the grain of some social scientists to be explicit about religious positionality. Nonetheless, some direct effort to at least think this question through holds out hope for a robust, self-aware, collaborative, cross-national research environment on issues very much in need of rational, open discourse. This is particularly important in the highly charged context of today’s MENA, where it is unlikely that even the most rigorous knowledge production will be perceived as without a context or agenda.

David Mednicoff is Assistant Professor of Public Policy at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst where he also directs the Middle Eastern Studies Programme.

[1] In thinking about the possible impact of religious identity of Middle Eastern social scientific research in which religion is of possible significance, I have alternated between the term “religion” and a more specific focus on Islam. This is for a reason. Because of the dominant demographic role of diverse Muslims in the MENA, as well as the global politicisation around Islam and Islamic politics, there are special grounds to focus on positionality with respect to Islam as a research topic. However, the issues I mention can be equally relevant with respect to other religions. Indeed, it may well be useful to focus on similarities around religion and social scientific questions in the MENA, such as parallels between actors pushing for political identity grounded in Judaism and Islam.

Work Cited

  • Huntington, Samuel. The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996.
  • Mallat, Chibli. Philosophy of Non-violence: Revolution, Constitutionalism and Justice beyond the Middle East. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015.
  • Lombardi, Clark. “Constitutional Provisions Making Shari’a ‘A’ or ‘The’ Chief Source of Legislation: Where do they come from? What do they mean? Do they matter?” American University International Law Review 28: 3, pp. 733-774, 2013.
  • March, Andrew. Islam and Liberal Citizenship: The Search for an Overlapping Consensus. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.
  • Masoud, Tarek. Counting Islam: Religion, Class and Elections in Egypt. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 2014.
  • Mednicoff, David, “The Politics of Sacred Paralysis: Constitutionalism in North Africa in the aftermath of 2011,” for Asli Bali and Hanna Lerner, eds., Constitution-Writing, Religion and Democracy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, forthcoming.
  • Moustafa, Tamir. Liberal Rights versus Islamic Law: The Construction of a Binary in Malaysian Politics, Law and Society Review, 47:4, pp. 771-802, 2013.
  • Nielson, Richard A., “Thoughts on the Ethics of Interventions when Studying Religion and Politics in the Middle East,” in Project on Middle East Political Science, The Ethics of Research in the Middle East, 2014.
  • Schwedler, Jillian. Faith in Moderation: Islamist Parties in Jordan and Yemen. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.
  • Siddiqui, Mona. The Good Muslim: Reflections of Classical Islamic Law and Theology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012.
  • Sultany, Nimer. ‘Religion and Constitutionalism: Lessons from American and Islamic Constitutionalism.’ Emory International Law Review, 28, pp. 345-424, 2014.
  • Wickham, Carrie Rosefsky. The Muslim Brotherhood: Evolution of an Islamist Movement. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013.

Other memos from the workshop


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Ribale Sleiman-Haidar

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