“Opinion leaders and policy-makers unfortunately have a tendency to equate Lebanese Shi‘ism with Hizbullah and to assume all Shi‘a are connected to Iran. My book documents very different dynamics. I do examine the spread of the Arab-Israeli conflict to Senegal, but this plays out differently in the diaspora than it does in Lebanon. I also illustrate the making of an indigenous African Shi‘ism that, while inspired by the Iranian revolution, does not aim to establish an Islamic government and overthrow Senegal’s secular state. It is important that policy-makers better understand the complexities of the dynamic – not static – Shi‘i Muslim world.” —– Mara Leichtman, Associate Professor of Anthropology at Michigan State University

by JULIE POUCHER HARBIN, EDITOR, ISLAMiCommentary with MARA LEICHTMAN on MARCH 18, 2016: 

Mara Leichtman

This past Fall, Mara Leichtman, Associate Professor of Anthropology at Michigan State University, published her latest book — Shi‘i Cosmopolitanisms in Africa: Lebanese Migration and Religious Conversion in Senegal (Indiana University Press, 2015). It followed her 2009 edited volume (with Mamadou Diouf) New Perspectives on Islam in Senegal: Conversion, Migration, Wealth, Power, and Femininity (Palgrave Macmillan).

Educated at the University of Michigan, Johns Hopkins University, and Brown University, Leichtman has been a visiting fellow at Zentrum Moderner Orient in Berlin, the International Institute for the Study of Islam in the Modern World in Leiden, the Netherlands, and the Ali Vural Ak Center for Global Islamic Studies at George Mason University.

How did she come to be interested in the topic of Lebanese Shi‘a in Senegal?

Leichtman told ISLAMiCommentary that while earning her master’s degree in international relations from the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University a professor gave her an article about the Lebanese community in Ivory Coast — knowing of her interests in both Africa and the Middle East. It piqued her curiosity.

So when she started the doctoral program in sociocultural anthropology at Brown University, she decided to research the Lebanese community in Abidjan.

“This was in 1999, when there was a coup d’état in Ivory Coast, which is what led me to Senegal, as a more stable option,” she said in a written interview with ISLAMiCommentary.

As her research got underway, Lebanese in Senegal regularly asked her why she wanted to study their community. In response she said she drew upon her origins in Michigan — and its significant Lebanese (and particularly Lebanese Shi‘i) community.

“My mother happened to work at the time with a woman of Lebanese origin who was born in a village in Senegal,” she said. “Lebanese in Senegal were delighted to hear of this personal connection.”

While she set out to study the Shi‘i Lebanese community in West Africa, she didn’t know in advance that she would also find Senegalese Shi‘i converts.

Senegal is predominantly Sunni Muslim (94%) following the Maliki school of jurisprudence with Sufi influences. While Shi‘i Muslims make up only a small minority of the population, Leichtman said the number is growing as Senegalese convert. (Christians make up about 5% of the Senegalese population, and an even smaller demographic continues to practice what is referred to as “African traditional religion.”)

It was the first Lebanese shaykh in Senegal, Shaykh Abdul Mun‘am al-Zayn, who initially told Leichtman that Senegalese were converting to Shi‘i Islam. She was able to eventually connect with Senegalese Shi‘i leaders through Walfadjri, a media conglomerate that hosted a weekly radio show featuring Muslims of different denominations and regularly invited various Senegalese Shi‘a to participate.

In this interview, Leichtman introduces us to these communities and the importance of learning more about them. Continue reading

by JULIE POUCHER HARBIN, EDITOR, ISLAMiCommentary on DECEMBER 21, 2015:

Rashid Khalidi talked with Shai Ginsburg about the role of the historian, his take on violence in the Middle East and his new book project on the hundred year war in Palestine — in this an interview recorded in October 2015 during Khalidi’s visit to Duke. Sponsored by the Duke University Middle East Studies Center, Khalidi’s visit also included a public lecture (Watch Here) and a faculty symposium (see Ginsburg’s remarks here) on his work.

Rashid Khalidi is the Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies in the Department of History at Columbia University. Shai Ginsburg is an Associate Professor in the Department of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies at Duke University and affiliated faculty with the Duke Islamic Studies Center. Continue reading

Column » ‘By the Book’ with Joseph Preville

by JOSEPH RICHARD PREVILLE and JULIE POUCHER HARBIN  for ISLAMiCommentary on DECEMBER 4, 2015:

Is there a more tragic country in the world today than Syria ?  How did it descend into chaos, conflict, and crisis?

John McHugo offers some answers in Syria: A History of the Last Hundred Years (The New Press, 2015).

McHugo is a historian, international lawyer, and Arabic linguist.  Born in Croydon, England, he was educated at Oxford University and The American University in Cairo. McHugo is the author of A Concise History of the Arabs (Saqi Books, 2013; republished by The New Press, 2014) and the forthcoming book “The Forked Scimitar: A Concise History of Sunnis and Shi’is” (Saqi Books, 2017). He is also an adviser to Tim Farron, the leader of the British Liberal Democrat Party, on peace in the Middle East.

The long story of Syria is marked by centuries of conquest. McHugo states that Syria “has constantly been ruled and occupied (and sometimes partitioned) by strong rulers who came from elsewhere.” In the last hundred years, Syria’s fate was determined by Western powers and the regional turmoil they created.

“It is not an exaggeration,” he writes, “to say that the actions of the great powers in the aftermath of the Great War and over the following decades deprived the people of Syria of any chance of a normal development to nationhood.”

John McHugo reviews Syria’s complex history and offers insight into its future in this timely interview. Continue reading


by JULIE POUCHER HARBIN, EDITOR, ISLAMiCommentary on SEPTEMBER 14, 2015: 

Earlier this month, the Duke Middle East Studies Center, in partnership with the Duke Center for Jewish Studies and the Duke University Program in Arts of the Moving Image,  screened Sajil Ana Arabi (“Write Down, I am an Arab”) — the 2014 documentary film about “one of the most influential writers of the Arab world” Mahmoud Darwish. It’s the ninth film of award-winning Israeli director Ibtisam Mara’ana-Menuhin.

As written in the official description of the film:

“Write Down, I am an Arab” tells the story of Mahmoud Darwish, the Palestinian national poet and one of the most influential writers of the Arab world. His writing shaped Palestinian identity and helped galvanize generations of Palestinians to their cause. Born in the Galilee, Darwish’s family fled during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War and returned a few years later to a ruined homeland. These early experiences would provide the foundation for a writing career that would come to define an entire nation. 

Like other Palestinian citizens of Israel at the time, Mahmoud Darwish grew up under military law that prevented freedom of movement. In 1964 his defiant poem, “Write Down, I am an Arab”, lands him in prison and turns him into an icon of the Arab world. At the same time, he meets and falls in love with Tamar Ben-Ami, a young Jewish-Israeli. He sends her intimate love letters in Hebrew which she keeps secret for decades. The affair ends when Tamar joins the army. 

Darwish leaves Israel in the 1970s, moving to Beirut just before the outbreak of the civil war, where he connects with the PLO leadership and becomes speech writer and confidant to Yasir Arafat. He returns to Palestine in 1995 after years of exile and continues to be the biting and powerful voice of the Palestinian people until his death in 2008. 

“Write Down, I am Arab” is a personal and social portrait of the poet and national myth, Mahmoud Darwish. Through his poetry, secret love letters, and exclusive archival materials, we unearth the story behind the man who became the mouthpiece of the Palestinian people.

Following the documentary screening, Shai Ginsburg (an associate professor of Asian & Middle Eastern Studies and Arts of the Moving Image at Duke University who researches Hebrew literature, Israeli Cinema, and critical theory) engaged the audience in a free-flowing discussion about the life of the famed writer and the literature and politics that informed his work, as well as the state of the Israeli film industry today.

ISLAMiCommentary conducted a written Q & A (below) with Ginsburg to elaborate on these themes and also spoke with miriam cooke (Braxton Craven Distinguished Professor of Arab Cultures at Duke University) about Darwish. Iraq-native Abdul Sattar Jawad (professor of comparative literature and Middle East studies at Duke University) traveled in some of the same Arab writer’s circles as Darwish from the ‘70s through to 2003. He got to know the writer personally, and has also added some of his reflections to the Q & A. Continue reading

“The role of highly-skilled and educated young people in vulnerable communities is not often the focus of established humanitarian policies and programs. This neglect persists despite the fact that the stability of the Middle East-North Africa region, as well as the rebuilding of post-conflict Syria, depends on maintaining the human and intellectual capital these young people represent.” (“The War Follows Them: Syrian University Students & Scholars in Lebanon” – Keith Watenpaugh/Adrienne L. Fricke/James R. King/IIE / UC Davis)

compiled by JULIE POUCHER HARBIN, EDITOR, ISLAMiCommentary and TIRN on JUNE 1, 2015: 

Keith Watenpaugh (Director of the University of California Davis Human Rights Center), spoke in April at Duke University on “Syria’s Lost Generation.” His presentation took place as part of Duke University’s Middle East Refugees Awareness Week, April 8-17, 2015 and was based on research he and colleagues conducted about Syrian university students and scholars (refugees) in Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan.

“We know from some pre-war statistics which are shaky at best that about 18% of the Syrian population between the ages of 16 and 24 go to some kind of secondary training, (including) universities. More city people go to university than people from the countryside,” he said, leading off his talk.

As of the date of the talk in April there were about 4 million Syrian refugees. WATCH WATENPAUGH’S TALK ABOVE. Links and information about his research below. Continue reading