This revolution is a beginning
Like a migration, like a birth
This revolution is a bismillah,
Come on, finish the aya,
See how it improves on every reading
How each verse runs to the next
Passing the torch, without pause
So that tomorrow our lives will be the story of those
Who went to bed barefoot and woke up lords
(- Tamim Barghouti)

poster image: "Queen Nefertiti" by El Zeft, photo by Mia Gröndahl
poster image: “Queen Nefertiti” by El Zeft as photographed by Mia Gröndahl

A two-day event on the Arts of Revolution in the Middle East was held at Duke University on 28-29 March 2014. This Duke-UNC Consortium for Middle East Studies conference was opened by a benefit concert for Syrian children featuring pianist Malek Jandali, oud player and Duke Arabic instructor Azeddine Chergui, Duke cellist Jonathan Kramer and Duke student singers.

The conference explored the relationship between revolutionary politics and aesthetics, focusing on the democratic potential of popular forms of expression. Discussions revolved mainly around the Mediterranean uprisings that have been a site and source of new forms of expression, whether channeled through new media, written on walls, performed on bodies, or chanted in streets.

Art and activism came together with artists, as Moroccan political scientist Abdelhay Moudden aptly said, seeking to be the revolution. Art walked on the streets, inventing new histories. Resonances from each event reverberated around the region, creating a constellation of new social movements and globalizing the revolutionary repertoire. These movements removed several tyrants, but they have not yet changed the form of governance.

Hope, Egyptian academic and graphic designer Basma Hamdy told us, persists “like the passing torch,” despite the reversals, evasions and even mockery of the first sirens of freedom from praetorian rule.

University of Missouri-Columbia Arabic instructor and fiction writer Zaid Mahir’s description of the continued “evasive dissidence” Iraqi writers practice provided a sobering account of what happens when it is not the people but outsiders who topple the dictator.

Despite international attention, the role of social media in the revolutions was virtually absent from discussions.

Through presentations and performances, and during formal and informal discussions, participants from Egypt, Bahrain, Syria, Iraq, Libya, Morocco and Turkey charted regional expressions of spontaneous, eruptive freedom but also renewed repression.

They raised many questions:

  • In a region long accustomed to revolutions and their repression, are these events new or the return of the repressed?
  • Can the unprecedented utopian moments experienced during the early days of the revolutions be revived and become models for new forms of governance?
  • Is authoritarianism so entrenched in these cultures that new rulers may once again suppress new freedoms to protest, publish and speak across different sectors?
  • Have these movements created trans-regional networks or remained local?
  • Do Iraqi and Lebanese writers and artists provide guidance for how to deal with memories of national violence?
  • Does post-Soviet Russia teach lessons on how artists adapt to the lifting of control?
  • Can scholars avoid narratives of disaster before the outcomes of revolution have become clear?
  • Can scholars exploit the new possibilities that revolutionary artistic labor provides for opening up the public sphere?
  • How can scholars hold on to the optimism that Arab artists, writers and poets like Tamim Barghouti have expressed about their revolutions?

We anticipate continuing conversations at Rabat in a sequel conference “Arab Spring: Memory or Event?” at Muhammad V University 28-30 May 2014.

To facilitate those conversations here is an overview of major issues:

1] Artistic Production

What is the relationship between art and revolution? What are the similarities and differences between the uprisings in North Africa and Western Asia on the one hand and the parallel uprisings in Greece and Spain on the other? The first were called Intifadas, Arab Spring and Revolutions; the second “Los/as indignadas/os” and not revolutions. Why did the Greek and Spanish uprisings not generate the kind of artistic responses witnessed in the south and west of the Mediterranean? What does it mean for some arts of revolution to be recognized as important and lucrative?

2] Colonial Legacies

Independence struggles did not produce free nations but rather dictatorships and persistent racism. The recent events in the Mediterranean revolved around the struggle for material wellbeing, but importantly also for human dignity stolen under foreign rule and not restored under local rulers.

3] Neo-liberalism

Artist-activists around the Mediterranean were united in their rejection of neo-liberal policies: the “indignado/as” in South Europe took to the streets to protest the consequences of financialization; the Arab and Turkish demonstrators protested privatization/ gentrification, a first stage in neo-liberal designs. The spectacle of the Gezi uprisings marked a moment of tension within globalization: the new critical space may not have changed the state but it did change the culture.

4] Definitions

a) Revolution

What does “revolution” mean? Does the term appropriately describe the social movements around the Mediterranean? Or, does it falsely appropriate liberation struggles, serving to erase from our memories the reality of African and Asian struggles for decolonization? Those struggles do not fit into the history of Western Revolutions in America, France and Russia. How can the unprecedented utopian moments in the heart of the events be revived? Do such moments delineate the outlines of new political forms to replace the exhausted idea of democracy? How to track the appropriation of key words in uprisings, protests, and revolutions? To use “revolution” to name the Mediterranean events connects with the American and Haitian Revolutions that launched decolonial projects. French-Algerian political philosopher Frantz Fanon described revolutionary struggle as ultimately uncertain and unstable: “Everything used to be so simple before: the bad people were on one side, and the good on the other.”

b) “Arts of Revolution”

What does “art” in the expression “arts of revolution” mean? Artistic responses to the uprisings against dictators and neoliberal policies have turned artists into agents of change. Some resorted to deep histories, including Pharaonic and Phoenician, to represent the recent events. Others adapted internationally legible art forms. Notably, they deployed graffiti and rap with their roots in Black American protest movements to perform their anger and rejection of authoritarian rule. How does NC State University sociologist Shea McManus’ analysis of the Lebanese toilet installation reflect and differ from iconic European classics like French-American conceptual artist Marcel Duchamp’s pissoir?

5] Overarching Issues

a) Art vs. Scholarship of Revolution

What connects “art of revolution” and “scholarship of revolution”? What kinds of collaborations between scholars and artists of revolution are possible? Does Turkish filmmaker Halil Altindere‘s intention in producing “Wonderland”  matter? How can scholars make artistic inquiry and emotion relevant to the humanities and the social sciences?

b) Crisis of Democracy

University of Michigan-Ann Arbor professor and Libyan poet Khaled Mattawa called for a new social contract in the new hybrid states of the Mediterranean. Yet, the social contract is a crucial metaphor for Nation-State governance. Eighteenth century Swiss political philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau imagined social contracts among individuals who were European, male, Christian and white. British feminist and political theorist Carole Paterman has countered Rousseau’s social contract with “the sexual contract” and American philosopher Charles Mills further introduced “the racial contract” in his book of the same name. Indigenous scholars and activists in the South American Andes also demand – for themselves and their society - a “communal contract.” Democracy is today in a crisis that affects both Western and post-independence nations where the nation-state was a tool of coloniality. Can a re-imagined social contract include racial, sexual and communal contracts?

c) Gender

The ubiquity of aesthetic tropes laced with political meanings is evident; such as the images of the woman in the red dress in Gezi being doused with tear gas by a soldier  (mentioned by Turkish writer and activist Surayya Evren in his talk on Gezi resistance).

d) Memory

Walls have become lieux de memoire where artists paint martyrs with angel wings. Initially, ephemeral (sometimes guerrilla) memorializations can become the basis of national public memory. Historical parallels are critical in order to endow new protests with new meanings.

e) Disorientation

As police states begin to crack, local artists come to terms with the freedom to speak directly — without subterfuge. Parallel trends evolve: new individuals express themselves in rap, graffiti and street performances, while longtime underground artists and political organizers can express themselves freely. Do we hear echoes of the Prague Spring, of other 1989 revolutions, of counter-revolutions that constrain artists after the euphoria has passed?

Watch this space for more video clips from the conference. Here’s a link to the full conference on iTunes University. Check back daily as this collection continues to be updated and added to. 

miriam cooke is Braxton Craven Distinguished Professor of Arab Cultures at Duke University. She is author of several books, most recently “Tribal Modern: Branding New Nations in the Arab Gulf” (University of California Press, January 21, 2014). Other books include “Dissident Syria: Making Oppositional Arts Official” (Duke, 2007) and “Nazira Zeineddine: Biography of an Islamic Feminist Pioneer” (Oneworld, 2010). She is also a regular contributor to ISLAMiCommentary.

Erdağ Göknar is Associate Professor of Turkish & Middle Eastern Studies at Duke University and core faculty member of the Duke Islamic Studies Center. Göknar teaches the popular “Geopolitics & Culture from Bosnia to Afghanistan” course in the fall and co-leads the Duke in Turkey undergraduate summer program. Orhan Pamuk, Secularism and Blasphemy: The Politics of the Turkish Novel (Routledge, 2013) is his latest book. He is also a regular contributor to ISLAMiCommentary.

Charles Kurzman (in opening remarks in video at top) is a Professor of Sociology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and author of “The Missing Martyrs: Why There Are So Few Muslim Terrorists” (Oxford University Press, 2011). He is also co-director of UNC Chapel Hill’s Carolina Center for the Study of the Middle East and Muslim Civilizations and a regular contributor to ISLAMiCommentary.

Claudia Koonz is Professor of History, emeritus, at Duke University. Koonz’s interests are in 20th Century German History, Women’s History, and genocide. She is currently writing a transnational study of the debates about the Muslim headscarf in France, Britain, and Germany. 

Bruce Lawrence served as the Nancy and Jeffrey Marcus Humanities Professor of the Humanities at Duke University and is currently Professor Emeritus of Religion at Duke University. His research ranges from institutional Islam to Indo-Persian Sufism and also encompasses the comparative study of religious movements. He was founding director of the Duke Islamic Studies Center and currently serves on the DISC Advisory Board. He was a Carnegie Scholar of Islam from 2008-2010. His recent books have included On Violence – A Reader (with Aisha Karim); Messages to the World, The Statements of Osama Bin Laden; The Quran, A Biography; and, with his spouse, miriam cooke, Muslim Networks from Hajj to Hip Hop. His forthcoming book will be “Who is Allah?” (UNC Press, 2015).

Ellen McLarney (in opening remarks in video at top) is an Assistant Professor of Arabic Literature and Culture, and core faculty with the Duke Islamic Studies Center. Her forthcoming book “Writing Revival: Women in Egypt’s Islamic Awakening” is about Islamist women in Egypt who write about women’s liberation, freedom, equality, and rights in the context of Islam. 

Walter D. Mignolo is an Argentine semiotician (École des Hautes Études) and professor at Duke University, who has published extensively on semiotics and literary theory, and worked on different aspects of the modern and colonial world, exploring concepts such as global coloniality, the geopolitics of knowledge, transmodernity, border thinking, and pluriversality. 


Abstracts and full bios of most of the conference participants can be found here. A Storify of the conference can be found here. 


The 2014 annual conference of the Duke-UNC Middle East Studies Consortium “Arts of Revolution” was co-sponsored by the Duke Middle East Studies Center; the Carolina Center for the Study of the Middle East and Muslim Civilizations (UNC-Chapel Hill); the Duke Islamic Studies Center; and the Duke Asian & Middle Eastern Studies Department. This even was also part of the Arts of Revolution series, a “Humanities Writ Large” project funded by the Mellon Foundation. 

This article was made possible by the Transcultural Islam Project, an initiative launched in 2011 by the Duke Islamic Studies Center —in partnership with the Carolina Center for the Study of the Middle East and Muslim Civilizations and the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies— aimed at deepening understanding of Islam and Muslim communities. See and for more information. The Transcultural Islam Project is funded by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

Other web sites may re-publish this article as long as there is source attribution (author and ISLAMiCommentary) and a link back to ISLAMiCommentary.



Muhammed Haron (left) and Gil Merkx
Muhammed Haron (left) and Gil Merkx

Many Muslim institutions of higher learning have emerged on the African continent over the past few decades. These institutions have in one way or another made their contributions towards the societies and environments where they are situated. Despite the noble objectives of some that were set up, the objectives often have been unrealized as a result of a lack of financial and other resources. There have, however, been other institutions that have flourished and made invaluable inputs to their respective communities.

It is hard to find a text that adequately covers these institutions, even in places where one might expect it, including in Paul Scrijver’s authoritative Bibliography of Islam in Sub-Saharan Africa (Leiden: E.J. Brill 2009),

So when Duke University’s Duke Islamic Studies Center (DISC) announced a workshop to discuss and engage scholars on “Islamic Institutions of Higher Learning in Africa: Their History, Mission and Role in Regional Development,” there were eager responses to participate in what may be regarded as an oft-neglected area of Islamic studies research. The Duke Islamic Studies Center and its Carnegie Corporation of New York-supported Transcultural Islam Project (to be explained in-depth later in this paper) offered an interesting platform for this exploratory workshop.

AfricaIslamGraphicThe workshop organizers, under the co-directorship of Duke professors Mbaye Lo and Bruce Hall, hosted a group of scholars who came from different parts of the continent (and elsewhere from the US and Europe) — scholars who have been evaluating these types of institutions’ status in the transnational Muslim arena.

The organizers were interested to know, inter alia, to what extent these institutions were involved in pursuing research, perpetuating traditional Muslim scholarship, and creatively contributing towards the society’s economic development.

With these noble aims and objectives in mind, let us offer an overview in this report of our two-day workshop at Duke University. (Other sponsors included the International Institute of Islamic Thought  (headquartered in Virginia); The Africa Initiative (Duke); Asian & Middle Eastern Studies (Duke); African & Afro-American Studies (Duke); Duke History Department; Duke Religion Department; Center for Muslim Life (Duke); Franklin Humanities Institute (Duke), Duke Center for International Development; The Kenan Institute for Ethics; Duke Divinity School; and Duke University Center for International Studies.)

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