Call for Papers - Untangling Popular Power: Rhetoric, Faith, and Social Order in the Middle East - March 2-3, 2019

September 16, 2018


The Institute for Religion, Culture and Public Life (IRCPL) at Columbia University in collaboration with Columbia Global Centers | Amman and co-sponsored by our partners in Europe, are organizing a conference entitled Untangling Popular Power: Rhetoric, Faith, and Social Order in the Middle East.

The conference will consider various forms of popular power in the Middle East and North Africa by examining how populism is defined, the role of modern populist movements like anti-colonial struggles or popular anti-regime uprisings, how the use of religious identity has shaped these movements, and the relationship between populist ambitions and various media platforms, from print to broadcast to digital.

As “populism” itself becomes a significant force, both rhetorically and politically, across the world and in the region, the need for interdisciplinary scholarship across the MENA region is vital. This forum aims to explore the extent to which recently emerging populisms in the contemporary Middle East are illustrative of a new historical trend, and/or the extent to which they are a continuation of the diverse strategies for the mobilization of peoples that were deployed during international anti-colonial projects and civil rights movements. It will examine the intersection of populist and religious discourses and the relationship of secular and religious activists to political and social power, as well as the implications of the different strains of emerging populism on globalization, liberal institutions, human rights, and the media.

Although “populism” is a contested term, here we use it to characterize political trends in which leaders mobilize social groups for political action through rhetoric(s) that weave together emotionally charged themes into a message of economic uplift, nationalism, the wresting of power from entrenched elites, and the protection of an authentic way of life.

The two-day conference will be held at Columbia Global Centers | Amman and aims to provide a forum for scholars, local experts, advanced doctoral students, activists and practitioners to investigate these themes and track how populism that uses religious discourse is being variously deployed across the MENA region. Following the conference, select participants will be invited to contribute a revised and extended version of their papers to an edited book volume and other online writing fora.

The conference invites contributions from academics, NGO organizations, religious leaders, and civil society members who work in and on the MENA region. Contributors are invited to submit abstracts for the following thematic panels with a suggested range of topics for each panel.

Language and Meaning: Conceptualizing Popular Politics in the Middle East

  • Meanings and connotations of the term “populism” in the various contexts and languages of the Middle East and North Africa
  • Ways in which populist movements envision community and authenticity and target particular social groups (e.g. religious communities, ethnic groups, and economic classes)
  • Discourses of nationalism, civil rights, equality, religion, secularism, and methods used to promote cleavages of identity in the pursuit of populist objectives

The Past in the Present: Historical Perspectives on Populism

  • Contemporary populist movements in the region as a new phenomenon
  • Populist movements of the past
  • Differences between MENA and European/American populist ideologies

Mobilizing the Faithful: The Role of Religion and Religious Identity in Popular Politics

  • Role of religious leaders and religious communities
  • Use of religion and religious identity by populist leaders and movements to pursue national, economic, and social objectives
  • Politicization of religious tropes through populist lenses activating previously dormant populations of political actors

Media(ted) Populism

  • Contribution of traditional media and social media to contentious politics and social movements, in the past and today
  • Populist rhetoric employed across media platforms - newspapers, television, the web, and others
  • Religious dimensions in media environments
  • Tension between populist figures and media and the question of “illegitimate” or “fake” media.

Bread, Dignity, and Social Justice: The Economics of Populism

  • Divergent framings of welfare and who is mobilized around such claims
  • Role of global and local financial crises in rise of populist movements
  • Negotiation of Islamist economic ideas and global political economy
  • Economic precariousness and inaccessibility of resources correlated with changing views of what constitutes legitimate use of authority in MENA

More information can be found on the IRCPL website here.


Abstracts should be 250 words maximum in length. They should be titled and have all requisite bibliographic citations. Along with the abstract, please include a detailed, recent Curriculum Vitae/resume (no longer than 3 pages). Arabic and English papers will be accepted.

Abstracts will be evaluated according to the following categories: originality of theme, clear data and methodology, clarity and relevance of the proposal to the conference theme. To submit your abstract, please send them to [email protected] with the subject line of the email titled “Populism Middle East Abstract” by November 30, 2018.


Deadline for abstract: November 30, 2018

Deadline for final paper submission: Tuesday, January 15, 2019

For any enquiries regarding the conference program, please contact: K. Soraya Batmanghelichi at [email protected].

For all general enquiries, please contact: Walid Hammam, Associate Director of IRCPL at [email protected] and Ahmad Mousa at [email protected], Columbia Global Centers.


Co-sponsored by:

University of Oslo – IKOS

University of Groningen – Centre for Religion, Conflict, and Globalization

Sciences Po, Centre for International Studies (CERI)

Alliance Program – Columbia University