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Baker Institute Update: The Politics of Identity Post-Arab Spring
March 13, 2015: In this edition
The politics of identity post-Arab Spring

What role do identity politics play in the changing Middle East? This question was the focus of the March 10 conference “Divided Societies, Volatile States: The Politics of Identity Post-Arab Spring,” hosted by the Baker Institute Center for the Middle East. The purpose of the conference, said founding director Ambassador Edward P. Djerejian in his opening remarks, was to “further our understanding of the past and present role of politics and identity and the many challenges facing this troubled region, and explore potential policies that can respond more effectively to the instability and division we currently see in the region.”
In his keynote address, Shibley Telhami, professor of international relations at the University of Maryland, College Park, and nonresident senior fellow at The Brookings Institution, explored changes in the way the peoples of the Middle East define or think about themselves. Telhami’s public opinion polling in the Arab world shows that in the years leading up to the Arab uprisings, from 2000 to 2010, there was a decline in national identity and a rise in Muslim identity — in other words, Arabs are increasingly choosing to identify themselves first and foremost as Muslims rather than as citizens of a particular country or region. This rise in Muslim identity, Telhami explained, is a reaction to events of the last decade — such as the the Iraq war and hostilities in Gaza — that made Arabs feel as though Islam was under attack. Another factor in this change is the rise of transnational media, such as the news outlet Al Jazeera, which give a voice to dissenting opinions and criticisms of Arab governments. Understanding how people in the Arab world define themselves is important, Telhami said, because “identity has practical consequences for people’s expectations about what their government should do.”
The conference also featured three panel presentations at which scholars from around the world discussed topics ranging from sectarianism in the Gulf and social reform for women in Egypt to the future of Israel. Panelist Frederic Wehrey, senior associate in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, noted the opportunities for policymakers to mitigate sectarianism. “I think we can be helpful in pressing these regimes for political reform — openness, reforming their media, political inclusivity,” he said.
Visit our website to view videos from the event and the speakers’ presentations.

Pictured above, from right to left: Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, fellow for the Middle East, Baker Institute; Frederic Wehrey, senior associate, Middle East Program, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace; Claire Beaugrand, postdoctoral researcher, Institut Français du Proche Orient; and Toby Matthiesen, research fellow in Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies, Cambridge University. To view more photos, visit our Facebook page.

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Rice University's Baker Institute for Public Policy is a nonpartisan, independent think tank in Houston, Texas. The institute's distinguished fellows and scholars conduct research and collaborate with experts from academia, government, the media, business and private organizations on domestic and foreign policy issues with the goal of bridging the gap between the theory and practice of public policy.
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