Future of the Middle East conference

2 – 4 November 2016
8.30 am to 5.00 pm
Melbourne Burwood Campus

The Middle East Studies Forum is proud to host a major national conference to explore the challenges facing the Middle East. Speakers will address questions such as: Will the region’s sectarian divide continue to widen? What future do minorities and women have in the region? Will democratic change come from within? And what does the future hold?

Conference information

The Middle East has experienced endless turmoil since the turn of the millennium. In the past 16 years, the region has endured international intervention, the rise of sectarian conflict, civil wars, drought, the Iran nuclear threat, collapsed oil prices and structural economic challenges. The Arab Spring—once hailed as the region’s great grassroots push for democracy—failed to banish dictatorship from the region, instead leading to conflicts in Libya, Syria and Yemen, renewed dictatorship in Egypt, and leaving international terrorist groups in charge of large swathes of territory across the region. Key indicators of development, liberty, tolerance and equality have simultaneously declined.

Yet glimmers of hope remain. Tunisia has become a rare democratic outpost, while last month’s Iranian election returned the largest number of female deputies to parliament since the 1979 revolution. Likewise, within days of the the short-lived 2016 Syrian ceasefire beginning, war ravaged pro-democracy protesters returned to the streets across the country.

This complex environment prompts us to bring together leading scholars from across Australia to ask about the future of the Middle East. Some of the key questions to be addressed may include:

  • What is the trajectory of political developments in the region?
  • What does this mean for the future of the nation-state?
  • Will the sectarian conflict continue to build?
  • What future do democratic values have in the Middle East?
  • To what extent is extremism setting the agenda, and where are the voices of resistance located?
  • What are the ramifications for women and minorities?

The conference will be structured as follows:

  • 2 November – PhD presentations and postgraduate workshops (everyone welcome)
  • 3-4 November – Full conference

Conference details

Keynote speakers

Looking for green shoots in the Middle East
Anthony Bubalo (Deputy Director, Lowy Institute)

There has been a tendency amongst policymakers and casual observers of the Middle East to misdiagnose the causes of the region’s current disorder. Typically the focus has been on the rise of movements, whether democratic, Islamist or jihadist, that have challenged the status quo. But the current turmoil is less about the strength of these movements and more about the weakness of the modern Arab state. This presentation will argue that more turmoil can be expected because the fracturing and in some cases total collapse of Arab states is likely to continue. Against this background the right policy for Western countries is neither to withdraw from the region nor to pursue grandiose schemes for regional transformation. The West needs to identify indigenous, ‘green shoots’ of positive change in the region, and work with local actors to create more stable and durable political and economic orders over the long term.
Anthony Bubalo is the Deputy Director and Research Director at the Lowy Institute for International Policy. He manages the Institute's research output, including the commissioning and editorial processes. In his time at the Institute he has produced research on Middle East - Asia linkages, Islamism, democratisation and terrorism. Before joining the Lowy Institute Anthony was an officer of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. He served in Australian diplomatic missions in Saudi Arabia and Israel and was Middle East Analyst with the Office of National Assessments from 1996 to 1998.

The Saudi Arabia-Iran Divide: An unholy trinity of politics, religion and security
Emeritus Professor Joseph Camilleri (La Trobe University)

Much has been said and written about the so-called rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia, without necessarily shedding much light on the phenomenon. Some have sought to explain it by placing the spotlight on geopolitical power play between two actual or aspiring regional centres of power. Others have focused on the dynamics of regime survival, while others still have turned their attention to the Sunni-Shia conflict. No doubt all three factors play a part but they do not, either singly or collectively, offer an adequate explanation of the nature of the rivalry – if that is the best way of characterising the relationship – let alone of its causes or consequences.

This paper seeks to remedy this gap first by directing attention to the two entities themselves. Who or what exactly are the key protagonists in this contest? Is it the current political class in each country, the Saudi monarchy and the Iranian clerical establishment? Or is it two societies situated in their respective political histories, with their distinct cultures, and opposing religious and political traditions? In any case, are we right to confine our attention to the forces at work within the boundaries of these two states. Or, as the paper will argue, should we also consider the larger unstable environment of the Middle East, with its various tensions and unresolved conflicts, and beyond that the ubiquitous presence and policies of the United States, and more recently Russia’s re-emergence in the region?  In reality there is no option but to place the Saudi-Iranian relationship within a conceptual framework that takes account of three salient factors: the often neglected but complex entwining of so-called domestic and external influences; the erroneous characterisation of the Saudi-Arabian relationship as symmetrical, when in fact what is most glaring about the relationship are its asymmetries; and the state of flux that currently pervades not just the two regimes, but the entire Middle East, and the elusive yet critically important relationship between Orient and Occident.


Professor Joseph Anthony Camilleri OAM is Emeritus Professor at La Trobe University, where he held the Chair in International Relations. He was founding Director of the Centre for Dialogue, La Trobe University (2006-2012). Joseph Camilleri is also Managing Director of Alexandria Agenda, a new venture in ethical consulting offering services in the areas of sustainability, diversity and education. He has written some 20 major books, including The UN Alliance of Civilizations in Asia - South Pacific: Current Context and Future Pathways (2014); Culture, Religion and Conflict in Muslim Southeast Asia (Routledge 2013); Human Security Matters (2012); Religion and Ethics in a Globalising World: Conflict, Dialogue and Transformation (Palgrave MacMillan, 2011); Worlds in Transition: Evolving Governance Across a Stressed Planet (Edward Elgar 2009). Professor Camilleri is a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Social Sciences.

The Politics of Heritage Destruction under the ‘Islamic State’
A/Prof Ben Isakhan (Deakin University)

In late February 2015, the world was shocked by a slick propaganda film in which members of the terrorist organisation, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), could be seen destroying invaluable artefacts from Iraq’s rich and diverse past in the Mosul Museum. In fact, such events are indicative of a much broader phenomenon in which groups like ISIS are actively targeting some of the world’s most important and sensitive heritage sites. In both Syria and Iraq, ISIS have been responsible for the mass looting of ancient archaeological sites and the destruction of ancient buildings and statues. They have also destroyed untold numbers of religious sites that do not conform to their strict vision including churches, mosques, shrines and temples. Overwhelmingly, the heritage destruction undertaken by ISIS and others has been framed as barbaric acts of wanton destruction as the global community has struggled to understand and interpret, let alone craft suitable policy responses to, these acts of heritage destruction. This paper argues that the acts of heritage destruction conducted by ISIS are far from random moments of barbarity and are instead motivated by a very carefully crafted political ideology. This paper will document some of the most extreme instances of heritage destruction undertaken by ISIS and seeks to articulate a framework for interpreting the politics of this heritage destruction. It argues that underpinning ISIS attacks on heritage sites is a three-pronged ideology: sites are attacked as part of a broader campaign of cultural genocide in which non-Muslim minorities such as Yezidi’s and Christians and their heritage sites are to be removed; sites are attacked along ethno-religious sectarian lines, in which Shia heritage sites are deliberately attacked as proxies for the fight against the Shia-Allawite government in Syria, the Shia dominated government in Baghdad and the broader geo-political struggle against Iran and other Shia entities (Hezbollah and various Shia militias); sites are attacked because of the iconoclasm of religious fundamentalism in which any pre-Islamic polytheism or post-Islamic religious ‘innovation’ is deemed heretical according to the strictest interpretations of Islam.


Benjamin Isakhan is Associate Professor of Politics and Policy Studies and member of the Alfred Deakin Research Institute for Citizenship and Globalization at Deakin University, Australia. He is also Adjunct Senior Research Associate, Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Johannesburg, South Africa. He is the author of Democracy in Iraq: History, Politics, Discourse (Routledge, 2016 [2012]) and the editor of six books including, most recently, The Legacy of Iraq: From the 2003 War to the ‘Islamic State’ (Edinburgh University Press & Oxford University Press, 2016 [2015]). He is a leading expert and regular commentator on Middle Eastern Politics, Democracy and Democratisation across the Middle East, and Heritage Destruction in the Middle East. Ben’s current research includes a three-year funded project entitled ‘Measuring Heritage Destruction in Iraq and Syria’.

The impacts of the Syrian Refugee Crisis
Dr Benjamin Macqueen (Monash University)

By July 2016, the UNHCR had registered over 4.8 million Syrians as refugees from the current conflict, in addition to an estimated 7 million internally displaced persons. This represents, arguably, the most significant humanitarian crisis since WWII. Whilst attention has largely been fixated on Syrian refugees entering Europe, the vast majority of Syrian refugees remain in the proximate to conflict (PTC) states of Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq. There has been little investigation into the international support mechanisms for these states, the regulatory frameworks these states have employed to manage this mass refugee influx and, critically, the impacts of this influx on these states. This paper will provide an overview of an on-going research project into these issues. In particular, it seeks to highlight how each state has developed ad hoc regulatory mechanisms for the management of mass refugee influx as a means to mitigate its potentially destabilising effects. Whilst this has provided a degree of short-term stability, the intractable nature of the Syrian conflict means that longer-term solutions are required, but likely unattainable. Combined with growing ‘donor fatigue’, these states and the millions of highly vulnerable Syrian refugees in their borders face a highly uncertain future.


Dr Benjamin MacQueen is Head of the Department of Politics and International Relations, Monash University. His research is focussed on factors affecting political change and continuity in the Middle East. His most recent publications include ‘Questioning Consociationialism: Electoral Law Reform Inertia in Lebanon’ (Middle East Policy 23[3] 2016), ‘Peacebuilding and the “Responsibility to Rebuild?”’ (AJPS 51[2] 2016), ‘Democratisation, Elections and the De Facto State Dilemma: Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government’ (Cooperation and Conflict50[4] 2015), ‘Refugees and Political Stability in Lebanon’ (Ortadoğu Etŭtlerī 4[1] 2014) and An Introduction to Middle East Politics (London: Sage, 2013).

Violent extremism and the state from a Yemeni perspective
Dr Sarah Phillips (University of Sydney)

To most Western observers, al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is a non-state terrorist network that targets Western interests and the ability of the Yemeni state to contain it. Its resilience derives, in part, from the outlet that it provides for disaffected Yemenis, therefore benefiting from a ‘natural base’ of Yemeni popular support. AQAP is framed as an outcrop of the violence, insecurity, and poverty that is endemic to Yemeni society, which can be countered only by strengthening the writ of the state.

Yemeni discourses, on the other hand, reject the notion that AQAP is always a non-state actor. In Yemen, al-Qa’ida is widely seen as a pliable entity, at times, exercising little independent agency. Yemeni discourses implicitly reject the notion that private Yemeni citizens bear the weight of responsibility for the emergence and resilience of AQAP. Instead they emphasise the power of the Yemeni state to manipulate violent extremists – and the naivety of Western actors for assuming that the state is (or at least was, under former President Ali Abdullah Saleh) too weak to defeat AQAP. They suggest that the regime’s failure to defeat the group was at least partly intentional, and was made possible by Western norms of statehood that are enacted through counterterrorism practices.


Sarah Phillips is a Senior Lecturer in the Centre for International Security Studies at The University of Sydney and holds two grants from the Australian Research Council. Her main research interests include the securitisation of development, post-colonial perspectives on international relations, and the politics of contemporary state-building and donor aid. Sarah has conducted extensive fieldwork in the Middle East and the Horn of Africa – particularly in Yemen, Somaliland, Kenya, Jordan, Pakistan, and Oman. 

Middle-Easternisation of Turkish Political Culture in 2010s and Future of Islam, Secularism and Democracy in the Middle East
Professor Ihsan Yilmaz (Deakin University) 

After briefly analysing the main domestic factors that paved the way for the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) departure from democracy since its third general election victory in 2011, this paper tries to shed some light on the impact of the “Arab Spring” on the Turkish ruling party AKP, Turkish foreign and domestic politics and Turkey’s Islamist groups’ understanding of the Middle East, secularism, democracy and extremism. The paper argues that “Arab Spring” process is one of the factors that radicalized Turkish political culture that, since 2010, has been moving away fast from democratic values to Islamist and “Salafist” extremism. In concluding, the paper asks in what ways the so-called Turkish model’s (compatibility of Islam and democracy) collapse will have ramifications in the Middle Eastern state-society-Islam relations. 


Ihsan Yilmaz is Research Professor and Chair of Islamic Studies and Intercultural Dialogue at Deakin University, Australia. He was Professor of Political Science at Istanbul Fatih University between 2008-2016, Lecturer in Law at SOAS, University of London between 2001-2008 and research scholar at Center for Islamic Studies, University of Oxford between 1999-2001. His most recent book is (2015) From Kemalism to Erdoganism: Religion, State and Good Citizen in Turkey (in Turkish). He is also the author of (2005) Muslim Laws, Politics and Society in Modern Nation States: Dynamic Legal Pluralisms in England, Turkey and Pakistan.

The politics of economic reform in Saudi Arabia and the Arab Gulf - Can the 'Visions' become reality?
Dr Kristian Coates Ulrichsen (The Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice University, Houston) 

This keynote puts the attempts by Arab Gulf States and Iran to launch large-scale development programs into historical and comparative context. Strategic ‘visions’ have been a hallmark of regional policymaking for more than two decades but persistent difficulties in implementation have meant that the plans have fallen far short of intended outcomes. By focusing on the practical and political challenges of technocratic and economic reforms, using specific examples to illustrate broader thematic points, this address analyses what the current generation of officials need to do differently in order to secure more favourable and sustainable results. 

Although the prolonged fall in oil prices has opened a ‘window of opportunity’ to introduce politically and economically sensitive reforms, the urgency of the fiscal pressures on budgets on both sides of the Gulf means there is little margin for error, and it is vital that decision-makers absorb the lessons from the flawed earlier attempts at reform that did not adequately link their economic and political dimensions. The urgency of the fiscal pressures that face Middle Eastern oil producing states means that policymakers no longer have the luxury of the slow pace of incremental change that has characterized previous episodes of reform in GCC states.


Dr Kristian Coates Ulrichsen is the Fellow for the Middle East at the Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice University in Houston and an Associate Fellow at the Royal Institute of International Affairs – Chatham House in London. His research spans the history, politics, international relations, and international political economy of Arab Gulf States and their changing position within the global order. Coates Ulrichsen is the author of five books, including Insecure Gulf: The End of Certainty and the Transition to the Post-Oil Era (2011), Qatar and the Arab Spring (2014), two books on the First World War in the Middle East, and, most recently, the Gulf States in International Political Economy (2015). His forthcoming book, The United Arab Emirates: Power, Politics and Policymaking, will be published by Routledge in January 2017.

Conference committee

Professor Shahram Akbarzadeh

Professor Shahram Akbarzadeh
(Conference convenor)

Professor Fethi Mansouri

Professor Fethi Mansouri

Dr James Barry

Dr James Barry

 Ms Dara Conduit

Ms Dara Conduit
(conference secretary)

Registration details

Registration will close on 27 October. Pricing is as follows:

  • EARLY BIRD REGISTRATION (register before September 15)
  • Student 3 day attendance
  • 2-4 November (includes post graduate day on November 2) : $200
  • Student 1 day attendance 2 November (postgraduate day only) : $100 
  • Full Price 3 day attendance 2-4 November (includes postgraduate day on November 2) : $300
  • Full Price 2 day attendance 2-4 November : $250
  • NORMAL REGISTRATION (register after September 15)
  • Student 3 day attendance 2-4 November (includes postgraduate day on November 2) : $250
  • Student 1 day attendance 2 November (postgraduate day only) : $150
  • Full Price 3 day attendance 2-4 November (includes postgraduate day on November 2) : $350
  • Full Price 2 day attendance 2-4 November : $300

Conference dinner

Thursday November 3, 6:30pm
The Point (Mrs. Robinson)
Deakin University's Burwood Campus
221 Burwood Highway,
Cost: $50/head for a two course meal.

Getting there

Deakin University’s Burwood campus can be accessed in a number of ways:


Daily paid parking is available on campus in ‘general permit parking’ spots.


The campus is located close to the Lilydale/Belgrave, Glen Waverley and Alamein train lines.

  • If catching the Lilydale/Belgrave line, get off at Box Hill Railway Station and take the 732, 767, 281 or 768 bus to the Melbourne Burwood Campus.
  • If on the Glen Waverley line, disembark at Jordanville Station and take the 767 bus to campus.
  • If you're travelling on the Alamein line, get off at either Hartwell or Burwood Station and take the 75 tram.

For timetable information and connections please check the the Public Transport Victoria (PTV) website


The #75 tram stops right in front of the campus.


PuntHill Burwood apartments 

Located a 6 minute walk from campus

Address: 300 Burwood Hwy, Burwood VIC 3125

Phone: +61 (3) 8088 2088

Web: http://www.punthill.com.au/

On campus accommodation

Studio apartment ($87/night (1-2 nights), $69/night (3-7 nights)

Phone: +61 (3) 9251 7671

Email: bsradmin@deakin.edu.au

Camberwell Serviced apartments

Close to the 75 tram route, 15-20 minutes from campus

Address: 85 Camberwell Road, East Hawthorn, Victoria 3123.

Phone: +61 (3) 9861 8400

Web: http://www.camberwell-apartments.com/

Quest Hawthorn

Close to the 75 tram route, 15-20 minutes from campus

Address: 616 Glenferrie Rd, Hawthorn VIC 3122

Phone: +61 (3) 8803 7700

Web: www.questhawthorn.com.au

Accepted abstracts

Harout Akdedian - The New Social Order in Syria: Perceptions of radicalisation and local narratives of ethno-religious relations

By the end of 2013, the Syrian uprising had devolved into a widespread civil war between different armed groups including radicalised Islamic organisations that have emerged as the most potent and effective armed factions challenging the regime. In this process of conflict escalation, contradictory reports emerged in academia and media alike about the sectarian nature of the war.

This paper explores how Syrians perceive, experience and reconstruct religious-based differences in the face of radicalised Islamic groups. Based on three field trips to Syria and Lebanon in 2011, 2013 and 2014, the paper presents interviews from a cross-section of Syrian ethno-religious groups that illustrate perceptions of radicalisation and sectarianism. These interviews provide an evidential base for understanding the social impact of radicalised Islamic groups, local perceptions of ethno-religious relations, and the emerging social order.


Harout Akdedian is currently undertaking his doctoral research on radicalisation in Syria at the University of New England and conducting fieldwork with displaced Syrians in Lebanon. He has a BA in Political Science and a Masters in International Law and Settlement of Disputes. He was a research fellow at the Human Rights Center in Costa Rica, and worked as a freelance journalist in Syria and Lebanon. He has published and taught in Islamic Studies, Middle East Politics, Peace and Conflict studies and International Law.

Rebecca Barlow - Where is the Iranian Women’s Movement Heading?

Ten years ago, in August 2006, the Iranian women’s movement launched the One Million Signatures Campaign calling on the government to align national laws with its international treaty obligations on women’s human rights. The Campaign caught the attention of international headlines due to its ambitious goal and forthright use of human rights discourse. At the same time, ijtihad – dynamic innovation of Islam’s holy sources – was central to the methodology of the Campaign. This paper provides a retrospective analysis of the Campaign’s goals and strategies, the constraints it faced, where it succeeded, where it failed, and why. Although the Campaign experienced some success at grassroots awareness-raising, it failed to mount an effective effort at upwards advocacy to impact legislative change for women’s rights. This failure was, in part, the result of extreme external pressure from state forces that inhibited Campaign activities. The experience of the Campaign brings under scrutiny the efficacy of lobbying upwards for change in the existing power structure of the Islamic Republic, even if those efforts are framed within the confines of political Islam. With this in mind, this paper will consider the question of where the women’s movement might be heading in terms of strategy and approach as it progresses past the One Million Signatures Campaign towards the overarching goal of achieving gender equality in Iran.


Rebecca Barlow is a Senior Research Fellow at the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation. She works on the politics of women’s human rights, specialising in Iran and the Iranian women’s movement. Rebecca has worked as a Consultant on culturally sensitive approaches to population and development for the Gender, Human Rights, and Culture Branch of the United Nations Population Fund. In 2007 she was one of only four early career researchers selected to attend the inaugural conference of the Nobel Women’s Initiative Women Redefining Peace in the Middle East and Beyond. Her work has been published in a range of academic journals.

James Barry - Sectarianism or Sectarianisation? Iranian views on the Sunni-Shi’a divide

In recent years, the escalation of conflicts in the Middle East has been increasingly blamed on a Sunni-Shi’a divide manifested through Saudi-Iranian proxy wars. However, a quick glance at the literature, both academic and general, demonstrates that the sectarianism issue is only about a decade old. This finding indicates that media and political discourses, at times appropriated and framed by academics, have contributed to the idea that a sectarian tensions, long dormant, have re-emerged to launch a war. I argue that this discourse has fuelled what is essentially a 21st century phenomenon, the sectarianisation of conflict as opposed to sectarian conflicts.

This paper is based upon interviews with Iranian academics and officials performed in Iran during 2014 and 2015. In this paper, I argue that the consistent rejection of the term ‘sectarianism’ by Middle East based scholars in describing current conflicts should not be ignored, and that a conceptualisation of sectarianism is sorely lacking. Understanding Middle Eastern perspectives on sectarianism will prove more useful to academics and policy makers than binaries of Sunni versus Shi’a and conflict genealogies that analyse 21st century conflicts through 7th century historiographies.


Dr. Barry is an Associate Research Fellow at the Centre for Citizenship and Globalisation at Deakin University. He was awarded a PhD (anthropology) from Monash University in 2013 for his dissertation on cross-generation identity among the religious minorities in the Islamic Republic of Iran. He is currently involved in research on the role of Islam in Iranian foreign policy making, alongside a project on decision-making among Iranian and Afghan migrants in Indonesia.

Nesrine Basheer - ‘My people and tribe’: An analysis of Mohmed Morsi’s political discourse

In Egyptian republican tradition, the key turning points have been marked by presidents’ speeches to the people. In this presentation, I report the results of a sociolinguistic analysis of a 112-minute key speech by former Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi. I use principles of Critical Discourse Analysis and Bauman’s theory of verbal art as performance to investigate Morsi’s code-switching between Modern Standard Arabic and ECA. Supported by examples from the data, I argue that dominant linguistic features of the speech are tied to the political context of post-revolution Egypt. The speech coincides with the end of Morsi’s first hundred days in office, when he and the Freedom and Justice Party had been harshly criticised for mismanaging the transitional stage. When addressing points of criticism, Morsi performs three major roles: 1) the Head of the Household 2) the Ruler-Citizen and 3) the Imam. I suggest that within these roles, Morsi’s lexicon combined with instances of code-switching appeal to the traditional, religious members of the Egyptian population, a significant suggestion in light of his vow to be ‘a president to all Egyptians’. The analysis showed that the sole reliance on English translations when examining diglossic Arabic political speeches potentially causes significant cultural, sociolinguistic and political dimensions to be overlooked.


Nesrine Basheer is a Scholarly Teaching Fellow at the Department of Arabic Language and Cultures at the University of Sydney. She earned her MA in Applied Linguistics from Teachers College, Columbia University, and her PhD in Arabic Linguistics from the University of Texas at Austin. Nesrine is a trained linguist and pedagogy specialist. Her main research areas are discourse analysis, especially of political speeches and the language of radicalisation, and Arabic as a foreign language pedagogy and curriculum design.

Hanlie Booysen - Moderation in Exclusion: The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood

My paper asks why the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood (SMB) has remained committed to a civil, democratic state, notwithstanding the radicalisation of the Syrian conflict. I will show that the SMB’s exclusion from institutional politics was the primary driver of the movement’s policy and actions after 1982. The SMB first pursued reconciliation with the Syrian government, but then later repositioned itself politically to cooperate with the secularist opposition. This change in strategy was accompanied by ideological modifications, as reflected in the SMB’s 2004 Political Project for the Future Syria, and confirmed in its 2012 Pledge and Charter. However, the character of the Syrian uprising changed after the publication of the Pledge and Charter in March 2012. I show that the SMB has remained committed to a civil, democratic state, because its target audience has remained the same, notwithstanding the radicalisation of the conflict. This commitment is further reinforced by the notion that moderation is the only option for the Brotherhood to return to the Syrian political arena. The empirical data for this paper was collected through interviews with executive members of the SMB in January and June 2015.


Hanlie Booysen has an MA in International Relations and Middle Eastern Studies from the Universities of Johannesburg and Durham respectively. She lived and worked in the Levant for twelve years as a South African diplomat including in Jordan (1993-1997), Palestine (2000-2004), and Syria (2009-2012). Hanlie is currently a PhD candidate at Victoria University, Wellington. Her research is on the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, with a specific focus on the Brotherhood’s commitment to a civil, democratic state in the wake of the Syrian uprising.

Marisa Della Gatta - From Civic Religion to Islamic State: Assessing secularism in Syria

In one of his recent declarations, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad asserted himself to be ‘the last fortress of secularism.’ The secular card has become central in the contraposition of the regime and some rebel groups wishing to implement an Islamic state in Syria. This paper assesses al-Assad’s secular formula: is secularism actually on the regime’s agenda or is it a mere political tag used by the regime to broaden its support and legitimation?

I argue that secularism is not a superficial label, but rather constitutes a substantial part of al-Assad’s political agenda. I show that his secular formula, ascribable as ‘civic religion,’ is nonetheless highly problematic. In fact, it leads to a forced separation between state and civil society. Because of this, instead of providing the regime with a source of political legitimacy, secularism becomes a reason for discontent. In order to evaluate these claims, I take into account al-Assad’s secular formula, closely related to the minority-majority issue. The analysis of groups currently divided in their support for the regime confirms the non-uniformity of the secular program. Ultimately, al-Assad’s secular program strengthens proposals for an Islamic state in Syria.


Marisa Della Gatta has a BA (Honours) Cultural and Media Studies and MA Research in International Cooperation from the University of Bari, Italy and is currently a PhD candidate at Macquarie University in the Department of Modern History, Politics and International Relations. Her research focuses on identity and ethnic politics in Syria and the Syrian diaspora.

Damian Doyle - Social Movement Theory and the Sadrist Movement in Iraq

Since 2003, international observers have been fascinated by the figure of Muqtada al-Sadr, his apparent volatility and militancy, and his ability to mobilise Iraqis in the hundreds of thousands. As a result of his strident opposition to US occupation, analysts in the US and elsewhere in the global north fixated on the personality and politics of al-Sadr and the activities of the Sadrist Movement’s armed wing. Only a handful of studies have examined al-Sadr’s close associates, and very few have considered the views of Iraqis who identify with the Sadrist Movement or its figurehead. This approach has proven inadequate for understanding a complex and increasingly influential social and political movement.

My research aims to address these shortcomings by providing a view of the Sadrist Movement from within and below. Its first phase draws on social movement theory to analyse the Sadrist Movement’s framing and discourse. Informed by findings from fieldwork planned for next year, its next phase will aim to reveal and examine the motivations and worldview of Iraqis who identify with the Sadrist Movement. This paper outlines preliminary findings to demonstrate how the Sadrist Movement can be better understood using the tools of social movement theory.


Damian Doyle is a PhD scholar at the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies at the Australian National University. His research is focused on the Sadrist Movement in Iraq.

Tristan Dunning - TBA (coming soon)


Dr Tristan Dunning is an adjunct research fellow in the School of Historical and Philosophical Inquiry at the University of Queensland in Australia. He is the author of Hamas, Jihad and Popular Legitimacy: Reinterpreting Resistance in Palestine, published as part of Routledge's Critical Terrorism Studies Series in 2016.

William Gourlay - Whither the Kurds? Independence, autonomy or oppression in the Middle East

In a Middle East currently in turmoil, Kurdish communities have seen their fortunes rise and fall in different theatres. Amid the trauma of the Syrian civil war and the fight against ISIS, the Kurds have attracted international attention as never before and have won plaudits from many as reliable allies to the West. This paper will examine the political and strategic situations of the Kurds, as ethnic communities and as political actors, in Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria. Long looked upon as marginalised minorities in each of these four countries, Kurdish groups have in recent years come to be seen as important participants in the region’s politics, yet their circumstances as sub-state actors leaves them vulnerable. In Turkey, long regarded as the most democratic of the countries in which Kurds live, the Kurdish political movement has recently endured several critical setbacks. In northern Iraq, the Barzani Kurdish regime appears to be moving tentatively towards independence amid significant political challenges. The Kurds of Iran are increasingly restive, while the Kurdish-dominated PYD in Syria has made significant strategic and territorial gains. This paper will examine the opportunities that are available to the Kurds in each state while also highlighting the perils that loom in a strategic theatre where regional powers are suspicious of Kurdish intentions and reluctant to permit them further gains.


William Gourlay is a PhD candidate in the School of Social Sciences at Monash University and a researcher in the Middle East Studies Forum at Deakin University. His doctoral research focuses on conceptualisations of ethnic identity and citizenship amongst the Kurds of modern Turkey. In 2014 and 2015 he was a visiting scholar at the Centre for Modern Turkish Studies, İstanbul Şehir University, Turkey. He has published chapters on Turkish, Iranian and Kurdish politics in several academic volumes as well as a writing for a range of publications including The Age, openDemocracy, The Conversation and Eureka Street.

Alasdair Hynd - Reassessing Territory, Sovereignty, and Borders: Democratic Confederalism challenging the Turkish and Syrian nation-states

The ideology of Democratic Confederalism advocated by the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) in Turkey and the Democratic Union Party (PYD) in Rojava, which prioritises municipal autonomy and local decision-making within a wider libertarian socialist political programme, poses an existential threat to the concept of the nation-state. The ability of the Turkish and Syrian nation-states to control their Kurdish-majority regions has been drastically undermined by local and regional developments, and has seen the reassertion of Kurdish sovereignty over impressive areas of nominally Syrian and Turkish territory. During the latter-half of 2015, as peace negotiations between the Turkish government and the PKK broke down, dozens of Kurdish-majority cities and towns in the south-east declared ‘autonomy’, whilst in Syria, the PYD has fought for four years against Islamic State, Syrian government forces, and other opposition forces in defending their control over the territory of Rojava. This paper argues that the nation-state ideal of sovereignty, namely the monopolization of violence within established national borders, is increasingly redundant in understanding the situation of the Kurds in Turkey and Syria. Instead, Democratic Confederalism will be examined as an alternative, liberatory project for the Middle East that entirely abandons the idea of the nation-state.


Alasdair Hynd is a PhD student at the University of South Australia in the School of Communication, International Studies and Languages. His PhD thesis examines the sociological concepts of revolution and a rethinking of revolution in the wake of the ‘Arab Spring’ uprisings, with a specific focus on Egypt. His wider research interests include anti-capitalist and anarchistic social movements, anarchist and Marxist theory, prefigurative politics, the political and social theory of Murray Bookchin and Abdullah Öcalan, the use of technology in revolutionary activity, critical discourse analysis, and state and non-state terrorism.

Sedigheh Karimi - Rouhani’s Equity Government: A new period of reform in Iran?

This paper addresses the question of whether Iran entered a new period of progressive reform with the instatement of the Rouhani Government, particularly in the context of the women’s movement.

It first considers auxiliary matter of the meaning of reformation, how Iran’s leaders interpret ‘reformation’ as a theoretical concept and what their goals are in doing so, as well as the approaches of reformists to socio-political issues.

My paper then analyses the views of decision-makers and policy-makers during three periods: (the reform period (1997 – 2004), the post-reform period (2005 – 2013) and the equity government (2013 – present)) and examines their similarities and differences moving beyond a broadly relevant and general discussion of reform in Iran. I turn to the question of when the women’s movement was initiated and when during its subsequent ongoing activity it reached the awareness that use of the internet could pave the way for future action. I demonstrate that the women’s movement has gravitated towards using the internet not only in continuing its activities but also in broadening its support base.


Brought up in a family with a history of political and law related activity, Sedigheh Karimi has always been interested in political science and law, generally human and women’s rights in particular. Believing that research in these areas requires an open political atmosphere, she decided to complete her education abroad in an internationally recognized academic centre. Sedigheh is currently a PhD student at the University of Melbourne, researching the role of the internet in the context of the women’s movement in Iran. She also teaches at the Azad University of Tehran.

Martin Kear - Fighting to Stay in Politics: Hamas and its Dual Resistance Strategy

The Inclusion Moderation (IM) analytical framework views the use of violence by non-state actors seeking entry into the political system as the antithesis of politically moderate behaviour. The corpus generally assumes that these actors are using violence in an anti-systemic and/or anti-democratic manner.

However, available evidence would suggest that this was not the case with the Palestinian Islamist movement, Hamas. It was permitted to retain its military wing and participate in the 2006 Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) elections. Hamas’s subsequent election victory made it a politically legitimate actor in Palestinian politics, although the Israeli government continues to classify Hamas’s use of violence as a threat to the safety and security of the Israeli state.

Adopting an instrumentalist approach to understanding Hamas’s use of violence, this paper argues that Hamas has employed a Dual Resistance Strategy (DRS) consisting of Political and Armed Resistance to achieve, maintain and defend its status as a legitimate political actor. Analysing the 2008, 2012 and 2014 Israeli invasions of Gaza, the paper seeks to demonstrate how Hamas is able to transmute the increase in its resistance legitimacy gained after each war into increased political authority in Gaza, in order to remain a viable political actor in Palestinian politics.


Martin is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney. He recently submitted his thesis titled ‘Is This the Way to Palestine? Hamas and the Contested Road to Statehood’ for examination. The thesis argued that Hamas employed a dual resistance strategy (DRS) consisting of political and armed resistance to achieve, maintain and defend its status as a legitimate political actor in Palestinian politics in the period 2005-2015. Martin’s research interests include the political participation of Islamist movements, particularly Hamas, and the function of violence in the narrative of Islamist movements.

Costas Laoutides - Feet of Clay: The Kurdish factor as a security response to Islamic State

The most important implication of the rise of Islamic State (IS) is that IS as a de facto state exercises effective control on parts of Syria and Iraq thus questioning the territorial borders of these two countries. The ‘Kurdish factor’ is now considered the most, and perhaps the only, credible power to engage and contain the expansion and consolidation of IS.

However, the internal fractions among the Kurds in Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran, each movement impacted by varying local political, economic and social conditions as well as ideological underpinnings, raise doubts about their credibility as a security alternative in the region.

The aim of this paper is to unpack these differences and highlight that although nationalism may seem to underpin certain Kurdish visions for self-rule, the way that this grand vision has evolved and is operationalised differs from region to region as it is informed by different, and often opposing, ideas of political organisation creating a series of paradoxes. Thus, we witness political-ideological clashes over the nature of a future Kurdish democracy/democracies, the modes of economic production, the form of self-rule as well as issues of gender equality and participation in the political process. These clashes strongly influence the future of the Kurdish position in view of the evolving post-conflict scenarios for a new status quo in the region.


Dr Costas Laoutides in a Lecturer in International Relations, Deakin University. He holds a PhD in International Politics, Department of International Politics, University of Wales, Aberystywth, and a Masters in International Conflict Analysis, University of Kent at Canterbury. He was granted the EH Carr Scholarship for doctoral studies, Aberystwyth and an Economic and Social Research Council Scholarship for advanced postgraduate studies, Kent. He is the author of Self-Determination and Collective Responsibility in the Secessionist Struggle (Ashgate) and editor of Territorial Separatism in Global Politics (Routledge).

Kylie Moore-Gilbert - Where to for Bahrain’s divided opposition?

Five years after mass popular protests came precariously close to toppling Bahrain’s al-Khalifa monarchy, the government’s crackdown on the predominantly Shiʿi opposition continues to intensify. Initial attempts at fostering dialogue have been abandoned and there appears to be little appetite on the part of the Saudi-backed government to revive them. Radical underground activist groups continue to mobilise in the Shiʿi villages and have succeeded in sustaining a degree of momentum, resorting to innovative protest tactics and at times, violence against security forces. This presentation will discuss the results of an in-depth study of Bahraini Shiʿi opposition activism in the wake of the crackdown, drawing on over sixty field interviews and the findings of a research project tracking the online activism of the country’s main Shiʿi opposition groups across 2015. Revealing deepening divides within the Shiʿi opposition, this research suggests that the moderate approach of Bahrain’s largest Shiʿi political party al-Wefaq is increasingly out of touch with the Shiʿi street, and that the government’s targeting of moderate Shiʿi Islamists will only further the shift toward more radical methods of activism. Efforts to silence dissent will likely prove counterproductive, emboldening radicals at the expense of more moderate voices and further entrenching Bahrain’s political crisis in the years to come.


Kylie Moore-Gilbert is a PhD candidate in Gulf politics at the University of Melbourne. She graduated with first class honours in Middle Eastern Studies from the University of Cambridge and has teaching and research experience at a number of Australian universities, including the University of Melbourne, Monash University and Victoria University. Kylie has spent several years living in the Middle East and conducts research in Hebrew and Arabic.

James Morris - Child Soldiers in the Israel/Palestine Conflict and Under the Islamic State Group

Although child soldiers have been present in conflict throughout history, their experiences have only been of distinct academic interest since the late 20th century. With international humanitarian law increasingly targeted towards protecting children in conflict zones, various bodies are developing anti-child recruitment programs, notably the Romeo Dallaire Child Soldiers Initiative. However, as the majority of the child soldier literature has focused on cases from Africa and the Americas, the viability of these programs for Middle Eastern cases is an emerging research puzzle, especially as large numbers of child soldiers are present in current conflicts within the region.

Using the Israel/Palestine conflict and the usage of children by the Islamic State as two contemporary case studies, this paper traces the recruitment patterns of child soldiers within these conflicts, using an agent-based approach to explore the relations between the incentives for children to fight, and the incentives for armed groups to recruit children. This paper suggests that child recruitment in the Middle East depends heavily upon armed groups’ utilisation of children’s sense of agency, either through exploiting pre-existing cultural and/or political pressures children feel to engage in violence, or through creating their own pressures via indoctrination and ideological saturation.


James Morris is an Honours student in the School of Political Science and International Studies, University of Queensland. His research interests include international security, international relations of the Middle East, African history, and genocide studies. In particular, his work examines the role and depiction of children and youth in armed conflict and their position in international humanitarian law. James is a conference coordinator for Young Minds of the Future, a youth education organisation that engages students with matters of international concern.

Firas Naji - Iraq from the Sykes-Picot Agreement to ISIS: A critical post-colonial perspective

Colonialism has not only shaped the Middle East through invasions, but also is shaping dominant opinion through imposing Eurocentric narratives. When ISIS declared ‘the end of Sykes-Picot’ in 2014, hundreds of opinion pieces were written suggesting that the current borders in the Middle East are on the verge of substantial change. This paper builds on post-colonial research that critically contested the Eurocentric notions of artificial state, lack of history and name invention in relation to Iraq. It focuses on social harmony and national identity formation in Iraq and how these issues have been transformed from pre-colonial times until post the US invasion of Iraq and the creation of ISIS. It concludes by suggesting that social harmony has deep roots in Iraqi society, but stress started when the process of Arab national identity formation in the new Iraqi nation-state gained momentum. This stress in social harmony turned into conflict along sectarian and ethnic divides when Saddam Hussein’s totalitarian regime narrowed down Iraq’s national identity by implementing oppressive policies targeting Shias and Kurds deemed a threat to his regime. The US invasion of Iraq entrenched sectarian and ethnic identities and helped ISIS take advantage of this conflict.


Firas Naji is a Master of Art (Research) student in the Department of Arabic Language & Cultures at the University of Sydney. His research focuses on Iraqi identity between the diaspora and homeland using critical post-colonial approach.

Abdulrazig Osman - What is the Future of Democratic Values in the Middle East?

The Arab region’s tolerance of authoritarian regimes is a puzzling phenomenon for many scholars, to which the unprecedented uprising in late 2010 added further complexity. Five years after these spectacular events, Egypt is under military rule, Tunisia’s relative success is tempered by the inauguration of an 88-year-old president connected with his predecessor, and other countries have descended into violence. The US declared a significant budget decrease in its democracy promotion program, and the EU is preoccupied thwarting Mediterranean migration waves, suggesting the West’s priority has moved from democracy to security. These factors have prompted many analysts to suggest that the Arab Spring was a stumbling block in the path of democratisation.

In contrast, I will argue that despite the modest outcomes of the Arab Spring, it was a turning point in the region's history and a significant step forward on the long path toward democracy. My argument is backed by historical precedent—every revolution has faced setbacks, and the Arab Spring is not unusual in this way. Further, democracy has become the common melody among the new generation in the Arab region, making the march toward democracy irreversible. The lesson of the past has led to more maturity in democratic forces as manifested in mass resistance to the recently attempted military coup in Turkey.


Abdulrazig Osman is a PhD student at Deakin University. He holds a Master of Globalisation from the Australian National University. Abdulrazig has also acted as an Academic Advisor to the Saudi Cultural Attaché in Canberra.

Panel conveners: Lily Rahim and Naser Ghobadzadeh - Democratic Learning, Authoritarian Resilience and Reimaging the Muslim World

Panel Description
Public discussion and academic debate on the efficacy of Islamic discourses in shedding light on the complex political crises in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) have gathered considerable momentum. Adopting a somewhat unfashionable approach, this panel explores recent developments within Islamic reformation discourses and assesses their analytical insights on the prospects for democratisation in the Muslim world. The papers in this panel focus on conceptual and theoretical articulations pertaining to the re-imagining of an inclusive Muslim democratic polity. The papers will also examine the methods employed by Islamic movements and parties geared towards navigating and negotiating secular democratic principles and processes towards these ends. The panel contributors will a) analyse the key factors and forces that have contributed to the resilience of authoritarian regimes and b) explore the chequered shifts towards democratic governance in the Muslim world, characterised by continuity within change, incremental reform, backsliding and protracted resistance.

Revisiting the Inclusion-Moderation Hypothesis - Iran’s electoral theocracy
Naser Ghobadzadeh

The ruling clergy of the Islamic Republic of Iran have confined the scope of Iran’s electoral politics to limited competition, some level of policy change, and partial shifts in power among internal political factions. In this way, the ruling clergy have reaped the benefits of electoral politics while at the same time avoiding its potential democratic ramifications. This strategy has enhanced the clergy’s legitimacy in both the domestic and international arenas, offered incentives to elites, developed mechanisms to manage intra-elite competition, and quelled waves of political dissatisfaction. These gains have in turn helped the ruling clergy not only to retain their political power, but also to resist any pressure from reformist Islamists to moderate the dominant politico-religious discourse. As a test case for the inclusion-moderation hypothesis, the engagement of Iran’s ruling clergy in electoral politics has proven counter-productive. Rather than facilitating a process of moderation, electoral politics have strengthened the ruling clergy’s determination to reify their anti-democratic polity. Instead, the inclusion-moderation hypothesis may prove helpful for explaining the evolutionary trajectory of another group of Islamists, i.e. reformist Islamists. While reformist Islamists currently wield little influence over the country’s political system, their ideological and behavioural moderation may have a formidable impact on the future course of Islamism in Iran.


Researching at the intersection of religion and politics, Naser’s interests lie in the study of Islamic political theology, secularism, state-religion-society relations, and Middle East and Iranian politics. By mapping competing discourses and practices in the Muslim world, his current research project involves conceptualising the possibility not only of the co-existence of religious and secularity but also the need to recognise the religious roots of an emerging model of secularity in the Muslim world. Conceptualising the notion of electoral theocracy, Naser is also working on authoritarian resilience in Iran. This project will explore the contribution of repeated elections to the durability of authoritarianism.

Islamist Democratic Learning Curves: Tunisia's Nahda
Larbi Sadiki, Qatar University

Addressing a subject as yet unexamined in North Africa, and drawing on personal conversations with Islamists from Tunisia’s Nahda Party (NP), this paper provides insights into the factors that both encourage and impede democratic learning. The presentation draws on focus group and interview data gathered since the 2011 revolution, and my analysis combines this set of data with a reading of NP written/formal discourse, in particular speeches and policy papers. Central to unlocking the ‘story’ of democratic learning curves is firstly an attempt to map out the route followed by Islamists as they re-engage politics through civic and legal means whilst surrounded by violent atmospherics both within Tunisia and in neighbouring countries. Second, in providing an account of Tunisia’s Islamists’ unfurling story about democratic learning curves, the presentation also probes the vital role played by Islamists in democratisation processes. Finally, this paper concludes with some of the broader lessons about how Islamists continuously adjust in order to carve out a margin of existence in polity, more or less seeking solutions in secular mechanisms and a civic modus operandi rather than through ‘Islam is the solution’ per se.


Professor Larbi Sadiki received his academic training at Sydney University and at the Australian National University where his PhD research focused on Islamist movements’ notions of democracy. The resulting doctoral thesis and longitudinal research still in progress on the same issue are to be published in a 2017 book on Islamist conceptions of democracy with special reference to Islamists in Egypt, Tunisia and Jordan. Professor Sadiki has had current and past scholarly association with various think-tanks including Carnegie and the Middle East Institute amongst others. He is Professor of Arab Democratisation at Qatar University.

Where to Now for Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood: A new reality?
Paul Esber

In the wake of the 2011/2012 uprisings, Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood has witnessed a series of internal divisions that have resulted in the physical splintering of the once unified movement into a number of separate organisations. Each of these new organisations participated in the 20 September 2013 general elections, seeming to confirm a growing institutionalisation of difference. Is this and further fragmentation a new reality for the Muslim Brotherhood?

In this paper this question is examined in light of the movement’s division and subsequent weakening as a leading force in the Jordanian opposition in the wake of the so-called Arab Spring. First we outline the history of the Brotherhood since its 2012 decision to boycott the 2013 elections, outlining how this decision proved a catalyst to the acceleration of internal debates that evolved into separatist organisations. Second, we examine the results of the September 20 poll, considering the success or failure of these now competing collectives to acquire votes, parliamentary seats and political capital. On the basis of this we then return to the question of whether the Muslim Brotherhood specifically and the Islamist movement more generally has entered a new reality.


Paul Esber is a researcher and PhD candidate in the Department of Arabic Language and Cultures at the University of Sydney. His research, focused on the Eastern half of the Arab World (al-Mashreq), examines in a constructivist manner the interplay between state institutions and social movements in the social construction of identities, the evolution of political systems, and the intersection between local, national, regional and international/transnational scales in political behaviour. Currently based in Amman, Paul is a Visiting Researcher at the Identity Centre for Human Development, where his analysis is focused on parliamentary blocs, the 2016 Electoral Law and political party engagement in Jordanian civil society.

Moral Equality of Humans: Contemporary democratisation of Shi’ite Jurisprudence
Mahmoud Pargoo

Equality has been considered one of the main principles of the democratic principles since the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. This moral conviction is asserted in almost all democratic legal systems in the form of the principle of equality of all individuals before the law. The notions of the universal moral equality of all individuals, however, contradicts pre-modern conceptions of the natural hierarchy of humans which persist in the form of certain religious dogmas. For example, in many classical formulations of Sharia, believers and non-believers have different legal and moral statuses. The question then arises as to how democracy, which pre-supposes moral equality of all individuals, can thrive in societies in which Sharia significantly influences the moral convictions of people?

This paper emphasises the political import of individual moral aspects of Sharia by focusing on the issue of ritual impurity in the Shi’ite jurisprudence, one of the Shi’ite legal precepts which categorically contradicts the idea of moral equality of humankind. While the interpretation that non-believers are substantively impure, an increasing number of contemporary jurists trying to pave the way for a more egalitarian understanding of Sharia have started to revise this ruling. This paper will investigate how traditional frameworks of Shi’ite jurisprudence are being utilised to facilitate a more democratic understanding of Sharia.


Mahmoud Pargoo has studied imāmī law and Islamic philosophy and kalām at Imam Sadiq University, Tehran. He holds an MA from Tarbiat Modares University in philosophical logic focusing on Quine’s philosophy and is currently a PhD researcher at the Institute for Social Justice, Australian Catholic University. Mahmoud has published several books, papers, and articles in Farsi and English, and his current research focusses on mechanisms of change in the imāmī jurisprudence with special emphasis on the impurity strictures. Mahmoud’s articles about current affairs in the Middle East are published in the Washington-based Al-Monitor website.

Nikola Pijovic - Collapsing States, Enduring Statehood: Islamic insurgencies and the rejection of the nation-state

This paper argues that Islamic insurgencies are only a symptom of a deeper malaise affecting large parts of the Middle East and Africa. This deeper malaise is the ultimate rejection of modern Western and Weberian statehood (and its territoriality) as it was grafted onto socio-political entities in these regions after World War II. While the establishment of the United Nations system and the Cold War both helped mask the problematic nature of statehood in the Middle East and Africa, those problems have become increasingly exposed since the early 1990s. This paper highlights the broader process of statehood contestation, and the place Islamic insurgencies currently play in it, by outlining the limitations of conventional statehood and state building models. It then discusses the examples of Islamic insurgencies such as Daesh and Al-Shabaab, arguing that competing state building processes in the Middle East and Horn of Africa highlight the nature of collapsing states but enduring statehood.


Nikola Pijovic is a PhD scholar at the Australian National University working on Australia’s foreign policy engagement with African states in the post-Cold War era. He has published articles on Australian foreign and aid policy, and received the 2014 Peter Lyon Prize for the best policy-oriented article on a theme of significance for the contemporary Commonwealth published by The Round Table: The Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs. Nikola also researches terrorism and insurgency in the Horn of Africa, and has published on statehood and insurgency issues in Somalia.

Shima Shahbazi - Decolonizing the Feminist Narratives of Victimhood in Transnational Autobiographical Micro-narratives of History

The Middle East has most often been represented as a monolithic, despotic and turbulent area suffering from wars, sectarian conflicts, coups and uprisings. This kind of representation has produced historiographical narratives of victimhood along with critical ones especially when the voice of the Middle Eastern woman has been considered. Drawing on transnational and women of colour feminisms, this paper compares two autobiographical micro-history narratives about post-reformist Iran and post-invasion Iraq with an intersectional perspective to locate and highlight the women’s voice of resistance and resilience in the two regions. The works that are studied are Nadine Nabir’s The Orange Trees of Baghdad (2014) and Azadeh Moaveni’s Lipstick Jihad (2005), both transnational writings, and the aim is to show that the decolonial resistant voice of the Middle Eastern women has been under-represented in the grand narratives of history. This paper also highlights the intricacies and distinctiveness of the Arab and Iranian feminine identity in the transnational context and introduces the indigenous knowledges that have been struggling and standing against gender, racial, religious, ethnic and political ‘hypervisibility’ and ‘epistemicide.’ It also discusses the ways in which transnational feminist scholars and writers from the Middle East have strived and are still working towards ‘plurilogue’ feminisms to critique the white imperialist feminism of the West which has represented Middle Eastern women as repressed victims.


Shima Shahbazi is a PhD candidate of International and Comparative Literary Studies at University of Sydney. She holds an MA in English Literature and she has taught various courses on English literature, critical theory, modern drama, literary research and comparative literature at Azad university of Tehran and Sobh-e-Sadegh institute of Higher Education in Iran. Her areas of interest include historiography, micro-history narratives, critical race theory, transnational and decolonial feminism, critical discourse analysis and women’s writings. She has published a book and a number of articles in national and international indexed journals.

Seham Shwayli - Reconstructing Gender Ideologies: The uncertain future of Iraqi women from dictatorship to ISIL

This presentation provides information about the decline of Iraqi women’s status over the past 30 years. First I provide a historical background to women’s roles and gender ideologies in the Iraqi context and look particularly at the impacts of the Iraq-Iran War and Gulf War, as well as the comprehensive sanction on women’s status in Iraqi society, before discussing the impact of the current civil war and sectarian divisions on women’s being, becoming and family life. My presentation poses the question, what kind of future awaits the voices of women seldom heard?

The historical background aims to shed light on the construction of gender ideologies under the tyranny of Saddam Hussain and beyond and how that this impacts on the construction of the Iraqi woman’s identity in Iraq and the diaspora. I then discuss some of my PhD findings on Iraqi women’s experiences of living in conflict and war zones that show how the political and social climate affect Iraqi women’s rights and gender relations. I suggest that it is important to consider women’s positions in any society and how wars and civil conflicts affect their rights, including in the current situation in Iraq, in order to analyse their roles and to appreciate their achievements.


Dr. Seham Shwayli completed her PhD at Monash University in October 2015, researching Iraqi women’s social inclusion in Australia. She received a Master of Education from Monash in 2010 and a Bachelor of Arts from Basra University, Iraq in 1996. Seham worked in language education for twelve years in Iraq, and works as ESL teacher, women’s advocate and multicultural youth worker in Australia. Her current research focuses on contemporary issues affecting Muslim women, including social acceptance, multiculturalism and critical cultural studies.

Warick Smith - Voices of Young Yemeni Women After the Mirage of the Arab Spring

The wave of optimism that swept across Yemen amongst progressive and globally minded youth in 2011 had turned into a drowning despair by 2014. Young women who were at the forefront of nationwide protests demanding the ‘fall of the regime’ are now amongst the most disillusioned of Yemenis. Hopes for democracy, justice, economic development and increasing freedoms were crushed as the country slid slowly into a grinding civil war that is endlessly fuelled by a wider regional political-sectarian conflict. This paper examines the future of Yemen through the eyes of young women struggling to find their way in the ruins of a shattered nation. A series of qualitative interviews conducted over several months explores their day-to-day experiences of sectarian conflict, examines their hopes and desires for their nation, and narrates strategic implementation of agency performed as acts of resistance against prevailing geopolitical and religious agendas.


Warick Smith lived in Yemen for seven years from 2007-2014, teaching English, training teachers and working in administration. During that time, he lived in Sana’a, Taiz and the Mahara, while also travelling extensively across the country. He is a PhD scholar at the Department of Anthropology and Sociology, University of Western Australia, and his research focuses on the identity formation processes of Yemeni youth in a globalising world.

Lucia Sorbera - Gender: A useful lens to analyse the counter-revolution in Egypt?

Since the early 1980s, the term of ‘gender’ has been used by feminist scholars to refer to the social construction of masculinity and femininity and as the primary field where, or through which, power relationships are articulated (Scott, 1986). Gender concerns symbols, myths, representations, constructions of norms, constructions of subjective material identities, and the dimension of political conflict. Like every political process, the counter-revolution, which began in Egypt as soon as the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) announced the fall of Mubarak, is inherently gendered, and an analysis of the counter-revolution that does not take into account ‘gender paradoxes’ would fail to produce a nuanced understanding of the ongoing political processes.

In this paper, I focus on the relationship between the construction of sexuality and political authoritarianism in contemporary Egypt. My analysis of both the state’s gender politics and women’s political activism aims at shedding light on the link between political transitions and the re-emergence of contentious visions of gender and sexuality. Grounded in feminist epistemology, and building on my fieldwork in Cairo, this paper focuses on the renewed challenges that women political activists face in counter-revolutionary Egypt, arguing that the discussion on gender reveals high political stakes for the notion of identity, authority and power.


Lucia Sorbera is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Arabic Language and Cultures at the University of Sydney. She is a historian who specialises in women and gender in international history, focusing on Egyptian women’s political activism. She serves on a number of editorial and academic boards, curated the Arab Women Film Festival at the University of Sydney in 2015, and co-curated the program ‘Arab Soul’ at the International Torino Book Fair in 2016. Her most recent publication is ‘Body Politics and Legitimacy: Towards a feminist epistemology of the Egyptian revolution,’ published in the June 2016 issue of Global Discourse.

Marika Sosnowski - Rebel Governance and Ceasefires in the Context of the Syrian Civil War

This paper brings together ideas about rebel governance and ceasefires in the context of the Syrian civil war to examine conflict resolution concepts anew. It argues that the space ceasefires create may offer a useful insight into the dynamics of order and violence in civil war.

While civil war may appear chaotic and anarchic, emerging research in the field of rebel governance shows that order does emerge in the midst of conflict. Additionally, rebels are not generally guided by irrational passions or genocidal ideologies but rather make choices that are both strategic and rational. Likewise, rather than being a mutually beneficial political-military tool for parties to a conflict, ceasefires, when viewed through the lens of the rebel governance literature, may actually have very strong biases towards the state.

The ideas presented in this paper raise questions about whether ceasefires may have more strategic efficacy for state parties than was once thought. The paper also has potential ramifications for how policy-makers think about conflict resolution and peace building more broadly and for conceptualising the future of the Syrian conflict specifically.


Marika Sosnowski is currently completing a PhD at the University of Melbourne that focuses on governance development under ceasefires in Syria. She has taught Middle East politics at university, written about the region for numerous publications and is an international development consultant focusing on Israel/Palestine, Syria and Lebanon. She is also a regular guest on Melbourne radio station Triple R.

Maria Syed - Impending Decline? A reassessment of Saudi power

Notwithstanding the lack of consensus as to what constitutes national power, indicators traditionally employed to measure it include national income, resource endowment, military preparedness and population size. Some scholars measure power as an ability to influence outcomes, and others consider political stability, constituent of state-society relations, and economic and social institutions. When judged against these indicators, Saudi Arabia seems to be at a tipping point. The steep fall in oil prices and simultaneously in national revenue have ignited fears about the sustainability of the economy, domestic terrorist incidents question the state’s ability to maintain internal order, Yemen has proved a quagmire, the Kingdom is losing on many fronts to its archrival Iran and its traditional allies are slipping away.

Is the Kingdom cognizant of these maladies? What measures it has taken to contain or reverse this trend? Will it be able to secure a new lease on life? How will this bode internally? How will this play out for regional geostrategic landscape, geopolitical rivalries and alignments? Is Saudi power waning in comparison to Iran? Will Saudi Arabia embark on a path of cooperation or confrontation? The paper aims at answering all these questions towards the broader question of whether Saudi Arabia is witnessing a major decline in its power.


Maria Syed is a PhD candidate at the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies at the Australian National University. Her research is entitled ‘Interdependence between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia in the Formative Phase.’ Maria worked as a Research Fellow at the Islamabad Policy Research Institute, Pakistan for several years and has been published in research journals and newspapers. She is an alumna of three academic centres/institutes in the United States, as well as the King Faisal Centre for Research and Islamic Studies in Riyadh.

Hussein Tahiri - Formation of a Greater Kurdistan: Internal impediments and external challenges

The Kurds for long time lived by the mantra ‘the Kurds have no friends but the mountains’. However, the attack by the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL) on Kurdish territories in Iraq and Syria has changed this belief. At the very crucial time when the Kurds of Iraq and Syria were under threat from the ISIL, Western powers rushed to their assistance and helped them to resist ISIL’s encroachment. Western assistance proceeded despite explicit and implicit outcries from neighbouring countries. Could the Kurds expect the same level of support if they declare an independent state?

A semi-independent Kurdish state has emerged in Iraqi Kurdistan, which is evolving into a fully independent state. There does not appear to be any international support for such a state but there is also no strong reaction against such a possibility. There is a likelihood that events in the Middle East could spiral out of control and provide an opportunity for the emergence of a greater Kurdistan. Are the Kurds ready for such a state and will they be able to gain international recognition?

This paper, focusing on the dynamics of Kurdish society and international developments, will explore the internal impediments and external challenges to the formation of a greater Kurdish state.


Dr Hussein Tahiri completed his PhD in political science at the University of Melbourne. He has worked as a lecturer teaching Middle East Politics. He is the author of The Structure of Kurdish Society and the Struggle for a Kurdish State, co-editor of Counter Terrorism and Social Cohesion, and has contributed chapters to other books as well as written numerous academic and commentary articles. He is a commentator on Kurdish and Middle East Affairs in the Australian and international media. He is currently an adjunct associate professor with the Centre for Cultural Diversity and Well-Being at Victoria University.

Gijs Verbossen - The Systemic Disintegration of Mubarak’s Neo-Liberal Authoritarianism

The fall of Mubarak’s regime in the Arab Spring of 2011 was the combined effect of neo‐liberal economic reform and the politics of authoritarian survival. In contrast to the Washington Consensus expectation, however, his ousting was not the result of marketisation provoking popular political demands, but, as I argue in this paper, of causing contention between state institutions, in three systemic stages. First, marketisation favoured a foreign‐capital intensive service sector over a labour intensive manufacturing industry. As a result, unemployment frustrated middle class aspirations, sending many into an informal economy inhabited by a burgeoning class of urban poor. Second, Mubarak awarded the new comprador business elite political power as exclusive regime clients, while policing the urban poor to suppress collective economic and political claims. Consequently, the interior ministry’s state security grew to unprecedented size. Third, the troika of business, security, and politics deprived the armed forces of the domestic political power it had previously enjoyed. Relying again on the market, Mubarak placated the military by conferring commercial opportunities to it. This set the military against the state security‐business coalition, while making it a self-sufficient autonomous state institution, to which the president ultimately became dispensable. When the urban poor class was big enough, it naturally had a partner in the armed forces to unseat Mubarak’s troika.


Gijs Verbossen is a PhD candidate and lecturer at the Politics and International Relations Department at La Trobe University, Melbourne. He has research experience in topics relevant to the Arab region, bridging anthropology and political science. He is also a consultant for Pax Ludens Conflict Resolutions, advising government and non-government organisations on the socio-political complexities of the Middle East.

Key information

Date and time

2 – 4 November 2016
8.30 am to 5.00 pm


Deakin University
Melbourne Burwood Campus

221 Burwood Hwy
Burwood Vic
Building BC
Level 2, Burwood Campus

Contact details

Ms Dara Conduit

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