In the third and final episode of our IICE Development Fund podcast series, Professor Rob Gleave (RG), the director of the Institute, speaks to Professor Christine Robbins (CR) about the Development Fund project Fragile Faiths, which examines processes of continuity and change in the ‘fragile faiths’- a term here applied to certain ethnoreligious groups violently displaced by war, placing their cultural survival in doubt- with essential participation from community members as researchers and partners. The podcast episode explores how the project aims to promote cultural preservation in the diaspora through shared dialogue and policymaking, where deemed appropriate, and to share community strategies for managing cultural change whilst preserving identity.
It must be noted that this episode was recorded in March 2021, prior to the ‘Fragile Faiths in Dialogue: Heritage Loss in Endangered Communities’ workshop, which was held on zoom, 22 June 2021. This restricted workshop focused on three endangered religious communities – Yezidis, Mandaeans and Syrian Christians – who have suffered displacement, genocide and ethnic/religious cleansing, and who face an uncertain future in exile or attempting to rebuild in an insecure homeland. A panel of members of the Yezidi, Syrian Christian and Mandaean communities briefed attendees and a small audience of NGOs, government organisations and parliamentarians on common concerns about cultural loss and their requests for action in safeguarding these ‘fragile faiths’ for the future. Whilst the interview does not cover the workshop itself, it holds valuable insights into the motivations and details of a vital Development Fund project.
Listen to the podcast here or read the full interview transcript below.
There is just one week remaining to submit a proposal to our internal call for this year’s IICE Development Fund Projects- To find out more and apply, download and complete the 2021-22 IICE Development Fund Guidance with Application form. All applications must be submitted using the form provided. Please submit by email to . The deadline for Proposals is 09:00 on 6th September 2021.
Interested applicants can discuss their ideas with Professor Rob Gleave, International Institute for Cultural Enquiry (email@example.com) before applying.
RG: Hello, you’re listening to a podcast from the International Institute for Cultural Enquiry, based at the University of Exeter. My name is Rob Gleave and I’m director of the Institute. The Institute supports interdisciplinary teams of researchers working in cultural enquiry in their engagement with partner organisations outside the University.
In this podcast, Professor Christine Robbins of the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies (Kurdish Studies) at the University of Exeter discusses the project Fragile Faiths in which she and Professor Emma Loosely, also of the University of Exeter (Theology), explore ways in which the experience of small religious groups in the Middle East might be better understood by policymakers.
I should add: normally we will be able to record these podcasts in the Digital Humanities Studio on campus, but because of the current lockdown we are doing this from our own homes with our own equipment, so the sound quality may not be as we would like.
So apologies for that, but in any case, I hope you’ll be able to enjoy her description of a highly rewarding and important collaboration that she’s been involved in with members of these small faith groups and with policymakers.
RG: Well hello everybody, my name is Rob Gleave and I’m director of the International Institute for Cultural Enquiry at the University of Exeter, and I’m here today with Professor Christine Robbins who works in the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies at the University and was one of the recipients of the Institute’s Development [Project] grants. Her project is called Fragile Faiths.
Good afternoon, Christine. It’s nice to see you.
CR: Hi Rob.
RG: I’ve got a few questions, really, because your project is fascinating in all sorts of ways and I wanted to really start off with the different aims and objectives of your project.
So, how did the project come about? And what are the main things that you want to achieve from it?
CR: Well, there have been a few cultural preservation initiatives with endangered religious groups in conflict areas, especially in the Middle East, but many of them were focusing on material culture and heritage such as buildings. I’m very interested in the immaterial culture because I, as a scholar, have seen a pattern of several small ethno-religious groups – each of which is unique and there are quite a few of these in the Middle East, especially in Iraq and Syria – in situations of displacement. These groups have a lot of difficulty surviving. Over time, especially if they’re endogamous (they don’t marry outside their closed groups) they become smaller and smaller. They can shrink very quickly, especially if they are violently displaced.
So, this is what we mean by “fragile faiths” and “faith groups”, and one thing that I wanted to do in my own research that hadn’t really been done before – [though] people had observed the changes that take place in these religious groups – was to actually put members of the groups together, so that they could compare notes and share in the experience of others who have been along this road of life in diaspora, and the difficulties of continuing with their cultural traditions.
So, with that in mind, we wanted to do a small pilot activity which would be preparatory for a larger grant application later, and I worked with Professor Emma Loosely who is in the theology Department at Exeter. She is particularly interested in the Syriac Christians of Syria, and I’m especially interested in Yazidi and Mandaeans from Iraq, along with other groups from Iraq and Iran.
Our idea was to host a day workshop where we would bring together some representatives of the Mandaean, Syriac, Christian and Yazidi groups living in the UK, to meet each other and engage in dialogue about the issues that they face in cultural preservation. Then in the afternoon, in the second part of the workshop, they would present their thoughts and findings to a group of parliamentarians and people from government departments such as, possibly, the Foreign Office, the Home Office, and maybe the Department of Education as well. That was the thought behind the project proposal- to really test out how this model of people consulting each other would work.
RG: Is this linked with your own research, then? Both yours and Professor Loosely’s research?
CR: Yes, definitely. Because I have had a grant previously to record and create a digital archive of Mandean Priests speaking in interview about their role, but also Mandean rituals. They are a very small group, indeed, that are scattered worldwide with hardly any left in their Homeland.
I’m also embarking on an oral history project which will be a grassroots project run by Yezidis in the IDP – Internally Displaced Persons – camps of northern Iraq.
Emma has a particular expertise is in archaeology and history with a focus on Syriac Christians, whereas I’m more of an ethnographer, so we’re in interdisciplinary between us.
RG: So, an interdisciplinary team seems pretty crucial for the aims and objectives of this project. You want to be able to work with communities, you want to be able to work with different communities, but you also want to engage with them from a different a number of different perspectives in terms of their life in situ and also in diaspora.
Have you found interdisciplinarity to be essential way of working towards the project aims and objectives?
CR: Yes, it has been. And it will continue to be so because this interest in religious groups is actually very closely mirrored in the UK government at the moment; there’s a growing interest in freedom of religion and belief and the UK Freedom of Religion or Belief Forum – or the FoRB Forum- has recently asked me to look at the areas in which we should be discussing how we interact with Iraq on the subject of education too.
So once we’ve had this workshop in a larger project application, I will be looking at including experts from other fields as well.
RG: It’s been a bit of a strange year in one way or another. You were awarded the IICE Development Grant sometime in the first half of 2020 but, of course, we’ve since had the global pandemic. We’re speaking now in March 2021.
How has the global pandemic impacted the way in which you planned the project, and what have you had to do in order to circumvent the challenges that it has posed?
CR: Well, quite simply, it has meant that it hasn’t happened yet, and it certainly would have happened by now if the pandemic hadn’t taken place. But we are planning it now for May and inviting people, and it will unfortunately have to happen virtually. One of the reasons we hung on was because we thought it would be so much better for these people to meet for the first time if they met in person. But having canvassed their opinion, I think they would rather have the meeting, even if it must be by Zoom.
On the other side, though, it has given me more time to engage with the FoRB , with the FCDO’s FoRB forum, which has formed quite recently only at the tail end of last year. I’ve had the chance to engage with them, which has given me more ideas about who to invite on the government organisation side.
RG: Have you found working with external partners difficult? Particularly during a pandemic, but even in even in normal times, one can imagine that the range of external partners you’re working with would pose some challenges.
CR: Well not yet, because the people from the communities are extremely open to discussing their situation, particularly in the knowledge that they’re going to be heard by parliamentarians and representatives of governmental departments. And because the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office is so interested at the moment in freedom of religion and belief, I found that those partners, who I’m just developing a relationship with, are also very open to hearing from us as well. It’s all been very good so far.
RG: Great, so that that’s a good lesson- that you can engage with external partners, and you can make good contacts and a good network. What do you think will come out of the end of the project after you’ve had your meeting with the various community representatives and then, hopefully, the Parliamentarians?
CR: We obviously want to see how it goes and how you organise this kind of debate, how they can be best empowered to speak to each other and get the most out of it. That’s what I’m very keen to learn. I’m sure that the second part of it, the dialogue between them and the other parties, will go very positively because I know that the FoRB forum, for example, are very interested in advocacy work, and they want to hear more case studies and more first-person accounts of what’s happening in this area. So I think that they will be very open to that, and that it will have a positive outcome for them.
For us, what we would like to do is then make a larger grant application, possibly to the European Research Council, and to expand the scale across more religious groups and more countries.
RG: Do you think that yourself and Professor Loosely, as academics, are in a special position to be able to network with these different groups? That you’ve got an advantage over perhaps some other people because of your expertise in their traditions?
CR: Yes, I do think that that helps. I think perhaps some government departments may have an overinflated idea of our expertise, but I think it’s probably because our expertise is quite rare.
So they think we must know absolutely everything about what it feels like to be a Yazidi, which of course we don’t, but I do think that we do have a role to come to promote that dialogue, but the important thing is that we don’t control that dialogue and that it’s framed by the parties concerned.
RG: Well, great, thank you very much, Christine. It’s been fascinating talking to you about a really interesting project. We look forward to seeing more in the future.
CR: Thank you, Rob.
RG: That was Christine Robbins talking about her project Fragile Faiths, and if you’d like to listen to any of the other podcasts that we have at the Institute, then they’re available for download from our website.
If you have got any queries about the Institute’s work, then please do email us on culturalenquiry@ exeter.ac.uk. That’s cultural enquiry (all one word) at exeter.ac.uk.