IAS Fellow at St Aidan's College, January-March 2024
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Mara Leichtman is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Michigan State University. She specializes in the study of Shi‘i Islam, transregionalism, humanitarianism, religious conversion, and Arab-African relations. Her research highlights the interconnections among religion, migration, politics, and economic development through examining Sunni and Shi‘i Muslim institutions and the communities they serve in the Middle East and Africa. As a 2016-2017 Fulbright Scholar at American University of Kuwait, she launched a multi-sited project on Gulf Islamic humanitarianism in Africa with case studies in Tanzania and Senegal.
Dr Leichtman is author of Shi‘i Cosmopolitanisms in Africa: Lebanese Migration and Religious Conversion in Senegal (2015) and co-editor of New Perspectives on Islam in Senegal: Conversion, Migration, Wealth, Power, and Femininity (2009). She co-edited two special journal issues: The Shiʿa of Lebanon: New Approaches to Modern History, Contemporary Politics, and Religion in Die Welt des Islams (2019) and Muslim Cosmopolitanism: Movement, Identity, and Contemporary Reconfigurations in City and Society (2012). In addition to numerous journal articles and book chapters, she has written policy reports and analyses on Kuwait’s foreign assistance, Gulf-African foreign relations, and Senegalese politics for the Stimson Center, the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, The Conversation, Women’s eNews, and Maydan. She is regularly contacted by national and international media outlets to provide background interviews on a range of topics.
At Durham, Dr Leichtman will work on her current book project entitled ‘Humanitarian Islam: Transnational Religion and Kuwaiti Development Projects in Africa.’ Private aid-flows predate Kuwait’s independence in 1961, yet remain an understudied example of South-to-South aid. Her research unpacks the micropolitics of Islamic humanitarian giving, a key component of Kuwait’s foreign policy, through exploring the interconnection of state policy, civil society, pious donors, and international beneficiaries. Several chapters focus on the cultural and religious impact of Kuwaiti Sunni and Shi‘i charities in Muslim-majority Senegal and religiously-mixed Tanzania. She began the analysis as a 2020-2021 Luce/American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS) Fellow in Religion, Journalism and International Affairs. The pandemic necessitated a return to Tanzania, Kuwait, and Senegal in 2022-2023 to update her findings. She looks forward to the opportunity to return to writing while based at St Aidan’s College.
Dr Leichtman will also work closely with Dr Christopher Bahl from Durham’s Department of History on a project entitled ‘An Interdisciplinary Rethinking of the Making of Shi‘i Identities beyond the Middle Eastern “Centre.”’ Their collaboration is a continuation of a British Academy Seed Funding grant in which Dr Leichtman was a participant, which aimed to bring a more diachronic approach to the emergence and transformation of Shi‘i Islamic identities across time and space. Together, Dr Leichtman and Dr Bahl’s expertise extends geographically from South Asia and the Middle East to East and West Africa, and spans the 16th century to the present. They plan to organize an international and interdisciplinary conference at Durham University, with plans to publish the proceedings on the importance of interdisciplinary work in the growing subfield of Shi‘i Islamic Studies.
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