Mara Leichtman decided that she wanted to be an anthropologist during an internship with Citibank Maghreb in Casablanca. She had taken a year off from pursuing her Master’s degree in International Relations at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies to live and work in Morocco. She brought with her a number of books, including the memoirs of Clifford Geertz. Reading Geertz in Morocco was inspirational, as was visiting Sefrou, the town where many anthropologists had conducted fieldwork.
Dr. Leichtman decided to pursue her Ph.D. in socio-cultural anthropology at Brown University. There she studied the Lebanese community in West Africa, an understudied population with significant ties to Lebanon that has contributed to the development of French colonial and post-colonial Senegal. Considering a majority of Lebanese in Senegal today are Shi‘i Muslims, she focused on this minority religion. Her research examines how migration, cosmopolitanism, and governmentality contribute to the fluidity of ethnic and religious identities across various historical moments.
She came across a growing network of indigenous Senegalese “converts” from Sunni to Shi‘i Islam, inspired by the 1979 Iranian Revolution as well as interactions with Lebanese. Their goal to contribute to education and economic development in Senegal does not call for an Islamic state and their religious identity (unlike that of the Lebanese) is not linked to nationalist Middle East politics. Dr. Leichtman contests the dominant framework for analyzing Shi‘i movements by questioning the assumption that they necessarily follow Iranian revolutionary ideologies. Her book Shi‘i Cosmopolitanisms in Africa: Lebanese Migration and Religious Conversion in Senegal will be published by Indiana University Press in 2014.
Dr. Leichtman has published numerous other book chapters and articles in journals such as Anthropological Quarterly, International Journal of Middle East Studies, Journal of Religion in Africa, Ethnic and Racial Studies, and Contemporary Islam (forthcoming). She is collaborating with European and West African colleagues in a multi-country research grant funded by the French government. “Religion and the Private Sphere: Religious Dynamics, Everyday Experiences, and the Individual in West Africa,” will compare Islam and Christianity in Senegal, Benin, and Burkina Faso. Her research on Senegal will become part of a second book project that explores how religious movements are increasingly presenting themselves in the institutional form of non-governmental organizations by comparing Shi‘i Islamic NGOs in Europe, Africa, and the Middle East.
This is Dr. Leichtman’s eighth year in the Department of Anthropology, and she is also a faculty member of the Muslim Studies Program, African Studies Center, and Center for Advanced Study of International Development. She enjoys teaching courses on religion and culture, Islam in Africa, Middle East anthropology, globalization, transnational migration, and ethnographic field methods.
[This article is featured in the Winter 2014 Department of Anthropology Newsletter]01.27.14