SOAS University of London

School of History, Religions and Philosophies

HRP Undergraduate Dissertation Prizes

The School of History, Religions and Philosophy has awarded undergraduate dissertation prizes for the first time this year. We are pleased to announce that the first prize for the undergraduate dissertation in the Study of Religions went to James McGrail for his research on the impact of power shifts caused by the internet on the social integration for British Muslims. Leone Pecorini Goodall won the first prize for an undergraduate dissertation in History for his exploration of the ways in which accounts of Harun al-Rashid’s invasion of Anatolia in 782 have produced a rather biased perception of the early Abbasid Caliphate. The second prize was awarded to George Loftus for an outstanding study of authority and power in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge. We also awarded a prize for Innovation and Creativity in Historical Writing, which is offered to Tayba Qausar Azam for her ability to bring great sensitivity and her own historical voice to her oral history project on the memory of the Partition of 1971. Congratulations to our first awardees!

Leone Pecorini Goodall

The events of 782 and 786 in mid-tenth century Abbasid historical memory: a source-critical reappraisal of the Golden Age

Although the perception of the early Abbasid Caliphate as having reigned over the Golden Age of Islam has fallen out of favour in recent years, a suitable counter-narrative has yet to be generated. This dissertation argues that the notion of the Golden age has been primarily constructed by contemporary Abbasid historians, whose texts indicate educational similarities and an over-reliance on the same texts that have not received sufficient scrutiny. The sudden availability of sources for the early Abbasid period has led many historians to take the information at face-value, whereas in the historiography related to the early Islamic and Umayyad period it was necessary to compare Arab sources with Greek, Syrian or Armenian sources to generate an acceptable counter-narrative. Here, the Arabic sources are compared to the contemporary Byzantine and Armenian sources to demonstrate the glorifying and romanticising nature of early to mid-tenth century Arabic texts that have become the crux of many modern studies of the period. The study will surround the figure of Hārūn al-Rashīd (Baghdad d. 809) and two key events, the invasion of Anatolia in 782 and his accession to the Caliphate following the death of his brother. The accounts of these events provided ample opportunity to glorify the Caliph's reign and thus view later periods in negative contrast, a perception that has often been fuelled in modern historiography by an Orientalist fascination with the other. The incorporation of non-Arabic sources will make it possible to discern fact from exaggeration and in turn understand how this period was inscribed with a hyperbolic significance in the Arabic historical tradition.

Tayba Qausar Azam

1971 – Remembering & Forgetting: The Relationship between National and Personal Histories

This dissertation intends to give voice to the people on the margins of Partition history - the lay people. It explores the role Partition has played in the Bangladeshi and Pakistani communities. Through a qualitative study, it focuses on the accounts of six individuals whose oral testimonies form the basis of this research.  It is these personal histories – individual, tangible – that have challenged and contributed to the broader Partition history that silenced them. Millions of lives were lost, more than 75,000 women were either abducted or raped, families were broken, villages abandoned, homes destroyed, and yet this profound impact is disregarded in the view of partition as a singular event. Utilising personal narratives allows us to see the way in which history is understood, but also how this understanding makes it significant in the present. The upheaval profoundly affected people, demonstrated by the fact that seventy years on, the Partition is very much alive within society. I present this dissertation – including the interviews – as a personal history that does not claim to be an apathetic and ‘objective’ account like earlier Partition histories. Instead, it questions history’s role in one’s sense of self, what constitutes a ‘defining moment,’ how national identities form, and what these identities mean. Most importantly, it delves deeper, to try and understand how 1971 has been remembered and forgotten.

James McGrail

Have the power shifts caused by the internet made integration into society harder for British Muslims?

Scholarship currently remains locked into a narrative of public opinion, which is shaped by a Habermasian understanding of the public sphere. However, this model fails to acknowledge how internet discourse has changed the nature of public debate. This has led to scholarship which is either platitudinous or demonises the internet without truly understanding its complexity. In this dissertation I examine some of the factors which have precipitated these changes, both good and bad, in the formation of public opinion and how these factors impact the British Muslim community. In order to do this I examine the opinions which were formed prior to the internet’s meteoric rise, in a more homogenous public sphere, before demonstrating how different aspects of the internet, and specifically social networking, have led to the shattering of the public sphere. Finally, I aim to show how this shattering may lead to the ossification of pre-internet perceptions of the British Muslim community by hampering intergroup dialogue.

George Loftus

Angkar, Ambiguity, and Violence: Authority and Power under the Khmer Rouge

Among history’s greatest monsters is the Khmer leader Pol Pot who led the communist Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia from 1975 to 1978. The party’s rule led to what has become known as the Cambodian Genocide which saw the deaths of around 2 million Cambodians. In this dissertation I argue that this genocide and in extension the rule of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge itself was carried out through the help of vague authority, departing from an approach that asserts the regime’s ‘totalitarian’ nature. At the core of this argument is the assertion that this vague authority became divorced from actual political power. The vague authority of the regime was contained in the term Angkar, which was used to refer to those in power. Unlike ‘the Party’ in other twentieth century despotic regimes, Angkar was not tied to a real and public entity, but rather existed beyond the traditional boundaries of power. As such Angkar could be consistently reinterpreted, and not just by those at the ‘Party Centre,’ such as Pol Pot. Peripheral and low-level figures in the official hierarchy of power gained significant authority by using the term and it allowed the Centre to vacate authority for the atrocities it committed. Yet, given this, the authority associated with Angkar was not associated with any power in real terms, making peripheral figures easy targets of the increasingly paranoid Centre.