Me, second from left, with sister Hildegard and two Malay park guides, Taman Negara, Malaysia, circa 1966.

About me

My interest in this topic has a long genealogy. The son of an Anglican clergyman and a Roman Catholic mother, I was born and brought up in Malaysia and Singapore. In addition to the medley of races, languages and dress that comprised parish life in Ipoh, Penang and Singapore, there were also colourful and dramatic other influences: outside my back gate were two Buddhist monasteries with saffron and burgundy robed Thai and Sri Lankan monks smiling and waving their hellos; in front of our house passed the long Hindu Deepavali and Thaipusam night processions with men dragging huge statues by myriad strings hooked into their bare skin; in a side street nearby, we used to watch popular Chinese opera, the wayang, redolent with ancient myths and legends punctuated with gongs and long high-pitched wails; Chinese New Year was a noisy school holiday engulfed by the thundering sounds of exploding red fire-crackers; our domestic and church staff comprised Muslim Malays, Christian and Hindu Tamils and Confucian Chinese. Our summer holidays were spent either trekking in the rainforests of the Malaysian interior where we met the indigenous animistic orang asli in jungle clearings or snorkelling off island reefs beside small Malay fishing villages where the muezzin’s call to prayer drew us out of the water for our supper. Comparative religion was my daily life and unsurprisingly my first degree was in Religious Studies at Lancaster University under Ninian Smart, John Bowker and Andrew Rawlinson.           

Holy cities and their politics became the focus of much of my academic career after several spells in Palestine and Israel working as both an activist and an aid worker.  I became fascinated by the inner workings of the Old City of Jerusalem and the impact of the Arab-Israeli conflict upon its daily life and rituals. As a result, I have devoted two decades of my career exploring possibilities of a solution to the conflict there.  Much of my research and writing has been grounded in material I collected for behind the scenes policy discussions between Israelis and Palestinians and found myself increasingly drawn to the study of other cities which have experienced similar conflicts over iconic sites, over national and religious identities and over the control over urban space.

A precursor to this Leverhulme Major Research Fellowship has been my involvement in the Economic and Social Research Council project entitled Conflict in Cities and the Contested State (2003 – 2013) in which Jerusalem was compared with a number of other contested cities such as Belfast, Brussels, Berlin, Mostar, Nicosia, Beirut and Kirkuk in order to draw out both parallels and differences.  Power, Piety and People: The Politics of Holy Cities in the 21st Century focuses on and explores further a specific aspect of this earlier work: the particular nature of the conflict in cities which are dominated by religion in some form or other. My other area of research is that of forced migration, particularly the plight of Palestinian refugees.  A grasp of the dynamics of refugee camp construction, internal politics, refugee representation and organisation and the role of the international community has also fed into my understanding of the varieties of human settlement and urban conflict.

View my university profile.