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Representations of Religious Studies in Popular Culture

Many of our discussions at the Religious Studies Project focus upon the complex intersections between ‘religion’ – whatever that is – and ‘popular culture’. And justifiably so. Indeed, our good friend and colleague Vivian Asimos of Durham University has been producing the very interesting “Religion and Popular Culture Podcast” for a while now. But what about Religious Studies (as a field of study), and the people who do it, in popular culture? When we initially thought about this, we could certainly come up with a list of academics and “bookish” people who are somewhat problematically and wildly inaccurately portrayed in popular culture – from archaeology’s Indiana Jones and paleontology’s Ross Gellar to archivists’ Rupert Giles and linguistics’ Louise Banks – but we struggled to come up with many examples of the study of religion as we, here at the RSP, know it. Luckily, today’s guests have given the question much more attention! Given that popular cultural representations are more likely to shape public perceptions about what the study of religion is and who does it than either direct experience in the classroom or statistics about graduation rates and job placements, we hope that you will agree that we should try to understand what these perceptions are. In this podcast, Chris speaks with Professors Brian Collins and Kristen Tobey about this fascinating and important topic. This interview is based on a recently published article – From Middlemarch to The Da Vinci Code: Portrayals of Religious Studies in Popular Culture – a shorter version of which has been published in blog form as Casaubon’s Revenge: Popular Representations of the Scholar of Religion.

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A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.


Representations of Religious Studies in Popular Culture

Podcast with Brian Collins and Kristen Tobey. (8 October 2018)

Interviewed by Christopher Cotter

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Collins_and_Tobey_-_Representations_of_Religious_Studies_in_Popular_Culture_1.1

 

Christopher Cotter (CC): Many of our discussions at the Religious Studies Project focus upon the complex intersections between religion – whatever that is – and popular culture, and justifiably so. Indeed, our good friend and colleague Vivian Asimos, of Durham University, has been producing a very interesting religion and popular culture podcasts for a while now. But what about Religious Studies, and the people who do it, in popular culture? When I initially thought about this, I could certainly come up with a list of academics and bookish people who are somewhat problematically, and wildly inaccurately portrayed in popular culture – from archaeology’s Indiana Jones, and palaeontology’s Ross Geller, to archivist’s Rupert Giles, or Linguistics’ Louise Banks. But, I have to admit, I struggled to come up with many examples of the Study of Religion, as we – here at the Religious Studies Project – know it. Luckily, today’s guests have the question much more firmly in focus. Given that, as they argue, popular culture representations are more likely to shape public perceptions about what the Study of Religion is, and who does it, than either direct experience in the classroom or statistics about graduation rates and job placements, we hope that you will agree that we should try to understand what these perceptions are. So joining me today, to discuss this fascinating and important topic, are Professors Brian Collins and Kristen Tobey. So first off, Brian and Kristen, welcome to the Religious Studies Project!

Brian Collins (BC): Thanks for having us.

Kristen Tobey (KT): Thank you.

CC: I’ll just say a little bit about who you are. Brian Collins is Associate Professor and the Drs. Ram and Sushila Gawande Chair in Indian Religion and Philosophy, at Ohio University. He’s the author of The Head Beneath the Altar: Hindu Mythology and the Critique of Sacrifice, and various essays on Hinduism and the Study of Religion. And his second book, The Other Rama: Matricide and Varṇicide

In the Mythology of Paraśurāma – apologies for the pronunciation – is forthcoming from SUNY press. And Kristen Tobey is Assistant Professor of Religion and Social Sciences at John Carroll University, in Cleveland, Ohio. And her research treats religious identity formation and communication in the contemporary United States. And she’s the author of Plowshares: Protest, Performance and Religious Identity in the Nuclear Age. So that’s where you’re coming from. How did you get interested, then, in this question of the representation of the Study of Religion in popular culture? It doesn’t necessarily sound like it’s your main research focus. So how did you get into that?

BC: Well, shall I answer this one Kristen?

KT: Yes, go first.

BC: I asked Kristen to join me, and she graciously did. And together we worked on a project. But it started out because – and I think both of us had an idea at some point – we study religion, and we have to actually tell people that we study religion and then see what they think we do. So very, very infrequently does someone have an actual idea of what the Study of Religion, in the university, entails! You know, I teach classes in Hinduism and Buddhism and if you take both classes, students– who are in the same class – typically ask you: “Why are you teaching this? I thought you were a Hindu.” Or, “Why are you teaching this, I thought you were a Buddhist?” Because I’m teaching both classes. So the idea of studying religion as an academic subject is a mystery to most people. And I say, “Well if they don’t know, what do they know? And where do they get the information?” So I started watching a lot of movies on TV, and I consumed a lot of junk culture. So I saw a few people, here and there, who seemed to be, basically, doing what I do – but not in a way that I recognised! And so I had to cast a wide net and see what impressions were out there.

KT: (Laughs.) I face the same thing. Less from my students, because I teach in a Catholic school so they’re familiar with religion teachers – although not quite the same way I tend to do it. But I face this a lot with my research subjects who are very suspicious of the idea of someone studying religion academically, because the examples that they see, as Brian says, in pop culture, are so very strange. So when Brian asked me to join this project I was really excited, for that reason – and also because my research usually deals with how religious people either present themselves, or are presented. So to think about another piece of that – as you said, Chris: “Well, how is the field presented? How are the people who do it presented?” That was very interesting to me, and thinking about questions of identity.

CC: Wonderful. I should have said in the introduction, of course, that part of the reason that we’re having this conversation is that the two of you have just published an article – I say just – June 2018 – in the Religious Studies Review (5:00) which was called, “From Middlemarch to the Da Vinci Code: Portrayals of Religious Studies in Popular Culture”. So that will give a hint, to the Listeners, of where we might be going with our in-depth examples, here. But before we get to Middlemarch and The Da Vinci Code, how did you go about selecting your cases and just conducting this study in general? As I say, I struggled . . . I mean Robert Langdon, from The Da Vinci Code, kind-of came to mind but, as we’ll discover later on, that’s not really Religious Studies, is it? Sorry! There’s a siren going on outside, as well! That’s typical here.

KT: I’m just so glad that’s you and not me! (Laughs).

CC: Ah. They’re not coming for me, Listeners. Yes. So, Robert Langdon certainly came to mind. But I really struggled to think. So, how did you go about even finding your case studies?

BC: Well, for me, I did have to think about. That’s a methodological question we had to ask at the very beginning. And I compiled a list. I said, “Indiana Jones sort of reminds me of a person who does religion, but he’s clearly identified as an archaeologist. So I wanted to find people that weren’t clearly identified as archaeologists or classicists, or anthropologists. There’s a different article, two articles, by anthropologists in literature and movies that we cite in our article. But they seem to be studying something like what we do. So I eliminated people like parapsychologists and clearly identified historians, so there was a sort-of middle ground. Robert Langdon is a “Religious Symbolist” which is a totally made-up profession, at a real university! Whereas Casaubon from Middlemarch, the other big example that we treat, is . . . . Well what is he identified as, Kristen? Just a scholar?

KT: He’s identified as a scholar, but he’s very clearly engaged in work that would be recognisable for a historian of religions. Pretty much in the mould of somebody from that era. So it was actually, in many ways, a pretty accurate depiction. But as far as garnering the case studies and garnering the examples, I remember Brian – was it years ago maybe? Or do I just have a skewed chronology on this? That you sent round an email to maybe half-a-dozen people, saying “Hey, I’m thinking about this. What examples can you think of? And one thing that was really striking to me was that, as those emails came back to you, most of them were from horror movies, right? The vast majority of these characters were in scary movies, doing scary things. You know, summoning demons, or whatever else. So, as far as characters that we might actually recognise as doing the work that we do, Casaubon is one of very few examples.

BC: Yes. That’s what I did. I crowd-searched the research! It’s easier to get someone else to do the research for you, I find! So I came up with a list and then I said, “. . . like these people. Anybody else you can think of,” again, “that’s not identified clearly as something else?” And so I did get a long list. There were comic books on there. There were podcasts on there. There were movies, mostly horror movies on there. There were a few novels on there. And some of the ones I ended up having to eliminate . . . they were the sort-of archivists. There were a lot of archivists – like the Giles, from Buffy, that you talked about. And that was a limit case for me. I didn’t know whether to include those or not. But I feel like they’re somewhere in the mix. But, for our article, we didn’t discuss them. Archivists have a family resemblance to the archetype of the Religious Studies person. But we ended up leaving them out, because they’re . . . if you asked who they are, somebody can tell you that they’re an archivist, and not a religionist. The case is that nobody is identified as an historian of religion or a religionist. Partly that’s our fault. We have no easily identifiable, transferrable job title from university to university, nor even a place at university that can consistently be found. So it was just that way in the representations, too. We had to kind-of make decisions along the way, and narrow it down.

KT: Yes, with the very memorable exception – and tell me if I’m getting ahead of things here – of Emily Dumont in Black Tapes, right? I think she’s one of just a handful, really, of three or four, who was actually introduced as a professor of Religious Studies. But then it turns out what she does is not really like what professors of Religious Studies do at all! But she’s one of the few who actually get that label attached to her.

CC: Excellent. Well we can get to that . . . The Black Tapes is a podcast that I, unfortunately, had never heard of when I read your article – but you do a good job of discussing it (10:00). So it would be quite good for us on the Religious Studies Project Podcast to discuss that. But I’ll just also mention that I put out on Twitter last week that we were doing this podcast, and we got a couple of responses. I asked, what were your personal favourites and bugbears? So Richard Newton at the University of Alabama said that he likes Professor Jamal in Mooz-lum. He said that there was an emphasis on good questions over simple answers, embrocation of race and religion, and examination of the insider/ outsider problem. And then another character that you discuss is in the Hulu series, The Path. And what came back? We had Tylor Tully saying that he had really enjoyed The Path on Hulu, and their inclusion of a Religious Studies scholar – particularly their treatment of an emerging religious tradition. But then Joel Bordeaux said that the religion professor on The Path is probably the worst he’s ever seen: invited as a guest to a class, openly deriding their tradition, conducting secret sexual relationships with research subjects, deliberately intervening in communities he’s studying, and so on! So you might want to respond to some of that, and then maybe tell us about Emily Dumont.

BC: Well, I think Emily Dumont is interesting. I do want to talk about Jackson Neill from The Path actually. It’s one of the best examples, and it came very late in this project, which was . . . . I was watching the show and I said, “Now I have to go back and rewrite a large part of this!” And I did. But Emily Dumont . . . The Black Tapes is a podcast. It’s a sort of like The X Files. It’s told in the style of a true crime serial-type podcast, where they’re investigating supposedly true occurrences, and the characters are meant to be real people. So it blurs the line between fiction, and reality, and journalism. But they interview people and they interview a religious studies scholar. And she is specifically interested in demonology. She’s described as very sort-of informally dressed. She described her as an over-grown high school freshman with a Ramones T shirt and a funky haircut. And sort of irreverent. And also speaking about Chemtrails, which is strange conspiracy theory about air travel, or something – I don’t really understand it! But it was bizarre X Files-type stuff. And it was put in the mouth of a Religious Studies professor. Elsewhere on the same podcast there’s a different Religious Studies professor, who openly derides her as crank – even though she’s in a university and he’s not – who takes a really hard-nosed, scientific, some would say a kind-of reductivist view of religion. And his job is to disprove . . . . Miracles are a pretty common theme. The job is either to disprove religion or to become a leader of religion. But in the case of Emily Dumont, she’s marginalised as someone who’s sort of a joke. And that’s a little disconcerting. I think that a podcast like that, you’re likely to have people who went to college, an audience who went to college, and somewhere along the way had a class. So I feel like this person seems to me that it was drawn from some experience of some whacky Religious Studies professor. I mean, that was my read on it. What did you think, Kristen?

KT: I think that’s possible. But I also think that podcast is doing something really odd, in that it’s conflating paranormal studies – paranormal activity – with religion in a wholesale, non-nuanced way. Because we do have this Emily Dumont character who’s very childlike, who’s very gullible, who represents one possibility, right: a person who’s involved in Religious Studies and the paranormal because of naiveté, let’s say. But then there’s the other character, Richard Strand, who is very sceptical, very perceptive. He’s not a Religious Studies professor, but he was a Religious Studies major, we are told. So we have these two extremes, both attached to the field of Religious Studies, but then . . . . And I should say, I only managed to listen to the first half-dozen or so episodes before it became too scary for me (laughs).They were interesting, but it was too scary and I couldn’t continue. But throughout those first few episodes we get other characters being brought in, who are also sort-of oddly attached to religion. For example, one character who is described as being – and I’m pretty much quoting here – “what theologians would call a Biblical Demonologist.” (15:00) As far as I know, there is no such thing as Biblical Demonology – though I’m not a theologian, so maybe there is and I just don’t know! Maybe. But that’s what I mean when I say that it’s as though the paranormal and Religious Studies are just completely layered on top of one another in this show – or podcast, rather – in some ways that are kind-of interesting, and some ways that are really bizarre. And there doesn’t really seem to be any explanation – at least in the first half a dozen episodes – of why that’s the case, or how those particular choices are being made. So, yes, maybe there is something very specific going on, in that one of the creators had a professor that that is modelled upon. But maybe there’s something else happening, which is just that it’s a podcast dealing with sort of odd, supernatural, paranormal stuff and there’s nowhere else that it makes sense to house that, other than in Religious Studies.

CC: Yes.

BC: I mean it’s odd, because it would have been ten years ago – a parapsychologist, I mean they used to have those in movies all the time. The people that investigated hauntings and psychic phenomena and stuff. I mean the Ghostbusters are . . .

KT: Ghostbusters! Sure!

BC: They’re in parapsychology lab. They’re doing (audio unclear). So what happened to that, I don’t know. But why it became religion, here . . . . But nothing recognisable as religion is ever studied! Now that said, I was inspired to teach a class on religion and the paranormal and it became the most popular class that I teach, because of seeing these movies. So that’s good, I guess!

CC: Absolutely.

BC: And some people write about it. We mention that in the article too. There a new sort of, newish, wave of books dealing with religious experience and paranormal experience, from different angles. Ann Taves, Geoff (audio unclear) – both from very different points of view. So there is some of that. But I don’t think anybody knew that as they’re making these characters. I think that’s coincidental, or a part of a larger zeitgeist.

CC: Exactly. I’m just keen that we keep pressing on, because I do want to get Jackson Neill, but we’ve got to get to the Da Vinci Code and everything before. So maybe, quickly. . . . In your article, I think you were just saying that Jackson Neill, although he may not be the most morally upright of scholars in that sense, actually, what he’s doing perhaps quite closely resembles what we would consider to be the Study of Religion?

BC: Well, he’s an Americanist, just like Kristen. Which is why I pointed him out to her, very early on. He’s doing a kind of ethnography, which is what she does. But what he does, that she doesn’t do – as far as I know – is give major talk shows advertising his book!

KT: (Laughs) No. Just this. This is my 15 minutes of fame right here!

BC: But he had a sexual relationship with his informant. He inserts himself in the life of this new religious movement, which is uniformly referred to as a “cult” throughout the TV series. All sorts of things that seemed like he had to go through IRB to do, but had no problem doing. He’s eventually sort-of discredited, and they turn against him. But it’s so realistic that it almost feels like that this is something that people would believe references the Study of Religion in the academy! And it does, in the sense that we do that kind of work – we do talk to people about their experiences – but what we don’t do is try and undermine some tradition with an exposé.

KT: Right. And I think another thing that is important about that character is that one of the tropes we identified in a lot of these representations is a thread of hypocrisy. So, yes: maybe he’s a good scholar, or maybe he’s doing actual scholarly work that resembles what an Americanist ethnographer might do, but then he’s got this potentially sort of shady sexual stuff going on. I am hard -pressed to think of a depiction of, say, a math professor – right? – where there is a plot that has to do with sexual behaviour. Whereas it comes up over and over again in these Religious Studies characters, as though people using these characters are doing it in order to identify a hypocrisy that’s inherent to studying religion!

BC: Yes, I think so.

CC: Which would scan with my intuition, anyway. So, just so we can absolutely get to it . . . You discuss how a lot of these characters can sometimes end up on a sort of pathetic-heroic spectrum. You’ve got your nerdy, weedy scholar working away, (20:00) pale-faced and not much interest in real life, and then you’ve got the Indiana Jones’s running around: they’re dashing – wonderful knowledge . . . . And so you set up this comparison really well, in the article, between the Reverend Casaubon from George Elliot’s Middlemarch, and then Robert Langdon from Dan Brown’s books, Angels and Demons, Da Vinci Code, and so on. I’m afraid it’s been over a decade since I read Middlemarch, but it was nice engaging with it again through your article. Can you maybe, just for the next five minutes or so, give a brief introduction to these two characters and maybe sort of set them up against each other, the different models of the Study of Religion?

KT: Yes, I’ll start with Casaubon who appears first in, of course, George Elliot’s Middlemarch in the 19th Century. He is sort-of the quintessential example of a dry, dusty, pedantic scholar, who only cares about his books. As I mentioned earlier, he is doing work that is very recognisable as History of Religions. He’s trying to compile sort of a massive comparative mythology. We learn later on in the book that he doesn’t actually have the language skills to do this, that he will never finish this fruitless project, and most of the characters – ultimately, pretty much all of the characters in the novel – think that he’s ridiculous, and think that he’s so intellectually obsessed that he’s out of touch with real life; it compromises his virility; he doesn’t deserve the love of the beautiful protagonist; and so on, and so forth. So he is pretty much a paradigmatic example of intellectual obsession that, basically, ruins everything else about him. And something interesting that we noticed, as we were thinking about his character, is that even in more recent and contemporary updates, where other characters are treated somewhat differently and more sympathetically, Casaubon never is. So, for example, there’s a very recent YouTube series that is updating Middlemarch. It’s you know, young, attractive students on a college campus. And many of them are socially awkward in some way, but still endearing. Whereas Casaubon – who is now, in this rendering, a graduate student working on some completely obscure dissertation topic that would probably fit in Philosophy of Religion, for example – he’s still a really unpleasant character. There’s still this linkage between intellectual obsession and unpleasantness. No-one likes him. He’s unlikeable, because he is sort of a sham scholar, let’s say. He’s obsessed with this intellectual project, but he doesn’t really have the skills to do it successfully. So “weak”, “pathetic”, “unlikeable”, all of these adjectives continue to attach to him, even in contemporary updates.

CC: Yes. And on a surface level, your gut reaction is that that’s going to be quite different to the character in Dan Brown’s work, who we see portrayed in film by Tom Hanks who’s America’s – if not the world’s – most loved actor, in some ways! That’s quite a different character. But not so different, I believe?

BC: Right. It’s hard to find someone who doesn’t like Tom Hanks. It’s like the Jimmy Stewart of our generation. He’s much beloved, and he’s this. But one thing that’s interesting about him that’s the same- and I’ll talk about what’s different about him in a minute- but it’s the sexual aspect. I mean I think that Casaubon is really a neutered character, right? He has no sexual drive, or sexual energy associated with him. He’s seen as sort of a dried-up old husk of a person, whereas Langdon has a different kind of asceticism, in that . . . Dan Brown uses the term “good clean fun”. It’s all about good clean fun, which means that . . . . Indiana Jones has a different female love interest in every movie. They have a “will they, won’t they?” . . . and of course they will! But in all of the movies based on The Da Vinci Code books, I mean the books about Robert Langdon, his female lead is not in any kind of a romantic relationship. They even have a handshake! It’s the most chaste hero/heroine relationship one can possibly imagine. In the first book she’s the descendent of Jesus Christ – which is a meaningless thing anyway, thinking about 2000 years of generational history – but it’s someone who you can’t imagine having sex with someone on a movie or on screen, right? It’s a very . . . He’s also a very consciously non-sexual, de-eroticised character (25:00), unlike the one’s we talked about before. But what he does is really instructive. I think that nobody has done more to get the Study of Religion in the public consciousness than Dan Brown: the Catholic reaction to those books; the sort-of revival of interest in conspiracy theories about the Illuminati, and what have you. It never really went away, but it certainly got more . . . And that was what became the shorthand for the Study of Religion – is studying the secret conspiracies behind all the fakeness of religion. And that’s what he does. But everything he says about religion is nonsense. And we also learn that he’s not even the person who teaches Religious Studies. That’s somebody else at Harvard, who we never meet. But he has this particularly narrow focus on religious symbology, without any explanation of what a symbol is, and mistaking symbols, cyphers and codes for each other. It’s a very . . . it’s a very thinly researched book, right? There’s lot of work on the conspiracies but, as far as what he’s doing, what we see him doing in classrooms, what we see him talking about, what passes in his dialogue as profound knowledge – that the Feast of Sol Invictus has something to do with Christmas, and blows everybody’s mind (laughs) – really speaks to the depth of ignorance about the Study of Religion. Which I think is an indictment really, for me, anyway. If this just goes over without a ripple, then: how have we not established – in any meaningful way – what we do in the classroom, and what we do with our books?

CC: Indeed, yes. And someone else pointed out that one of the biggest errors, perhaps, in the portrayal is the completely full lecture hall that . . . (Laughs) he’s teaching to – of attentive students!

BC: And the bottomless budget that he has!

KT: That, too.

CC: So, I mean, we could go into in-depth on these characters, and obviously we direct the Listeners to your article which we’ll link to from the podcast page, to get really into the analysis of them. But towards the end of the article you ask, through this comparison exercise, what kind of picture have you formed of the fictional religious studies scholar? And then, also, about what emerges about religion as an object of study. So perhaps, using the examples that we’ve discussed thus far, could you tell us a little bit about what we can say about the generic fictional Religious Studies scholar, in a nutshell? And maybe, how religion is conceived?

BC: Well the one thing that’s interesting about the Langdon character is that he’s the only one that gives us a real definition of what religion is as an object of study. Now it doesn’t . . . I’ll quote from the book. The book is The Lost Symbol, which is a later book in the series. And he says to his class – this is in the article, too: “‘So, tell me. What are the three prerequisites for an ideology to be considered a religion?’ ‘ABC’, one woman offered: ‘Assure, Believe, Convert.’ ‘Correct.’ Langdon said, ‘Religions assure salvation. Religions believe in a precise theology and religions convert non-believers.’” It’s a self-evident – to him and to everyone else in the class – rote definition of religion. It’s not very useful to me. It has nothing to do with symbols, interestingly, which is the foundation of the Study of Religion as he does it. But it does give you a very pat definition of what religion is. Assure, believe, convert: these are all these verbs that imply control over a crowd, over a group, over minds. It’s a very cynical and, of course, one dimensional – well, it’s three dimensional technically – but thin definition of religion. And it’s the only one we really get. The question of what religion is never comes up for anybody. Which, considering the amount of ink that we’ve spilled over the last 50 years trying to figure out what that is, that does not translate into the representations as we have them.

KT: Yes, it’s pretty interesting that all we have is this very thin, superficial, reductive definition, which might well be a definition that works well for some religious scholars. I find it a bit odd, but that’s just me. Because it seems to me that what Religious Studies does best is sort-of the opposite of thin and superficial. And nowhere in this examination of characters do we see anyone who’s doing the thick work of Religious Studies. (30:00) So, what is religion? Assure, Belief and Control – or something like that?

BC: Convert.

KT: So, then, what is religious studies? As Brian says, it’s this very simplistic endeavour that has to do with recognising a very simplistic dynamic at play. In other words, in these depictions we don’t see Religious Studies scholarship as being about critical empathy; we don’t see it as being about rigorous analysis; we don’t see it as being about robust comparison – which to my mind are the things that it does best, and the things that it can help students to do best. So we get not only a wild misrepresentation of what religion is – that is it’s always about coerced conversion and that sort of thing; it’s always about shadowy mystery and espionage – but we also get a very unfair misrepresentation of what Religious Studies is doing and – by that same token – is not doing.

CC: Well the flip side of what you’re saying there, in the Casaubon character we would have Religious Studies being the sort-of dry, study of texts, and very esoteric search for some sort of higher knowledge that is beyond relevance to the social world. So it’s either something that’s irrelevant bookish and not of interest, or something that’s sort-of swashbuckling, and uncovering of conspiracies, and releasing people from coercive control – neither of which are very accurate depictions of what any of us do!

KT: Or ghost-hunting! Sometimes it’s about ghost-hunting, don’t forget! But, yes included in none of those things is there the important skills that Religious Studies, when done well, actually can and should inculcate.

BC: Well, what you also find is Casaubon is a textual scholar, a clear-cut textual scholar. And I would have expected that to sort-of hold through time. But increasingly they’re not textual scholars, even though we think that’s what we all are, and that’s something to overcome. I mean, that’s the critique: “too text-based”, or whatever. But, mostly, they’re going into cults, or they are talking to believers – and usually believers who are radical in some way. So they seem to be out in the field looking at miraculous events and bizarre beliefs, as they sort-of characterise them, more than they are reading books or comparing. Comparing is the one thing that’s almost never done, except for with Langdon in this very weird kind-of comparison. But outside of him there is almost no comparison. It’s just studying the one thing that’s their dissertation topic; that’s their tenure portfolio; or that’s, usually, their personal dark obsession – which drives them into becoming serial killers, often!

KT: Right.

CC: So we’re over time here, which is fine because we’re going to get to wrapping up and I would say, Listeners, do check out the article where you can read a lot of this stuff that we’re just skimming over, in a lot more detail. But my final two questions I wanted to throw out would be: what can “we” do about this portrayal? So – it’s a similar thing with the media, for example. A lot of my colleagues and I are always moaning about the media never really get things right about religion, “It’s terrible! It’s awful!” But I never really hear solution: “What can we do about the portrayal of religion in the media?” So what, potentially, could we do about the portrayal of Religious Studies in popular culture, or beyond? Any suggestions, based upon your thinking about this?

KT: I’ll try this one. Public scholarship could be an important mitigation here: the extent to which actual Religious Studies scholars are doing the actual work of Religious Studies, in a way that can be seen by the public. That could be one mitigating force against theses sort of wild misrepresentations that we have.

BC: I feel like that it starts with students. I mean, we come into contact with a lot of students over the course of our careers. And it’s not just Religious Studies. I think they often don’t figure out what any of the faculty members do most of the time, because we don’t talk about it. It’s sort-of opaque, for some reason. So, I think talking to students about our work, about our interests, about how we got interested in it – I think it’s useful, I think it’s helpful, it clarifies things (35:00). It makes our position clear. And we can do that on a small level, more. I think we could all, everybody in the academy, could better engage with our students about who they are, and what they do, and how they’re compensated, etc. But I think we could especially do that. Now the interesting thing is, over the time I was writing this article, we had the affair of Reza Aslan, here in the States, who had a rise . . . the first real rise to power, or rise to prominence, as the first real public intellectual in Religious Studies – only to be fired, pretty quickly, for making a comment on Twitter about President Trump, after a few episodes of his show – Believer – which was widely derided by scholars of religion. As was his book about Jesus. What was it called? Zealot. So here we have a failed, missed opportunity to have a public intellectual presenting a model of this kind of work. But that doesn’t mean it has to be the last time we try that. Maybe that’s the place to start. You know, a plot where you save the Pope from a radical Catholic assassin is going to be more interesting than a plot where you translate a text, but it doesn’t have to be about plot, it can be about . . .the old . . . the stuff they used to do on the BBC, where they had long-running, long-form shows to educate the public, in way that is also engaging. And I think that can be done again.

CC: And you know, maybe, if you’re burning the midnight oil, we could all be writing those novels, writing those screenplays that we all wish we were seeing. Is this it, for you, with this project then? Or do you have plans for future research, future publications? What’s next for you?

BC: I think Chris is writing the screenplay, based on the article.

KT: That’s’ right. Look for the screenplay. Just kidding! Not really. No, I am developing a class on religion and pop culture and a lot of this stuff is sort of feeding the mill for that. Brian, what about you?

BC: Well I think that the natural next place to go would be a panel at the AAR – bring in more people to talk about it. And that seems to me like . . . I don’t know if we need another article any time soon. But, bigger conversation – a public conversation about it at our annual meeting here – would be helpful.

CC: Excellent. And hopefully this podcast and your article will kick off a bit more of that conversation, and we can look forward to a future where the discipline, the field, is represented a bit more accurately. But, for now – thank you so much Brian and Kristen. It’s been wonderful having you.

BC: Thank you.

KT: Thanks, Chris.


Citation Info: Collins, Brian, Kristen Tobey and Christopher Cotter. 2018. “Representations of Religious Studies in Popular Culture”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 8 October 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 21 June 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/representations-of-religious-studies-in-popular-culture/

If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with these efforts, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

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Sexual Ethics and Islam

feetAlongside the problematic dominant caricature of Islam as a violent religion, there is perhaps no other issue so problematic in contemporary Western discourse on Islam than discussions sexuality and gender. Western stereotypes of the downtrodden Muslim woman are often countered by the claims of Islamic scholars that women are more liberated, respected and secure within Islam than in other religions or in the “secular” West. Regular listeners to the Religious Studies Project will be unsurprised to learn that there is a lot more going on below the surface of these dominant discourses. Why are “we” even having this discussion about sexual ethics and Islam? How might one begin to study such a vast and “problematic” topic? What are some of the most prescient issues that recur in this contested field? And what is the broader significance of this discussion for Religious Studies in general? To discuss these issues and more, Chris is joined this week by Professor Kecia Ali, of Boston University.

Check out a recent lecture by Kecia on sexual ethics and Islam here.

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, Tiger Balm, and more.


A transcription of this interview is available as a PDF, and has also been pasted below.


Sexual Ethics and Islam

Podcast with Kecia Ali (24 April 2017).

Interviewed by Christopher Cotter

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Chris Cotter (CC): Alongside the problematic dominant caricature of Islam as a violent religion, there’s perhaps no issue so problematic in contemporary Western discourse on Islam than discussions surrounding sexuality and gender. Western stereotypes of down-trodden Muslim women are often countered by claims of Islamic scholars that women are more liberated, respected and secure within Islam than in other religions or in the “secular” West. Regular listeners to the Religious Studies Project will be unsurprised to learn that there’s a lot more going on below the surface of these dominant discourses. Why are “we” even having this discussion about sexual ethics and Islam? How might one begin to study such a vast and problematic topic? What are some of the prescient issues that recur in this contested field? And what is the broader significance of this discussion for religious studies in general? To discuss these issues and more, I’m joined today by Kecia Ali, who is Professor of Religion at Boston University. Professor Ali is a scholar of religion, gender and ethics whose work focusses mostly on the Muslim tradition, with an emphasis on law and biography. She is currently Status Committee Director at the AAR and is a past president of the Society for the Study of Muslim Ethics. Her publication list is impressive and features five monographs, including The Lives of Muhammed, Marriage and Slavery in Early Islam, and – most relevant to today’s interview – Sexual Ethics in Islam: Feminist Reflections on Qur’an, Hadith and Jurisprudence, originally published in 2006, with an expanded revised edition published in 2016. So, Professor Ali, welcome to the Religious Studies Project!

Kecia Ali (KA): Thank you for having me.

CC: And thanks for joining us here in Edinburgh in the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Centre for Study of Islam in the Contemporary World.

KA: That’s a mouthful isn’t it?

CC: It is a mouthful, but they’re graciously hosting us today. And we’ll be sure to shout out about your lecture that you’re doing this evening., when we publish this podcast. So first-off, Islam? Sexual ethics? Why are we even having this discussion?

KA: Yes, it’s sort of impossible not to be having the discussion, really. I think the challenge is to find ways to have it that are productive and don’t just inadvertently reinforce the power of certain dominant discourses by contesting them, if that’s the only thing we do. Look, the question of gendered roles and rights and obligations is one that has been present since – as near as we can tell – the first Muslim community, right? Scripture records specific questions about women’s and men’s respective roles, relationship to each other, relationship to religious obligations, relationship to God, etc. Certainly, accounts of the Prophet’s normative community are replete with gendered descriptions and contestations. Now, obviously, to what extent these reflect a 7th-century community and to what extent they reflect 8th/ 9th/10th-century reflections on that community and attempts to ascribe certain later, normative patterns onto that community, that’s a subject of debate among historians of Islam. But, for Muslims, pious Muslims, lay folk, scholars, these are the stories out of which accounts of virtuous ethical life are made. So Muslims certainly have been having internal conversations about gender norms since quite early on. Now, why are “we” having this conversation?

CC: Yes.

KA: Sexuality is always one of the things that comes up when someone wants to insult someone else, right? When one community, or members of a community are looking for a way to stigmatise, oppose, define “others”, sexuality is very frequently something that gets pressed into service. Whether that’s Protestants saying bad things about Catholics, Catholics saying bad things about Protestants, Protestants saying bad things about Catholics by likening them to Muslims, or the reverse , sexuality frequently comes into play. What we know, if we want to just in very broad terms talk about “The West and Islam” – and I object on principle to those categories, but I’m going to use them anyway as a kind of shorthand – we see, really, that in the Middle Ages and in the Early Modern era, it wasn’t Muslim oppression of women that was a problem for anybody, it was Muslim lustfulness and debauchery. And it’s really in the 19th-century, with the advent of European colonialism in Muslim majority societies – Egypt, for instance, and also India – that Muslim men’s oppressiveness towards women becomes part of a colonial discourse about civilisation, right? What’s very interesting is to look at the ways that the kinds of accusations levelled against Muslims have really changed over time. So not only from wantonness to oppression, but also you’ll find that today one of the things that tends to get said of Muslims is: “Oh, they’re so intolerant of homosexuality! They’re so repressive! Look how awful . . . !” Well, in the Early Modern era, and even into the 19th-century, the claim was, “They’re too tolerant of homosexuality!” They are attached to the practice of sodomy, “ Unlike us upright Brits,” usually, right? And, “Look how awful they are, compared to how moral we are,” which is basically the gist of all of this. And of course there are Muslims equally scandalised by Western women’s dress and the ways in which women and men outside their family interact.

CC: And that’s an important link there, then, when you mention the Muslim perspective. Because contemporary Muslims, whether we’re talking scholars or lay people going about their lives, are having to articulate their views against this dominant Western view.

KA: Yes, I mean, I think part of what’s particularly challenging for me as a scholar, and for media, for lay folk, for religious studies teachers in the classroom, is : how do we talk about this in way that actually recognises the great diversity of perspectives among Muslims? Because, you know, even that phrase, “the Muslim perspective” . . . it’s one that gets bandied about a lot, including by many Muslims. And, of course, part of what’s interesting to me as a scholar of religion, is: how are claims to representing the “authoritative Muslim perspective” being pressed? What are the sources being cited? What are the extra-textual authoritative norms being deployed? How much is it about where you got your degree from? How much is it abut whether you have a beard? How much is it about whether the media is calling you speak on their programmes? And how much is it about the content of your ideas?

CC: Yes. And that’s something that comes up in Aaron Hughes’ Islam and the Tyranny of Authenticity

KA: Absolutely.

CC: We’ve had him on the podcast before and he talked about something completely different. We’re going to have to get him on again for that! But, yes, a very broad topic we’re talking about here: sexual ethics and Islam. How does one even go about studying that? I know that you had your own particular approach . . .

KA: So, the book Sexual Ethics and Islam really has its roots in two different things I was doing around the turn of the millennium. I did my doctoral dissertation at Duke University, about marriage and divorce in 8th -10th-century Sunni Muslim Jurisprudence. At the same time, 2001-2003, I was working part-time for the Feminist Sexual Ethics Project at Brandeis University, which was directed by Bernadette Brooton and funded by the Ford Foundation. And so, for the dissertation, which I defended in 2002, I was really looking at about a dozen early Arabic legal texts. And for the Feminist Sexual Ethics Project I was actually engaged in putting together a series of short essays for the site, aimed at lay folks – not necessarily Muslim – looking for a general orientation to the Muslim textual tradition. So, Qur’anic and prophetic tradition – to some extent exegesis, to some extent legal tradition – framing particular kinds of issues: issues around female dress, issues around marriage, around divorce, around slavery, around same-sex relationships, but framed in a kind of general way that would make them accessible. And I also wanted to begin to address the ways Muslims today were talking about those topics. Sexual Ethics and Islam really came together out of those two initiatives because, on the one hand, what I found when I was looking at the way contemporary Muslims were talking about these topics, is that they were often completely disconnected and, in fact, making claims that really contradicted, sometimes the positions, but far more often the logic and the assumptions of the early legal tradition. And I wanted to put those two things into conversation: put the 10th-century and the 21st-century into conversation. And I was very frustrated by the kind of “Islam liberated women” apologetic that a lot of Muslims were presenting. And I was equally frustrated with the sort of patriarchal, protective, protectionist . . . you know, “Well, of course, patriarchy done right is the only true Islamic tradition, that protects and respects women.” Which exists in a kind of funny tension with “No, no. The Qur’an and the Prophet Muhammed gave Muslim women all their rights and so there’s no need for patriarchy, because Islam is against patriarchy.” And none of these really grappling with, “What is it that’s there in the texts?”

CC: And that – when you mentioned the Prophet Muhammed – is perhaps an excellent way for us to leap right into some of that analysis. I know that the undergrads at New College, in Edinburgh, will be quite familiar with the chapter of the book that focuses on the Prophet’s relationship with his wife Aisha, so maybe we could use that as an example of these various competing discourses and how people use claims to authority to negotiate sexual ethics?

KA: Sure, so of course, for the pre-modern Muslim tradition, Aisha is an absolutely vital figure. She is the youngest of the Prophet’s wives, many say his favourite wife – certainly after Khadijah died, who was the wife of his younger years – and she’s a scholar,and she’s a contentious political figure and certainly, for the construction of Sunni identity, she becomes a flash point in those debates over loyalty, over succession, over precedence. And Chase Robinson – I’m going to paraphrase him now – says that Early Christians argued about Christology and early Muslims argued over how 7th-century Muslims’ behaviour should be remembered, right? So, later Muslims are trying to construct their own authentic narratives, their own strategies of power, by reference to these early Muslims. And so Aisha was absolutely central there. Which means that the ways in which she’s remembered ends up being very central. The texts that are giving people fits today really are texts about her marriage, in which she reports in the first person, in Hadith narratives – narratives of Prophetic tradition – that she was six or, in another version, seven when the prophet married her, and nine when the marriage was consummated. And there are other details sometimes given in these accounts. Now it’s useful to point out that this isn’t something that people were particularly worried about for a very long time. And its actually really unusual that any of his wives ages would be so important in texts about the marriage. But this is there in the Hadith compilations that we have from the 9th-century. And this is similar to the ages that are reported by early biographers, who maybe sometimes go as high as 10. But really, its quite a young age that’s reported in these texts. And generally, over the centuries, Muslim biographers didn’t particularly have any issue with this. Western biographers didn’t particularly have any issue with this. None of them took much notice, until we get to just about 1700, when Humphrey Prideaux, who was an Anglican clergyman, writes a very nasty biography of Muhammed as, actually, part of his ongoing debate with Unitarian Christians. And he says, “Oh isn’t this sort-of amazing there in Arabia, which is the same clime as India,” just like in all these other hot countries, the torrid zone, “how women mature so quickly”. And, for him, Aisha’s age of 6 and 8 is an indication of something that is sort-of exotic and erotic. What he’s worrying about, though, is that Muhammed is marrying her to make an allegiance with her father, which shows that he is making a power grab, in service of his fraudulent imposture. And basically, it only is really in the late 19th/early 20th-century that people start to, maybe, wonder about this a little bit . . . Western biographers. And by the late 20th-century it’s making lots of people uncomfortable, including some Muslims. So the Arabic translation of Washington Irving, for instance – who though this was all very romantic in the middle of the 19th-century – in the 1960s, when its being translated in Egypt, the translator adds a real note, right? And the original marriage has been demoted to a betrothal, and then the translator feels the need to sort-of explain this. But, by the time I’m writing Sexual Ethics and Islam, the context is different and there are two very serious competing strains. There’s a set of polemical accusations that Muhammed is a paedophile, which the Rev Jerry Vines has linked in an epithet as “Demon-possessed paedophile“. So he’s linking a very old accusation against Muhammed with a very new one: a sort of medicalised rhetoric of evil. And then you start to have Muslim apologetics around this question, which say several things. One is that, “Well, things were different back then”. And a version of that is what a number of secular, sympathetic Western academics have also said. And then, the other thing that you get is, “Well, these texts really aren’t reliable on this point.” And the thing that I point out in Sexual Ethics and Islam is: it’s completely fine if you want to make that argument, but then it’s a problem if you turn to those texts as absolutely true on everything else. The thing that was really striking for me, after writing Sexual Ethics and Islam and moving onto the project that became the Lives of Muhammed – which is an investigation of Biographical texts, specifically – is the ways in which, so often in early texts, numbers have a particular kind of symbolic function and resonance. And while I don’t know that six and seven, or nine and ten have the symbolic resonance that say forty does in the accounts of Khadijah’s age, it seems to me that there is plausibly . . . I don’t want to say probably, and I don’t think we can ever know with any kind of certainty these are factually accurate unless we’re simply willing to say, “These texts are all factually accurate and we accept that.” It seems to me, plausibly, there’s an argument to be made that the very low numbers given for her age are in service of praising her, actually; of presenting her as a particularly pure figure, which is very important given that her chastity was impugned during her lifetime, or at least according to texts.They represent this as something that was challenged. And so making her so young at marriage, emphasising her virginity, becomes a way of emphasising her sexual purity. The other thing, it seems to me, is that it’s possible that making her, say nine, when the marriage is consummated, after the Hijrah to Medina, is also a way of making her age low enough that she’s indisputably born to Muslim parents. So although virtually everybody in that first Muslim community would be a convert – according to pious narratives – by the time these Hadith texts are being compiled, having your parents already be Muslim, being born to Muslim parents is quite a status marker. It becomes important to have a genealogy of Muslim parents going further back.

CC: So, time is already running on here! In terms of positioning: you’re a woman, a Western academic, a feminist . . .

KA: And a Muslim

CC: And a Muslim, writing this book, discussing these topics, how was it received? My stereotypical brain is going, “This isn’t going to be that well received in some circles”. So how do you position yourself, in that respect?

KA: One of the more flattering things somebody once told me about the book, was that her graduate advisor – who was also a Muslim man – had suggested that she not read it, because it would be dangerous. And I thought, “Oh! I must have done something right!” (laughs) But, on the other hand, I think that my original intention for the book was not really to have it end up where it’s ended up, which is in the classroom mostly with students, many of whom are not Muslim. This was written, originally, very much as a book that was engaged in a kind of intra-Muslim conversation, to address some frustrations I had with the way intra-Muslim conversations over issues of sexual ethics, were going: I thought, in not particularly productive ways. However, I’m not writing it only as a Muslim feminist. I’m writing as a scholar of Religious Studies. And I know there are some people who don’t think you can or should do both of those things, but I have Religious Studies training. And one of the things that that training enables me to do is to look at the ways in which particular traditions are being constructed, in which particular claims to authority are being made in particular ways. So, for instance, the chapter on female genital cutting in the book is really an extended meditation on: what does the category Islamic, and what do claims to the category Islamic – or, more pertinently, “un-Islamic” – tell us? How useful are they? And where might things that are useful in particular kinds of activist campaigns really break down, if we’re trying to look at them historically, or from within Religious Studies, or from within the world of scholarship, at all?

CC: Yes. And I can remember the students being a little bit frustrated in the sense that so many different points of view were being considered – and not being necessarily condemned – and they were all . . . “Which is the right way?!” (laughs)

KA: I mean, look, answers are great. I have a lot fewer answers than I have questions. And, if anything, in the expanded edition of the book there are even more questions and even fewer answers! But, look, I don’t think we’re going to get better answers until we get better at asking the right questions.

CC: Exactly

KA: And the right questions are very often – and not just for Muslims, and not just about Muslim questions – what’s behind what we’re being told? What’s the evidence for this perspective? Where is this coming from? And how much credit do we want to give it as an accurate representation of something in the world?

CC: And that leads me into, sort of, where I was wanting to get to in the interview – and you’ve been a fantastic interviewee. Religious Studies: I can imagine that some will have maybe seen the title of this interview and thought, “Oh, that’s Area Studies, Islamic Studies. I don’t need to go there.” You know, everything that you’ve been saying, I think, has been illustrating why this is important for the broader study of religion, but I just, maybe, wondered if you wanted to reflect on that from your perspective . . . in multiple different camps.

KA: Yes. I mean, within the academic world of scholars who study Islam and Muslims, some come from Area Studies training: Middle East Studies, Near Eastern Studies, Islamic Studies. Some are really trained to philological work with old texts, and there’s a lot of good work that’s being done with those texts. And some are not trained to work with those texts and instead are very historical, very presentist, very ethnographic in ways that, I think, sometimes make it difficult to understand the resonance of the appeal to the textual tradition that many Muslims take. I’m very fortunate that the American Academy of Religion brings together, in the programme units that study Islam, quite a fabulous group of scholars who have expertise in training in a variety of different disciplines, but who are committed – at least some of the time in their professional engagement – to Religious Studies as a discipline, which is of course inter-disciplinary of necessity. And I think, given that so many questions about Islam are really pivotal to questions that Religious Studies as a discipline is wrestling with, about the rights and roles and responsibilities of insiders and outsiders, with the formation of the category of religion . . . . Look, it’s not an accident that Orientalist, Imperialist categories are very much at play here. I think it’s tremendously important that Islamic Studies be having conversations with folks in Religious Studies and vice versa, to the extent that you can even draw distinctions between them.

CC: And so, on the topic of conversations between different fields, your work’s taken a different turn of late?

KA: (laughs) Yes. A detour!

CC: Your latest book, Human in Death: Morality and Mortality in JD Robb’s Novels . . . What’s this got to do with Islam? (laughs)

KA: Well, at one level, nothing. And at the other level, I suppose, everything. I read these novels recreationally. It’s a series that’s been ongoing over 20 years, published by Nora Roberts, whose a premier American author of popular romance, under the pseudonym JD Robb. They are police procedurals, set in New York, circa 2060, and I read them. And I had things to say about them, and about the way that they deal with intimate relationships; about the way they deal with friendship; about the way they deal with work, especially women’s work; about the way they deal with violence, including police violence; about the way they deal with what it means to be a human being; about abilities and perfection and the idea of a post-human future. And I think that, to the extent that this book connects to my other work, it’s really around the questions of ethics: what it means to live a good, ethical, virtuous life in connection with other human beings in a given set of circumstances. I trained as a historian before I moved into Religious Studies. And one of the things that comes up again in this series – just like it comes up looking at 8th and 9th-century legal texts and biographies – is that understanding the present is sometimes best done from a distance. So looking comparatively at the past, looking at one possible imagined future, can give us a new perspective on the world we’re living in right now.

CC: Wonderful. And that, also, illustrates even more the importance of your work with Islamic texts, with contemporary Islam, sexual ethics. And it’s been fantastic that we’ve been having this conversation on International Women’s Day! So, I know this won’t be going out for another few months, but just to get that onto the recording from the Alwaleed Centre. And I think we’re going to have to draw that to a close there. It’s been fantastic speaking with you. And I wish you all the best with the lecture this evening, which, if the recording of the lecture goes ok, we’ll link to it from this page and everyone can see it and hear it, in all its glory!

KA: Thanks

CC: Thank you.


Citation Info: Ali, Kecia 2017. “Sexual Ethics and Islam”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 24 April 2017. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 1 May 2017 Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/sexual-ethics-and-islam/

All transcriptions for THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT are currently produced by volunteers. If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with these efforts, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- NonCommercial- NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. The views expressed in podcasts are the views of the individual contributors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT or the British Association for the Study of Religions.

Researching Radicalisation

Radicalisation, fundamentalism or extremism, are terms which are highly prevalent in media, public, political, and legal discourse these days, and are surrounded by mystification, rhetoric and ideological assumptions that work against clear, objective, non-partisan understandings of the phenomena they denote. Regular listeners to the RSP will be unsurprised that we look askance at such discourses and aim to take a critical approach to this controversial topic. What might the academy mean by the term ‘radicalisation’? How might we study it? What makes it different from ‘socialisation’? Is there a necessary connection between ‘religion’ – or particular forms of ‘religion’ – and radicalisation? And how might we position ourselves in relation to other actors – in politics, the military, or the media – who have a vested interest in our research?

To discuss these and other issues, we are joined this week by Dr Matthew Francis, Senior Research Associate at Lancaster University and Communications Director for the Centre for Research and Evidence on Security Threats (CREST). In this interview we discuss what we mean by ‘radicalisation’, and what its connections to socialisation, terrorism, and ‘religion’ might be. We take on the methodological question of how one might go about researching such a contested topic, and look specifically at some of Matthew’s findings relating to the causes of radicalisation, and the neo-Durkheimian ‘sacred’. We also reflect on the position of the researcher when approaching topics entangled such vested political interests, negotiating the media, and future research directions.

Be sure to check out other great podcasts on: Zen Buddhism Terrorism and Holy War with Brian Victoria; Sociotheology and the Cosmic War with Mark Juergensmeyer; Religion, violence and the Media with Jolyon Mitchell; Studying “Cults” with Eileen Barker; The Sacred with Gordon Lynch; and Pilgrimage in Japan and Beyond with Ian Reader and Paulina Kolata. This episode is the fifth in a series co-produced with Religion, Youth and Intergenerationality” with Naomi Thompson, ‘Religion and Feminism‘ with Dawn Llewellyn, ‘Evangelicalism and Civic Space‘ with Anna Strhan, and ‘An Introduction to the Sociology of Religion‘ with Grace Davie.

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us . And remember, this BLACK FRIDAY, you can use our Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, cough drops, single malt whiskey, and more.

Hyphenating Identities

In yet another excellent Religious Studies Project interview, we hear from University of California Santa Barbara Associate Professor Rudy Busto talking about race and religion in the United States. The objectives of this conversation focus predominantly upon topics like race and religion in America, the conflation of race as ethnicity and vice versa, and the use of race as an identity marker within the study of religion.

Throughout this delightful and meandering dialogue the listener is invited, indeed encouraged, to consider the systemic and institutionalized location of race alongside religion in the contemporary, modern socio-cultural milieu and scholastic Academy. With a particularly American slant (which is to say, a reliance on double-barrelled ethno-religious identifiers like Asian-American, or Japanese-American Buddhist), much of the discussion in this interview centers around the now almost implicitly assumed observation that the ways in which humans create and express their identities is a socially constructed phenomenon, one that lacks ontological existence and agency, and how race can be a prominent component of this construction. By further deconstructing and problematizing the use of constructed, blanketing concepts like race or culture, Busto shows how delicate the process of understanding the formation of an individual’s subjective understanding of themselves and the group to which they identify actually can be.

What is regrettably missing from this conversation is a deeper discussion that might provide us with an understanding of how, precisely, the constructed-ness of human identities as a theoretical model advances the field of RS. Building upon the excellent foundation laid by Busto in this interview, I would submit two pieces of scholarship as supplements, each delving into how the contemporary scholar of religion might deploy this constructed-ness of identity.

Skipping over the obvious progenitors of the ‘constructed human groups’ discussion (Hobsbawm, Ranger, Anderson, etc.), I often heavily rely upon two middle to late 20th century academics to focus the lens of constructed identity. The first is Steven Vertovec and his use of what he calls ‘vis-à-vis dynamics’ (2000:106). In this particular instance Vertovec is observing Hindus in ‘diasporic’ situations within the UK. That is to say, he records observations of individuals who identify as belonging to the group calling itself ‘Hindu’, though they are citizens of the United Kingdom. Regardless of whether the individual is a first, second, or third generation immigrant, Vertovec observes that their self-identity requires what RS scholars might call an ‘Other’. That is, an individual, object, or even an ethno-religious collective, such as Hindus and non-Hindus, in relation to which one forms at least one layer of their self-identity.

Therefore, a researcher might record a conversation with someone who, for example, identifies as Hindu because they perform arati on Sundays instead of attending synagogue or, of course, doing nothing at all. Conversely, perhaps a younger, third-generation student might identify as Scottish or English rather than Indian like their first-generation grandparents. These markers or borders that define to which group one belongs, Vertovec might argue, cannot be created in a vacuum and necessarily require a concept RS scholars call an Other. In our work then, we can subsequently examine questions such as how generational differences manifest in various groups, what impact public education has on how immigrants choose to identify, or indeed how we can more clearly define the very concept of ‘religion’ through an examination of the subjective identification of the individual to a particular religious tradition within a particular context.

The second scholar who I would submit as a supplement to this identity question is Clifford Geertz. Geertz was a specialist in Mediterranean groups and specifically, for the present case, of Muslim Moroccans. Geertz’s suggested deployment of what he thinks of as ‘mosaic identities’ illustrates a similar me/you dynamic as does Vertovec, yet in a slightly more colourful way. Geertz provides a handful of specific stories during which he observes that the individual has multiple, ‘nested’ identities that are centered on one’s location in social-political/religious spacetime (1974:26-45). He provides the narration of a particular male informant, whose identity as belonging to a particular group, ranging from his specific tribe, village, region, etc. are deployed in relation to the dominant group with whom he comes into contact. This is done within what I like to think of as a Russian-doll, or concentric field of layered concepts of belonging and identity. So, what we find in Geertz is that rather than a linear and subject-centric illustration of identity formation, he sees what might be a more fluid, group-oriented process of formation and understanding of self-identity.

Many of these same formations and scenarios can be noticed when one looks upon other constructed forms of human collective (and individual) identity, like race or ethnicity. We can use ideas like those of Busto, Vertovec, and Geertz–among myriad others of course–to consider questions about how we as scholars of religion might better define and deploy concepts such as race and religion. Indeed, as touched upon in this interview, we find ourselves in a time when countries like the UK and the US are, even now, officially providing their citizens the option of identifying via the use of hyphenated ethnicities.

So, in the interest of brevity, I would be quick to again praise any discussion that aims to shed further light on the process by which humans form and manifest their identity as an individual in isolation, as well as when done as a member of a group, as such discussions can only aid in progressing the field of Religious Studies.

References

Geertz, Clifford. 1974. “From the Native’s Point of View”. Bulletin of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. 28.1: 26-45.

Nye, Malory. 1995. A Place for Our Gods: The Construction of an Edinburgh Hindu Temple Community. Surrey: Curzon Press

Vertovec, Steven. 2000. The Hindu Diaspora. London and New York: Routledge.

Race and Religion: Intertwined Social Constructions

Race is a neglected category in Religious Studies. When race is included at all, it is often conflated with ethnicity or else its study is limited to a few typical examples, such as black/white binaries, the “Black church” or various “ethnic churches,” or the racialization of Muslim minorities. In this interview, Rudy Busto discusses problems and possibilities in the study of race and religion: how it has been examined (and overlooked) in the field of religious studies, how it has been confused with ethnicity, how race and religion have been theorized as mutually constitutive, limitations and occlusions in the study of race and religion, and why race is a category scholars of religion cannot afford to ignore. The racial/religious co-constitution of collective identities is an ever-present double-marked boundary which produces real effects on actual bodies, an empirical fact structuring people’s experiences. As such, scholars render their scholarship incomplete and do a disservice to their students and readers when they ignore race. Ranging from work on the social construction of race and religion as scholarly categories, the challenges of analyzing syncretism and authenticity, and the necessity of highlighting unmarked categories (e.g., Protestant, white), Busto argues that it is impossible to get an accurate and comprehensive understanding of religion (and non-religion) without taking race into account.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, ant farms, pot pourri, and more.

The Invention of Religion in Japan

Scholars interested in Asian religions have often noted that European colonialism simultaneously disrupted native societies and to various degrees created the modern social identities commonly referred to as “Buddhism,” “Confucianism,” “Taoism,” “Shinto,” etc. Inspired by Edward Said and others, these scholars recognize the change and adaptation that resulted from colonial encounters, specifically as they relate to the natives’ appropriation of the modern category of religion.

In this interview, Jason Josephson discusses these issues and more, specifically as they relate to Japan and the formation of Shinto. Josephson first describes how Shinto is typically represented in EuroAmerican religious studies courses. He then describes the various actors and processes (both European and native) that were involved in the Japanese appropriation of the modern category of religion, paying particular attention to the material and economic interests embedded in these larger processes.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, cheese, office stationery and more.

Podcasts

Representations of Religious Studies in Popular Culture

Many of our discussions at the Religious Studies Project focus upon the complex intersections between ‘religion’ – whatever that is – and ‘popular culture’. And justifiably so. Indeed, our good friend and colleague Vivian Asimos of Durham University has been producing the very interesting “Religion and Popular Culture Podcast” for a while now. But what about Religious Studies (as a field of study), and the people who do it, in popular culture? When we initially thought about this, we could certainly come up with a list of academics and “bookish” people who are somewhat problematically and wildly inaccurately portrayed in popular culture – from archaeology’s Indiana Jones and paleontology’s Ross Gellar to archivists’ Rupert Giles and linguistics’ Louise Banks – but we struggled to come up with many examples of the study of religion as we, here at the RSP, know it. Luckily, today’s guests have given the question much more attention! Given that popular cultural representations are more likely to shape public perceptions about what the study of religion is and who does it than either direct experience in the classroom or statistics about graduation rates and job placements, we hope that you will agree that we should try to understand what these perceptions are. In this podcast, Chris speaks with Professors Brian Collins and Kristen Tobey about this fascinating and important topic. This interview is based on a recently published article – From Middlemarch to The Da Vinci Code: Portrayals of Religious Studies in Popular Culture – a shorter version of which has been published in blog form as Casaubon’s Revenge: Popular Representations of the Scholar of Religion.

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, Aluminum foil, Zucchini, and more.


A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.


Representations of Religious Studies in Popular Culture

Podcast with Brian Collins and Kristen Tobey. (8 October 2018)

Interviewed by Christopher Cotter

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Collins_and_Tobey_-_Representations_of_Religious_Studies_in_Popular_Culture_1.1

 

Christopher Cotter (CC): Many of our discussions at the Religious Studies Project focus upon the complex intersections between religion – whatever that is – and popular culture, and justifiably so. Indeed, our good friend and colleague Vivian Asimos, of Durham University, has been producing a very interesting religion and popular culture podcasts for a while now. But what about Religious Studies, and the people who do it, in popular culture? When I initially thought about this, I could certainly come up with a list of academics and bookish people who are somewhat problematically, and wildly inaccurately portrayed in popular culture – from archaeology’s Indiana Jones, and palaeontology’s Ross Geller, to archivist’s Rupert Giles, or Linguistics’ Louise Banks. But, I have to admit, I struggled to come up with many examples of the Study of Religion, as we – here at the Religious Studies Project – know it. Luckily, today’s guests have the question much more firmly in focus. Given that, as they argue, popular culture representations are more likely to shape public perceptions about what the Study of Religion is, and who does it, than either direct experience in the classroom or statistics about graduation rates and job placements, we hope that you will agree that we should try to understand what these perceptions are. So joining me today, to discuss this fascinating and important topic, are Professors Brian Collins and Kristen Tobey. So first off, Brian and Kristen, welcome to the Religious Studies Project!

Brian Collins (BC): Thanks for having us.

Kristen Tobey (KT): Thank you.

CC: I’ll just say a little bit about who you are. Brian Collins is Associate Professor and the Drs. Ram and Sushila Gawande Chair in Indian Religion and Philosophy, at Ohio University. He’s the author of The Head Beneath the Altar: Hindu Mythology and the Critique of Sacrifice, and various essays on Hinduism and the Study of Religion. And his second book, The Other Rama: Matricide and Varṇicide

In the Mythology of Paraśurāma – apologies for the pronunciation – is forthcoming from SUNY press. And Kristen Tobey is Assistant Professor of Religion and Social Sciences at John Carroll University, in Cleveland, Ohio. And her research treats religious identity formation and communication in the contemporary United States. And she’s the author of Plowshares: Protest, Performance and Religious Identity in the Nuclear Age. So that’s where you’re coming from. How did you get interested, then, in this question of the representation of the Study of Religion in popular culture? It doesn’t necessarily sound like it’s your main research focus. So how did you get into that?

BC: Well, shall I answer this one Kristen?

KT: Yes, go first.

BC: I asked Kristen to join me, and she graciously did. And together we worked on a project. But it started out because – and I think both of us had an idea at some point – we study religion, and we have to actually tell people that we study religion and then see what they think we do. So very, very infrequently does someone have an actual idea of what the Study of Religion, in the university, entails! You know, I teach classes in Hinduism and Buddhism and if you take both classes, students– who are in the same class – typically ask you: “Why are you teaching this? I thought you were a Hindu.” Or, “Why are you teaching this, I thought you were a Buddhist?” Because I’m teaching both classes. So the idea of studying religion as an academic subject is a mystery to most people. And I say, “Well if they don’t know, what do they know? And where do they get the information?” So I started watching a lot of movies on TV, and I consumed a lot of junk culture. So I saw a few people, here and there, who seemed to be, basically, doing what I do – but not in a way that I recognised! And so I had to cast a wide net and see what impressions were out there.

KT: (Laughs.) I face the same thing. Less from my students, because I teach in a Catholic school so they’re familiar with religion teachers – although not quite the same way I tend to do it. But I face this a lot with my research subjects who are very suspicious of the idea of someone studying religion academically, because the examples that they see, as Brian says, in pop culture, are so very strange. So when Brian asked me to join this project I was really excited, for that reason – and also because my research usually deals with how religious people either present themselves, or are presented. So to think about another piece of that – as you said, Chris: “Well, how is the field presented? How are the people who do it presented?” That was very interesting to me, and thinking about questions of identity.

CC: Wonderful. I should have said in the introduction, of course, that part of the reason that we’re having this conversation is that the two of you have just published an article – I say just – June 2018 – in the Religious Studies Review (5:00) which was called, “From Middlemarch to the Da Vinci Code: Portrayals of Religious Studies in Popular Culture”. So that will give a hint, to the Listeners, of where we might be going with our in-depth examples, here. But before we get to Middlemarch and The Da Vinci Code, how did you go about selecting your cases and just conducting this study in general? As I say, I struggled . . . I mean Robert Langdon, from The Da Vinci Code, kind-of came to mind but, as we’ll discover later on, that’s not really Religious Studies, is it? Sorry! There’s a siren going on outside, as well! That’s typical here.

KT: I’m just so glad that’s you and not me! (Laughs).

CC: Ah. They’re not coming for me, Listeners. Yes. So, Robert Langdon certainly came to mind. But I really struggled to think. So, how did you go about even finding your case studies?

BC: Well, for me, I did have to think about. That’s a methodological question we had to ask at the very beginning. And I compiled a list. I said, “Indiana Jones sort of reminds me of a person who does religion, but he’s clearly identified as an archaeologist. So I wanted to find people that weren’t clearly identified as archaeologists or classicists, or anthropologists. There’s a different article, two articles, by anthropologists in literature and movies that we cite in our article. But they seem to be studying something like what we do. So I eliminated people like parapsychologists and clearly identified historians, so there was a sort-of middle ground. Robert Langdon is a “Religious Symbolist” which is a totally made-up profession, at a real university! Whereas Casaubon from Middlemarch, the other big example that we treat, is . . . . Well what is he identified as, Kristen? Just a scholar?

KT: He’s identified as a scholar, but he’s very clearly engaged in work that would be recognisable for a historian of religions. Pretty much in the mould of somebody from that era. So it was actually, in many ways, a pretty accurate depiction. But as far as garnering the case studies and garnering the examples, I remember Brian – was it years ago maybe? Or do I just have a skewed chronology on this? That you sent round an email to maybe half-a-dozen people, saying “Hey, I’m thinking about this. What examples can you think of? And one thing that was really striking to me was that, as those emails came back to you, most of them were from horror movies, right? The vast majority of these characters were in scary movies, doing scary things. You know, summoning demons, or whatever else. So, as far as characters that we might actually recognise as doing the work that we do, Casaubon is one of very few examples.

BC: Yes. That’s what I did. I crowd-searched the research! It’s easier to get someone else to do the research for you, I find! So I came up with a list and then I said, “. . . like these people. Anybody else you can think of,” again, “that’s not identified clearly as something else?” And so I did get a long list. There were comic books on there. There were podcasts on there. There were movies, mostly horror movies on there. There were a few novels on there. And some of the ones I ended up having to eliminate . . . they were the sort-of archivists. There were a lot of archivists – like the Giles, from Buffy, that you talked about. And that was a limit case for me. I didn’t know whether to include those or not. But I feel like they’re somewhere in the mix. But, for our article, we didn’t discuss them. Archivists have a family resemblance to the archetype of the Religious Studies person. But we ended up leaving them out, because they’re . . . if you asked who they are, somebody can tell you that they’re an archivist, and not a religionist. The case is that nobody is identified as an historian of religion or a religionist. Partly that’s our fault. We have no easily identifiable, transferrable job title from university to university, nor even a place at university that can consistently be found. So it was just that way in the representations, too. We had to kind-of make decisions along the way, and narrow it down.

KT: Yes, with the very memorable exception – and tell me if I’m getting ahead of things here – of Emily Dumont in Black Tapes, right? I think she’s one of just a handful, really, of three or four, who was actually introduced as a professor of Religious Studies. But then it turns out what she does is not really like what professors of Religious Studies do at all! But she’s one of the few who actually get that label attached to her.

CC: Excellent. Well we can get to that . . . The Black Tapes is a podcast that I, unfortunately, had never heard of when I read your article – but you do a good job of discussing it (10:00). So it would be quite good for us on the Religious Studies Project Podcast to discuss that. But I’ll just also mention that I put out on Twitter last week that we were doing this podcast, and we got a couple of responses. I asked, what were your personal favourites and bugbears? So Richard Newton at the University of Alabama said that he likes Professor Jamal in Mooz-lum. He said that there was an emphasis on good questions over simple answers, embrocation of race and religion, and examination of the insider/ outsider problem. And then another character that you discuss is in the Hulu series, The Path. And what came back? We had Tylor Tully saying that he had really enjoyed The Path on Hulu, and their inclusion of a Religious Studies scholar – particularly their treatment of an emerging religious tradition. But then Joel Bordeaux said that the religion professor on The Path is probably the worst he’s ever seen: invited as a guest to a class, openly deriding their tradition, conducting secret sexual relationships with research subjects, deliberately intervening in communities he’s studying, and so on! So you might want to respond to some of that, and then maybe tell us about Emily Dumont.

BC: Well, I think Emily Dumont is interesting. I do want to talk about Jackson Neill from The Path actually. It’s one of the best examples, and it came very late in this project, which was . . . . I was watching the show and I said, “Now I have to go back and rewrite a large part of this!” And I did. But Emily Dumont . . . The Black Tapes is a podcast. It’s a sort of like The X Files. It’s told in the style of a true crime serial-type podcast, where they’re investigating supposedly true occurrences, and the characters are meant to be real people. So it blurs the line between fiction, and reality, and journalism. But they interview people and they interview a religious studies scholar. And she is specifically interested in demonology. She’s described as very sort-of informally dressed. She described her as an over-grown high school freshman with a Ramones T shirt and a funky haircut. And sort of irreverent. And also speaking about Chemtrails, which is strange conspiracy theory about air travel, or something – I don’t really understand it! But it was bizarre X Files-type stuff. And it was put in the mouth of a Religious Studies professor. Elsewhere on the same podcast there’s a different Religious Studies professor, who openly derides her as crank – even though she’s in a university and he’s not – who takes a really hard-nosed, scientific, some would say a kind-of reductivist view of religion. And his job is to disprove . . . . Miracles are a pretty common theme. The job is either to disprove religion or to become a leader of religion. But in the case of Emily Dumont, she’s marginalised as someone who’s sort of a joke. And that’s a little disconcerting. I think that a podcast like that, you’re likely to have people who went to college, an audience who went to college, and somewhere along the way had a class. So I feel like this person seems to me that it was drawn from some experience of some whacky Religious Studies professor. I mean, that was my read on it. What did you think, Kristen?

KT: I think that’s possible. But I also think that podcast is doing something really odd, in that it’s conflating paranormal studies – paranormal activity – with religion in a wholesale, non-nuanced way. Because we do have this Emily Dumont character who’s very childlike, who’s very gullible, who represents one possibility, right: a person who’s involved in Religious Studies and the paranormal because of naiveté, let’s say. But then there’s the other character, Richard Strand, who is very sceptical, very perceptive. He’s not a Religious Studies professor, but he was a Religious Studies major, we are told. So we have these two extremes, both attached to the field of Religious Studies, but then . . . . And I should say, I only managed to listen to the first half-dozen or so episodes before it became too scary for me (laughs).They were interesting, but it was too scary and I couldn’t continue. But throughout those first few episodes we get other characters being brought in, who are also sort-of oddly attached to religion. For example, one character who is described as being – and I’m pretty much quoting here – “what theologians would call a Biblical Demonologist.” (15:00) As far as I know, there is no such thing as Biblical Demonology – though I’m not a theologian, so maybe there is and I just don’t know! Maybe. But that’s what I mean when I say that it’s as though the paranormal and Religious Studies are just completely layered on top of one another in this show – or podcast, rather – in some ways that are kind-of interesting, and some ways that are really bizarre. And there doesn’t really seem to be any explanation – at least in the first half a dozen episodes – of why that’s the case, or how those particular choices are being made. So, yes, maybe there is something very specific going on, in that one of the creators had a professor that that is modelled upon. But maybe there’s something else happening, which is just that it’s a podcast dealing with sort of odd, supernatural, paranormal stuff and there’s nowhere else that it makes sense to house that, other than in Religious Studies.

CC: Yes.

BC: I mean it’s odd, because it would have been ten years ago – a parapsychologist, I mean they used to have those in movies all the time. The people that investigated hauntings and psychic phenomena and stuff. I mean the Ghostbusters are . . .

KT: Ghostbusters! Sure!

BC: They’re in parapsychology lab. They’re doing (audio unclear). So what happened to that, I don’t know. But why it became religion, here . . . . But nothing recognisable as religion is ever studied! Now that said, I was inspired to teach a class on religion and the paranormal and it became the most popular class that I teach, because of seeing these movies. So that’s good, I guess!

CC: Absolutely.

BC: And some people write about it. We mention that in the article too. There a new sort of, newish, wave of books dealing with religious experience and paranormal experience, from different angles. Ann Taves, Geoff (audio unclear) – both from very different points of view. So there is some of that. But I don’t think anybody knew that as they’re making these characters. I think that’s coincidental, or a part of a larger zeitgeist.

CC: Exactly. I’m just keen that we keep pressing on, because I do want to get Jackson Neill, but we’ve got to get to the Da Vinci Code and everything before. So maybe, quickly. . . . In your article, I think you were just saying that Jackson Neill, although he may not be the most morally upright of scholars in that sense, actually, what he’s doing perhaps quite closely resembles what we would consider to be the Study of Religion?

BC: Well, he’s an Americanist, just like Kristen. Which is why I pointed him out to her, very early on. He’s doing a kind of ethnography, which is what she does. But what he does, that she doesn’t do – as far as I know – is give major talk shows advertising his book!

KT: (Laughs) No. Just this. This is my 15 minutes of fame right here!

BC: But he had a sexual relationship with his informant. He inserts himself in the life of this new religious movement, which is uniformly referred to as a “cult” throughout the TV series. All sorts of things that seemed like he had to go through IRB to do, but had no problem doing. He’s eventually sort-of discredited, and they turn against him. But it’s so realistic that it almost feels like that this is something that people would believe references the Study of Religion in the academy! And it does, in the sense that we do that kind of work – we do talk to people about their experiences – but what we don’t do is try and undermine some tradition with an exposé.

KT: Right. And I think another thing that is important about that character is that one of the tropes we identified in a lot of these representations is a thread of hypocrisy. So, yes: maybe he’s a good scholar, or maybe he’s doing actual scholarly work that resembles what an Americanist ethnographer might do, but then he’s got this potentially sort of shady sexual stuff going on. I am hard -pressed to think of a depiction of, say, a math professor – right? – where there is a plot that has to do with sexual behaviour. Whereas it comes up over and over again in these Religious Studies characters, as though people using these characters are doing it in order to identify a hypocrisy that’s inherent to studying religion!

BC: Yes, I think so.

CC: Which would scan with my intuition, anyway. So, just so we can absolutely get to it . . . You discuss how a lot of these characters can sometimes end up on a sort of pathetic-heroic spectrum. You’ve got your nerdy, weedy scholar working away, (20:00) pale-faced and not much interest in real life, and then you’ve got the Indiana Jones’s running around: they’re dashing – wonderful knowledge . . . . And so you set up this comparison really well, in the article, between the Reverend Casaubon from George Elliot’s Middlemarch, and then Robert Langdon from Dan Brown’s books, Angels and Demons, Da Vinci Code, and so on. I’m afraid it’s been over a decade since I read Middlemarch, but it was nice engaging with it again through your article. Can you maybe, just for the next five minutes or so, give a brief introduction to these two characters and maybe sort of set them up against each other, the different models of the Study of Religion?

KT: Yes, I’ll start with Casaubon who appears first in, of course, George Elliot’s Middlemarch in the 19th Century. He is sort-of the quintessential example of a dry, dusty, pedantic scholar, who only cares about his books. As I mentioned earlier, he is doing work that is very recognisable as History of Religions. He’s trying to compile sort of a massive comparative mythology. We learn later on in the book that he doesn’t actually have the language skills to do this, that he will never finish this fruitless project, and most of the characters – ultimately, pretty much all of the characters in the novel – think that he’s ridiculous, and think that he’s so intellectually obsessed that he’s out of touch with real life; it compromises his virility; he doesn’t deserve the love of the beautiful protagonist; and so on, and so forth. So he is pretty much a paradigmatic example of intellectual obsession that, basically, ruins everything else about him. And something interesting that we noticed, as we were thinking about his character, is that even in more recent and contemporary updates, where other characters are treated somewhat differently and more sympathetically, Casaubon never is. So, for example, there’s a very recent YouTube series that is updating Middlemarch. It’s you know, young, attractive students on a college campus. And many of them are socially awkward in some way, but still endearing. Whereas Casaubon – who is now, in this rendering, a graduate student working on some completely obscure dissertation topic that would probably fit in Philosophy of Religion, for example – he’s still a really unpleasant character. There’s still this linkage between intellectual obsession and unpleasantness. No-one likes him. He’s unlikeable, because he is sort of a sham scholar, let’s say. He’s obsessed with this intellectual project, but he doesn’t really have the skills to do it successfully. So “weak”, “pathetic”, “unlikeable”, all of these adjectives continue to attach to him, even in contemporary updates.

CC: Yes. And on a surface level, your gut reaction is that that’s going to be quite different to the character in Dan Brown’s work, who we see portrayed in film by Tom Hanks who’s America’s – if not the world’s – most loved actor, in some ways! That’s quite a different character. But not so different, I believe?

BC: Right. It’s hard to find someone who doesn’t like Tom Hanks. It’s like the Jimmy Stewart of our generation. He’s much beloved, and he’s this. But one thing that’s interesting about him that’s the same- and I’ll talk about what’s different about him in a minute- but it’s the sexual aspect. I mean I think that Casaubon is really a neutered character, right? He has no sexual drive, or sexual energy associated with him. He’s seen as sort of a dried-up old husk of a person, whereas Langdon has a different kind of asceticism, in that . . . Dan Brown uses the term “good clean fun”. It’s all about good clean fun, which means that . . . . Indiana Jones has a different female love interest in every movie. They have a “will they, won’t they?” . . . and of course they will! But in all of the movies based on The Da Vinci Code books, I mean the books about Robert Langdon, his female lead is not in any kind of a romantic relationship. They even have a handshake! It’s the most chaste hero/heroine relationship one can possibly imagine. In the first book she’s the descendent of Jesus Christ – which is a meaningless thing anyway, thinking about 2000 years of generational history – but it’s someone who you can’t imagine having sex with someone on a movie or on screen, right? It’s a very . . . He’s also a very consciously non-sexual, de-eroticised character (25:00), unlike the one’s we talked about before. But what he does is really instructive. I think that nobody has done more to get the Study of Religion in the public consciousness than Dan Brown: the Catholic reaction to those books; the sort-of revival of interest in conspiracy theories about the Illuminati, and what have you. It never really went away, but it certainly got more . . . And that was what became the shorthand for the Study of Religion – is studying the secret conspiracies behind all the fakeness of religion. And that’s what he does. But everything he says about religion is nonsense. And we also learn that he’s not even the person who teaches Religious Studies. That’s somebody else at Harvard, who we never meet. But he has this particularly narrow focus on religious symbology, without any explanation of what a symbol is, and mistaking symbols, cyphers and codes for each other. It’s a very . . . it’s a very thinly researched book, right? There’s lot of work on the conspiracies but, as far as what he’s doing, what we see him doing in classrooms, what we see him talking about, what passes in his dialogue as profound knowledge – that the Feast of Sol Invictus has something to do with Christmas, and blows everybody’s mind (laughs) – really speaks to the depth of ignorance about the Study of Religion. Which I think is an indictment really, for me, anyway. If this just goes over without a ripple, then: how have we not established – in any meaningful way – what we do in the classroom, and what we do with our books?

CC: Indeed, yes. And someone else pointed out that one of the biggest errors, perhaps, in the portrayal is the completely full lecture hall that . . . (Laughs) he’s teaching to – of attentive students!

BC: And the bottomless budget that he has!

KT: That, too.

CC: So, I mean, we could go into in-depth on these characters, and obviously we direct the Listeners to your article which we’ll link to from the podcast page, to get really into the analysis of them. But towards the end of the article you ask, through this comparison exercise, what kind of picture have you formed of the fictional religious studies scholar? And then, also, about what emerges about religion as an object of study. So perhaps, using the examples that we’ve discussed thus far, could you tell us a little bit about what we can say about the generic fictional Religious Studies scholar, in a nutshell? And maybe, how religion is conceived?

BC: Well the one thing that’s interesting about the Langdon character is that he’s the only one that gives us a real definition of what religion is as an object of study. Now it doesn’t . . . I’ll quote from the book. The book is The Lost Symbol, which is a later book in the series. And he says to his class – this is in the article, too: “‘So, tell me. What are the three prerequisites for an ideology to be considered a religion?’ ‘ABC’, one woman offered: ‘Assure, Believe, Convert.’ ‘Correct.’ Langdon said, ‘Religions assure salvation. Religions believe in a precise theology and religions convert non-believers.’” It’s a self-evident – to him and to everyone else in the class – rote definition of religion. It’s not very useful to me. It has nothing to do with symbols, interestingly, which is the foundation of the Study of Religion as he does it. But it does give you a very pat definition of what religion is. Assure, believe, convert: these are all these verbs that imply control over a crowd, over a group, over minds. It’s a very cynical and, of course, one dimensional – well, it’s three dimensional technically – but thin definition of religion. And it’s the only one we really get. The question of what religion is never comes up for anybody. Which, considering the amount of ink that we’ve spilled over the last 50 years trying to figure out what that is, that does not translate into the representations as we have them.

KT: Yes, it’s pretty interesting that all we have is this very thin, superficial, reductive definition, which might well be a definition that works well for some religious scholars. I find it a bit odd, but that’s just me. Because it seems to me that what Religious Studies does best is sort-of the opposite of thin and superficial. And nowhere in this examination of characters do we see anyone who’s doing the thick work of Religious Studies. (30:00) So, what is religion? Assure, Belief and Control – or something like that?

BC: Convert.

KT: So, then, what is religious studies? As Brian says, it’s this very simplistic endeavour that has to do with recognising a very simplistic dynamic at play. In other words, in these depictions we don’t see Religious Studies scholarship as being about critical empathy; we don’t see it as being about rigorous analysis; we don’t see it as being about robust comparison – which to my mind are the things that it does best, and the things that it can help students to do best. So we get not only a wild misrepresentation of what religion is – that is it’s always about coerced conversion and that sort of thing; it’s always about shadowy mystery and espionage – but we also get a very unfair misrepresentation of what Religious Studies is doing and – by that same token – is not doing.

CC: Well the flip side of what you’re saying there, in the Casaubon character we would have Religious Studies being the sort-of dry, study of texts, and very esoteric search for some sort of higher knowledge that is beyond relevance to the social world. So it’s either something that’s irrelevant bookish and not of interest, or something that’s sort-of swashbuckling, and uncovering of conspiracies, and releasing people from coercive control – neither of which are very accurate depictions of what any of us do!

KT: Or ghost-hunting! Sometimes it’s about ghost-hunting, don’t forget! But, yes included in none of those things is there the important skills that Religious Studies, when done well, actually can and should inculcate.

BC: Well, what you also find is Casaubon is a textual scholar, a clear-cut textual scholar. And I would have expected that to sort-of hold through time. But increasingly they’re not textual scholars, even though we think that’s what we all are, and that’s something to overcome. I mean, that’s the critique: “too text-based”, or whatever. But, mostly, they’re going into cults, or they are talking to believers – and usually believers who are radical in some way. So they seem to be out in the field looking at miraculous events and bizarre beliefs, as they sort-of characterise them, more than they are reading books or comparing. Comparing is the one thing that’s almost never done, except for with Langdon in this very weird kind-of comparison. But outside of him there is almost no comparison. It’s just studying the one thing that’s their dissertation topic; that’s their tenure portfolio; or that’s, usually, their personal dark obsession – which drives them into becoming serial killers, often!

KT: Right.

CC: So we’re over time here, which is fine because we’re going to get to wrapping up and I would say, Listeners, do check out the article where you can read a lot of this stuff that we’re just skimming over, in a lot more detail. But my final two questions I wanted to throw out would be: what can “we” do about this portrayal? So – it’s a similar thing with the media, for example. A lot of my colleagues and I are always moaning about the media never really get things right about religion, “It’s terrible! It’s awful!” But I never really hear solution: “What can we do about the portrayal of religion in the media?” So what, potentially, could we do about the portrayal of Religious Studies in popular culture, or beyond? Any suggestions, based upon your thinking about this?

KT: I’ll try this one. Public scholarship could be an important mitigation here: the extent to which actual Religious Studies scholars are doing the actual work of Religious Studies, in a way that can be seen by the public. That could be one mitigating force against theses sort of wild misrepresentations that we have.

BC: I feel like that it starts with students. I mean, we come into contact with a lot of students over the course of our careers. And it’s not just Religious Studies. I think they often don’t figure out what any of the faculty members do most of the time, because we don’t talk about it. It’s sort-of opaque, for some reason. So, I think talking to students about our work, about our interests, about how we got interested in it – I think it’s useful, I think it’s helpful, it clarifies things (35:00). It makes our position clear. And we can do that on a small level, more. I think we could all, everybody in the academy, could better engage with our students about who they are, and what they do, and how they’re compensated, etc. But I think we could especially do that. Now the interesting thing is, over the time I was writing this article, we had the affair of Reza Aslan, here in the States, who had a rise . . . the first real rise to power, or rise to prominence, as the first real public intellectual in Religious Studies – only to be fired, pretty quickly, for making a comment on Twitter about President Trump, after a few episodes of his show – Believer – which was widely derided by scholars of religion. As was his book about Jesus. What was it called? Zealot. So here we have a failed, missed opportunity to have a public intellectual presenting a model of this kind of work. But that doesn’t mean it has to be the last time we try that. Maybe that’s the place to start. You know, a plot where you save the Pope from a radical Catholic assassin is going to be more interesting than a plot where you translate a text, but it doesn’t have to be about plot, it can be about . . .the old . . . the stuff they used to do on the BBC, where they had long-running, long-form shows to educate the public, in way that is also engaging. And I think that can be done again.

CC: And you know, maybe, if you’re burning the midnight oil, we could all be writing those novels, writing those screenplays that we all wish we were seeing. Is this it, for you, with this project then? Or do you have plans for future research, future publications? What’s next for you?

BC: I think Chris is writing the screenplay, based on the article.

KT: That’s’ right. Look for the screenplay. Just kidding! Not really. No, I am developing a class on religion and pop culture and a lot of this stuff is sort of feeding the mill for that. Brian, what about you?

BC: Well I think that the natural next place to go would be a panel at the AAR – bring in more people to talk about it. And that seems to me like . . . I don’t know if we need another article any time soon. But, bigger conversation – a public conversation about it at our annual meeting here – would be helpful.

CC: Excellent. And hopefully this podcast and your article will kick off a bit more of that conversation, and we can look forward to a future where the discipline, the field, is represented a bit more accurately. But, for now – thank you so much Brian and Kristen. It’s been wonderful having you.

BC: Thank you.

KT: Thanks, Chris.


Citation Info: Collins, Brian, Kristen Tobey and Christopher Cotter. 2018. “Representations of Religious Studies in Popular Culture”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 8 October 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 21 June 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/representations-of-religious-studies-in-popular-culture/

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Sexual Ethics and Islam

feetAlongside the problematic dominant caricature of Islam as a violent religion, there is perhaps no other issue so problematic in contemporary Western discourse on Islam than discussions sexuality and gender. Western stereotypes of the downtrodden Muslim woman are often countered by the claims of Islamic scholars that women are more liberated, respected and secure within Islam than in other religions or in the “secular” West. Regular listeners to the Religious Studies Project will be unsurprised to learn that there is a lot more going on below the surface of these dominant discourses. Why are “we” even having this discussion about sexual ethics and Islam? How might one begin to study such a vast and “problematic” topic? What are some of the most prescient issues that recur in this contested field? And what is the broader significance of this discussion for Religious Studies in general? To discuss these issues and more, Chris is joined this week by Professor Kecia Ali, of Boston University.

Check out a recent lecture by Kecia on sexual ethics and Islam here.

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A transcription of this interview is available as a PDF, and has also been pasted below.


Sexual Ethics and Islam

Podcast with Kecia Ali (24 April 2017).

Interviewed by Christopher Cotter

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Chris Cotter (CC): Alongside the problematic dominant caricature of Islam as a violent religion, there’s perhaps no issue so problematic in contemporary Western discourse on Islam than discussions surrounding sexuality and gender. Western stereotypes of down-trodden Muslim women are often countered by claims of Islamic scholars that women are more liberated, respected and secure within Islam than in other religions or in the “secular” West. Regular listeners to the Religious Studies Project will be unsurprised to learn that there’s a lot more going on below the surface of these dominant discourses. Why are “we” even having this discussion about sexual ethics and Islam? How might one begin to study such a vast and problematic topic? What are some of the prescient issues that recur in this contested field? And what is the broader significance of this discussion for religious studies in general? To discuss these issues and more, I’m joined today by Kecia Ali, who is Professor of Religion at Boston University. Professor Ali is a scholar of religion, gender and ethics whose work focusses mostly on the Muslim tradition, with an emphasis on law and biography. She is currently Status Committee Director at the AAR and is a past president of the Society for the Study of Muslim Ethics. Her publication list is impressive and features five monographs, including The Lives of Muhammed, Marriage and Slavery in Early Islam, and – most relevant to today’s interview – Sexual Ethics in Islam: Feminist Reflections on Qur’an, Hadith and Jurisprudence, originally published in 2006, with an expanded revised edition published in 2016. So, Professor Ali, welcome to the Religious Studies Project!

Kecia Ali (KA): Thank you for having me.

CC: And thanks for joining us here in Edinburgh in the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Centre for Study of Islam in the Contemporary World.

KA: That’s a mouthful isn’t it?

CC: It is a mouthful, but they’re graciously hosting us today. And we’ll be sure to shout out about your lecture that you’re doing this evening., when we publish this podcast. So first-off, Islam? Sexual ethics? Why are we even having this discussion?

KA: Yes, it’s sort of impossible not to be having the discussion, really. I think the challenge is to find ways to have it that are productive and don’t just inadvertently reinforce the power of certain dominant discourses by contesting them, if that’s the only thing we do. Look, the question of gendered roles and rights and obligations is one that has been present since – as near as we can tell – the first Muslim community, right? Scripture records specific questions about women’s and men’s respective roles, relationship to each other, relationship to religious obligations, relationship to God, etc. Certainly, accounts of the Prophet’s normative community are replete with gendered descriptions and contestations. Now, obviously, to what extent these reflect a 7th-century community and to what extent they reflect 8th/ 9th/10th-century reflections on that community and attempts to ascribe certain later, normative patterns onto that community, that’s a subject of debate among historians of Islam. But, for Muslims, pious Muslims, lay folk, scholars, these are the stories out of which accounts of virtuous ethical life are made. So Muslims certainly have been having internal conversations about gender norms since quite early on. Now, why are “we” having this conversation?

CC: Yes.

KA: Sexuality is always one of the things that comes up when someone wants to insult someone else, right? When one community, or members of a community are looking for a way to stigmatise, oppose, define “others”, sexuality is very frequently something that gets pressed into service. Whether that’s Protestants saying bad things about Catholics, Catholics saying bad things about Protestants, Protestants saying bad things about Catholics by likening them to Muslims, or the reverse , sexuality frequently comes into play. What we know, if we want to just in very broad terms talk about “The West and Islam” – and I object on principle to those categories, but I’m going to use them anyway as a kind of shorthand – we see, really, that in the Middle Ages and in the Early Modern era, it wasn’t Muslim oppression of women that was a problem for anybody, it was Muslim lustfulness and debauchery. And it’s really in the 19th-century, with the advent of European colonialism in Muslim majority societies – Egypt, for instance, and also India – that Muslim men’s oppressiveness towards women becomes part of a colonial discourse about civilisation, right? What’s very interesting is to look at the ways that the kinds of accusations levelled against Muslims have really changed over time. So not only from wantonness to oppression, but also you’ll find that today one of the things that tends to get said of Muslims is: “Oh, they’re so intolerant of homosexuality! They’re so repressive! Look how awful . . . !” Well, in the Early Modern era, and even into the 19th-century, the claim was, “They’re too tolerant of homosexuality!” They are attached to the practice of sodomy, “ Unlike us upright Brits,” usually, right? And, “Look how awful they are, compared to how moral we are,” which is basically the gist of all of this. And of course there are Muslims equally scandalised by Western women’s dress and the ways in which women and men outside their family interact.

CC: And that’s an important link there, then, when you mention the Muslim perspective. Because contemporary Muslims, whether we’re talking scholars or lay people going about their lives, are having to articulate their views against this dominant Western view.

KA: Yes, I mean, I think part of what’s particularly challenging for me as a scholar, and for media, for lay folk, for religious studies teachers in the classroom, is : how do we talk about this in way that actually recognises the great diversity of perspectives among Muslims? Because, you know, even that phrase, “the Muslim perspective” . . . it’s one that gets bandied about a lot, including by many Muslims. And, of course, part of what’s interesting to me as a scholar of religion, is: how are claims to representing the “authoritative Muslim perspective” being pressed? What are the sources being cited? What are the extra-textual authoritative norms being deployed? How much is it about where you got your degree from? How much is it abut whether you have a beard? How much is it about whether the media is calling you speak on their programmes? And how much is it about the content of your ideas?

CC: Yes. And that’s something that comes up in Aaron Hughes’ Islam and the Tyranny of Authenticity

KA: Absolutely.

CC: We’ve had him on the podcast before and he talked about something completely different. We’re going to have to get him on again for that! But, yes, a very broad topic we’re talking about here: sexual ethics and Islam. How does one even go about studying that? I know that you had your own particular approach . . .

KA: So, the book Sexual Ethics and Islam really has its roots in two different things I was doing around the turn of the millennium. I did my doctoral dissertation at Duke University, about marriage and divorce in 8th -10th-century Sunni Muslim Jurisprudence. At the same time, 2001-2003, I was working part-time for the Feminist Sexual Ethics Project at Brandeis University, which was directed by Bernadette Brooton and funded by the Ford Foundation. And so, for the dissertation, which I defended in 2002, I was really looking at about a dozen early Arabic legal texts. And for the Feminist Sexual Ethics Project I was actually engaged in putting together a series of short essays for the site, aimed at lay folks – not necessarily Muslim – looking for a general orientation to the Muslim textual tradition. So, Qur’anic and prophetic tradition – to some extent exegesis, to some extent legal tradition – framing particular kinds of issues: issues around female dress, issues around marriage, around divorce, around slavery, around same-sex relationships, but framed in a kind of general way that would make them accessible. And I also wanted to begin to address the ways Muslims today were talking about those topics. Sexual Ethics and Islam really came together out of those two initiatives because, on the one hand, what I found when I was looking at the way contemporary Muslims were talking about these topics, is that they were often completely disconnected and, in fact, making claims that really contradicted, sometimes the positions, but far more often the logic and the assumptions of the early legal tradition. And I wanted to put those two things into conversation: put the 10th-century and the 21st-century into conversation. And I was very frustrated by the kind of “Islam liberated women” apologetic that a lot of Muslims were presenting. And I was equally frustrated with the sort of patriarchal, protective, protectionist . . . you know, “Well, of course, patriarchy done right is the only true Islamic tradition, that protects and respects women.” Which exists in a kind of funny tension with “No, no. The Qur’an and the Prophet Muhammed gave Muslim women all their rights and so there’s no need for patriarchy, because Islam is against patriarchy.” And none of these really grappling with, “What is it that’s there in the texts?”

CC: And that – when you mentioned the Prophet Muhammed – is perhaps an excellent way for us to leap right into some of that analysis. I know that the undergrads at New College, in Edinburgh, will be quite familiar with the chapter of the book that focuses on the Prophet’s relationship with his wife Aisha, so maybe we could use that as an example of these various competing discourses and how people use claims to authority to negotiate sexual ethics?

KA: Sure, so of course, for the pre-modern Muslim tradition, Aisha is an absolutely vital figure. She is the youngest of the Prophet’s wives, many say his favourite wife – certainly after Khadijah died, who was the wife of his younger years – and she’s a scholar,and she’s a contentious political figure and certainly, for the construction of Sunni identity, she becomes a flash point in those debates over loyalty, over succession, over precedence. And Chase Robinson – I’m going to paraphrase him now – says that Early Christians argued about Christology and early Muslims argued over how 7th-century Muslims’ behaviour should be remembered, right? So, later Muslims are trying to construct their own authentic narratives, their own strategies of power, by reference to these early Muslims. And so Aisha was absolutely central there. Which means that the ways in which she’s remembered ends up being very central. The texts that are giving people fits today really are texts about her marriage, in which she reports in the first person, in Hadith narratives – narratives of Prophetic tradition – that she was six or, in another version, seven when the prophet married her, and nine when the marriage was consummated. And there are other details sometimes given in these accounts. Now it’s useful to point out that this isn’t something that people were particularly worried about for a very long time. And its actually really unusual that any of his wives ages would be so important in texts about the marriage. But this is there in the Hadith compilations that we have from the 9th-century. And this is similar to the ages that are reported by early biographers, who maybe sometimes go as high as 10. But really, its quite a young age that’s reported in these texts. And generally, over the centuries, Muslim biographers didn’t particularly have any issue with this. Western biographers didn’t particularly have any issue with this. None of them took much notice, until we get to just about 1700, when Humphrey Prideaux, who was an Anglican clergyman, writes a very nasty biography of Muhammed as, actually, part of his ongoing debate with Unitarian Christians. And he says, “Oh isn’t this sort-of amazing there in Arabia, which is the same clime as India,” just like in all these other hot countries, the torrid zone, “how women mature so quickly”. And, for him, Aisha’s age of 6 and 8 is an indication of something that is sort-of exotic and erotic. What he’s worrying about, though, is that Muhammed is marrying her to make an allegiance with her father, which shows that he is making a power grab, in service of his fraudulent imposture. And basically, it only is really in the late 19th/early 20th-century that people start to, maybe, wonder about this a little bit . . . Western biographers. And by the late 20th-century it’s making lots of people uncomfortable, including some Muslims. So the Arabic translation of Washington Irving, for instance – who though this was all very romantic in the middle of the 19th-century – in the 1960s, when its being translated in Egypt, the translator adds a real note, right? And the original marriage has been demoted to a betrothal, and then the translator feels the need to sort-of explain this. But, by the time I’m writing Sexual Ethics and Islam, the context is different and there are two very serious competing strains. There’s a set of polemical accusations that Muhammed is a paedophile, which the Rev Jerry Vines has linked in an epithet as “Demon-possessed paedophile“. So he’s linking a very old accusation against Muhammed with a very new one: a sort of medicalised rhetoric of evil. And then you start to have Muslim apologetics around this question, which say several things. One is that, “Well, things were different back then”. And a version of that is what a number of secular, sympathetic Western academics have also said. And then, the other thing that you get is, “Well, these texts really aren’t reliable on this point.” And the thing that I point out in Sexual Ethics and Islam is: it’s completely fine if you want to make that argument, but then it’s a problem if you turn to those texts as absolutely true on everything else. The thing that was really striking for me, after writing Sexual Ethics and Islam and moving onto the project that became the Lives of Muhammed – which is an investigation of Biographical texts, specifically – is the ways in which, so often in early texts, numbers have a particular kind of symbolic function and resonance. And while I don’t know that six and seven, or nine and ten have the symbolic resonance that say forty does in the accounts of Khadijah’s age, it seems to me that there is plausibly . . . I don’t want to say probably, and I don’t think we can ever know with any kind of certainty these are factually accurate unless we’re simply willing to say, “These texts are all factually accurate and we accept that.” It seems to me, plausibly, there’s an argument to be made that the very low numbers given for her age are in service of praising her, actually; of presenting her as a particularly pure figure, which is very important given that her chastity was impugned during her lifetime, or at least according to texts.They represent this as something that was challenged. And so making her so young at marriage, emphasising her virginity, becomes a way of emphasising her sexual purity. The other thing, it seems to me, is that it’s possible that making her, say nine, when the marriage is consummated, after the Hijrah to Medina, is also a way of making her age low enough that she’s indisputably born to Muslim parents. So although virtually everybody in that first Muslim community would be a convert – according to pious narratives – by the time these Hadith texts are being compiled, having your parents already be Muslim, being born to Muslim parents is quite a status marker. It becomes important to have a genealogy of Muslim parents going further back.

CC: So, time is already running on here! In terms of positioning: you’re a woman, a Western academic, a feminist . . .

KA: And a Muslim

CC: And a Muslim, writing this book, discussing these topics, how was it received? My stereotypical brain is going, “This isn’t going to be that well received in some circles”. So how do you position yourself, in that respect?

KA: One of the more flattering things somebody once told me about the book, was that her graduate advisor – who was also a Muslim man – had suggested that she not read it, because it would be dangerous. And I thought, “Oh! I must have done something right!” (laughs) But, on the other hand, I think that my original intention for the book was not really to have it end up where it’s ended up, which is in the classroom mostly with students, many of whom are not Muslim. This was written, originally, very much as a book that was engaged in a kind of intra-Muslim conversation, to address some frustrations I had with the way intra-Muslim conversations over issues of sexual ethics, were going: I thought, in not particularly productive ways. However, I’m not writing it only as a Muslim feminist. I’m writing as a scholar of Religious Studies. And I know there are some people who don’t think you can or should do both of those things, but I have Religious Studies training. And one of the things that that training enables me to do is to look at the ways in which particular traditions are being constructed, in which particular claims to authority are being made in particular ways. So, for instance, the chapter on female genital cutting in the book is really an extended meditation on: what does the category Islamic, and what do claims to the category Islamic – or, more pertinently, “un-Islamic” – tell us? How useful are they? And where might things that are useful in particular kinds of activist campaigns really break down, if we’re trying to look at them historically, or from within Religious Studies, or from within the world of scholarship, at all?

CC: Yes. And I can remember the students being a little bit frustrated in the sense that so many different points of view were being considered – and not being necessarily condemned – and they were all . . . “Which is the right way?!” (laughs)

KA: I mean, look, answers are great. I have a lot fewer answers than I have questions. And, if anything, in the expanded edition of the book there are even more questions and even fewer answers! But, look, I don’t think we’re going to get better answers until we get better at asking the right questions.

CC: Exactly

KA: And the right questions are very often – and not just for Muslims, and not just about Muslim questions – what’s behind what we’re being told? What’s the evidence for this perspective? Where is this coming from? And how much credit do we want to give it as an accurate representation of something in the world?

CC: And that leads me into, sort of, where I was wanting to get to in the interview – and you’ve been a fantastic interviewee. Religious Studies: I can imagine that some will have maybe seen the title of this interview and thought, “Oh, that’s Area Studies, Islamic Studies. I don’t need to go there.” You know, everything that you’ve been saying, I think, has been illustrating why this is important for the broader study of religion, but I just, maybe, wondered if you wanted to reflect on that from your perspective . . . in multiple different camps.

KA: Yes. I mean, within the academic world of scholars who study Islam and Muslims, some come from Area Studies training: Middle East Studies, Near Eastern Studies, Islamic Studies. Some are really trained to philological work with old texts, and there’s a lot of good work that’s being done with those texts. And some are not trained to work with those texts and instead are very historical, very presentist, very ethnographic in ways that, I think, sometimes make it difficult to understand the resonance of the appeal to the textual tradition that many Muslims take. I’m very fortunate that the American Academy of Religion brings together, in the programme units that study Islam, quite a fabulous group of scholars who have expertise in training in a variety of different disciplines, but who are committed – at least some of the time in their professional engagement – to Religious Studies as a discipline, which is of course inter-disciplinary of necessity. And I think, given that so many questions about Islam are really pivotal to questions that Religious Studies as a discipline is wrestling with, about the rights and roles and responsibilities of insiders and outsiders, with the formation of the category of religion . . . . Look, it’s not an accident that Orientalist, Imperialist categories are very much at play here. I think it’s tremendously important that Islamic Studies be having conversations with folks in Religious Studies and vice versa, to the extent that you can even draw distinctions between them.

CC: And so, on the topic of conversations between different fields, your work’s taken a different turn of late?

KA: (laughs) Yes. A detour!

CC: Your latest book, Human in Death: Morality and Mortality in JD Robb’s Novels . . . What’s this got to do with Islam? (laughs)

KA: Well, at one level, nothing. And at the other level, I suppose, everything. I read these novels recreationally. It’s a series that’s been ongoing over 20 years, published by Nora Roberts, whose a premier American author of popular romance, under the pseudonym JD Robb. They are police procedurals, set in New York, circa 2060, and I read them. And I had things to say about them, and about the way that they deal with intimate relationships; about the way they deal with friendship; about the way they deal with work, especially women’s work; about the way they deal with violence, including police violence; about the way they deal with what it means to be a human being; about abilities and perfection and the idea of a post-human future. And I think that, to the extent that this book connects to my other work, it’s really around the questions of ethics: what it means to live a good, ethical, virtuous life in connection with other human beings in a given set of circumstances. I trained as a historian before I moved into Religious Studies. And one of the things that comes up again in this series – just like it comes up looking at 8th and 9th-century legal texts and biographies – is that understanding the present is sometimes best done from a distance. So looking comparatively at the past, looking at one possible imagined future, can give us a new perspective on the world we’re living in right now.

CC: Wonderful. And that, also, illustrates even more the importance of your work with Islamic texts, with contemporary Islam, sexual ethics. And it’s been fantastic that we’ve been having this conversation on International Women’s Day! So, I know this won’t be going out for another few months, but just to get that onto the recording from the Alwaleed Centre. And I think we’re going to have to draw that to a close there. It’s been fantastic speaking with you. And I wish you all the best with the lecture this evening, which, if the recording of the lecture goes ok, we’ll link to it from this page and everyone can see it and hear it, in all its glory!

KA: Thanks

CC: Thank you.


Citation Info: Ali, Kecia 2017. “Sexual Ethics and Islam”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 24 April 2017. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 1 May 2017 Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/sexual-ethics-and-islam/

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Researching Radicalisation

Radicalisation, fundamentalism or extremism, are terms which are highly prevalent in media, public, political, and legal discourse these days, and are surrounded by mystification, rhetoric and ideological assumptions that work against clear, objective, non-partisan understandings of the phenomena they denote. Regular listeners to the RSP will be unsurprised that we look askance at such discourses and aim to take a critical approach to this controversial topic. What might the academy mean by the term ‘radicalisation’? How might we study it? What makes it different from ‘socialisation’? Is there a necessary connection between ‘religion’ – or particular forms of ‘religion’ – and radicalisation? And how might we position ourselves in relation to other actors – in politics, the military, or the media – who have a vested interest in our research?

To discuss these and other issues, we are joined this week by Dr Matthew Francis, Senior Research Associate at Lancaster University and Communications Director for the Centre for Research and Evidence on Security Threats (CREST). In this interview we discuss what we mean by ‘radicalisation’, and what its connections to socialisation, terrorism, and ‘religion’ might be. We take on the methodological question of how one might go about researching such a contested topic, and look specifically at some of Matthew’s findings relating to the causes of radicalisation, and the neo-Durkheimian ‘sacred’. We also reflect on the position of the researcher when approaching topics entangled such vested political interests, negotiating the media, and future research directions.

Be sure to check out other great podcasts on: Zen Buddhism Terrorism and Holy War with Brian Victoria; Sociotheology and the Cosmic War with Mark Juergensmeyer; Religion, violence and the Media with Jolyon Mitchell; Studying “Cults” with Eileen Barker; The Sacred with Gordon Lynch; and Pilgrimage in Japan and Beyond with Ian Reader and Paulina Kolata. This episode is the fifth in a series co-produced with Religion, Youth and Intergenerationality” with Naomi Thompson, ‘Religion and Feminism‘ with Dawn Llewellyn, ‘Evangelicalism and Civic Space‘ with Anna Strhan, and ‘An Introduction to the Sociology of Religion‘ with Grace Davie.

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us . And remember, this BLACK FRIDAY, you can use our Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, cough drops, single malt whiskey, and more.

Hyphenating Identities

In yet another excellent Religious Studies Project interview, we hear from University of California Santa Barbara Associate Professor Rudy Busto talking about race and religion in the United States. The objectives of this conversation focus predominantly upon topics like race and religion in America, the conflation of race as ethnicity and vice versa, and the use of race as an identity marker within the study of religion.

Throughout this delightful and meandering dialogue the listener is invited, indeed encouraged, to consider the systemic and institutionalized location of race alongside religion in the contemporary, modern socio-cultural milieu and scholastic Academy. With a particularly American slant (which is to say, a reliance on double-barrelled ethno-religious identifiers like Asian-American, or Japanese-American Buddhist), much of the discussion in this interview centers around the now almost implicitly assumed observation that the ways in which humans create and express their identities is a socially constructed phenomenon, one that lacks ontological existence and agency, and how race can be a prominent component of this construction. By further deconstructing and problematizing the use of constructed, blanketing concepts like race or culture, Busto shows how delicate the process of understanding the formation of an individual’s subjective understanding of themselves and the group to which they identify actually can be.

What is regrettably missing from this conversation is a deeper discussion that might provide us with an understanding of how, precisely, the constructed-ness of human identities as a theoretical model advances the field of RS. Building upon the excellent foundation laid by Busto in this interview, I would submit two pieces of scholarship as supplements, each delving into how the contemporary scholar of religion might deploy this constructed-ness of identity.

Skipping over the obvious progenitors of the ‘constructed human groups’ discussion (Hobsbawm, Ranger, Anderson, etc.), I often heavily rely upon two middle to late 20th century academics to focus the lens of constructed identity. The first is Steven Vertovec and his use of what he calls ‘vis-à-vis dynamics’ (2000:106). In this particular instance Vertovec is observing Hindus in ‘diasporic’ situations within the UK. That is to say, he records observations of individuals who identify as belonging to the group calling itself ‘Hindu’, though they are citizens of the United Kingdom. Regardless of whether the individual is a first, second, or third generation immigrant, Vertovec observes that their self-identity requires what RS scholars might call an ‘Other’. That is, an individual, object, or even an ethno-religious collective, such as Hindus and non-Hindus, in relation to which one forms at least one layer of their self-identity.

Therefore, a researcher might record a conversation with someone who, for example, identifies as Hindu because they perform arati on Sundays instead of attending synagogue or, of course, doing nothing at all. Conversely, perhaps a younger, third-generation student might identify as Scottish or English rather than Indian like their first-generation grandparents. These markers or borders that define to which group one belongs, Vertovec might argue, cannot be created in a vacuum and necessarily require a concept RS scholars call an Other. In our work then, we can subsequently examine questions such as how generational differences manifest in various groups, what impact public education has on how immigrants choose to identify, or indeed how we can more clearly define the very concept of ‘religion’ through an examination of the subjective identification of the individual to a particular religious tradition within a particular context.

The second scholar who I would submit as a supplement to this identity question is Clifford Geertz. Geertz was a specialist in Mediterranean groups and specifically, for the present case, of Muslim Moroccans. Geertz’s suggested deployment of what he thinks of as ‘mosaic identities’ illustrates a similar me/you dynamic as does Vertovec, yet in a slightly more colourful way. Geertz provides a handful of specific stories during which he observes that the individual has multiple, ‘nested’ identities that are centered on one’s location in social-political/religious spacetime (1974:26-45). He provides the narration of a particular male informant, whose identity as belonging to a particular group, ranging from his specific tribe, village, region, etc. are deployed in relation to the dominant group with whom he comes into contact. This is done within what I like to think of as a Russian-doll, or concentric field of layered concepts of belonging and identity. So, what we find in Geertz is that rather than a linear and subject-centric illustration of identity formation, he sees what might be a more fluid, group-oriented process of formation and understanding of self-identity.

Many of these same formations and scenarios can be noticed when one looks upon other constructed forms of human collective (and individual) identity, like race or ethnicity. We can use ideas like those of Busto, Vertovec, and Geertz–among myriad others of course–to consider questions about how we as scholars of religion might better define and deploy concepts such as race and religion. Indeed, as touched upon in this interview, we find ourselves in a time when countries like the UK and the US are, even now, officially providing their citizens the option of identifying via the use of hyphenated ethnicities.

So, in the interest of brevity, I would be quick to again praise any discussion that aims to shed further light on the process by which humans form and manifest their identity as an individual in isolation, as well as when done as a member of a group, as such discussions can only aid in progressing the field of Religious Studies.

References

Geertz, Clifford. 1974. “From the Native’s Point of View”. Bulletin of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. 28.1: 26-45.

Nye, Malory. 1995. A Place for Our Gods: The Construction of an Edinburgh Hindu Temple Community. Surrey: Curzon Press

Vertovec, Steven. 2000. The Hindu Diaspora. London and New York: Routledge.

Race and Religion: Intertwined Social Constructions

Race is a neglected category in Religious Studies. When race is included at all, it is often conflated with ethnicity or else its study is limited to a few typical examples, such as black/white binaries, the “Black church” or various “ethnic churches,” or the racialization of Muslim minorities. In this interview, Rudy Busto discusses problems and possibilities in the study of race and religion: how it has been examined (and overlooked) in the field of religious studies, how it has been confused with ethnicity, how race and religion have been theorized as mutually constitutive, limitations and occlusions in the study of race and religion, and why race is a category scholars of religion cannot afford to ignore. The racial/religious co-constitution of collective identities is an ever-present double-marked boundary which produces real effects on actual bodies, an empirical fact structuring people’s experiences. As such, scholars render their scholarship incomplete and do a disservice to their students and readers when they ignore race. Ranging from work on the social construction of race and religion as scholarly categories, the challenges of analyzing syncretism and authenticity, and the necessity of highlighting unmarked categories (e.g., Protestant, white), Busto argues that it is impossible to get an accurate and comprehensive understanding of religion (and non-religion) without taking race into account.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, ant farms, pot pourri, and more.

The Invention of Religion in Japan

Scholars interested in Asian religions have often noted that European colonialism simultaneously disrupted native societies and to various degrees created the modern social identities commonly referred to as “Buddhism,” “Confucianism,” “Taoism,” “Shinto,” etc. Inspired by Edward Said and others, these scholars recognize the change and adaptation that resulted from colonial encounters, specifically as they relate to the natives’ appropriation of the modern category of religion.

In this interview, Jason Josephson discusses these issues and more, specifically as they relate to Japan and the formation of Shinto. Josephson first describes how Shinto is typically represented in EuroAmerican religious studies courses. He then describes the various actors and processes (both European and native) that were involved in the Japanese appropriation of the modern category of religion, paying particular attention to the material and economic interests embedded in these larger processes.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, cheese, office stationery and more.