John L. Esposito is a university professor, professor of Religion and International Affairs and of Islamic Studies at Georgetown University. He is also the founding Director of the Center for Muslim–Christian Understanding at Georgetown University. Esposito is editor-in-chief of The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World, The Oxford History of Islam (a Book-of-the-Month Club selection), The Oxford Dictionary of Islam,and Oxford Islamic Studies Online. His more than forty books include The Future of Islam (Oxford University Press, 2010); Who Speaks for Islam?: What a Billion Muslims Really Think (coauthored with Dalia Mogahed, Gallup Press, 2008); Unholy War: Terror in the Name of Islam (Oxford University Press, 2003); What Everyone Needs to Know about Islam (Oxford University Press, 2002); Women in Muslim Family Law (Syracuse University Press, 1982); and Islam: The Straight Path (Oxford University Press, 1988). His writings have been translated into more than thirty languages. A former President of the Middle East Studies Association of North America and the American Council for the Study of Islamic Societies, and member of the World Economic Forum's Council of 100 Leaders, Esposito is an ambassador for the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations and a member of the European Council's Network of Experts on Deradicalization. Esposito has received the American Academy of Religion's 2005 Martin E. Marty Award for the Public Understanding of Religion and the School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University Award for Outstanding Teaching.
Statement on the AAR
Many of us can remember a time not too long ago when our family and friends wondered why we chose to study religion as a profession. My interest in religion took place in both seminary and university settings. I was trained first in Christian theology and then in Islam, a decision that at the time made many wonder if I would ever get a job! In stark contrast, today the study of religion is exponentially more visible — in the curriculum of educational institutions, politics, and society. Each year, books, CDs, and DVDs on religion seem to increase and media coverage is replete with preachers and programs on religion. Presidents, members of Congress, and professionals appeal to religion on the one hand and find that they cannot escape religion as an ongoing political issue in elections or Supreme Court appointments on the other.
We in the AAR are in a unique position as specialists in religion. We have an increasingly important opportunity to share our scholarship and experience with policy makers and citizens, to foster a better understanding of current events, and enable more informed decisions at this critical time in our history.
Religion in the Public Square
The Public Understanding of Religion Committee, with which I was involved in its formative period, has achieved a great deal in a relatively short time. It has created a strong foundation for the expansion of programs and debates at our meetings and outreach to the media, government, and to a host of NGOs. Just as significant, enormous progress has been made by the International Connections Committee in covering international/global issues, and participation among scholars representing non-North American countries and universities has increased. As a result, we have great potential here to develop networks of members who can expand contact with international visiting scholars, making their insights available to universities as well as national and local organizations.
Program in Mentoring and Dissemination of Knowledge
We have a long tradition of leadership in disseminating scholarship through the AAR journal, its newsletters, book publications, and use of the internet. Electronic publishing and use of our website challenge us to rethink publishing protocols and new ways to disseminate information and knowledge. I never imagined that portals like Oxford Islamic Studies Online could give scholars and students almost instantaneous access to sacred texts, historical documents, major reference works, artwork, and freshly commissioned articles. The AAR has a critical future role in both expanding traditional methods and evaluating what constitutes scholarly publishing formats and places of publication. In addition, as younger members compete to get their work published in an often-glutted market, an AAR Advisory Committee of experienced published scholars, available to mentor, could provide invaluable assistance in getting the writing of young scholars to editors and obtaining timely reviews from major publishing houses.
Protecting our Gains from Financial and Ideological Threats
Despite the growing role of religion in politics and society, faculty across the country have been under siege from administrators who do not appreciate the critical future role of our discipline. Citing budgetary problems, they are attempting to shut down religion departments or terminate non-tenured faculty. The AAR has mobilized quickly and effectively to assist in reversing many of these moves. Our efforts will also be critical in protecting the future of tenure, against charges that it weakens commitment and productivity. We know that such concerns can be addressed through regular evaluation and merit (and de-merit) reviews. Concerns about tenure cannot be allowed to erode an institution that protects academic freedom and ensures the open inquiry in teaching and publications that is so important in a free society.
As we look to the future, our ability to meet many academic challenges will be strengthened by a holistic and inclusive approach in our annual national and regional conferences, publications, and projects. This means a continued focus on established disciplines and methodologies (scripture, theology, history, and law), embodied in the AAR/SBL concurrent meetings, to be restored again in 2011, as well as coverage of the world's major religious traditions and emphasis on the widespread role of religion in the public square. We've certainly come a long way! The AAR is now positioned to respond with its unique resources to define and explain the critical role(s) of religion in the twenty-first century.
John (Jack) Stratton Hawley is professor of Religion at Barnard College, Columbia University. He is the author or editor of eighteen books and some one hundred articles. Hawley was one of the founders of the AAR's original Hinduism Group, which later became the Religion in South Asia Section. Hawley has served as director of Columbia's South Asia Institute. He has received multiple awards from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Smithsonian, and the American Institute of Indian Studies; and has been a Guggenheim Fellow. Hawley was educated at Amherst College (European History), Union Theological Seminary (Hebrew Bible), and Harvard University (Comparative Religion). Hawley's research focus is on the devotional religion — "heart religion" — of north India. He has explored the worship of Krishna and Radha [e.g., At Play with Krishna: Pilgrimage Dramas from Brindaran (Princeton University Press, 1981) and Krishna, the Butter Thief (Princeton University Press, 1983)] and has given special attention to the great sixteenth century Hindi poet Surdas, most recently in The Memory of Love: Surdas Sings to Krisha (Oxford University Press, 2009). Other books — Songs of the Saints of India (Oxford University Press, 1988), Three Bhakti Voices: Mirabai, Surdas, and Kabir in Their Times and Ours (Oxford University Press, 2005), The Life of Hinduism (coedited with Vasudha Narayanan, University of California Press, 2006), Devi: Goddesses of India (coedited with Donna M. Wulff, University of California Press, 1996), and Sati: The Blessing and the Curse: The Burning of Wives in India (Oxford University Press, 1994) — chart a broader terrain. Hawley has worked with other scholars on a series of comparative studies; e.g., "Fundamentalism and Gender" and "Holy Tears: Weeping in the Religious Imagination." His current book project is called The Bhakti Movement: Excavations in a Master Narrative. God's Vacation, on memory and retreat at three religious utopias in the United States, is also forthcoming.
Statement on the AAR
Growing up in Lombard, Illinois, I used to wonder where the other side of the world was. Lombard was pretty all-encompassing for an eight-year-old; still, I knew something else was out there and sometimes I would try to sink an imaginary plumb line through our family globe, in hopes of discovering the exact opposite of my hometown on the other side. Years later I started to travel, taught in East Jerusalem for a year, and finally took up the study of India — still wondering about the other side of the world, which turned out to be both closer and far more distant than I had ever dreamed. When I made my first presentation at the AAR, back in 1976, I was too frozen with anxiety to see much beyond my paper, but I did recognize that I had come to the right place. The questions that had drawn me to India, and religion, were just beginning to surface in the tiny corner allotted to such things — a single program unit for all of South Asia, and confined by the limits of English-speaking modernity.
So a group of us went to work. We expanded that corner of the AAR to make room for the historically deep and linguistically appropriate study of Hindus, Sikhs, and Jains, as well as Muslims and Buddhists from that part of the world. Nowadays if you miss the AAR, you've missed a major beat in the academic pulse of these traditions. Some North American Hindus have enhanced the effect by joining our ranks as younger scholars; others have done their part by organizing a separate series of meetings scheduled to occur in tandem with the AAR. It's the place to be — and from time to time, for that very reason, it's not been the most peaceable kingdom. But it's a vibrant one, and that's what matters most.
Today we find ourselves at another watershed moment — this time affecting the AAR as a whole. Recognizing as we now do (special thanks to the International Connections Committee) that only a certain portion of what happens in the name of religion passes through a Western portal, it becomes increasingly important for the organization to change the scope and nature of its global work. We can do this in several ways:
- By forging ahead with a website that will be much more interactive — clarifying our public presence, making it possible for new members from all over the world to understand and engage with our goals, and encouraging current members to connect each other in more personal and wide-ranging ways;
- By working through that website to extend the work of the annual and regional meetings so that they become a year-round resource where scholars exchange information and ideas, sustaining local and global networks;
- By thinking about how members — again through the enhanced website — could do more to foster intercultural exchanges of students and faculty concerned about religion (study-abroad opportunities, short-term residencies, religion/NGO internships);
- And by opening a major initiative on the teaching of religion in community colleges, where so much of America's own global diversity is already bubbling to the surface.
Our times call for certain humility. I hope the gloriously protean AAR can increasingly serve as a gathering point for scholars from many nations who think seriously about religion, but let's not delude ourselves into thinking we have to be the imperial center. Let's find new ways to enable not just the elite and well-funded but a far broader swath of our membership — and the world's — to take part.