The Role of Religion and Secularism in Public, Political Spheres

Lee Medovoi and Peter Nicholas Figler, UA Department of English
Oct. 14, 2014

Consider the emergence and growth of ISIS, clashes in India's Gujarat state and the Supreme Court ruling on Abercrombie & Fitch's "religious bias" over the hijab — all recent headlines conjoining religion and culture.

The importance of studying these topics grows from distinct situations on many continents, from the post-9/11 politics of religion and "civilizational clashes" in North America to the status of Muslim immigrants in the European Union.

Equally important is the question of religion and citizenship after the Arab Spring protests in Israel, Palestine and the Middle East, which recently led to the unexpected formation of the Islamic State, or the evolving place of Confucianism and Buddhism in the wake of Chinese economic expansion.

Housed at the University of Arizona, RelSec (Religion, Secularism and Political Belonging) is contributing to scholarship on the changing status of religion and secularism by examining their relationship to political belonging in a global age.

Political belonging is an especially valuable entry point into the religion/secularism debates. Why? Because it happens on many different scales: at very local social commitments, including family, kinship networks or subcultures; around grand nation-building projects; among complex international scripture-reading communities; and also in digital social networks that engage in politicized religion.

RelSec's aim is to establish a global frame for translocal study, using the question of political belonging to stoke discussion of the stakes of religion and secularism across geography and governments.

RelSec brings American and European scholars into a sorely needed dialogue with scholars from the Middle East, China and other parts of the world.

It was 14 months ago that English scholar Lee Medovoi and his family left the forests and rain of Portland, Oregon, for Tucson — and only a slight change in climate.

The UA English department brought on Medovoi as its new department head, tasking him to strengthen an already successful department. In the short span of a year, he has forged scholarly partnerships with faculty from more than a dozen UA departments and programs. And, with him, Medovoi brought a $250,000 Mellon/CHCI grant to fund RelSec, his ambitious transdisciplinary project.

RelSec brings together researchers from around the world to examine the global resurgence of religion in the public sphere and a related sense of secularism's increasing fragility.

Scholars from Tel Aviv, Utrecht, Hong Kong and the United States join the diverse team from the UA. Medovoi collaborates in Tucson with Karen Seat, an associate professor and director of the Religious Studies Program; Peter Foley, an associate professor and director of the Institute for the Study of Religion and Culture; and numerous other faculty members representing disciplines in the social sciences and humanities.

Since its inception, RelSec has brought close to one dozen internationally distinguished academics to Tucson, representing a host of different disciplines, including gender and sexuality studies, religious studies, history, Romantic and Postcolonial literary studies, and philosophy. Recently, Faisal Devji, director of the Centre for Asian Studies at Oxford University, presented on the global war on terror, fielding questions on the rise of ISIS.

This month, RelSec is hosting a series of events:

Oct. 15: Timothy Brennan, a professor of cultural studies, comparative literature and English at the University of Minnesota, will speak in Room 141 of the Integrated Learning Center on the topic of "Secular Spirit." The 1-3 p.m. talk is free and open to the public.

Oct. 16: Brennan also will hold a workshop on his most recent book, "Borrowed Light: Vico, Hegel, and the Colonies," published this year. The 10 a.m.-noon event also will be held in the Kiva Room.

Oct. 24: Eric Santner, the Philip and Ida Romberg Distinguished Professor in Modern Germanic Studies at the University of Chicago, will hold a workshop on selections from his most recent book, "The Royal Remains," published in 2011. The 10 a.m.-noon event will be held in Room 451 of the Modern Languages Building. Santner will deliver a public lecture, “The Weight of All Flesh: On the Subject of Political Economy,” from 3-5 p.m. in the Ventana Room of the Student Union. Santner's research focuses on the intersection of literature, philosophy, psychoanalysis, political theory and religious thought. He has taught at Princeton and been a visiting fellow at various institutions, including Dartmouth, Washington University, Cornell and the University of Konstanz.

Other UA faculty involved with RelSec, along with the departments and programs, are: Matthew Abraham, Fenton Johnson, Suresh Raval and Marcia Klotz of the Department of English; Bill Simmons and Zeynep Korkman of the Department of Gender and Women’s Studies; Richard Eaton and David Gibbs of the Department of History; Andrea McComb, Caleb Simmons and Max Strassfeld of the Religious Studies Program; Melissa Fitch of the Department of Spanish and Portuguese; Albert Welter, of the Department of East Asian Studies; and Kamran Talattof of the School of Middle Eastern and North African Studies.


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