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Faculty explores religion, politics across borders

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Grace Pierson | Arizona Daily Wildcat

Grace Pierson / The Daily Wildcat

At the RELSEC Inaugural Event and Conversation, internationally distinguished scholars Mayfair Yang (left) and Janet Jakobsen (right) led a discussion on how religion and secularism has evolved and how it affects the political and global spheres on Friday at the SUMC.

UA faculty members recently launched an international project to study religion’s role in politics.

The project, Religion, Secularism, and Political Belonging, will be a three-year process and was started by Leerom Medovoi, head of the Department of English and the project director. Five teams will meet annually to discuss how issues related to religion, secularism and politics look different in various parts of the world. Representatives come from Hong Kong, Tel Aviv, the Netherlands, Portland and Tucson.

“What I hope to get out of this is a sense of how the historical events of the last 30 to 40 years and the rise of religion as kind of a political force might look different to other scholars in other parts of the world,” Medovoi said.

Each team includes scholars who hail from varying departments, such as the humanities, religion and biopolitic departments, and each scholar will study different topics. Research will come from reading articles and books and discussing with other members of one’s own team along with other scholars in the same fields of study. Teams will then share their findings with one another and ultimately bring their discoveries to the annual meetings to discuss with representatives from all five teams.

The goal of the project is to conclude with a collection of essays about the study as a whole, as well as to try to expand the study and get more people involved.

“I think the plan is, after three years, it’s going to pass on to different schools. … It’s going to be a continuous thing,” said Pete Figler, a fifth-year PhD student in the literature program and a research assistant on the project. “At the moment, it’s discussions, research [and] how can we get people together and get people going.”

On Oct. 25, the team launched the project with a panel to inform the community about the study. About 100 people gathered to listen as representatives of each team discussed ideas about how the project could make a difference.

“Everybody can maybe start getting along if we understand that [religion and secularism are] not just one idea that guides everything,” Figler said.

Ernst van den Hemel, a research fellow at University of Utrecht in the Netherlands, said the study is looking into an important and necessary topic, since societies live in a mix of religions.

“We are all supposed to live in a sort of society where we increasingly tolerate each other’s religions, and yet conflicts and misunderstandings keep on returning — in an ever more violent manner, it seems,” van den Hemel said, “and interdisciplinary international study into religion and the way interactive political consolations is necessary more than ever.”

Though many people may believe that problems surrounding religion, secularism and politics have subsided over the years, the world is still not free of vicious acts motivated by these factors, Figler said.

“If people think we are increasingly becoming more and more secular as a globe, then why do we still have issues with violence in religion, and violence in secularism, and certainly violence with politics?” he asked.

In response to the violence ongoing around the world, Figler said the goal of the study is to find some of the answers as to why issues relating to religion are still prominent. Although there might not be a solution, Figler said there are benefits just in having the discussion.

“I think that getting the dialogue going is a step in the direction in maybe finding some answers in, why are we still violent with each other even though we’re modern, even though we’ve made all these advances with technology?” Figler said. “You know, you’ve got really well-developed nations who are still really horrifically violent, including America.”


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