Hijacked! Conference in Bonn, Germany

by Leslie Dorrough Smith

Note: This post originally appeared on the Culture on the Edge blog.

Hijacked!: A Critical Treatment of the Public Rhetoric of “Good” and “Bad” Religion was a conference held from June 8-10 in Bonn, Germany, at the Forum Internationale Wissenschaft (FIW) at the University of Bonn.  Three members of Culture on the Edge (Merinda Simmons, Vaia Touna, and Leslie Dorrough Smith) attended as participants.

The conference’s aim was to consider the rhetorical strategies that various social groups use to evaluate the role of religion in public life.  In particular, a group of international scholars focused on four different themes (the classroom, the media, the university, and politics, respectively) considered how rhetorics of good/authentic/”real” religion have been juxtaposed with concepts of bad/illegitimate/”fake” religion, and the sorts of political work such rhetorics have made possible.

The panelists’ pre-read Aaron Hughes’ book Islam and the Tyranny of Authenticity: An Inquiry Into Disciplinary Apologeticswherein Hughes argues that the portrayal of Islam that reigns today in the university is a largely liberalized one that, while an understandably desirable narrative to counter the unbalanced negativity that equates Islam with terrorism, is nevertheless hard to historically and critically defend when one considers the shape such arguments have taken (i.e., portraying early Islam as gay-friendly or feminist in the way we currently understand those terms).  Hughes thus demonstrates how this good/bad rhetoric is deployed to perform very specific types of political work.

As Hughes himself notes, this critique is applicable across the whole of religious studies, not just Islam, and thus our investigation together has sought to underscore how this occurs in influential social realms.  We started with a conversation about the classroom, wherein the papers discussed described everything from the content of textbooks to the different ways in which students legitimize (or delegitimize) certain conversations about religion – if not the category itself — depending  on their own cultural contexts, to our deployment of critical terms in the classroom (such as “cult”), to the role of governmental entities in determining the subject of religious education.

Next, the media group focused on CNN’s series Believer, featuring commentator Reza Aslan, which involves Aslan’s own controversial portrayal of a variety of non-mainstream religious groups.  Here the papers grappled with the capitalist and visually objectifying functions of the show’s construction (and the social domestication both create) as well as offering a comparative analysis of how similar German programs operate to reinforce the same good religion/bad religion concepts.

Our third session, centered on the university, took as its primary data the neo-conservative argument that the focus on and praise of diversity that occurs at many US universities is, itself, a type of religion (and, it is implied by its authors, a “bad” religion).  Respondents continued the discussion with related commentary on the good/bad divide in the construction of scholarship, scholarly methods, and our identification of our subjects (including specific discussions on scholarship in Buddhism, the study of those identified as non-religious, and in psychology).

Our final session, which considered the political realm, began from the premise that religion is a tool used by governmental systems to regulate social groups and justify the use (or occasional lack thereof) of governmental power, as evidenced by the willingness of certain governmental systems to tolerate religious practices that have resulted in the disease and death of its citizens.  The conversation continued with examples of Greek firewalking, the Canadian controversy over the niqab, sociological perspectives on the process of stratification, and a gendered analysis of how the boundaries of the “public” and “private” are reified to create certain social norms.

Along the way, there have been excursions, dinners, and plenty of camaraderie. Participants from Culture on the Edge would like to extend our sincere thanks, again, to the Forum Internationale Wissenschaft for their amazing hospitality.  For the conference play-by-play, check it out at #hijacked2017!

Leslie Dorrough Smith is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies and Chair of the Women’s and Gender Studies Department at Avila University. Dr. Smith’s work is interdisciplinary, drawing from sociological, historical, critical, and feminist theoretical perspectives.  Her primary research is concerned with the ways in which social groups use religious language to create avenues of social influence and political power, with particular focus on American evangelicals.  More specifically, her interest in how language has shaped sex and gender-related public policy led to the publication of her first bookRighteous Rhetoric: Sex, Speech, and the Politics of Concerned Women for America (Oxford University Press, 2014), which provides a rhetorical critique of one of the nation’s largest conservative women’s movements.

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