International Project on Religion, Secularism and Politics Launching at the UA

UA researchers are engaged an international project that connects scholars investigating how political life is changing worldwide in response to the forces of religion and secularism.
Oct. 21, 2013
RelSec Inaugural Event and Conversation
Oct. 25, 7-9 p.m.
Tucson/Catalina Rooms, Student Union Memorial Center, 1303 E. University Blvd.

University of Arizona researchers are involved in a three-year collaborative effort bringing together scholars from around the world in a joint study of how political life is changing globally in response to the forces of religion and secularism.

The Religion, Secularism, and Political Belonging (RelSec) project will serve as a forum for scholarly exchanges, such as the production of papers and public events, to expand and elevate studies in the humanities, particularly through the involvement of the general public and scholars in other disciplines.

"What makes this initiative so innovative is its collaborative approach to humanities research on a global level and across multiple disciplines," said Leerom Medovoi, who heads the UA Department of English and is the project's director.

To launch the initiative, the UA will host a public event on Friday from 7-9 p.m. in the Tucson/Catalina rooms of the Student Union Memorial Center, 1303 E. University Blvd. It is the first in a series of forum-style conversations and academic partnerships, which will highlight the work of the RelSec Project over its span.

Having recently joined the UA, Medovoi brought with him a $425,000 "Integrating the Humanities Across National Boundaries" grant to establish the project.

The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation awarded the Consortium of Humanities Centers and Institutes (CHCI) a three-year grant of $1.2 million for "Integrating the Humanities Across National Boundaries," an initiative designed to foster new forms of collaborative research and partnerships among the CHCI's international members, across national, regional and disciplinary boundaries. More than 180 humanities centers and institutes belong to CHCI.

"The arrival of Dr. Medovoi, and the Mellon Grant he brings with him couldn't be more timely for the University. The project illuminates the importance of research conducted by scholars in the humanities and social sciences and their relevance for the University's 'Never Settle' strategic plan," said Karen Seat, director of the UA Religious Studies Program and a coordinator of the project.

Under RelSec, more than 40 scholars from four continents and representing a dozen disciplines will participate in the planned research, with the UA serving as the main hub.

"RelSec represents the interdisciplinary field of religious studies at its very best, as it draws on a wide spectrum of research methods to engage with pressing contemporary issues in the region and across cultures," Seat said.

Inaugural event marks 'exciting opportunity'

For Friday's event, RelSec will bring to the UA internationally distinguished scholars Janet Jakobsen, director of the Barnard Center for Research on Women at Barnard College, and Mayfair Yang, who teaches in areas of religious studies, East Asian languages and cultural studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara.

Jakobsen teaches courses on feminist theory, theorizing women's activism, and religion, gender and violence. Yang, a cultural anthropologist, is interested in the interconnected processes of religiosity, secularization and state operations in modernity, postcolonial and Communist conditions.

Jakobsen and Yang will address two key questions during the event:

  • What is the relationship of religion and secularism to political belonging today?
  • How do we engage that question in ways that are not just comparative, but genuinely translocal?

"The RelSec research project provides an exciting opportunity for us to bring together scholars at the University of Arizona with scholars from around the world to explore interrelations that lie at the very heart of our research interests,” said Peter Foley, who directs the UA Institute for the Study of Religion and Culture.

RelSec an 'ambitious initiative'

One of only two projects funded by CHCI with the Mellon Foundation grant, RelSec is ambitious and wide-ranging, Medovoi said.

Scholars involved with the project come from research backgrounds. Among them are those whose work is focused on theories and genealogies of politics and religion; others engage in cultural studies of sites of religious and political tensions, such as immigration, fundamentalism, gender and sexuality.

The CHCI member organizations participating in the RelSec project are the Portland Center for Public Humanities at Portland State University, the Minerva Humanities Center at Tel Aviv University, the Centre for the Humanities at Utrecht University and the Research Institute for the Humanities at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

In addition to the English department and Institute for the Study of Religion and Culture, other UA partners include the Confluencenter for Creative Inquiry, the School of Anthropology and the Departments of Religious Studies, East Asian Studies, Judaic Studies, Gender and Women's Studies, North African Studies and others.

Medovoi noted that RelSec responds to research questions that engage with the global resurgence of religiously driven discourses, social practices and cultural organization in political and civic arenas.

The urgency of the project grows from distinct situations on many continents, including complex tension between religious groups and modern forms of government.

"Our colleagues in the Netherlands, Israel and China will necessarily approach these situations very differently," Medovoi said. "The dialogue we create will be essential to understanding the big picture."