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Religion, revolution and gender: Faculty seminars catalyze insight

November 02, 2010

“Liberty has been planted here and the more it is attacked, the more it grows…these violent attacks upon the woman in the wilderness [America] may possibly be some of the last efforts…of the man of sin.”

As seen in the fiery rhetoric of preacher Samuel Sherwood during the American Revolution, people have long tried to connect religion and revolution. How are we to understand this connection? What are the dynamics through which religion promotes or prevents political change?

These are the kinds of questions an interdisciplinary team of scholars, led by School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies professors John Carlson, Juliane Schober, and Andrew Barnes, are examining in a year-long faculty seminar on religion and revolution sponsored by the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict.

Faculty seminars provide an opportunity for professors to facilitate connections, catalyze new approaches, and collaborate on issues that cross disciplinary and departmental lines, all the while gaining new insights into their own research and shedding new light on the work of their colleagues.

This academic year the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict is sponsoring two faculty seminars. In addition to “Religion and Revolution,” Linell Cady, Director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict and Dean’s Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies, and Carolyn Warner, Professor and Head of Political Science, are leading a group of scholars from the humanities, social sciences, and law in exploring new directions and policy implications at the intersection of religion, gender, human rights, and international affairs.

“We Want a Revolution!”

With the premise that religion has often served as a force for revolution as well as repression, seminar participants are examining cases from Europe, the Americas, Asia, the Middle East and Africa, probing the ways that various religious traditions interact in political contexts ranging from democracy to authoritarianism.

According to seminar co-leader John Carlson, the faculty seminar’s global study of religion and revolution will include analysis of different theoretical and methodological approaches as well as country case studies.

“Our hope is that it will lead to deeper understanding of both the common patterns as well as the unique ways that religion influences political stability, oppression, innovation, or change,” says Carlson.

The interdisciplinary team tackling these issues includes religious studies professor Huaiyu Chen and historian Steven MacKinnon, both experts on China, and anthropologists Christopher Duncan, who studies conflict between Christians and Muslims in Indonesia, Shahla Talebi, who writes on the contested meanings of martydom in post-revolutionary Iran, and Juliane Schober, whose work examines Buddhism, civil society and the state in Burma.

Historians Kent Wright, Yasmin Saikia, and Andrew Barnes, whose areas of focus range from France to South Asia to West Africa, and Carlson, whose work focuses on religion, ethics and the just war tradition with an emphasis on the United States, are also part of the seminar.

“We are looking closely at the legacies of various revolutions and movements, to understand both the peoples and polities directly involved as well as how they influenced others,” says Carlson.

“We are also interested in the ways that political forces may influence religious institutions and beliefs, as well as the way religious actors may interpret or appropriate revolutionary legacies in other contexts,” says Carlson.

Might or Right: Who Determines Women’s Roles?

The expansion of secular Western ideals and notions of human rights are seen by many as a liberating force for women across the world. But does this vehicle for women’s progress harbor imperial imperatives that run roughshod over local cultures and communities?

Does human rights allow women to speak for themselves, or does it speak for them?

Is it possible, in today’s environment, to articulate and critique the pervasive forms of gender-based oppression without resorting to sensationalism, Islamphobia, wholesale dismissals of religion, or assumptions of superiority concerning the universal legitimacy of western models of self and society?

“The dominant understanding of the relationship between religion and human rights has helped to pit these two discourses against each other in a seemingly zero sum fashion,” says Linell Cady.

“Such portrayals provide little space, and even less motivation, to explore more nuanced approaches to the relations between concrete experiences of religious and cultural traditions, on one hand, and human rights theories, discourse and law, on the other,” she says.

The faculty seminar, “Religion and International Affairs: Through the Prism of Rights and Gender,” foregrounds an array of new perspectives on conflicts over women’s roles and gender equality in national and global politics. One way the seminar is doing this is by including the voices of women working for human rights from within their religious traditions.

“The seminar will bring in a number of visiting practitioners, scholars and international fellows each year,” says Cady, “including those from religious, governmental and non-governmental organizations who confront these issues in conflict zones across the world.”

The seminar is part of a larger initiative funded by a recent grant from the Luce Foundation to the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict. Project directors Linell Cady and Carolyn Warner view this seminar as a way to anchor the initiative, which also provides seed grants to support new courses and research projects, and an international conference at the end of the project.

Joining Cady and Warner on the project team are: Rebecca Tsosie, Professor of Law, Willard H. Pedrick Distinguished Research Scholar and Executive Director of the Indian Legal Program; Lincoln Professor of Ethics and professor of philosophy Margaret Urban Walker, associate professor of political science Miki Kittelson, and assistant professor of religious studies and associate director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict, John Carlson.

Additional seminar participants include, from women and gender studies, Mary Margaret Fonow, who is also director of the School of Social Transformation, Sally Kitch, who directs the Institute for Humanities Research, and associate professor Alesha Durfee; and religious studies professors Tracy Fessenden and Shahla Talebi.

Stanlie James, director and professor of African and African American Studies and director of National Engagement of the School of Social Transformation; political scientists Roxane Doty and Reed Wood; Yasmin Saikia, the Hardt-Nickachos Chair in Peace Studies and professor of history; and Madelaine Adelman, an anthropologist and associate professor of justice studies, are also seminar participants.

"Faculty seminars play an important role in fostering new work and new collaborations," observes Cady.

"Those sponsored by the center have led to significant funding for research on religion and conflict, including grants from the National Science Foundation, the Ford Foundation, and the John Templeton Foundation," she adds.

For more information about seminars and projects catalyzed by the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict, see the research page at

Written by Richard Ricketts