Tag Archive for Religion

Wesleyan to Offer Muslim Studies Certificate

muslimstyThe certificate, approved by the faculty on April 25, was proposed by steering committee members Peter Gottschalk, professor of religion, director of the Office of Faculty Career Development; Typhaine Leservot, associate professor of French studies, chair of the Romance Languages and Literatures Department, associate professor of letters; and Ioana Emy Matesan, assistant professor of government, tutor in the College of Social Studies.

“Students in the certificate program will gain an appreciation for the diversity among Muslims geographically, culturally, historically, and religiously,” Leservot said. “They will become accomplished in multi-disciplinary and inter-disciplinary approaches to the study of Muslim communities and their expressions and productions. In an American setting in which stereotypes reduce the more than 1 billion Muslims around the globe to singular caricatures, this represents no small accomplishment.”

The Muslim Studies Certificate will mirror an existing certificate in Jewish and Israeli Studies. Students must complete six designated courses in a range of areas, including contemporary society and practice; literary, artistic and musical studies; and historical inquiry. Courses involving Muslim studies already offered by more than a dozen faculty members will be included.

“This new certificate will highlight Wesleyan’s remarkable collection of faculty, courses, and resources for students interested in studying the lives of Muslims around the globe,” Gottschalk said. “Our faculty teach and conduct research in fields as diverse as Arabic, art history, College of Letters, English, French, government, history, music, religion, and Spanish. As Muslims become increasingly prominent in the United States, the number of faculty and students alike interested in Muslim studies has expanded.”

“The certificate aims to maximize students’ education in Muslim traditions by providing a structured program to guide their studies,” he added. “This will require students to diversify their exposure across disciplines and divisions, period and place.”

At a time when American Muslims are becoming increasingly marginalized, the certificate “will also help our non-Muslim students better understand a set of groups and traditions increasingly the target of disinformation and prejudice,” Matesan said. “Meanwhile, it would signal to our Muslim students and potential applicants that Wesleyan recognizes the diversity and significance of Muslim traditions.”

McAlister Writes Op-Ed on ‘Demystifying Vodou’

Elizabeth McAlister

Elizabeth McAlister

Elizabeth McAlister, chair and professor of religion, is the co-author of an op-ed on CNN titled, “Haiti and the distortion of its Vodou religion.”

Together with her co-author, Millery Polyné, a Haitian-American professor of African-American and Caribbean history at the Gallatin School–NYU, she provides an introduction to the Vodou religion—the creation of African slaves who were brought to Haiti and converted by Roman Catholic missionaries in the 16th and 17th centuries. While Vodou shares much with Christianity, and its initiates must be Roman Catholic, it departs in its views of the cosmos. Vodou teaches that there is no heaven or hell, and humans are “simply spirits who inhabit the visible world in a physical body.”

They explain:

Historically, Vodou has been an emancipatory faith that enslaved people turned to when they were brutalized.

For that reason, French slave owners considered Vodou a threat and that is why it has been grossly misrepresented by white colonists and Haitian political and spiritual leaders alike.

Indeed, Vodou spirits inspired the revolution against Haiti’s French colonizers more than 200 years ago that established Haiti as the second independent nation in the Americas after the United States — and the first to abolish slavery.

It was during a religious and political gathering that enslaved Africans and Creoles mounted an insurrection against plantation owners in August 1791. This famous nighttime meeting — known as the ceremony at Bois Caïman — was a tremendous feat of strategic organizing, since it unified Africans assembled from different plantations and diverse ethnic groups.

At this clandestine ceremony, a leader named Dutty Boukman led an oath to fight for freedom. A priestess named Cecile Fatiman consecrated the vow when she asked the African ancestral spirits for protection during the upcoming battle.

Under a tree, she slaughtered a black pig as an offering.

Two weeks later, the rebels set plantations ablaze and poisoned drinking wells, kicking off the revolution.

Panicked slave owners throughout the Americas reacted by clamping down with extra force on all African-based religious practices.

They circulated stories that linked the religion with blood and violence, images that endure to this day.

McAlister is also professor of American Studies, professor of African American studies, professor of Latin American studies, and professor of Feminist, Gender & Sexuality studies.

 

Gottschalk Writes on the Sufis and Why They Threaten ISIS

Peter Gottschalk

Peter Gottschalk

Professor of Religion Peter Gottschalk recently authored an article, “Who are the Sufis and why does ISIS see them as threatening,” which appeared on Raw Story and The Conversation.

The Sufis, who have been the target of violent attacks in Pakistan in recent years, practice austerity “stemming from a sincere religious devotion that compelled the Sufi into a close, personal relationship with God, modeled on aspects of the Prophet Muhammad’s life. This often involved a more inward, contemplative focus than many other forms of Islamic practice.” And, according to Gottschalk, though “many Muslims and non-Muslims around the globe celebrate Sufi saints and gather together for worship in their shrines,” these practices “do not conform to the Islamic ideologies of intolerant revivalist groups such as the Islamic State.”

Gottschalk argues that there are two reasons why the Islamic State violently opposes Sufis:

First, some Sufis – as illustrated by Rabia, the Sufi from Basra – deliberately flout the Islamic conventions of their peers, which causes many in their communities to condemn their unorthodox views and practices.

Second, many Muslims, not just militants, consider shrine devotion as superstitious and idolatrous. The popularity among Muslims and non-Muslims of tomb veneration alarms many conservative Muslims.

When a Sufi tomb grows in reputation for its miraculous powers, then an increasing number of people begin to frequent it to seek blessings. The tombs often become a gathering place for Hindus, Christians, Sikhs and people from other faiths.

Special songs of praise – “qawwali” – are sung at these shrines that express Islamic values using the imagery of love and devotion.

However, Islamist groups such as the Taliban reject shrine worship as well as dancing and singing as un-Islamic (hence their assassination of the world-famous qawwali singer Amjad Sabri). In their view, prayers to Sufis are idolatrous.

Gottschalk also is professor of science in society, and director of the Office of Faculty Career Development.

Gottschalk writes on Islamophobia, Homophobia and Orlando

Peter Gottschalk

Peter Gottschalk

In the wake of the unparalleled homophobic violence committed in Orlando this month, and the Islamophobic and anti-Muslim sentiments expressed only hours later (notably, by presidential candidate Donald Trump), Professor of Religion Peter Gottschalk writes an op-ed for Inside Sources about the deep roots of all three in America.

He opens on a personal note: “As a boy in the late 1960s and 1970s, I knew there were few more destructive suspicions that could be voiced about me than those connoted by the label ‘gay.’ While the term might be flung at someone by friends as a joke, it could be a damning adjective if antagonistically and permanently attached to one’s name. […] Meanwhile — in an era that extended through two Israeli-Arab wars, the OPEC oil embargo and the Iranian Revolution — Middle Eastern politics reinforced longstanding American antipathies toward Arabs and Muslims. I grew up with the impression that all Muslims were Arab, violent and non-American. Of what others did one hear?”

Gottschalk goes on:

Raised in the United States, perhaps (killer Omar) Mateen’s homophobia stemmed, at least in part, from the same fears from which mine did. However, it seems significant that his father reported that Mateen’s outrage was piqued recently when the killer’s 3-year-old son saw two men kissing. In addition to whatever childhood antipathies with which he likely grew up, his homophobic-fueled fury seemingly also fed on fears that public gay life represented a threat to his family, if not to society in general: attitudes still expressed by too many Americans.

It is here that the homophobia still sadly endemic in America intersects with an Islamophobia that also has a long history. Donald Trump lost no time connecting Mateen’s horrible violence to his demand that all Muslim immigration into the United States temporarily cease. His speeches repeat tired stereotypes debunked too long ago to be accidental.

The Republican presidential nominee consistently uses “Muslim” and “Middle Eastern” as interchangeable terms, even though the overwhelming majority of Muslims live outside that region, which is also populated by sizable Christian and Jewish populations.

And Trump loudly insinuates that Muslims should be suspect not only because, as immigrants from conflict zones, they might bring violence with them. In his statement about Muslim migrants on Sunday, he claimed, “And we will have no way to screen them, pay for them, or prevent the second generation from radicalizing.”

An uncritical audience would likely ask why — if the children of migrants might radicalize — might not the third, fourth or 10th generation do so? Are not nearly all Muslims therefore suspect?

Read more here.

Gottschalk is also professor of science in society.

Quijada Co-edits New Book on ‘Atheist Secularism and its Discontents’

Quijada bookJustine Quijada, assistant professor of religion, assistant professor of Russian, Eastern European and Eurasian studies. recently co-edited a book titled, Atheist Secularism and its Discontents: A Comparative Study of Religion and Communism in Eurasia (Palgrave Macmillan 2015). Based on a workshop Quijada and her co-editor organized when they were at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethic Diversity, the book examines a “comparative approach to understanding religion under communism, arguing that communism was integral to the global experience of secularism. It shows that appropriating religion was central to Communist political practices.”

Quijada and her co-editor were interviewed about their work on the book for the New Books Network. Praised for offering insight into the relationship between secularism and the communist world, the editors in this interview “discuss officials in contemporary communist and post-communist states, and how, unlike Western models of state secularism, where there is separation between church and state and religious and secular spheres, communist officials continue to intervene regularly in religious affairs.”

McAlister Authors New Paper on the Militarization of Prayer in America

Professor of Religion Elizabeth McAlister is the author of a new paper, “The Militarization of Prayer in America: White and Native American Spiritual Warfare” published Jan. 4 in the Journal of Religious and Political Practice.

In the article, McAlister examines how militarism has come to be one of the generative forces of the prayer practices of millions of Christians across the globe. She focuses on the articulation between militarization and aggressive forms of prayer, especially the evangelical warfare prayer developed by North Americans since the 1980s. Against the backdrop of the rise in military spending and neoliberal economic policies, spiritual warfare evangelicals have taken on the project of defending the United States on the “spiritual” plane. They have elaborated a complex theology and prayer practice with a highly militarized discourse and set of rituals for doing “spiritual battle” and conducting “prayer strikes” on the “prayer battlefield.” The research draws on ethnographic fieldwork at an intensive spiritual warfare boot camp organized by a group of Native Americans who have founded a training base in Oklahoma dedicated to training recruits in the theology and practical strategy of spiritual warfare.

Despite their hyper-aggressive rhetorical and ideological stance, members of this network in fact practice self-sacrificial rituals of fasting, holiness and submission to the Holy Spirit. Native prayer warriors are using spiritual warfare prayer to assert a privileged place for themselves in Christian life as heirs of God’s authority over the stewardship of North American land and as central to the project of repairing sinful pasts both on and off the reservations, reconciling present racial conflict, and defending the land in spiritual battle against new immigrant invasions by foreign, demonic forces.

McAlister also is professor of American studies, professor of African American studies, professor of Latin American studies, and professor of feminist, gender and sexuality studies.

Elizabeth McAlister on the State of Vodou in Haiti Today

Elizabeth McAlister

Elizabeth McAlister

Professor of Religion Elizabeth McAlister spoke to The Guardian about the state of the Vodou religion in Haiti today.

“Most Americans don’t know that they don’t know what Vodou really is,” said McAlister, who specializes in Haitian Vodou.

The article describes the actual practice of Vodou, and discusses its critical place in Haiti’s history as the first black republic. And turning to McAlister for her expertise, it addresses Vodou’s stance on homosexuality.

“Many, many gays and lesbians are valued members of Vodou societies,” explains McAlister, who has devoted years to researching LGBT in Haitian religion. “There is an idea that Vodou spirits that are thought to be gay ‘adopt’ and protect young adults who then become gay.”

“Vodou ‘does gender’ totally differently than the Christian tradition,” McAlister explains. After all, Vodou has gender fluidity at the core: men might become mediums for female spirits, women for male spirits. “But Christians, especially evangelicals, have zero flexibility for this; they see homosexuality as a sin, period.”

Stigmatized as a primitive, or even wicked religion, Vodou is inherently progressive and inclusive, McAlister continues.

“Vodou tends to be radically unjudgmental,” she explains. “The alcoholic, the thief, the homeless, the mentally ill, all of these people are welcomed into a Vodou temple and given respect.”

In reality, McAlister emphasizes, Vodou is far more similar to a close-knit church community than most Americans could ever imagine.

McAlister is also professor of African American studies, professor of American studies, professor of feminist, gender and sexuality studies, and professor of Latin American studies.

Quijada Co-Edits New Volume, Co-Authors Article with Stephen ’13, MA ’14

Justine Quijada, assistant professor of religion, assistant professor of Russian, Eastern European and Eurasian studies, has co-authored a new article, together with Eric Stephen ’13, MA ’14 and a colleague at Indiana University, in the journal Problems of Post-Communism. Published July 30, it is titled, “Finding ‘Their Own’: Revitalizing Buryat Culture Through Shamanic Practices in Ulan-Ude.”

Research was conducted by Quijada and Kathryn E. Graber of Indiana University on a grant funded by the National Council of Eurasian and East European Research – Indigenous Peoples of Russia Grant, and included collecting survey data at a variety of shamanic ceremonies. Stephen conducted extensive statistical analysis at Wesleyan’s Quantitative Analysis Center on the survey data during a faculty/student internship in 2014. He wrote his MA thesis in psychology using the data. He is currently working toward an MA in religious studies at Harvard Divinity School.

According to the paper’s abstract:

The shamans working at the Tengeri Shamans’ Organization in Ulan-Ude, Republic of Buryatia, claim that their work is devoted to reviving “traditional” Buryat culture, despite local criticism of the “nontraditional” institutional nature of their practices. Ethnographic and survey data collected in 2012 confirm that this is in fact the case for the urban Buryats who are drawn to the organization. Shamanic healing at Tengeri requires patients to learn family genealogies and revive clan rituals, and it offers both practical opportunities and encourage- ment for the use of the Buryat language, thereby providing a locus for cultural revitalization.

Quijada also recently co-edited a book, Atheist Secularism and its Discontents: A Comparative Study of Religion and Communism in Eurasiapublished in July by Palgrave MacMillan as part of its Global Diversities series. The volume grew out of a workshop that Quijada organized with co-editor Tam T. T. Ngo at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity in Goettingen, Germany during her post-doctoral fellowship there prior to joining Wesleyan’s faculty.

“The goal was to compare the relationship between politics and religion in case studies across the communist and former communist countries, and to get away from the standard presumption that communist regimes repressed religion and that was the end of the story,” Quijada explained. “Instead, our authors look at the ways the governments compromised with powerful religious institutions, co-opted religious practices, and in some cases, unwittingly promoted religions, as was the case with neo-paganism in Russia. We also have authors who look at how secular and atheist presumptions fostered by communist states influence how people practice religion. The chapters cover case studies from Poland, Russia, Kyrgyzstan, China, Vietnam, Laos, and North Korea. By crossing a traditional area studies divide, between the study of Russia/Eastern Europe and the study of East Asia, we wanted to enable our readers to see the connections between the two and think about communism as a global phenomenon.”

7 Faculty Promoted, 1 Awarded Tenure

In its most recent meeting, the Board of Trustees conferred tenure on Hari Krishnan, associate professor of dance. He joins seven other faculty members who were awarded tenure earlier this spring.

In addition, seven faculty members were promoted to Full Professor: Mary Alice Haddad, professor of government; Scott Higgins, professor of film studies; Tsampikos Kottos, professor of physics; Edward Moran, professor of astronomy; Dana Royer, professor of earth and environmental sciences; Mary-Jane Rubenstein, professor of religion; and Gina Athena Ulysse, professor of anthropology.

Brief descriptions of their research and teaching appear below.

Associate Professor Krishnan teaches studio- and lecture-based dance courses on Mobilizing Dance: Cinema, the Body, and Culture in South Asia; Modern Dance 3; and Bharata Natyam.  His academic and choreographic interests include queering the dancing body, critical readings of Indian dance and the history of courtesan dance traditions in South India. He is a scholar and master of historical Bharatanatyam and also an internationally acclaimed choreographer of contemporary dance from global perspectives.

Professor Haddad teaches courses about comparative, East Asian, and environmental politics. She has authored two books, Building Democracy in Japan and Politics and Volunteering in Japan: A Global Perspective, and co-edited a third, NIMBY is Beautiful: Local Activism and Environmental Innovation in Germany and Beyond. She is currently working on a book about effective advocacy and East Asian environmental politics.

Professor Higgins teaches courses in film history, theory, and genre, and is a 2011 recipient of Wesleyan’s Binswanger Prize for Excellence in Teaching.  His research interests include moving-image aesthetics, feature and serial storytelling, and cinema’s technological history. He is author of Harnessing the Rainbow: Technicolor Aesthetics in the 1930s and Matinee Melodrama: Playing with Formula in the Sound Serial (forthcoming), and editor of Arnheim for Film and Media Studies.

Professor Kottos offers courses on Quantum Mechanics; Condensed Matter Physics; and Advanced Topics in Theoretical Physics. He has published more than 100 papers on the understanding of wave propagation in complex media, which have received more than 3,000 citations. His current research focuses on the development of non-Hermitian Optics. This year, the Air Force Office of Scientific Research has recognized his theoretical proposal on optical limiters as a high priority strategic goal of the agency.

Professor Moran teaches introductory courses such as Descriptive Astronomy and The Dark Side of the Universe, in addition to courses on observational and extragalactic astronomy.  His research focuses on extragalactic X-ray sources and the X-ray background, and his expertise in spectroscopic instrumentation combined with an insightful conceptual appreciation of galaxy formation have positioned him as a leader in observational black hole research.

Professor Royer offers courses on Environmental Studies; Geobiology; and Soils.  His research explores how plants can be used to reconstruct ancient environments, and the (paleo-) physiological underpinnings behind these plant-environment relationships.  His recent work on the relationship between atmospheric carbon dioxide levels and climate over geologic time has had significant impact on the field of paleoclimatology.

Professor Rubenstein teaches courses in philosophy of religion; pre- and postmodern theologies; and the intersections of religion, sex, gender, and science.  Her research interests include continental philosophy, theology, gender and sexuality studies, and the history and philosophy of cosmology.  She is the author of Strange Wonder: The Closure of Metaphysics and the Opening of Awe, and Worlds without End: The Many Lives of the Multiverse.

Professor Ulysse offers courses on Crafting Ethnography; Haiti: Between Anthropology and Journalism; Key Issues in Black Feminism; and Theory 2: Beyond Me, Me, Me: Reflexive Anthropology. Her research examines black diasporic conditions. Her recent work combines scholarship, performance, and exposition to ponder the fate of Haiti in the modern world and how it is narrated in different outlets and genres.  She is the author of Downtown Ladies: Informal Commercial Importers, A Haitian Anthropologist and Self-Making in Jamaica, and Why Haiti Needs New Narratives.

McAlister Speaks on American Evangelical Spiritual Warfare

Elizabeth McAlister

Elizabeth McAlister

Elizabeth McAlister, professor of religion, professor of African American studies, professor of American studies, spoke at DePaul University on May 11. The topic of her talk was “American Evangelical Spiritual Warfare and Vodou in Haiti.”

According to the flyer for the talk, one strand of American evangelicalism practices so-called “spiritual warfare” in which Christian “prayer warriors” pray against “territorial strongholds.” This group believes the world to be mapped into either Christian or demonic space, where Satanic forces operate as “strongholds” of evil. They believe that Haiti is under the influence of Satan. McAlister draws on recent ethnographic fieldwork in Haiti to examine how American missionaries are waging spiritual warfare on the traditional Afro-Haitian religion of Vodou, and how some Haitian Vodou practitioners are responding, paradoxically, by adopting evangelical modes of prayer, publicity and self-presentation.

Back in January, McAlister spoke on “The Militarization of American Prayer” at the Social Science Research Council.

Gottschalk to Develop Course on “The Sacred” with NEH Grant

Professor of Religion Peter Gottschalk is the recipient of a $20,000 National Endowment for the Humanities "Enduring Questions" grant.

Professor of Religion Peter Gottschalk is the recipient of a $20,000 National Endowment for the Humanities “Enduring Questions” grant.

Professor of Religion Peter Gottschalk has been awarded a National Endowment for the Humanities “Enduring Questions” grant for approximately $20,000 to develop and teach a new course on different understandings of “the sacred.”

Over the last five annual competitions, this competitive grant program received approximately 200 applications each year on average, and funded only 19 awards each year.

As University Protestant Chaplain, Mehr-Muska Mentors, Offers Confidential Support

As the university’s Protestant chaplain, Tracy Mehr-Muska wears many hats, including mentor, cheerleader, religious tutor, celebrant of sacraments, caregiver, counselor, listener, worship leader and event planner, among others.

As the university’s Protestant chaplain, Tracy Mehr-Muska wears many hats, including mentor, cheerleader, religious tutor, celebrant of sacraments, caregiver, counselor, listener, worship leader and event planner, among others. (Photo by Olivia Drake)

In this Q&A, meet Tracy Mehr-Muska, Wesleyan’s Protestant chaplain. 

Q: Rev. Mehr-Muska, how long have you been Wesleyan’s Protestant chaplain, and what did you do before this?

A: This is my third year as a university chaplain at Wesleyan. Like many, my professional journey was not a direct route. After graduating from the Coast Guard Academy, I served as a Deck Watch Officer in the U.S. Coast Guard. My love of the sea and my degree in Marine/Environmental Science led me to subsequently work as a marine scientist, conducting oceanographic surveys and engineering subsea cable routes for a company that installed transoceanic fiberoptic telecommunications cable. although I loved my job, I felt most deeply fulfilled when attending church, visiting sick or homebound parishioners, or volunteering with the church’s youth. I then transitioned to Princeton Theological Seminary, and after graduating, became an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA). I served as a chaplain for a hospice program in Boston, where I ministered to people approaching death and to their families. Although I loved hospice chaplaincy, it has been thrilling and fun to now work with people at the other end of their lives—students newly emerging into adulthood who are working to discern their vocational identity and establish their priorities, distinctiveness and values.

Q: Coming from such a different background, what made you want to become a university chaplain?

A: My years at the Coast Guard Academy were immensely challenging personally, physically, and spiritually. The two caring and patient military chaplains who served as my chaplains were not only instrumental in my surviving, thriving, and graduating, but they were also influential in helping me find joy and deepen my faith.