After nearly ten years of membership and $2000 US dollars, I have finally decided to leave the American Academy of Religion, the most important association representing scholars from different fields of the study of religion. I pondered my decision for a while, hoping that my doubts, questions and suspicions might have been answered and clarified. This was not the case. The AAR, which also acts as a lobby in the US to preserve and foster the field of religious studies, aims to be an international association. My experience, as I suggest below, shows the contrary. The reality is that the AAR is fully US-centric both in privileging scholars in any aspect of the association’s life and in the topics discussed and how they are discussed. Furthermore, year after year, the AAR is becoming a club, where some members count more than others and are more privileged than others. It appears that what matters is often not your argument or your actual position in the academic field, but rather the US university you are part of, your political affiliation, and where you are within the political US academic spectrum.
If you are an international member, you are marginalized despite paying a higher membership fee (for the postage of the journal) and have little or no chance to benefit from the membership in any realistic way. Personally I have tried engaging and being active within the AAR in general and particularly within my ‘section’, the Study of Islam (but also within the study group ‘Contemporary Islam’), and the result has been that my abstract was rejected for the annual conference and my candidature (even for the section Contemporary Islam!) was unsuccessful together with my application for small research grants.
I decided to check with other colleagues, whom were or are AAR members but are not “American” academics (i.e. not affiliated to any US university or institution). I was not so surprised when I discovered that their experience was rather similar to my own.
I have to note that no reasons for the rejection of abstracts were ever provided to me or some of my colleagues whom were AAR members– no transparency system was or is in place (such as public shortlists, or statistics with nationality, affiliations and so forth provided).
I decided to use a more ‘scientific’ approach and analyze the AAR (which by the way until recently was not even so ‘friendly’ to anthropologists or sociologists). I tried to receive answers to some basic and rather statistical questions which I report below:
- How many proposals came from non-US based scholars who were not pre-arranged in panels?
- How many non-US based scholars’ papers (not pre-aranged in panels) were accepted?
- How many panels were organized by non-US based scholars?
- How many panels organized by non-US based scholars were accepted (if any)?
- How many members of the overall steering committee were from non-US based organizations?
I did not receive a single answer other than one message which confirmed that, in the AAR Islam Section, all seven of the current steering committee members were from US-based institutions (personal communication 10/04/2011, Assoc. Prof Kecia Alli, Study of Islam Section co-chair). My questions were copied to Prof. Robert Puckett, the Director of Meetings. Up until today, I still do not have his answer or viewpoint.
I decided to check information about the ‘research grants’ and a quick scroll among the winners of each year confirms that nearly all of them are from US based universities and institutions. I became curious and decided to conduct an experiment. I decided to apply to the 2011-2012 research grant and use a research that I wanted to conduct in any case.
The idea was to test a research proposal on a rather important topic for which the AAR had shown interest before (in particular feminist scholars), a topic relevant at UN level and extremely sensitive, which would be conducted in a place where it had never been conducted before and where there was virtually no data. This, I suppose is called innovation.
I can acknowledge now that I have completed the research and I am currently writing an article based on it. Yet my research proposal on female circumcision, which some prefer to refer to as genital mutilation, in Singapore was not supported by the AAR and was rejected with very little explanation other than an email informing me that the selection was difficult and, despite that my topic was interesting, there were more relevant topics in this round.
So let us see some of the research proposals that have been founded (the entire list is here):
- Martin Nguyen, Fairfield University: The Social and Textual Landscape of a Medieval Muslim Scholarly Community
- Shin-yi Chao, Rutgers University: The Revival of Communal Religion in Present Northern Rural China: The Worship of Lady Wei (251–334 AD) as Case Study
- G. William Barnard, Southern Methodist University The Sacred Drink of the Forest: An Exploration of the Santo Daime Tradition in Brazil Shin-yi Chao, Rutgers University
I leave to the reader to consider my topic above and the ones mentioned and their relative ‘priority’ and ‘relevance’ to the AAR. Yet let me observe again that all the winners are from US academia.
I think that I have some good evidence to question the AAR’s reputation as an ‘international’, fair association and I have no qualms to say that non-US based academics are fully discriminated against.
The AAR remains also rather technologically limited: despite being a modern US association with a quite healthy budget, the only way to partake in annual conferences and other events is to travel to the US and pay for expensive hotels and conference dinners. Yes, in 2012, teleconferencing is still a technology of the future for this association. In times of crisis, with university budget cuts and also considering all the pollution that international air travel generates, the AAR is not able to organize a videoconference presence for its annual conference.
I think, as an anthropologist working on Islam and Muslims and also as a founding editor of an international journal and a book series, that today we have the possibility to build a real international, not US dependent, association that is genuinely open and affordable for all scholars (also scholars in developing countries) thanks to the technology available today.
As I have announced, I wish support the initiation of such worldwide association and I will be happy to discuss this project with those young and more senior scholars whom also feel that the AAR (but also the American Anthropological Association, which suffers very much from similar issues) is not a place where real independent and international collaboration can be achieved and enjoyed.