Leaving the AAR (American Academy of Religion): lacking transparency

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:

  1. How many proposals came from non-US based scholars who were not pre-arranged in panels?
  2. How many non-US based scholars’ papers (not pre-aranged in panels) were accepted?
  3.  How many panels were organized by non-US based scholars?
  4.  How many panels organized by non-US based scholars were accepted (if any)?
  5. 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.

11 thoughts on “Leaving the AAR (American Academy of Religion): lacking transparency

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  1. I find AAR is so broad and comprehensive that many of us feel left out, lost in a sea of scholars searching for support. Personally, as a north American scholar living in a state that treats religious studies as a joke, I have not found support by AAR. There are some great studies done by the organization that have been helpful in maintaining some religious studies classes, but overall I see within the organization support for the same people over and over again, little attempt to expand the study and funding of religious studies at universities, and a lack of attempt to foster communication and networking (save for women’s group). Awards tend to go to the theological and theoretical, not the anthropological and performance based research. The lack of funding for underpaid scholars is also disturbing, and I would have thought that such a large organization would have a bursary. I do think some regional groups are strong, and that puts people in that group at an advantage. Those of us living with cliquish regional groups stuck on theology and Bible suffer. At present I would like to start a group for performance and ethnography, to stop complaining and do something. However, funding and a reduction in teaching contracts makes me wonder if I can even renew my membership.

  2. Dear Gabriele,

    As I have said in my previous email, I doubt that anyone would respond to your email directly to the listserve. I totally understand where you are coming from. For similar reasons, the Sociology of Islam mailing list has been created to provide a voice to those whose views would not otherwise be heard in academia. As of today, wehave more than 1600 scholars worldwide from 37 different countries, 413 universities and this includes sociologists, political scientists, anthropologists, religious, international studies scholars, and other fields.

    The AAR-Islam section is an American based organization and it does not represent the multicultural body of Islamic Studies and Muslim scholars. I have discussed this issue with many scholars personally. From my own perspective, the AAR-Islam section has a certain viewpoint, and they are generally not as open and transparent as they claim to be. This type of scholarship is a combination of Northeast and Northwest American liberalism and careerism, and they do not want to touch certain subjects in the field; however, they study terrorism, gender issues, Muslims in America, and other politically popular subjects. This type of ‘popular’ scholarship does not reflect any understanding of religious or Islamic Studies; they are actually the core concepts of sociology, anthropology, international studies, and political science. In order to study Islam from a theological standpoint (Islamic Studies), you really need to know and study the text, and study the kelam, fiqh, hadith, etc. It is difficult. However, after September 11, whoever passes next to a mosque claims to be an Islamic studies scholar and works on women’s and ethnic issues in Islam and Muslim societies, terrorism or similar subjects which are what I see as thecommodification of Islam and Muslim societies in American academia.

    This is the typical US centric perspective, and to me it is more problematic than Classical Orientalism and Neoconservative Academicians. It reminds me of a smallcabal which tries to control each social and political act in the name of US National security interests. MESA is not different at all either. For instance, there was an Islamophobia panel at the recent MESA conference but interestingly; there was no Muslim perspective or scholar on Islamophobia. It is like a panel on Racism against Blacks without any input of Blacks or Black scholarship. Maulana Karenga, one of the greatest black scholars would have been outraged and this would be impossible in Black Studies. None of the scholars on thispanel have faced Islamophobia, as much as some Muslim scholars (myself included) and as some Muslim Phd students have faced over the last several years, such as exclusionist attitudes in job applications, rejection of paper proposals at national conferences, and etcetera. While many scholars talk about a topic they have never experienced personally. In fact, one of the scholars in the Islamophobia panel at MESA is considered anti-Islamic from a Muslim community perspective, but this person was invited to talk about Islamophobia at the panel! To me, this should be on the daily show with JonStewart. I have expressed my concerns on the subject to Suad Joseph, Fred Donner and Juan Cole. I am just curious to know how the Islamophobia panel (MESA 2011) participants were selected and what the selection criteria are. To me, the criteria appear to be for an applicant to be a good liberal American.

    Another important example is the three Islam and Middle East Studies scholars who recently received a Department of Justice security grant in order to study Terrorism and the Muslim Response in the US. It is an interesting coincidence that the grant was given after Quintan Wiktorowicz became the Terrorism advisor to Obama. I can give many examples on the subject that I have witnessed over the last few years. This is NOT a good trend for American academia and scholarship. In Nazi Germany, collaboration between universities and the Nazi party was immense and the result was terrible. I am not saying all Americanscholars and the federal government work together; however, American scholars are too US centric, nationalistic and some of them cannot differentiate between a human-based social science and national (security) interests. Therefore Iwould rather describe some of them as national security scholars or careerist, regardless of whether they are liberal or conservative.

    Unfortunately, this is one of the main problems in the US centric “academic” organizations, and I know from first-hand experience that they do not like criticism. This is all just friendly criticism of the AAR-Islam section in my role as a sociologist. In sociology, it is also not so far different. Some sociologists work with the federal government on Islam and Islamic Studies scholarship in the US, especially those who work with Quintan Wiktorowicz. I hope and wish this trend changes for better in order to create a more peaceful and academic environment for everyone; however I am pessimistic about the trend, because this type of scholarship is a career- oriented and Islam and Muslims are a commodity in the Americanmarket based education system, and scholars who work with the federal government try to be the gatekeepers in “Islamic” Studies!

    I hope and wish we can create a strong scholarship moving forward which includes many different viewpoints and more diverse scholarship.

    Best to all,

    Tugrul Keskin
    “Sitting at the table doesn’t make you a diner, unless you eat some of what’s on that plate. Being here in America doesn’t make you an American. Being born here in America doesn’t make you an American.”
    Malcolm X

  3. I am a young scholar within Islam, not even finished with my education, but I must say one thing even if it reveals my naivete. It worries me to see “mean tricks” and “it’s a pity” among other loaded phrases in these few short comments. Let this conversation be inspiring both for the AAR AND for those of us choosing to support a new community. Truly I think we must steer away from these back and forth arguments, splitting hairs. Let us act compassionately toward one another, within these groups, and between them. Let’s remember that, at the end of the day, whether we are AAR or otherwise, scholars here or in Bangladesh, we are incredibly lucky and privileged to be able to do what we do. Let us be thankful and move forward graciously.

  4. Since most units engage in anonymous review, they do not know the institution or geographical location of the contributors. So, your criticisms are misguided. Also, the statistics posted by Puckett show that the percentage of international program unit chairs and steering committee members simply reflects the percentage of international members in the AAR. Finally, your female circumcision example shows absolutely nothing. If you want to start a new organization, that is great: more power to you, and I sincerely wish you success. But it’s very unfortunate that you feel the need to slander another organization by false accusations of discrimination. The accusation, by the way, is inherently implausible. Why would AAR discriminate against people from European institutions? Is there a lot of anti-European sentiment among U.S. academics? This makes no sense at all.

    1. Dear Ben,
      It is a pity that your comment itself is misguided and comes off as rather aggressive, since you make my intention to raise a problem of quality control sound like a conspiracy theory.

      I have the impression that, based upon the many emails that I have received (including from Unit and Section Chairs), my observations and criticisms have been received and pondered. I am sure that the AAR will be able to provide convincing solutions in the not so distant future.

      I do not see a relationship between the blind review of proposals (but see my reply about the questionably high rate of acceptance for some scholars) and the fact that I am asking the AAR to provide data and statistics in the same way MESA or other scientific associations do in the US.

      I continue to affirm that the AAR must have enough collected data to provide some simple statistics just now. If the issue is the application form with too little information, the application form (which by the way is linked to member profiles even now!) can be modified and more data requested. Maybe next year we can have these statistics?

      You accuse me of slander, but how can that be true? I will be happy to say that I am wrong when, and only when, the statistics of previous years are provided. It is upon the association, and not its members, to show that it is reliable and trustworthy. I remind all that this is an association today (despite the name ‘Academy’), and not a private club as far as I have understood since my decision to join it ten years ago.

      I have never, as many of my colleagues, seen a peer-review or a comment on a paper, panel or research proposal. Some sections provide them, but as far as I was able to understand from colleagues, in a very sporadic way.

      Data about different kinds of elections are missing–in the Section that I follow at least, there is no maintained record of it, no statistical data again. You can take part in absentia (not all of us are paid by our institutions to attend conferences), but the only thing you receive is an email saying that you have not been elected (but there is no mention of the votes received or record of the election which took place during the annual meeting).

      As far as my example about the research grants is concerned, have a look yourself and tell me how many non-US affiliated scholars have received one (I remind all that these grants are funded also with the fees that international scholars pay).

      Remember, Ben, that asking for transparency is not, as you seem to imply, a crime or slander; it is a right that each member has. In my opinion, academic associations have a duty to provide such data (this is a criticism of the AAA too, if you wish). Such correct behaviour is called accountability to the members.

      Now, since I am no longer a member of the AAR, I will stop discussing it. It is up to its members to decide how to improve the association.

      Finally about your comment:

      If you want to start a new organization, that is great: more power to you

      Let me just say that I stopped playing Risk many years ago; just after elementary school.

      Best wishes

  5. Gabrielle,
    as a young scholar I must admit I was not awere ofthe issues you raised. I think healthy competition is always good in any area and I would support an establishment of another body along the lines outlined by you.

  6. It’s a pity that such a behavior still exists in a country where people pride themselves on being envied for their democracy–let alone the question of their being intellectuals. You have done right to reveal their mean tricks.
    Said Mentak

      1. thank you, I really hope that we can develop something innovative and more accessible than old-fashion academic associations, in particular as far as the use of technology and open publication and research archives.

  7. Gabriele,

    I am sorry about your decision. The reason I was never able to reply to your inquiry was a technical inability to compile the statistics you requested, not a “lack of transparency.” It is impossible given the small amount of information we request in the online submission system to determine the proposer’s nationality. Furthermore, since the vast majority of Program Units engage in anonymous review, they cannot know the nationality of proposers either.

    Below are some statistics that I can provide:

    16.2% of the AAR’s membership is international
    14.35% (366) of the participants on the Annual Meeting Program in 2011 were international
    13.4% (35) of Program Unit Chairs in 2011 were international
    14% (129) of Steering Committee members in 2011 were international

    Given the time and cost involved in international travel to the AAR’s Annual Meetings, I think these statistics speak very well of our ability to involve international members. We are trying to expand these opportunities through partnerships with the International Association for the History of Religions and its constituent organizations.

    I hope you will reconsider your decision.

    Thank you,
    Robert Puckett
    AAR Director of Meetings.

    1. Dear Robert,

      Thank you for your comment and for providing more, I would say encouraging, information and data. I am pleased to know of the partnership with the International Association for the History of Religions and its constituent organizations. Yet I would like to focus on some of the points you have highlighted that also help me to clarify my viewpoint that the AAR strongly needs to become more transparent:

      I am not speaking about the proposer’s nationality. I am speaking of university affiliation. My point is clear: a person who is not affiliated to a US university or institution is marginalized by the AAR as a scholar despite paying the same, or higher, membership fee.

      To answer my questions, as anybody whom will check the form to submit an abstract may observe, there is enough information. The fact that this information is not made available is another issue, and this issue is indeed called a lack of transparency.

      About the peer-review process: we have to be clear, this is done through the Steering Committee of the sections. Yet why are the peer-review comments not released or provided to the applicant?

      A short review of the AAR conference catalogue of the last 3-4 years shows that some scholars have an incredibly high rate of acceptance. They are almost always present in panels, presenting papers and so on. I doubt, as the founding editor of a journal with some experience in blind peer-reviews that such, nearly 100%, acceptance rate in one or another is possible. Hence my point: some scholars, all from US based academia, are likely to have a preferential channel. And since the presentation spots are so limited, this would remove opportunities from other scholars (often, as I have the impression, from institutions outside the US).

      You mention that “Given the time and cost involved in international travel to the AAR’s Annual Meetings, I think these statistics speak very well of our ability to involve international members.” Due the fact that the AAR lacks any real statistics about its paper selections and so on, I may suggest that many, or even a great number, might be spending their money because they are investing in their future: they are coming to the job-fair or hoping to connect for future career opportunities. Of course, this is a legitimate doubt, since I suppose the AAR cannot provide information about how many of the above “internationally travelling” scholars are PhDs, or are looking for a new position in the US.

      I know it is not your task in the AAR, but the Research Grant of the AAR and the fact that nearly only scholars affiliated to US universities were selected each year, surely would benefit from a clarification. 

I repeat: if the AAR presents itself as mainly a North American organization, I would have no concerns, but at this point it should be clear and possibly fees should be reduced for members outside the US, as some other US organizations do. Yet I am aware that the AAR wishes to be more international, and I hope that my points and decision may help this reputable organization to reach the needed higher standard, including easier accessibility for scholars from developing countries through the use of videoconferencing. 

Thanks for your kind time. 


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