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Konferenz "Hijacked!"

Hijacked! A Critical Treatment of the Public Rhetoric of ‚Good‘ and ‚Bad‘ Religion – An International Conference at the Forum Internationale Wissenschaft, June 7–11, 2017

Organized by Prof. Dr. Leslie D. Smith (Kansas City, USA), Dr. Steffen Führding (Hannover, Germany), and Prof. Dr. Adrian Hermann (Bonn, Germany).

As any news observer knows, the media increasingly centers our perceptions of current events on stories of religious extremism. Such accounts are frequently counterbalanced by scholars, pundits, and politicians who claim that such extremist acts betray the “real” version of that religion that otherwise operates innocently (and positively) outside of the media’s eye. This more “authentic” religion is often deemed superior on the grounds that its more tolerant, diverse, and (generally speaking) progressive philosophies are indicative of some core that typifies the religion, depicting the more conservative and/or extreme variant as a hijacking or twisting of that positive core. Most notably, this has been the dominant political and media interpretation of Islam since September 11th, 2001, and was also most recently seen in American President Barack Obama’s refusal to refer to ISIS as a Muslim group on the grounds that “real” Muslims would not behave in such fashion.

Whether intentionally or not, then, much of our public discourse on religion involves a subtle, but incredibly powerful, distinction between “good” and “bad” religion. This distinction is hardly self-evident, but is the product of a series of both politicized opinions and moral judgments, a fact that complicates the position of many public figures – from scholars to politicians to journalists – who claim that their use of this labeling is simply self-evident or objective reporting. In fact, many types of public experts frequently identify certain religious groups as “illegitimate,” “twisted,” “hijacked,” or even “non-religious” when members of those groups do things that are actually quite common religious practices. These include things such as: failing to acknowledge the legitimacy of other religious or cultural groups; displaying what are usually considered sexist, racist, or other prejudicial behaviors; engaging in violence or other physical or political power plays to achieve their members’ desired ends; and adopting beliefs or practices that compromise the popular sense that religion is categorically peaceful, loving, good, and helpful.

The implications of these labeling practices are far-reaching, indeed, for such judgments manifest in terms such as “fundamentalist,” “radical,” and “extremist,” words that are often the gauge by which governments worldwide determine everything from the parameters of religious freedom, to what constitutes an act of terrorism, to whether certain groups receive legal protections. Conversely, it is often surprising to see how different groups that may otherwise better typify the extremist profile remain unscathed by punitive governmental or social measures because of their pre-existing social popularity or perceived normalcy. The public inquiry into religion thus continues to be guided by these unspoken value judgments, which are themselves the products of rarely-discussed political interests. Put differently, it is quite easy for scholars to revoke or impart religious “credentials” to a group depending on whether that group’s members behave as scholars think religions should.

With this issue in mind, this conference proposes a re-thinking of how the very category “religion” has been publicly constructed under these terms. Our interest lies in considering the implications of how these value judgments have been established and deployed across several important social realms (namely, within politics, the media, the university, and the classroom) in order to: a) analyze the political interests that shape these perceptions; b) identify the frequently unnoticed rhetorical practices that create this distinction between “good religion” and “bad religion”; and c) to explore new opportunities for critical analysis of this political dynamic that are more analytically sound. 

Participants: Wanda Alberts, David Atwood, Christopher Cotter, Steffen Führing, Naomi Goldenberg, Stephanie Gripentrog, Adrian Hermann, Titus Hjelm, Mitsutoshi Horii, Aaron Hughes, Jason Josephson, Suzanne Owen, Craig Prentiss, Martie S. Roberts, David Robertson, Matt Sheedy, Merinda Simmons, Leslie Dorrough Smith, Riem Spielhaus, Rudolf Stichweh, Vaia Touna


Thursday, June 8

9–12: Registration and Socializing

12–13: Lunch

13–13.30: Opening Remarks

13.30–16: First Session (Classroom), with David Robertson, Riem Spielhaus, Mitsutoshi Horii, Wanda Alberts, Suzanne Owen

16–18: Break / Excursion

18–19: Keynote: Prof. Dr. Aaron Hughes (Rochester): Good Muslim, Bad Muslim – ‘Neo-Orientalism’ and the Study of Religion

19–24: Apéro / Dinner


Friday, June 9

9–11.30: Second Session (University), with Jason Josephson-Storm, Stephanie Gripentrog, Adrian Hermann, Christopher Cotter

11.30–14: Break / Lunch

14–16.30: Third Session (Media), with Martie S. Roberts, Carmen Becker, Leslie Dorrough Smith, Craig Prentiss, Steffen Führding

19.00: Dinner


Saturday, June 10

9–11.30: Fourth Session (Politics), with Naomi Goldenberg, Vaia Touna, Rudolf Stichweh, Merinda Simmons, Matt Sheedy

11.30–12.30: Final reflections, discussion

12.30–15: Break / Lunch

15–18.30: Excursion


Supported by the German Research Foundation (DFG).