Day 2 at the AAR/SBL conference

Monday, November 19, 2007 - 12:13 am

Day 2 at the AAR/SBL conference

I spent my first full day—and second day overall—here at the American Academy of Religion’s 2007 conference here in misty, hazy San Diego.
I’m not sure exactly what I wanted this morning as I headed down to the conference center. Actually, no, that’s not true. I always want to be blown away. I rarely am.
The morning started with a two-and-a-half hour session entitled “From ‘Muslims in America’ to ‘American Muslims’.” For some reason, I bemoan the identity politics of current Muslim discourse, yet continue to go to things like this hoping for some kind of revelatory experience, something that’s going to speak to me.
But despite the excellence of the scholarship, I found precious few things that really spoke to me at that session. I did like Abbas Rezagar’s outlining of six broad categories of American Muslim identity, which corresponded vaguely and more comprehensively to my own theories that Western Islam is shifting to a model similar to that of Judaism (Orthodox, Reform, Reconstructionist, etc.).
Omid Safi, a recurring guest on SoF and guiding voice of the session, offered the example of Engaged Buddhism as another analogy that could be used instead of the Abrahamic-Judaic idea of “reform.”
I tried to get a hold of Amina Wadud, a preeminent scholar dealing with issues of gender, but she seemed to have bolted out of the room before I even got out of my seat. Probably didn’t want to be accosted by radio producers soliciting interviews…
What I was left with after that session was the same spiritual vacuum that I am often left with after trying to be engaged by modern Muslim intellectualism and scholarship. It’s incredibly important, incredibly vibrant, and incredibly dull. I suppose I shouldn’t be looking for spiritual effervescence in academia, should I?
Disappointed, I wandered through the conference center looking for more, but expecting less. I walked past another conference room and saw the bobbing afro of Cornel West. I saw him in a crowd the day before, and recognized him from the few pictures I’ve seen of him (as well as his acting in the Matrix trilogy). His DVD commentary on the Matrix trilogy, performed with philosopher Ken Wilber, remains my favorite DVD commentary of all time.
He didn’t disappoint either in person. He was part of a group of speakers deliberating over a new African-American commentary on the New Testament. Other black scholars were also part of that session and also had a vibrant engagement with the crowd. I found more inspiration in their vibrancy than in the interminable deconstructionism of current Muslim scholarship. I’d love to hear any one of these great speakers on the show, none more than “Brother” West.
I skittered out of that session in time for another book commentary, this time a conversation about Bruce Lawrence’s The Qur’an: A Biography. Professor Lawrence was Omid Safi’s teacher, so there was a certain draw. I’d actually like to read the book to get a better sense of it, but Omid seems to like the book.
I found Lawrence potentially interesting as a prospective non-Muslim voice who seems thoroughly immersed in Islam, in the Qur’an, and in Sufism. He clearly has a love affair with Islam, while remaining non-Muslim—-a seemingly uncomfortable paradox that I found interesting.
By the time the plenary session with Templeton Prize winner Charles Taylor rolled around at 8:15, I was ready to pass out. There’s only so much academic talk one can take in, and the warm milk in the masala chai I had at a nearby Indian restaurant didn’t help matters.
I’ve had an interest in Charles Taylor since he won the Templeton Prize, considering he is a professor at Montreal’s McGill University. I would have liked to interview him at some point when I was in Montreal, but never had the chance.
Then, he was named as one of the co-chairs of the controversial “reasonable accommodation” commission created by the government of Quebec to investigate the rising cultural discontent vis-a-vis immigrants in general and Muslims in particular, especially among (rural) French Canadians who are whipped up into xenophobic frenzy by sensationalistic reporting.
His talk at AAR was about “religious mobilizations.” His overarching point was that religious mobilizations are happening, and that we shouldn’t ignore them or marginalize them. OK, I’ll bite.
Anyway, I caught up with him after the talk and told him I was hoping he’d mention the reasonable accommodation commission a bit, but he seemed reluctant to talk about it while the commission was pursuing its ongoing public consultations. French tabloids in Quebec have been instrumental in creating a charged cultural climate, so he felt he ought not talk about the reasonable accommodation issue before his work on that is done circa April. Well, OK. Anyway, I did get the number of his press attache.

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