Introducing Dr. Edith Szanto

Title card for Prof. Szanto's interview

Dr. Edith Szanto joined REL just this past August, coming to us after working for several years at the American University of Iraq, in Sulaimani. Now partway into her first semester, she’s been teaching an introductory course on Islam and, in the Spring, will be teaching REL 100 Introduction to the Study of Religion along with an upper-level seminar on the way Islam has been conceptualized in Europe and North America.

Thanks again to REL grad Andie Alexander and REL major Kyle Ashley
for their movie-making skills.

New Hire in REL at UA

The Department of Religious Studies, in the College of Arts & Sciences at the University of Alabama, is very pleased to announce the hire of Dr. Edith Szanto. She begins at UA in the Fall semester of 2019, as a tenure-track Assistant Professor, with expertise in the area of social theory of Islam.

Dr. Szanto has been teaching in the Social Sciences Department at the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani, since 2011. She received her M.A. in Middle Eastern Studies from the University of Texas at Austin in 2004 and her Ph.D. in Religious Studies from the University of Toronto in 2012.  She has extensive international experience and works on questions relating to bodies, violence, politics, and Islam in Syria and Iraq.  She has also worked on Twelver Shi’i women’s seminaries, self-flagellation rituals, ecstatic Sufi practices, spiritual healing, and Middle Eastern television. Most recently, she has been studying religious reactions to ISIS in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Dr. Szanto will be teaching REL 236 in the Fall, our Core Curriculum intro course on Islam, and will be available to supervise M.A. students interested in using the study of Islam as a site to explore the application of social theory in the study of religion. She will also be assisting with the development of cross-disciplinary Mid-East Studies at UA.

We are very pleased to be adding Dr. Szanto to the faculty.

This Week in the First Amendment

Have you been following the story of the La Lomita Chapel, in Mission, Texas? It was built in 1865 and today is at the center of a fight over land — more specifically, the Federal government trying to acquire this private land for the purposes of the border wall that some want built there.

The local Roman Catholic diocese doesn’t agree. Continue reading

Outlawed Violation of Human Rights or Protected Religious Practice?

Given the prominence of debates over classification in my classes I’m always on the look-out for a good e.g., something useful in getting us thinking about the interests driving classification systems and their practical effects — and, perhaps, illustrating how naming something as religion plays a role in all this. Continue reading

Religious Studies in the Time of Trumpism


When I heard Donald Trump’s speech on Monday I realized that Trump’s rhetoric presents the scholar of religion with a crossroads. Scholars of religion have to make a decision about how to engage Trumpism.

Continue reading

“I belong to no religion. My religion is love”: Sufism, Religious Studies, and Love


By now you’ve probably heard about the theme for next year’s American Academy of Religion (AAR) annual meeting, revolutionary love, and the controversy surrounding it.  Some of my colleagues, Russell McCutcheon and Merinda Simmons, have written about it, and the Bulletin for the Study of Religion is posting a series of responses.

Revolutionary love, or any kind of love, has not been considered the purview or state of being of all people.  Scholars have played an important role in using ideas about love to reassert feelings of estrangement, difference, and exclusion.  Europeans in the 18th and 19th century used love and its connection to Sufism to create distinctions between Western civilization, European culture, colonial society, and the Islamic tradition.  More recently, both Muslims and non-Muslims have used the idea of Sufism and its connection to love to distinguish between authentic and inauthentic Muslims. By uncritically adopting the theme of Revolutionary Love and positing love as universal, the AAR has overlooked how “love” has been and continues to be used to construct “the West” through the exclusion of Muslims. Continue reading

In Support of a Speaker’s Practical Interests

Picture 19

Did you catch the story, the other day, about Republican Presidential candidate, Ben Carson, and a campaign speech he gave in Iowa City? He distinguished between calling Islam a religion and classing it as a “life organizing system.” Continue reading

Should Sunday Schools Be Registered with the Government?

schoolclassThe head of the British government’s Ofsted — the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills — Sir Michael Wilshaw, was on the radio the other day, discussing a variety of things that scholars of religion might find interesting. Continue reading

Are you American American?


By Mary Read-Wahidi

 Dr. Read-Wahidi has been an instructor for REL 100 online course since 2013. She received her PhD in Biocultural Medical Anthropology from the University of Alabama in December 2014, and is currently a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Social Science Research Center, Mississippi State University. She works extensively with Mexican immigrants in rural Mississippi on projects related to devotion to the Virgin of Guadalupe and health-related disparities. Currently, she is involved in a USAID-funded research project aimed at empowering women smallholder farmers and improving household nutrition through improved soybean production in rural Ghana.

This blog is such a perfect forum for analyzing the “realness” of things. So, I pose my own question about realness. As the entire world seems to know by now, Republican Presidential hopeful, Donald Trump, recently declared that all Muslims should be barred from entering the US. Among many other things, he seems to take for granted that all Muslims are others. He assumes Muslims are not already your neighbors, friends, or family members, but that they are all foreigners, outsiders who have to gain permission to enter the U.S.

Is it only Trump who assumes Muslims are not “real” Americans?

I spent last year living in Kuwait, a predominately Muslim country. While I was there, I wore the hijab, the headscarf worn by Muslim women that covers their hair. In Kuwait, plenty of women wear the hijab and plenty of women don’t. It’s really up to you.

When I was out and about, store clerks or other people I met in public would often ask me where I was from. I would say, “I’m American”. On at least three occasions, my response triggered the exact same question… “American American?”

Wow! As a cultural anthropologist and an Instructor of REL 100, this response really got the analytical wheels turning in my mind. What do they mean, “American American?” As far as I knew you either were an American or you were not. But what they were telling me is that this was not the case.

They were sort of telling me the same thing Donald Trump is telling me. They were telling me that someone who identifies as a Muslim can’t be a “Real” American.

And, by “Real” American, I’m going to take a wild guess that they meant I couldn’t possibly be a sixth-generation American of English descent who also happens to be Muslim. In their minds, I must have been a foreigner who had “gotten” the American citizenship (my blue eyes, light olive skin tone, and hijab often led people to guess I was Lebanese). And if I were a foreigner who had gotten the U.S. citizenship, then that would also mean that I was not a “Real” American.

Photo credit: “real” from Flickr user wallsdontlie CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

God Bless America

God Bless America

By Katie Brinser

Katie Brinser is from Lindenhurst, IL.  She is a senior majoring in International Studies and Finance with a minor in Arabic Language and Culture.  This post was originally written for Eleanor Finnegan‘s REL 370 class

In September, Pope Francis visited the United States and became the first pope to address the US Congress. In his address, Pope Francis emphasized the importance of social responsibility and political activity. He called on the American people to “serve and promote the good of the human person and be based on respect for his or her dignity”, and used the Declaration of Independence to justify why the American people must act in this manner. Pope Francis did not speak only as a religious figure, but as a political activist addressing current issues such as the immigration crisis, death penalty, youth violence, and ongoing conflicts throughout the world. He spoke about the rich heritage of America and how this heritage is a call to action to help with the world’s problems.

Jose Casanova, as summarized in Talal Asad’s Formation of the Secular, argues that in order for a nation-state to be modern religion must be separate from politics and should not play a significant role in social issues. While, no one disagrees that the United States is a modern nation, it is also clear that religion plays a role in politics.

Religion not only exists in the political sphere, but is welcomed, as the invitation for Pope Francis to speak to congress demonstrates. Talal Asad proposes that secularism is not the deprivation of religion, but secularism privileges certain religions that are seen as compatible with modernity. It is becoming increasingly difficult, to separate politics and religion from the personal sphere. In fact, Asad even argues that the concept of secularism has produced its own imagined community. For the modernization of the secular life cannot occur without the changing of the religious sphere. Secularism’s history uses a religious context to free itself from the world and create a sphere where human responsibility is seen as the answer to all events. Secularism is set in its own domain where the public and private spheres have created demarcated spaces in which religion and politics can exist. These spheres in reality, however, are constantly intertwined as observed with the Pope addressing Congress.

Pope Francis’s invitation to speak demonstrates the privilege certain religions have in the secular nation-state of America. Pope Francis’s speech is filled with references towards God, Christianity, and the ways in which it can enact political change. While there are no questions about the modernity of America, the same is not usually said for Middle Eastern countries that also have a predominant religion. These countries, where the religious and political spheres are intertwined, are condemned for being non-secular and labeled as backwards because of their inability to progress towards modern times. In the same breath, many Americans greeted Pope Francis with praise and excitement while they condemned non-Western or by extension non-Christian nations for having their faith interfere with politics.

That is not to say that Pope Francis’s arrival should be condemned as well or that he has no right addressing congress due to secularism, but this event contextualizes the way Americans react to Christianity in politics as compared to other faiths. America’s own history demonstrates the influence religion has in the secularization or freeing of a nation sate. Muqtedar Khan’sAmerican Exceptionalism and American Muslims” explains that American exceptionalism is the idea that America is a unique nation, blessed by God. This exceptionalism leads to hypocrisy, because the U.S. welcomes the Head of the Catholic Church to speak to our legislators because he is decisively Christian, while also being fearful of Islam infiltrating our politics. It also highlights the issue in which Pope Francis specifically calls on Americans to help with concerns that are not necessarily their own. There is a savior and interventionist mentality prevalent throughout the Pope’s speech that speaks to America’s sense of exceptionalism and its expansive empire, whether real or imagined. There is this mentality in the West, specifically in American society that it is modern and secular and is therefore immune to overzealous faith in politics, while the East and Eastern religions cannot exercise the same restraint.

Indeed, Pope Francis’s remarks called for a deepened sense of compassion and understanding throughout the world. His speech touched upon many current crises around the world and how action is needed. Nevertheless, his speech while well intentioned serves to highlight the way in which Americans view religion and politics.