As the American Academy of Religion (AAR) prepares for its upcoming Annual Meeting next month in Denver, we renew our protest against current federal government travel and migration policies which will prevent some of our members from attending.
The AAR exists to foster excellence in the academic study of religion and enhance the public understanding of religion. The central context in which the AAR does its work is the vast Annual Meeting, offered jointly with the Society of Biblical Literature and held every November, almost always in a city in the United States. But current US policies, including a ban on travel from citizens of eight, largely Muslim, countries that was recently upheld by the Supreme Court, prevents members and potential members from attending the conference, which draws almost 9000 scholars each year.
In the atmosphere created by current US Government policies, even some of our members who do not come from the current list of banned countries have good reason to fear that their appearances or names render them vulnerable to being profiled, mistreated, or detained at US border crossings. When these AAR members do still choose to attend meetings, they do so in a context of intimidation and fear. Several of our members have reported experiences at US airports that have been traumatizing and humiliating, and we fear that such experiences will be repeated in November. Such treatment is unjust, unsettling, and unworthy of the United States.
Because many units of the AAR, such as our governing board, meet between annual meetings in various US locations, the travel ban also prevents members from the affected countries from participating in other aspects of the life of our organization. This harms the AAR, in depriving our organization of the full contribution that members from affected countries could offer, and it harms members, as they are blocked from participating in what for most of them is (or would be) their primary professional organization. It also deprives the rest of the AAR membership of the benefit of scholarly exchange and collegial relations with those who are barred from full participation.
As an organization devoted to the study of religion, we note that a travel ban aimed at persons from Muslim-majority nations goes directly to the identity and purpose of our organization. We are an organization made up of persons of various religious faiths and no faith, whose subject matter is religion, and which seeks to advance the public understanding of religion. US government policies which reflect and advance anti-Muslim bias are therefore antithetical to our values and mission.
The countries subject to the travel ban are often misunderstood and even demonized in the United States. AAR scholars who study Muslim populations and cultures are positioned to correct such misunderstandings and critique such demonizations, not just for scholars and students but also for the general public. Having people from those countries here in the US, and US scholars visiting in those countries, therefore advances peace and public understanding. In the absence of a strong flow of scholars sharing their humanity and expertise, our worst fears fill the gap.
Never before in AAR history has the location of our organization in the United States proved seriously problematic as we have sought to meet our basic mission. But AAR is an international organization. Many of our members hail from, or are citizens of, Muslim-majority nations, which are the primary target of the travel ban, a ban which at any moment could be extended to cover more countries and therefore more of our members.
The Board of Directors of the American Academy of Religion stands in support of all our members. We protest current federal government policies that are harmful to our members and do not represent either the values or the interests of the United States as we understand them. We pledge our advocacy efforts on behalf of a reversal of these policies and will consider partnering with other academic organizations that share our concerns. We offer this statement to our members, and on behalf of our members, and are forwarding it to relevant officials of the United States government.