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Religious scholars weigh risks, rewards of speaking out

Najeeba Syeed, associate professor of interreligious education and senior adviser for Muslim relations at the Claremont School of Theology, speaks on a plenary panel titled “The Public Religion Scholar in a Social Media Age: Risks, Rewards, Reverberations” on Nov. 19, 2018, at the American Academy of Religion annual meeting in Denver. RNS photo by Emily McFarlan Miller

DENVER (RNS) — Najeeba Syeed was all set to speak about Islam and peacemaking, something the associate professor of interreligious education at Claremont School of Theology had done many times before.

Then came the death threat.

The threat was specific, and the sender was identifiable. The university where she was to appear said it could not guarantee her safety.

Syeed thought about her two kids, who were supposed to be with her that day — and decided the risk wasn’t worth it.

“For the first time in my life, I did not take the stage,” said Syeed. “I was silenced as a scholar.”

Professors of religion like Syeed often are asked to comment on current trends and social events as part of their scholarship. But doing so can come with a downside.

Syeed shared her death threat experience as part of a panel titled “The Public Religion Scholar in a Social Media Age: Risks, Rewards, Reverberations” on Nov. 19 at the American Academy of Religion’s annual meeting at the Colorado Convention Center in Denver.

Other panelists shared stories of death threats, rape threats and threats to their jobs that came after publicly sharing their work as scholars on social media, on television and radio shows or at speaking engagements. And many in the audience, panelist Simran Jeet Singh said, likely had similar stories.

That’s especially true for scholars of color, said Singh, a visiting scholar at New York University’s Center for Religion and Media and a columnist for Religion News Service.

Being in the public eye, he said, means “our bodies are on the line and our families’ bodies are on the line.”

“I think the question of whether we ought to be a public scholar or not is a question about privilege. Who gets to not be a public scholar?” he said.

Public scholarship was the theme of this year’s AAR meeting, attended by nearly 9,500 religion scholars in conjunction with the Society of Biblical Literature’s annual meeting. That focus will continue at next year’s meeting as well.

AAR President David Gushee, left, moderates a plenary panel titled “Religion Journalism and Religion Scholars: To 2020 and Beyond” on Nov. 17, 2018, at the start of the American Academy of Religion annual meeting in Denver. Panelists include (left to right) Elizabeth Dias and Laurie Goodstein, both of the New York Times; Emma Green of The Atlantic; Jerome Socolovsky of National Public Radio; Niraj Warikoo of the Detroit Free Press; and Jeremy Weber of Christianity Today. RNS photo by Emily McFarlan Miller

David Gushee, the president of AAR, said it’s important for scholars to share their knowledge at a time when religion is a topic of fierce public debate.

Still, there are risks. He believes the “deteriorating nature of the conversation in the online space” leaves publicly visible religion scholars vulnerable to attack.

“It is becoming at least dangerous in terms of mental health and a peace of mind — and sometimes actually physically dangerous — to do the work that we do,” he said. “We have more and more scholars who are being threatened, doxxed … all of that.”

Some scholars have chosen to use new forms of public engagement to reach a wider audience with their work, such as the popular YouTube channel “Religion for Breakfast.”

Andrew Mark Henry started the channel several years ago while working on his Ph.D. in religious studies at Boston University. He was a fan of educational videos on YouTube and noticed few dealt with religion scholarship.

There were channels devoted to other academic fields, such as science and the humanities. Channels devoted to religion, he said, were either  “confessional” or “angry atheist” channels. But there was almost nothing in between.

It’s important to fill that gap, he said, because YouTube popularly is used as a search engine, much like Google. People already are going there with their questions about religion and finding few answers.

“People are already out there talking, and our voices are not there,” he said.

Anthea Butler, who led a workshop on religion and media at the AAR meeting, said a viral post she wrote for the website Religion Dispatches about Hurricane Katrina first thrust her into the public eye in 2005. Butler has written a number of op-eds since, appeared on TV and radio and maintains an active Twitter presence.

The associate professor of religious studies and Africana studies at the University of Pennsylvania said she is glad the academy is talking about public scholarship.

But it needs to do more to provide resources and equip scholars to do that work, she said.

“We have too many problems in the world that stem from religion or people misunderstanding religion we could contribute to,” she said.

Like Syeed, Butler said she has gotten death threats. She’s been called by racial slurs, too.

Larycia Hawkins, who teaches seminars in the religious studies and politics departments at the University of Virginia, speaks on a plenary panel titled “The Public Religion Scholar in a Social Media Age: Risks, Rewards, Reverberations” on Nov. 19, 2018, at the AAR annual meeting in Denver. RNS photo by Emily McFarlan Miller

And public scholarship cost panelist Larycia Hawkins her job as the first tenured female black professor at Wheaton College, an evangelical Christian school outside Chicago.

Her 2015 Facebook post echoing Pope Francis’ words that Muslims and Christians worship the same God alongside a photo of herself wearing a hijab grabbed headlines, exposing a growing rift within evangelical Christianity in the United States. The college placed her on leave and started termination proceedings against her. Eventually, they reached an agreement to part ways.

Hawkins, who now teaches seminars in the religious studies and politics departments at the University of Virginia, always had hoped her work as a scholar would be relevant outside academia.

“The revolution will not, in fact, be peer-reviewed,” she said.

But she didn’t expect her photo to become “the Facebook post that went around the world.”

Becoming a public scholar isn’t always a choice for people of color, panelists agreed.

It certainly wasn’t Syeed’s plan, she said. It became inevitable, though, because of who she was — a Muslim woman. The very thing she was trying to promote — interreligious understanding — was used against her.

But she continues to do the work, she said, calling herself a “radical believer in hope.” Knowledge, she believes, is the best antidote to fear, and engagement can transform lives.

“I believe in a different future, and if I don’t stand at the place where I’m going to change it, it will never change,” Syeed said.

About the author

Emily McFarlan Miller

Emily McFarlan Miller is a national reporter for RNS based in Chicago. She covers evangelical and mainline Protestant Christianity.

24 Comments

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  • So was it a member of the Religion of Love or the Religion of Peace that was responsible for the death threat?

  • Or was it an Atheist, or an Agnostic, or a White man, or a Black man, or a Latino man, or even a Gay man?

  • I doubt it would be advisable for me to go to Iran or Saudi Arabia (or any other Islamic place) and announce myself as a Public Religion Scholar on Islam or, perhaps at even greater hazard to my light-skinned, silver-haired, English-named self, on any religion that is not Islam. I’m sorry that it’s risky business to explain minority religious views in places where majorities don’t want them—-but it is.

  • Any religion including capitalism that cannot survive intellectual debate and critical observation without resorting to violence is a religion that needs to disappear from the face of the earth if we and the planet are to survive. At the moment the two “metaphysical” religions who are the worst offenders are evangelical Christianity and Islam with the latter being the worst offender whilst the most dangerous religion overall is capitalism.

  • There you go again making claims that cannot be supported with facts. You know those pesky things tRump calls false or fake truths. You really need to be banned for your time & time again falsehoods. You know those actions deemed sins by The Christ, or is this just another example of your ignoring his teachings?

  • At the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, he angered some people because exposing sins is never popular. That was part of the nature of his ministry as Messiah-Savior (Luke 4:16-30). The Apostle Paul had similar experiences representing the Messiah-Savior in many different towns (Acts 17:2-6; 19:23-40). Receive Jesus Christ into your life to cleanse away your sins and receive Eternal Life based on his Resurrection from death.

  • What specific examples are you thinking about when you include “evangelical Christianity” as an offender that cannot survive intellectual debate and critical observation without resorting to violence? Currently reading Lee Strobel’s book the “Case for Christ” and others in his series, They appear to stand quite well in intellectual debate and critical observation and no violence.

  • Religious discourse is encouraged. Death threats discouraged. By understanding the beliefs of each it can be revealed that Christianity does indeed offer the most freedom in accepting or rejecting its assertions. Everyone is a mission field. It as well offers the best deal when it comes to eternal life. Judaism must follow many laws; and if they fail what then? Islam requires a visit to Mecca, if able and strict observances which if one comes up short, them what? The reincarnation religions measure one’s good and bad deeds and if one did a crime it could be many lifetimes to get out from underneath that. Intriguingly, some ex Khmer Rouge with horrendous crimes figured this out and eschewed their native Buddhism for Christianity:

    Robert Carmichael, the author of When Clouds Fell From the Sky: A Disappearance, a Daughter’s Search and Cambodia’s First War Criminal wrote conveying karma is difficult to face when con­fronted with heinous past deeds.

    “I would say that Christianity has some advantages over Buddhism in terms of the idea of atoning for one’s sins,” Carmichael says. “[In Buddhism], life is a cycle of birth, death and rebirth, and one’s behaviour in this life dictates how one will come back in the next life. There is no escaping one’s crimes in Buddhism, and I suspect that for many of the converts, this is a powerful motivator.”
    https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/belief/2010/jun/04/religion-missionaries-christianity
    http://www.scmp.com/magazines/post-magazine/long-reads/article/2071116/former-khmer-rouge-cadres-who-turned-god

  • Liberals lambast private conservative schools for being doctrinaire in their theology. Then liberals teach their agnostic theology in public schools under the cloak of science, history, psychology and anthropology.

    Liberals worm their way into conservative schools and then cry like babies when they get dumped for teaching contrary to the school’s stated doctrinal standards. Liberal schools don’t have that problem much because they don’t hire conservative teachers in the first place and conservative teachers rarely sneak into liberal schools. On the rare occasion when a conservative pops up in a liberal school, he gets the ax just like a liberal in a conservative school.

    “Intellectual debate” to a liberal means “shut your mouth while we rape you”.

    The biggest lie a liberal “educator” ever told was “we don’t teach you what to think, we teach you how to think”.

  • Wayne, don’t you have to first believe that a sin can be cleansed by the death of another? If atonement doesn’t make sense, nor does Christianity.

  • He didn’t make a “claim” — he asked a question. I guess if you can’t get the point of his question, your other option is to dismiss it as something that it wasn’t. If you can’t tell the difference between a claim and a question, that doesn’t leave a lot of room for reasoned discussion.

  • innumerable preachers calling for death for gay people, support for white nationalists, endorsing slavery, and the list goes on and on!

  • floydee did not ask a question even though it ended with a question mark. He was attempting to deflect the point of the topic, a tactic often used by the extreme right.

  • It wasn’t a “deflection” – it was an effort to expand the array of available answers to YOUR question, revealing the intellectual poverty of your binary challenge. But whatever you want to call it, it was clearly (and self-evidently) NOT a “claim.”

  • Whatever. It’s plainly obvious you’ll believe what you believe and not accept the evaluation of anyone else.

  • What’s “obvious” is that you can’t justify calling floydlee’s question a “claim.” Project much?

  • Vague broad-brush accusations.
    Matthew 7:15-20 is helpful Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves. Ye shall know them by their fruits.
    Romans 12:18 If it is possible on your part, live at peace with everyone.
    Many are cultural Christians, but are not Jesus is Sovereign Christians.

    Additionally, in part, if we want to understand how Jesus handled rejection by an ethnic group view Luke 9:51-56.
    Jesus and some of his disciples were on their way to Jerusalem and were looking for a place to stay. They approached a
    a Samaritan village, however they did not receive Jesus. Incensed, the disciples James and John asked Jesus if they should “nuke” the village, sending fire to consume it “just as Elijah did” Jesus rebuked them, “… the Son of man is not come to destroy men’s lives, but to save them.”

  • More indefinite vagueness. Without reliable references, its all gossip.
    Those without Christ of any category are a mission field. Killing them as you claim “innumerable preachers” are advocating is counter-productive.

  • oh please give me a break! Evangelicals=fundamentalism=literalism=VIOLENCE,THEOCRACIES, DICTATORSHIPS ,OPPRESSION= SUPERSTITION= ANTI-SCIENCE AND JUST PLAIN OLE IGNORANCE. From Hagee to his fellow imam at the First Baptist Dallas to closet case Frankie Graham to a plethora of others just as their ancestors proudly proclaimed slavery as “Christian and Biblical Institution” and the subjugation of women as endorsed by Paul these religious salesmen have invented a white brown or blue-eyed cowboy jesus wrapped in an American flat toting a AK 47! Evangelical “christianity” is a counterfeit religion that serves its master the golden calf of profit and greed!

  • >>….evangelicals being “anti-science” and “innumerable preachers calling for death for gay” people…etc etc<<
    From what I can determine, what is claimed is enigmatic information from indeterminate sources.

    In studying fundamentalist evangelists particularly Billy Graham, Aimee Semple McPherson and a few others, and not finding any of that. Mrs. McPherson for example was at the cutting edge of using technology to broadcast her message. Billy Graham, while disapproving of LGBTQ lifestyle, still saw them as people who needed Jesus. Billy Graham eschewed harsh, judgmental approaches, declaring instead the conviction of leading in love.

  • >>….evangelicals being “anti-science” and “innumerable preachers calling for death for gay” people…etc etc<<
    The claims you are giving, are enigmatic information from indeterminate sources.

    In studying fundamentalist evangelists particularly Billy Graham, Aimee Semple McPherson, and a few others, and not finding any of that. Mrs. McPherson for example was at the cutting edge of using technology to broadcast her message.

    John 3:16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

    Billy Graham, as well, and while disapproving of LGBTQ lifestyle, still saw them as people who needed Jesus. Billy Graham and Aimee Semple McPherson eschewed harsh, judgmental approaches, strove instead for leading in love.

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