Hoesterey focuses on new figures of Islamic religious authority

By Elaine Justice | Spirited Thinking | Nov. 12, 2012

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James Hoesterey, newly appointed to Emory's religion faculty, is teaching and writing about new figures of religious authority who are speaking on behalf of Islam.

James Hoesterey's specialty is Islam, yet his focus is not the Middle East, but Southeast Asia. Considering that 60 percent of the world's Muslims are in Asia, that's a pretty big territory to cover.

Hoesterey, the newest faculty member in Emory's religion department, is focused on the future of this so-called Asian Century. His teaching and writing embrace the fast-growing influence of Islam, media and pop culture in a part of the world where new figures of religious authority are speaking on behalf of Islam.

Hoesterey comes to the religion faculty at Emory University as a cultural anthropologist, but that's just the point, says Gary Laderman, professor of religion and chair of the search committee that brought Hoesterey to campus.

"He adds to the mix that's already in the department in terms of the interdisciplinary breadth we have," says Laderman, adding that Hoesterey's interests coincide with several strengths at Emory, including Islam, film and media studies, and anthropology.

Hoesterey seems to have no trouble with the big picture. His academic background contains unexpected twists and big academic territories. He started out as an undergraduate majoring in psychology—then a trip to West Papua, Indonesia, with a documentary film crew and living among a highland tribe called the Dani, changed everything.

James Hoesterey

Hoesterey (right) spent time off and on during the 2000s working on documentary films for Discovery Channel, Travel Channel, BBC and National Geographic. He is pictured here with Katual, a Korowai man he has known since 2003.

"That experience gave me gave me a different cultural vantage point," he says. Hoesterey was struck that the Dani were aghast at the American concept of nursing homes. He began to think of his interest in emotion, the family system and psychology in a much broader way.

Those insights led him to master's and Ph.D. degrees in cultural anthropology, drawing together Islamic pop culture and the politics of public piety.

Interspersed with his degree work, Hoesterey spent time off and on during the 2000s working on documentary films for Discovery Channel, Travel Channel, BBC and National Geographic. "A lot of the perspectives I gained have been based on going into areas with a film crew," he says.

Hoesterey's interest in Indonesia, Islam and pop culture eventually led to an unusual research project: two years of ethnographic study focusing on Indonesian television preacher and self-help guru, K.H. Abdullah Gymnastiar, also known as Aa Gym.

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