Luce Foundation award will support international research on moderate Islam

By April Hunt | Emory Report | Oct. 11, 2019

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Jim Hoesterey, Winship Distinguished Research Professor of Religion in Emory College of Arts and Sciences, will co-lead a team of global scholars examining the widely differing concepts of “moderate Islam” across the Muslim-majority countries of Egypt, Indonesia and Morocco.

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The Henry Luce Foundation has awarded an Emory University religion professor a highly competitive $305,000 grant to lead new international and interdisciplinary research on “moderate Islam.”

Jim Hoesterey, Winship Distinguished Research Professor of Religion in Emory College of Arts and Sciences, will co-lead a team of global scholars examining the widely differing concepts of “moderate Islam” across the Muslim-majority countries of Egypt, Indonesia and Morocco.

Hoesterey and Yasmin Moll of the University of Michigan will conduct their own research while leading five other scholars from the fields of religion, anthropology and political science. Vincent Cornell, Emory’s Asa Griggs Candler Professor of Middle East and Islamic Studies, is among the additional scholars.

According to Hoesterey, Western policy makers and civic leaders have used the term “moderate Islam” casually for years, differentiating it only from religious extremism. The project will focus on how the concept varies not only from Western perspectives but also within seemingly similar countries. 

For instance, although Sunnis are the majority in Egypt and Morocco, the two governments (authoritarian and monarchy, respectively) create diverse ways for people to imagine and practice the idea of religious moderation, Hoesterey says.

“I’m very excited about the breadth of this interdisciplinary conversation and how a more nuanced understanding of this concept might create more opportunity for religious and cultural diplomacy,” Hoesterey says.

The interdisciplinary nature of the project will include field interviews and analysis of Islamic social media platforms, with several separate studies combined into a single academic volume and final report, including policy suggestions concerning religious diplomacy. 

Specific research will include an examination of the Egyptian university system’s role in fashioning the country’s narration of moderation and a review of how relief work with Christian charities may affect rural Muslims’ definition of moderation. Cornell, a historian, will analyze how public intellectuals from Morocco, Egypt, Algeria and Tunisia have developed Islamic theologies of liberalism through their writing.

Hoesterey, a cultural anthropologist and former secretary at the American Institute for Indonesian Studies, previously won a Fulbright Senior Scholar award for preliminary research. His focus with this project is how the Indonesian government defines moderation at home and internationally in its efforts to promote the country as proof of the compatibility of Islamic commitment with democratic principles.

He will travel to Indonesia in December to begin his section of the project. Hoesterey also is looking for undergraduates to serve as research assistants.

The full team will complete their writing in 2022, when the project concludes with a workshop for international leaders and diplomats.

“I suspect there will be close themes our work will bring together, on the potential and limits of what moderate Islam is or can be,” Hoesterey says.