In August I attended the International Society for Media, Religion, and Culture (ISMRC) international conference. It’s the biggest religion&media conference and it’s my favorite work-related gathering, after spending great academic and personal moments in Canterbury 2014 and Seoul 2016. This year it was organized in Boulder, where I did my Ph.D., so I was thrilled at the idea of seeing again my mentors and friends from the Center for Media, Religion, and Culture. Plus, I miss Boulder terribly and I believe it’s one of the most beautiful places I called home (and, I mean, I lived in Venice). Last but not least, the conference’s theme was “religion, media, and public scholarship”, something I am very interested in and that the conference explored with some excellent keynote speakers.
Therefore, I promised myself to enjoy every bit of the conference and write a post about my impressions of ISMRC, summarizing some of the main topics of discussion in the field.
Unfortunately, I happened to be in Frankfurt airport exactly when a French family somehow reached the gates while skipping security, and the airport got completely evacuated.
Which is a little bit of a unique experience in itself and we actually made it to the news, but my flight to Denver was canceled and that meant spending three days in Frankfurt and just one at the conference.
Therefore, the list of my impressions of ISMRC can actually only include: the best places to eat junk food in Frankfurt airport; the comfiest places to nap in Frankfurt airport; tips for rehearsing your presentation while you’re waiting in line for seven hours at the Lufthansa counter; what you can buy for lunch with a ten euro Lufthansa voucher; topics of conversation to use with distressed strangers that just learnt they will never see their family oversee again; endless rant against Lufthansa (which totally and deeply deserves it).
To look at the glass half full, I got some excellent team building moments in Frankfurt airport with my six Bochum colleagues who were also traveling to ISMRC, and thanks to the great conference organization we all got to present our research in the half day we attended. So, to be fair, my impressions could also include the wonderful conference dinner, the nostalgic glass of wine at the Boulder’s no name bar (an institution for CU grad students), and the smart conversations I jetlaggedly and briefly had with mentors and friends during these events.
So, instead of my impressions of the conference, I decided of doing something more self-centered (which is what real scholars do, don’t they?) and summarizing what I presented at ISMRC, which are also my work in progress:
Religious Symbols in Europe: How Courts Rule, How Media Report, What Scholars Can Do
I presented this research with an excellent scholar who is in the field of EU law, Mauro Gatti. When I say that he is “excellent” I am very much biased, as he’s my life partner. We started working together on this project after many dinner conversations about our work and the great research people could do if only experts in law teamed up with experts in religion.
We analyzed all the cases of the European Court of Human Rights regarding religious symbols. We discovered (surprise surprise!) that the Court tends to be biased in favor of Christianity: you have many more chances of being allowed to wear a necklace with a Christian cross rather than a Muslim hijab or a Sikh turban.
What was particularly interesting for this conference was discovering that case law is often talked about in newspapers, and media reporting can actually shape public opinion about religious symbols. This leaves room for public scholarship: the judges of the European Court of Human Rights are usually human beings who also read newspapers and listen to public debates. When a case is treated as particularly controversial in media venues, judges might slightly change their judgments in future cases.
Therefore, if you are a scholar and you call out the discriminatory character of certain cases, there are actually chances your words will not fall in a complete void (yeah!)
#NousSommesUnis: European Muslims’ Hypermediated Discourses
After the attacks in Paris in 2015, which made more than 100 victims, some young people belonging to different religions started to tweet the hashtag #NousSommesUnis, which means “we are united”. The hashtag became really popular and some Muslim students used it to explain that they had nothing to do with the attacks and to mourn the victims.
What intrigued me about the hashtag is that it became popular in a number of venues, and it was even written on the Eiffel Tower. I was able to trace the people who invented it and talk with them, learning the strategies they used to make it popular on Twitter, YouTube, newspapers, and physical spaces.
I felt this was a good example to illustrate the theory of hypermediated religious spaces, which you’ll find in my upcoming book (I hope this intrigues you enough for you to ask your library to pre-order it). The theory looks at how certain discourses exist on the Internet as well as in offline spaces, and investigates connections between different actors. In this case, tracing the development of the hashtag was a way to see how certain voices that are relatively marginal can get more visibility because of the Internet.
The idea is that, as scholars, we could also create hypermediated spaces where we give relevance to voices we consider worthy amplifying, such as those of young people trying to promote social cohesion. This website is a little bit of an attempt to start doing it, so if you read till here and you now know about #NousSommesUnis it partially proves my point that the Internet can amplify some voices in new ways. So, thank you!
This is, in a nutshell, what I presented and what I’m working on. I’ll talk more about my work in progress on this website, and please contact me or leave a comment if you have any question or suggestion (or if you were among the lucky people that actually attended ISMRC and want to brag about it).