Preparing the future for peace

By

Sarah Lords

“We cannot always build the future for our youth, but we can build our youth for the future.”

 These words, famously spoken by Franklin D. Roosevelt, capture the spirit that drives a longstanding initiative of the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict: the Undergraduate Research Fellows Program.

 In a world of increasing complexity, where problems in one part of the world can quickly cascade into another part, the Fellows Program enables students to learn about the dynamics of religion and conflict as they play out in key issues of our time.

“A central goal of this program is to prepare students for the complex world they are entering,” says John Carlson, the center’s interim director and leader of a special weekly seminar meetings that the fellows participate in.

According to Carlson, most of the students who are fellows are not religious studies majors. Some haven’t thought much about religion in their studies, either because their majors are more technical, or because they may have viewed learning about religion as an elective—something you only took because of a personal interest or preference.

“The seminar challenges those presumptions by showing how thoroughly religion is interwoven into public life and political conflict—in the United States and in many regions around the world,” says Carlson.

In the seminar,  the undergraduate fellows learn how scholars from a broad range of disciplines—political science, literature, history, and gender studies, to name a few—approach issues involving religion.

“By examining a broad range of issues—the legacies of the wars of religion in Europe, the history of religion and violence in America, Gandhi and King’s pursuits of nonviolence, recent debates about Muslim headscarves, and civilian casualties in wars in Syria and Yemen—students develop critical, multi-dimensional perspectives that expand the horizons of their own interests, degree programs, and even their future professions,” says Carlson.

Fellows also meet in person with scholars, journalists, and others whose work they are reading in class. For example, this semester, fellows will meet with Columbia University political philosopher Mark Lilla and award-winning journalist Anand Gopal, among others.

Being selected for the Fellows Program means joining a diverse cohort of classmates from a variety of degree programs. For Alex Wakefield, a 2018-2019 fellow and economics major, this is an important appeal of the program—one “too good to pass up.”

“I am excited to be interacting with the other fellows who seem to have the same questions and curiosities as I do,” says Wakefield. “In such a divisive time and at such a formative age, this program seems like the perfect way to navigate my own understandings of religion and attempt to make the world a better place. I am looking forward to finding some answers to difficult questions.”

Pursuing answers to such questions is something that fellows get hands-on experience with, as they each have the unique opportunity to work together with ASU faculty on exciting research projects. The interdisciplinary atmosphere, combined with the opportunity to assist faculty with their research while also learning from them, gives fellows meaningful experiences that can influence their own research and career trajectories.

“I am glad to be part of the fellow’s program because I think it is important to expose students like me to professional-level research, and to teach about topics that we may not be exposed to in our other classes,” says Emily Delvecchio, a political science major and current fellow.

“I wanted to join a team of professionals making a difference in the way religion is perceived in relation to conflict, and now I get to do that by working alongside an experienced faculty member.”

Matched with faculty from the Center’s extensive network of affiliates, this year’s fellows are involved with the following projects:

  • Hal Danesh, a double major in history and Jewish studies, is working with Souad Ali, associate professor of Arabic literature and Middle Eastern/Islamic studies, on her project “Approaches to Feminism in Islam.”
  • Political science major Emily Delvecchio is supporting Owen Anderson, associate professor with the School of Humanities, Arts and Cultural Studies, in editing the “Cambridge Companion to the First Amendment.” The book features a compilation of leading experts who explore the legal and philosophical dimensions of the First Amendment.
  • Morgan Kaus, a religious studies major, is working with Terry Shoemaker, a lecturer with the School of Historical, Philosophical, and Religious Studies, on a project that explores how evangelicalism is changing in the southern United States.
  • Economics student Jack Longo is assisting political science professor Okechukwu Iheduru on the project “Claiming Region for God: Pentecostal-Charismatic Christianity and Regional Social Citizenship in West Africa.”
  • Volker Benkert, assistant professor of history, is working with psychology major Lizbeth Meneses on a project titled “Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust: A Psychohistorical Analysis of German Responsibility.”
  • Double majoring in biological sciences and political science, Sumaita Mulk is providing support to Carlson’s current book project, “Justice This Side of Heaven: Human Nature, Religion, and the Moral Order of Politics.”
  • Daiva Scovil, a double major in political science and economics, is working with associate professor of political science David Siroky on a project titled “After Secession: Matrioshka Nationalism in New States.” Siroky’s research explores the rise and fall of regional and global powers in six-dozen states, asking why some secessions succeed while others fail to create new social order.
  • Global studies student Josie Sherwood works with assistant professor of political science Lenka Bustikova on “Refugees in Europe,” a project that explores the relative importance of religious versus ethnic identities as they shape popular opposition to refugees in Europe.
  • Rachel Sondgeroth, a double major in religious studies and global studies, has been paired with assistant professor Uttaran Dutta from the Hugh Downs School of Human Communication to support his project that examines how non-mainstream religions resolve conflicts and contribute to socio-cultural equity in South Asia.
  • Double majoring in political science and religious studies, Madeline Stull is assisting history professor Chouki El Hamel with his project “Citizenship, Freedom, and Gender in Morocco.”
  • And finally, economics major Alex Wakefield is working with Yasmin Saikia, the Hardt-Nickachos Chair in Peace Studies, on her project “Hating Refugees: Immigration Policies, Public Fear, and the Crisis of Social Justice.”

“We are thrilled to have such a stellar cohort of students working alongside CSRC faculty affiliates on cutting edge issues of our day,” says Carlson. 

“The diversity of our faculty’s projects and their disciplines reminds us just how multi-faceted the study of religion and conflict is—and must be—if we are to expand our understanding of the different ways religion shapes our world. A program such as this instills incalculable skills and insights that will impact students for a lifetime.”

Fellows are selected through a competitive application process. In addition to working directly with a faculty member on research and participating in a special seminar led by the Center’s director, the fellows also earn three credit hours and are awarded a $1,000 scholarship. The program is made possible by the generous support of Friends of the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict.

The Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict is an interdisciplinary research unit of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences that examines the role of religion as a driving force in human affairs.