Islam/Art/America, a year-long planning initiative sponsored by the Program in the Comparative Study of Social Transformations, will involve scholars at the U-M and beyond in an innovative, far-reaching study of the aesthetic practices and cultural politics that define the interface of Muslim and American worlds.

    The initiative brings together scholars working in art history, literature, anthropology, architecture, music, religion, history, and museum, performance, and media studies. Of necessity comparative and transnational in scope, this initiative will compel its participants to work across lines of regional specialization to engage creatively with profound transformations in the way expressive culture, national belonging, and the contours of faith are conceived.

    Headed by Sally Howell (American culture), Sussan Babaie (history of art), Andrew Shryock (anthropology), and Mamadou Diouf (history), the Islam/Art/America initiative currently includes twenty U-M faculty who want to engage creatively with a broad range of art forms and expressive practices through research, teaching, conferences, lectures, residencies, a large-scale exhibition, and experiments with alternative forms of cultural display. These programs will be intellectually challenging for its organizers and audiences alike. They will compel us to acknowledge and explore the great diversity that exists within Islam, both within the U.S. and around the globe.

    Islam/Art/America will encourage its participants to reconsider the relationship between Islam and artistic expression in new settings, and it will require that we make explicit sense of attempts to politicize and aestheticize Islam in certain ways, and not others. Is any art form practiced by a Muslim "Islamic"? Is Islamic art only art that seeks to glorify god? How will our researchers, curators, and audiences treat devotional practices that are highly aestheticized, that look like "music" or "theatre" to outsiders, but are not always described as such by Muslims? How does being-in-America shape the aesthetic practices we examine, and what kinds of borrowings, appropriations, and creative synergies does this location make impossible? Our attempts to answer these questions will produce novel understandings of the larger sociopolitical structures that sustain diasporas and empires alike.

    The Americanization of Islam and its aesthetic practices is perhaps the most critically interesting component of this project. Islam is a minority faith in the U.S., and in this respect it differs significantly from Islam as practiced in much of the world. How do Muslim Americans meet the challenge of minoritization, which has its own peculiar brands of aesthetic politics? What are the perceived advantages and disadvantages of this status, and how are they expressed or muted in the creative arts? How and why are "traditional" aesthetic practices used to assert identity, to link Muslims in America to other times and places? How is “tradition” used to downplay or alter such connections? How do immigrant artists respond to new audiences and new contexts of artistic production? How are relationships formed among artists across cultural, doctrinal, and linguistic barriers? Do these settings expand possibilities for artists, or do artists find themselves trapped in ethnoreligious categories that no longer feel comfortable? How are the personal and political dimensions of art affected by official pronouncements of acceptance and inclusion, coupled with official acts of discrimination? How are Muslims responding to and changing the politics of representation in America, and why do activism and the arts so often become vehicles for each other? These are important questions, and they touch on all the scholarly and political issues that have animated CSST from its inception.

    The art forms available for presentation and study in this project are many. They range from the traditional and conservative to the contemporary and confrontational. Calligraphy, poetry, prose, painting, music, theater, dance, graffiti, film, architecture, the decorative arts, and an emphasis on the Qur‘an as recited or otherwise shared will all be given space here. Islam/Art/America will consider diverse locations of cultural production, ranging from trendy galleries in New York and Los Angeles to the protest art of political demonstrators in San Francisco and Washington; from the prison cells of state correctional facilities to the well-appointed prayer halls of newly-built mosques across the country; from the local band of Punjabi devotional singers who play only for other South Asian immigrants, to the international qawwali masters who entertain mainstream American audiences, but do not front the Muslim character of their art. The project will also consider how Muslim artists abroad engage with American cultural influences and U.S. foreign policy in their work. Our scholars will explore this wide spectrum of cultural production and consumption, showing how it reinforces and challenges the religious, aesthetic, and political assumptions that constitute much of our shared national culture and, in equally important ways, the global cultures of Islam.

    If conceptualized broadly and carefully, this initiative will illuminate major sociopolitical and intellectual transformations in the way faith, identity, citizenship, and political community are globally and locally construed. The post-9/11 engagement with Islam and Muslims—in Europe, the Americas, and in much of the Muslim world—has made heavy use of representational tropes routinely deployed to express ethnic and national modes of belonging, modes attuned to well-established notions of society, state, and public culture that are not formatted to accommodate (and, in their historical development, were often meant to exclude) what are now called “religious” identities and structures of authority. Notions of art and culture are central to these transformations, figuring prominently in attempts to speed them along and thwart or modify them. Islam/Art/America will look closely at these tense negotiations, their histories, possible trajectories, and global variations. Its goal is not to collapse Islam, art, and America into a single analytical space but to build outward from all three terms in ways that destabilize and clarify some of the most deeply entrenched ideas of our day.

    During the 2003-2004 academic year, participants in Islam/Art/America will develop the project more extensively, opening our discussions to a wider range of scholars, artists, and institutional partners, incorporating their ideas, and seeking funding from public and private sources to support the project‘s agenda. In addition to the intellectual and programming goals that CSST has established as a campus model, the Islam/Art/America initiative seeks to support new research and scholarship, design and produce a large-scale exhibition, and develop collaborative relationships with Muslim artists and communities in the presentation of the plastic and performing arts. Islam/Art/America will new outreach opportunities to several UM programs. It will also place us at the fore of universities nationwide as they seek to integrate area studies with transnational and American studies to produce innovative scholarship and public programs that address the complex circulations of peoples, cultures, and power that define our world today. The International Institute and CSST are already leaders in such scholarship. Islam/Art/America continues this tradition by providing an ideal means to shape, and not merely respond to, the popular discourses on Islam now emerging in America.

    For more information, contact Bethany Osborne <csst@umich.edu> or Sally Howell <sfhowell@umich.edu>.

    Errata: The print version of this issue was incorrectly designated as Vol. 10, No. 4.


    Andrew Shryock is associate professor of anthropology and Sally Howell is a Ph.D. student in the Program in American Culture at the University of Michigan.