Interview by Philip L. Tite
PHILIP L. TITE: As one of the major journals in the discipline, especially as the official journal of the American Academy of Religion, what is the relationship of the journal to the AAR (and to other professional societies)? Perhaps you could also comment on how the relocation of the AAR publishing program to Oxford University Press has impacted the journal in this regard.
AMIR HUSSAIN: The JAAR is the official journal of the AAR. That means everyone who is an AAR member gets a copy of JAAR. However, not everyone who gets the journal reads it. I want to see JAAR read more widely, both by members of the AAR, and by the larger academy as a whole. I don’t want it to be anything other than what it is, the top scholarly journal for the study of religion, because that’s what it is, the top scholarly journal for the study of religion. I want it read as widely as possible. And I’m delighted that we partner with OUP, and have access to all of their publishing resources and experience. OUP does the hard work of publishing, both in the print version and online. We send them the clean copy as word documents, and they typeset them into PDF files and take over from there. The support that I have gotten from OUP has been phenomenal.
PT: It sounds like you have a good working relationship with OUP. I know some publishers have been very intrusive with scholarly journals, while others are very hands off (except in areas of production and marketing, leaving the content to the scholars). Would you say that OUP has given the editorial board freedom to develop the direction of the journal?
AH: OUP has given us complete freedom. They concern themselves only with the quantity, meaning we have a page budget of 1,200 pages per volume, ideally at 300 pages per issue. So their only concern is that we are at the right number of pages. And even there they are flexible, so one issue may be 350 pages, while another is 250 pages. But other than that, they have let us do what we want with the content, and that’s as it should be. Both AAR and OUP have confidence in our associate editors and our editorial board, and allow us to control the content. That’s the way it should be for a scholarly journal.
PT: Since your editorship began, the journal has been publishing poetry as a front piece in issues. What are you hoping to accomplish with this addition? How have people responded to this innovation?
AH: I have no desire to turn the JAAR into a literary or a poetry journal. That said, there is an old saying that scholars deal in facts, while artists deal in truths. I want people to pick up the journal and read it, not leave it neatly wrapped in the plastic it was mailed in. Perhaps a poem might get them to do that, to pick it up, open it, and read. To date, I have gotten one negative complaint about this, and the rest of the comments have all been positive. The people who are positive see what I am trying to do, which is to open the conversation about religion. And I’m doing more of that this year, expanding to visual art. Part of that is to get us away from looking only at the printed word. There is so much more to religion than writing, including art, architecture, music, etc. You’ll see my editor’s note in the March 2012 issue that talks more explicitly about this. Part of that is to make full use of our online capabilities, where we can have full-color high resolution photographs available.
PT: Does the inclusion of such literary or artistic elements to JAAR try to evoke some sort of aesthetic definition of “religion” or perhaps a phenomenological preference for the insiders’ self-understanding? I know for me, this has been one of my concerns.
AH: I do think it is about aesthetics, but not in any way of privileging insiders versus outsiders. We have been very careful to pick, first of all, top people for this. So for example, Wole Soyinka has a Nobel Prize in Literature. I could have written something as an introduction to the September 2011 issue, which coincidentally came out on the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. But I think that Professor Soyinka, who has been both celebrated and put in prison by his country’s government, has some very powerful things to say about religion and intolerance. His poem, “Twelve Canticles for the Zealot…,” was originally written for a collection of poems dedicated to Naguib Mahfouz, the Egyptian Nobel Laureate who was stabbed by a religious fanatic long before 9/11. Or take Amalia Mesa-Bains, for example, whose art we had in our March 2012 issue. She was a featured artist at the AAR meeting in 2011, she has a MacArthur “genius” grant, and her work is in the permanent collection of the Smithsonian. As perhaps the most important artist in the Southwest who makes altars, she has some interesting things to say about religion, and I want to be able to include her voice in the JAAR.
(To be continued in Part Three)