Association of American Geographers + GORABS 2012: New York

I was unable to make this year’s Annual Meeting of the Association of American Geographers in New York on 24-28 February 2012, but that didn’t stop our ‘Highway to Heaven’ team from coming out with a co-authored paper.  Claire Dwyer (University College, London) and I co-wrote a paper entitled ‘Planning for religious worship: the creation of the ‘Assembly District’ in Richmond, Vancouver.’ Claire presented this for the team in a paper session entitled ‘Religion, Society and Space: An Institutional Perspective‘ organized by Karen Morin (Bucknell University) and Lily Kong (National University of Singapore).

Here was our abstract:

In the multicultural suburb of Richmond, Vancouver the clustering of religious buildings along the Number 5 Road highway which marks the eastern boundary of the city has earned the colloquialism ‘Highway to Heaven’. However the agglomeration of more than twenty religious buildings including mosques, churches, religious schools, Buddhist, Hindu and Sikh temples within 3 kilometres is not accidental but the product of an unusual city planning designation which unites ‘Assembly Use’ with a long term plan to safeguard agricultural land and prevent urban sprawl. This paper examines the evolution of this planning policy and its role in the creation of a distinctive transnational suburban religious landscape. It explores how Richmond’s diaspora faith communities negotiate their relationships with the state and other civic institutions, such as Richmond Food Security, focusing particularly on their obligations to maintain the agricultural potential of the land. The paper also examines other intersections with civic institutions particularly, Richmond Tourism, in response to initiatives to market Number 5 Road as a tourist destination. As such the paper contributes to the wider issues raised by this session about the relationships between religion and space in the context of the state and civic institutions.

The overall point of the session was:

The purpose of this session is to consider new directions in the geography of religion by focusing on the scale of the civic institution in understanding relationships and connections between people and their religious beliefs and practices. State and civic organizations such as schools, hospitals, the courts, prisons, businesses, government agencies, NGOs, museums, and the military, among others, are sites through which religious norms and practices are mediated, regulated, represented, facilitated, and contested. This session builds upon a substantial body of scholarly work on religion, identity, and space, going beyond it by offering new insights into the important role that state, civic, and social institutions and organizations play in contemporary religious life, in various regional locations. Papers explore different types of institutional spaces and the various ways in which they facilitate, control and otherwise mediate religious beliefs and practices.

Congratulations also to Murat Es (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) for winning the David E. Sopher New Scholar Award with the Geography of Religions and Belief Systems Specialty Group (GORABS) this year for his paper entitled ‘Western Mosques between Universalism and Particularism.’  Here was his abstract:

Mosques carry special importance for the localization of Islam in the West. Monumental mosque projects initiated by Western Muslims often make the headlines, the ‘Ground Zero Mosque’ project in New York and the DITIB’s Central Mosque in Cologne being two recent examples. Reactions of anxiety over the transformative effects of architecturally distinct mosque structures and their congregations on the cityscapes in Western countries link the image of mosques to radicalization and fundamentalism. This paper aims to go beyond the image of mosques as sites of absolute alterity and unbridgeable Otherness within-yet outside-the West to underscore the everyday uses and contested roles of mosques in the politics of belonging in the West. Based on multi-sited ethnographic research in the Netherlands and Turkey, I look at the transnational practices of Turkish-Dutch communities and the struggles over national belonging and citizenship in the Netherlands. I discuss the everyday production and multiple and intersected articulations of Muslimness, Europeanness, Dutchness and Turkishness through public rituals, education, entertainment and socialization at mosques. In so doing, I show the interrelations between the Turkish and Dutch religious fields and shed light on the universalist and particularist articulations of Islam to cosmopolitan and ethno-national belonging(s).

Finally, our GORABS Annual Lecture this year was delivered by Ceri Peach (Oxford), who spoke on ‘Islam and the Art of Mosque construction in Western Europe‘:

Since the 1950s, there has been a dramatic growth in the Muslim population of the countries of Western Europe from almost negligible to about 13 millions in the early 2000s. Immigration came first in the north—Britain, France, Germany, Benelux—and then progressively into the south to countries which had previously supplied immigrants to the north. With the demographic change has come the growth of Islamic places of worship and important impacts on the European cultural landscape an impact which has not always been well received. In an early paper Peach and Gale (Geographical Review 2003, 93:4) tracked the growth of mosques in Britain, analyzing the difficulties that they faced in gaining planning permission to construct building with differed from the local vernaculars. We traced a three stage evolution of British attitudes over time: (1) Denial; you can’t have it if it looks like a mosque (2), Hiding: you can have it as long as it is somewhere where people can’t see it. (3) Celebration: you can have it and it can have dome and minarets, and it can be in a prominent position. The present paper seeks to establish whether the three stages relate not only to change over time in Britain but to the stance of different countries with regard to mosques as one moves south through Western Europe. Are the Spanish in denial?

For more information about sessions sponsored by GORABS, see the newsletter that I put together as secretary for the group.

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