Presidential Sessions

Barbara D. Metcalf, November 2010

Several of the presidential panels for the 2011 annual meeting were stimulated by the theme, “History, Society, and the Sacred”; others, inspired by the example of the “miniconference” held during the 2010 meeting in San Diego on historical perspectives on same-sex marriage, focus on the public role of historians and offer examples of the value of that role.

As Program Committee co-chairs Michael H. Fisher and Barbara H. Rosenwein wrote in their essay about the meeting theme, 2011’s topic is an apt one for the annual meeting site of Boston, “a location redolent of numerous sacred sites and practices: churches of many denominations, patriotic landmarks, memories of witch trials.” They went on to urge presenters to construe the sacred broadly, to draw widely on interdisciplinary tools, and to consider the topic of sacrality—one that risks essentializing—with the attention to context and change over time that our profession does best.

The presidential panels on this theme have taken these guidelines to heart. “Religion and the Dead Body,” organized by Thomas W. Laqueur, considers the materiality of the dead body and the unfailing way that across continents and across centuries every society finds issues and rituals that shape its treatment, even as these differ so markedly from each other. A session called “Valuing the Environment,” organized by Harriet Ritvo, engages specific constructions of “value” and even “sacrality” in relation to such objects of devotion as “nature” and the nation-state. Sumit Guha is the organizer of a panel on “Ethnic Elites in Multinational Empires,” a subject that explores the role of influential groups whose position at times is made precarious by the fact that the group’s religion differs from that of the imperial rulers.

Three of the presidential panels address issues related to religion and the sacred that are currently matters of lively and important public debate. These specifically reflect my own interest in the history of Muslims and Islam. As such, they address topics seemingly ever more inflamed by fear and stereotypes, a subject I plan to address in my presidential address through a 19th-century episode of ill-founded accusations of “jihad.” Faisal Devji has organized a session on “Historical Narratives and the Future of the Religious State” with presentations on a range of polities and particular attention to issues of violence and its putative sacrality; presentations are on Pakistan and Israel, Gujarat, Sikhs in 20th-century Indian Punjab, and Iran. Juan Cole and Priya Satia have organized a roundtable called “The Public Uses of History and the Global War on Terror,” again, like the preceding panel, underlining in the title the importance of a historical perspective—and the dangers of distorted histories—in relation to formulating policy and understanding a particular form of violence. Finally, again taking up issues of history-making and its implications, David Gilmartin is the organizer of the panel “Beyond Nation: Intellectual Genealogies of Pakistan,” with presentations on the multiple and shifting histories that the troubled “Islamic” nation of Pakistan has told about itself.

Turning to other issues of public life and policy, Thomas Bender has organized a panel on a subject many of us particularly care about: the fate of the public university in American life. The participants in “The Crisis in Public Education ” are historians with leadership experience in university administrations who have thought deeply about the challenges and opportunities facing these institutions today. And a session on climate change, arguably the most important public policy issue in our world today, features a presentation by Dipesh Chakrabarty, “Climate Change and Its Contested Histories,” with comments from three interlocutors who have also worked in this critical area.

And finally—but first on our program—is the session scheduled as part of our opening plenary session on Thursday, January 6, “History and the Public.” This is a session dedicated to our recently retired executive director, Arnita Jones, in honor of her commitment to advocacy for public support of historical archives, teaching, and research, as well as for the importance of history in the public life of the nation. Our new executive director, James Grossman, chairs the session. Jim’s presence is symbolic of his own deep commitment to the role of the AHA in furthering the public work of historians—and of the graceful transition in leadership that the Association has enjoyed. The program features short presentations by a half-dozen of our members who in a wide variety of ways have used their skills to enrich and further public life. Leora Auslander, Juan R. Cole, Anthony Grafton, David Hollinger, Linda Kerber, and Wm. Roger Louis will each be providing some vignette or comment out of their own experiences. Apart from the many dimensions of David Hollinger’s work relevant to the session’s theme, he serves currently as president of the Organization of American Historians and his presence also honors Arnita Jones’s decade of work with the OAH that preceded her joining the AHA.

I am very grateful to all the organizers and participants in these wide-ranging panels. In my excitement at seeing these sessions take shape, I blocked out the fact that Council meetings and other obligations limit how much of these sessions I can personally attend, but I am delighted that they are in place to contribute to what promises to be a rich and full program in Boston.

Barbara D. Metcalf is president of the AHA.

The 2011 Presidential Address

"Islam and Power in Colonial India: The Making
and Unmaking of a Muslim Prince(ss)"

AHA President Barbara D. Metcalf (University of California, Davis) will deliver her presidential address at AHA's General Meeting on Friday, January 7, 2011, 8:30 p.m. in Ballroom C of the Hynes Convention Center. President Metcalf writes:

Overt Islamic behavior is often interpreted by outsiders as inevitably tending to dangerous radicalism. In the mid-1880s, one of the most able and flamboyant colonial officials of the era, Sir Lepel Griffin, did exactly that. Blind to the ways in which Islamic projects were a resource for the power and everyday life of the ruler of princely Bhopal, Shah Jehan Begum, and of her consort, Siddiq Hasan, he set out to marginalize Shah Jehan, remove Siddiq Hasan from the court—and cry “jihad” to do so. Shah Jehan was the author of numerous published works including a reformist guide for women. She sponsored an imaginative and ambitious array of building and urban planning projects. She also kept parda. Siddiq Hasan was the leader of an emerging Islamic sectarian movement with extensive India-wide and international ties. This talk hopes to tell some of the story that Lepel Griffin missed.