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Allard: Compelled by the confluence of law and religion
By Silas W. Alard | Emory Law | May 24, 2016 11:05:00 AM

I graduated from the University of Missouri with a bachelor’s degree in religion, a commitment to human rights advocacy, and a burgeoning interest in legal education. A year later, when I made the decision to attend graduate school, I knew that I was looking for dual degree programs in law and religion. On the advice of my college mentor, I investigated the Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory, and it quickly became the standard bearer as I looked at other schools.

My orienting concern was continuing and improving the human rights advocacy that I had begun as an undergraduate working with groups such as Amnesty International and Students for a Free Tibet. My studies in religion had already led me to the belief that religion was a critical component in my advocacy—it was also my first academic love, so I had a personal investment in continuing my studies in this field. But, as I looked out at the landscape of human rights, a landscape marked in many ways by a legal topography, it made sense to pursue legal studies as well.

In the end, when it came time to make a decision, my path was clear. For someone, like me, with a strong commitment to developing an interdisciplinary perspective, the Center for the Study of Law and Religion offered a unique opportunity. The strengths of the Center are many: the caliber of faculty; its record of publication; the conferences, public lectures, and visiting faculty it hosts; and its location within the larger institutions of Emory Law School, Candler School of Theology, and Emory University—but one aspect stood out above all others, the community of scholarship. What excited me most as a prospective student was the opportunity to engage with faculty and peers who were also compelled by and immersed in the confluence of law and religion.

Pulled in Opposite Directions

Now, with the past four years to reflect upon, I can only say that my expectations were insufficient to the experience ahead. Maintaining an interdisciplinary perspective is not always easy. It is often confusing and frustrating as you feel pulled in opposite directions, want to ask questions that seem out of place, or struggle to bring divergent perspectives into conversation. What makes the difference is having a community of scholarly support. The faculty of the Center for the Study of Law and Religion, and at Emory broadly, have interdisciplinary interests and the experience to support students’ wanderings. They also take a profound interest in students’ projects, and support those questions that may, at first, seem out of place. But, most important, are the faculty and students who make up a community where you wrestle with the difficulties of interdisciplinarity together. The dialogue with my colleagues and the sense of solidarity we share has been an invaluable asset for my graduate education.

The support of this community and the opportunity to develop ideas through conversation with my colleagues allowed me to build on my experience working with refugee youth in St. Louis to focus my thinking, research, and advocacy in the area of migration and human rights. The culmination of that work is my master’s thesis,Beyond Exceptions and Humanitarianism: Agency, Obligations, and Ethics in the Law of Asylum.

A New Approach for Immigrants

In my thesis, I argue that international law and the United States’ domestic law of asylum construct a refugee subject who is exceptional and perceived to be powerless by virtue of her dislocation. Viewing refugees as powerless, non-entities, asylum law assumes a humanitarian guise that denies the asylum seeker any right to protection, but instead bestows protection at the discretion of host states. The possibility for protection turns on recognition. I argue that this approach represents a moral failing both in terms of the outcome—persons in need of protection do not receive it—and in terms of the obligations that should ensue from our encounter with another person.

In light of these critiques, I argue for rethinking our conception of what it means to seek asylum by looking to religious narratives. Thinking about the Biblical story of the Exodus and the Qur’anic story of the hijra, I argue that there is a moral good in fleeing persecution, and refugees should be recognized as moral agents who have made a difficult and tragic choice to leave their homes and seek protection from persecution elsewhere. That moral act demands reciprocity; it does not permit largesse.

New Perspective, New Possibilities

It is my hope that this project represents the beginning of a career and a vocation in human rights and migration. To this field, I bring the interdisciplinary perspective that I developed during my time as a student with the Center for the Study of Law and Religion and the ability to hold in tension and creative dialogue ethical critiques, legal arguments, theological perspectives, and religious practices. The next two years will find me in New York City honing the skills of legal writing and analysis I developed at Emory as a clerk at the Court of International Trade. Thereafter, I look forward to continuing my work in human rights and migration first in the non-governmental/inter-governmental sector, as I think about how to frame my questions, and then taking the skills and knowledge I acquired at Emory back into the academy as a doctoral student.

Silas W. Allard is an alumnus of the Center for the Study of Law and Religion. He graduated May 9 from Emory University with a joint degree in law and religion and received the university's highest student honor, the Marion Luther Brittain Award for service.