On the Spot with Matt Sheedy

“On the Spot” backs members of Culture on the Edge into a corner to talk about their backgrounds, their ongoing work, and what might be gained by an alternative understanding of how identity works.

1. When people ask what you study, what do you tell them?

My current elevator pitch is that I study religion, culture, and politics in the Euro-West, with an emphasis on North America. When I expand on this description, I typically say that my work centers on questions of religion in the public sphere. On the meta-level this means paying attention to how dominant ideologies, such as multiculturalism, liberalism, and secularism, construct how ‘religion’ is mediated or understood and thus how it functions to regulate group identities in particular ways. As for methodology, I tend to rely on ideology critique, along with discourse and narrative analysis (including theories of affect and rhetoric)  to examine the various ways that religion and culture are represented — in news media, film, and popular culture. While my data is, in theory, open to any groups that make these sort of claims, I tend to focus on insiders and outsiders representations of Islam, (North American) Indigenous traditions, atheism, and Christianity.

2. How do questions of identity manifest in your research?

Questions of identity are often central to kind of work that I do. For example, I’ll look at popular examples of how religion (or secularism) is narrated (e.g., by pundits, politicians, or in pop culture) as instances of identity formation. Here the focus is on how actors attempt to draw lines around what, e.g., ‘Islam’ or ‘Christianity’ is, while at the same time failing to reflect upon the ways in which these normative statement function to shore-up their own identities (e.g., as superior, better, more rational, ethical, etc.). In short, this line of inquiry forces us to ask where (and why) people are ‘hiding the ball’? Continue reading “On the Spot with Matt Sheedy”

Prayer as a Public Performance of Identity

Is prayer always a form of supplication, intercession, or thanksgiving? Or can it serve other functions?

Screenshot from YouTube

From the Pennsylvania Capital Star:

“A first-year member of the Pennsylvania House on Monday offered a prayer laden with political and Christian imagery shortly before the swearing in of the chamber’s first Muslim woman. Rep. Stephanie Borowicz, R-Clinton, said “Jesus” 13 times, “God” six times, and “Lord” four times, as Raging Chicken Press writer Sean Kitchen first noted on Twitter. She also expressed thanks to God that President Donald Trump “stands besides Israel” in a rambling, nearly two minute prayer. “Jesus, you are our only hope,” Borowicz said during the prayer. Borowicz delivered the prayer shortly before Movita Johnson-Harrell — the first Muslim woman elected to the General Assembly — was sworn in.”

See the full video here.

Identity, Politics, and the Study of Islam: An Interview with Matt Sheedy

This interview is part of a series of interviews on new books from the Culture on the Edge book series with Equinox publishing. 

This edited volume began in response to a debate between two scholars who study Islam, Omid Safi and Aaron Hughes. Can you introduce the main issues of that debate?

The idea for this book came out of a “debate” between Omid Safi and Aaron Hughes back in early 2014. The initial salvo came when Safi published an essay on Jadaliyya, “Reflections on the State of Islamic Studies,” where he characterized Hughes’s work as “grossly polemical and simplistic,” though without providing any specific evidence for this claim. Hughes replied on the Bulletin for the Study of Religion blog (where I was then editor), challenging Safi to “do what the Western tradition of scholarly discourse demands and respond to my ideas in print as opposed to engaging in innuendo and identity politics.” After some preliminary discussion on Facebook, where we considered the possibility of a more substantive exchange on the Bulletin blog, Safi decided not to engage further on this forum.

In the interest of expanding the conversation I asked a number of scholars of religion to comment on some of the issues raised in these two blog posts, with an emphasis on the following tension: whereas Safi’s reflections on Islamic Studies stress the role of feminist, post-colonial, and anthropological approaches, and laud scholars who work between the academy and the community for political ends (e.g., see Safi’s edited book Progressive Muslims), Hughes argues that the emphasis on identity politics in much of Islamic Studies contributes to the persistence of apologetics and inhibits the kind of critical scholarship that religious studies ought be striving for. Subsequent to this, more responses were published in a special issue of the Bulletin’s journal, which became the starting point for this book. In this volume a few of the same contributors expand their original pieces, along with five new essays, including an afterword from Russell McCutcheon. Continue reading “Identity, Politics, and the Study of Islam: An Interview with Matt Sheedy”

Forcing Tradition

Recently on Netflix I watched an interesting episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (“Producer’s Backend,” season 16 episode 3, which originally aired 8 October 2014). The narrative in the episode focused on a movie producer named Brubeck who used his power over young actresses — i.e., girls under the age of consent — to force them into sexual quid pro quos. Throughout the episode, the SVU detectives uncovered a number of victims, but in each case their hands were tied insofar as the assaults took place so far in the past that the incidents were past the statute of limitations.

As they investigated victims coerced more recently, they found that the movie producer had learned to cleverly skirt age of consent laws:

Detective #1: In the last nine years, all of Brubeck’s movies have been shot in Pennsylvania, Washington, or Montana.
Detective #2: All states with an age of consent of sixteen, and a mistake of age defense.
Prosecutor: Meaning, the guy can have sex with a fourteen-year-old and claim that he thought she was sixteen.

Despite this, the captain insists on moving forward with the investigation: “We’re not giving up. … There has got to be a way to stop him.” Continue reading “Forcing Tradition”

Hegemonies Have No Irony

For the full quotation, from a recent interview with Mikael Sala, an advisor to the French far right politician Marine Le Pen,
see the article posted by NPR.

Photo of two Roman Catholic nuns, heads covered,
on a public street in Paris, January 19, 2011

Language Games: On Neutrality and the Hijab

By Andie Alexander

I came across this article on the The Independent on the ruling of  European Court of Justice which allows for businesses to ban employees from wearing hijab in the workplace.  Here’s the video of Koen Lenaerts, President of the ECJ, discussing the ruling:

Continue reading “Language Games: On Neutrality and the Hijab”

Cultural Boundaries and Murder

Fazl_MosqueNotions like tolerance and multiculturalism, suggesting that a society should celebrate the variety of cultures present, has many positive elements for encouraging diversity and underrepresented communities. To function, though, multiculturalism relies on the delineation of boundaries for various cultural communities and, as implemented in places like Great Britain in the 1990’s, specific organizations represent clearly labeled communities and become the conduits for government grants and the means for communication with the government. The potential pitfalls of this approach have come to the fore in the response to the recent murder of Asad Shah, whom news reports identify as an Ahmadi shopkeeper in Glasgow.

The tragedy itself is not attributable to these concepts of tolerance or multiculturalism. The person charged with killing Shah has issued a statement in which he accused Shah of claiming to be a prophet and thus disrespecting Muhammad. Apparently, Shah’s identification as an Ahmadi, who generally identify as Muslim while professing to follow Mirza Ghulam Ahmad as a more recent messenger from God, was an impetus for the murder, if the accused killer’s statement is to be believed. Continue reading “Cultural Boundaries and Murder”

Fighting Exclusion with Exclusion

Algodones_sand-dune-fenceDonald Trump’s position statement last week excluding Muslims from entering the United States generated a round of bipartisan condemnation, as the White House spokesperson asserted that the statement disqualified Trump from the Presidency and Dick Cheney, among others, argued that the position “goes against everything we stand for and believe in.” While I certainly agree that Trump’s discriminatory approach should be rejected, the effort to exclude the excluder invites reflection on acts of identification. Continue reading “Fighting Exclusion with Exclusion”

#YouAintNoMuslimBruv

Picture 10Are you following the reactions online to the knife attack on the London Tube (now classed by authorities there as a terrorist attack)? Specially this part:

Picture 9

As Baldwin phrases it in a series of tweets, the reaction demonstrates “the power of operational acts of identification,” inasmuch as “it defines Islam, defines London, defines Britons… draws a multi-dimensional line.”

Indeed — after all, interpellation presupposes exterpellation, doesn’t it? For to be hailed in some fashions amounts to being cast out. As is happening here.

Take Baldwin’s advice and follow the hashtag to see the debate as it unfolds.

Is Your Group Oppressed?

TenCommandmentsAustinStateCapitol“A war against Christianity,” a friend on Facebook asserted, as he pointed to examples in the United States and around the world. The shooting at Umpqua Community College recently and the various occasions when ISIS has executed people identified as Christians provided prime examples. Others making similar claims point to shifts in US policy, including the removal of the Ten Commandments from schools and courthouses, restrictions on official prayer at public schools, and movements to remove “God” from the Pledge and US money. Continue reading “Is Your Group Oppressed?”