IT’S A CHINESE VIRUS!!!!! Or, Yes, Words Have Meaning(s)

Most by now are familiar with Donald Trump’s insistence that COVID-19 be referred to as the ‘Chinese‘ or ‘Wuhan virus.’

In one sense, pointing out gaps in Trump’s logic is, in effect, to gaslight one’s self. After all, he tweeted that COVID-19 was less harmful than the flu as late as March 9th, then swiftly moved to accept its growing impact on March 11th. By March 16th, he had switched from calling it coronavirus to the ‘Chinese virus.’ More recently, Trump declared that the economy must be back on track by Easter, despite warnings from experts that COVID-19 will likely be peaking in much of the US at that time. On March 29th, that date was pushed back from Easter until April 30th. I could go on …

If we view Trump as a strategic actor who is utterly shameless in defending his interests, then his ‘logic’ does indeed make sense. Consistency and accuracy regarding the science of COVID-19 (or any topic, for that matter) are tools to be used or discarded as it suits his advantage. Considered in this light, the term ‘Chinese virus’ can be seen as a rhetorical device that aims to divert attention from the Trump administration’s many failings throughout this affair by reducing culpability for the spread of COVID-19 to one main variable — China. Continue reading “IT’S A CHINESE VIRUS!!!!! Or, Yes, Words Have Meaning(s)”

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.

An image of Matt Sheedy1. 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”

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

An image of 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”