Religious Symbols, Secularism, and Culture Wars [transcript]

Religious Symbols, Secularism, and Culture Wars

Podcast with Matt Sheedy (15 November 2021).

Interviewed by Andie Alexander

Transcribed by Andie Alexander

Audio and transcript available at:


Secularism, Gender, Atheism, Critical Theory, Discourse, Culture Wars

Andie Alexander (AA)  1:40

Hello, and welcome back listeners. I am Andie Alexander and joining me here today is Dr. Matt Sheedy, who is a visiting professor in the Department of North American Studies at the University of Bonn, Germany. His research interests include critical social theory, theories of secularism and atheism, as well as representations of Christianity, Islam, and Native American traditions and popular and political culture. Now, I know that this is not your first time joining us here at the RSP, but it has been a little while since your last appearance. So, we are very glad to have you back. And today, we’re here to talk about your recent book that was published earlier this year with Routledge, Owning the Secular: Religious Symbols, Culture Wars, Western Fragility. First, congratulations on the new book. And thanks for joining me here today.

Matt Sheedy (MS)  02:34

Thanks for having me. Great to be here.

AA  02:36

To kick things off, I would really love if you could first start by talking to us about the title of your book Owning the Secular and how it is you understand that phrasing and the work that you see doing for this particular project?

MS  02:55

Yeah, thanks for that question. When I came up with the title, Owning the Secular: Culture Wars, Religious Symbols, Western Fragility, I was doing at least two things with that title. So, the first was signalling that both religion and the secular are contested concepts. They’re concepts that have an ancient lineage—we could go back to Cicero in ancient Rome, we could look at medieval definitions, we could look at post-enlightenment definitions, definitions that align with the nation state, as we know it, particularly in the Euro-western part of the world, and think about the ways in which the secular is always constructed in relation to the concept of religion and vice versa. And there’s a lot of debates in the study of religion when it comes to deconstructing these concepts—so picking them apart, thinking about them in context, how they relate to legal definitions, how politicians use them in their rhetoric, for example.

MS  03:58

But on the other hand, there’s also a critique of that deconstructive approach that sometimes [it] goes too far and doesn’t necessarily think about how these terms function in the real world. And so, a lot of scholars will say, “Well, I’m using a stipulative definition, and here’s how I’m laying out religion, or here’s how I’m laying out the secular for the purposes of this particular step.” And some scholars do that to a useful effect, others, maybe not so much. And so, when I talk about “owning the secular” in that first sense, what I’m trying to signal is that there’s always this tension or gap between scholars who are able to own their terms and how they use it in particular ways, versus those who don’t necessarily think critically about that.

MS  04:46

The second idea of owning the secular and this really ties in with the part of the subtitle I have with culture wars and western fragility. I drew on that term in particular from a lot of the lingo or rhetoric that we find online, where if you go on YouTube, for example, and you look at popular debates, they’ll often be framed around this idea that someone is ‘owning’ someone else, someone is destroying someone else. And here, the idea is a very strategic idea where the goal is not to understand what people are saying, where they’re coming from—or if we’re talking about scholarship, the goal is not to unpack the terms, the methods, the theories that we’re dealing with—it’s just to be able to use the rhetoric in a way that serves someone’s interests.

MS  05:37

And so those are the two senses of the term ‘owning’ that I tried to signal in my book. And I guess the last thing I’ll say about that, for the time being is that I was really interested in thinking about the secular on three basic levels. So, the first is the idea of how the secular gets used by nation states: the concept of secularism is something that has relationship to state power. It also has a relationship to certain principles, principles that people might hold, whether they identify as religious or not religious—they often enumerate secular values in particular ways. And the last sense of secular has to do with secular… to be secular as a form of identity. And in my third chapter, where I look at ex-Muslim identities, I very much dig into this idea as to what the relationship is between self-described ex-Muslims, and how that relates to their identity as secularists or defining themselves as secular.

AA  06:43

Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. Now, I know that you talk a bit about culture wars in this part of the book as well. Could you tell us a little bit more about your work on that?

MS  06:53

Yeah, sure. The second part of my first chapter, which deals with different concepts of secularism, the second part talks about culture wars, and the role of culture wars in contemporary societies, particularly in online spaces. And so, to touch on a few influential flash points, I mentioned how, for example, in the late 1980s, there were a series of discussions about what is the ‘Western canon’, or what is the canon that we ought to be thinking about and learning more broadly. And it was during this time that a lot of disciplines—Women and Gender Studies, Cultural Studies, Queer Studies, and so forth—started to challenge this idea of a Western canon.

MS  07:39

And as some of you readers might be familiar, a fairly controversial and widely read book from, I believe, 1987 was Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind. And he was very centrally preoccupied with this idea that the Western canon is important, it needs to be preserved, and that these trends to destabilise the Western canon were a threat to our values, even our civilisation, if you want to take it that far. And so, I find that historical or literary touch point really, really interesting for thinking about how the issues that we tend to think about and associate today with culture wars really have quite a long history.

MS  08:23

And in fact, we can go back much, much further as, for example, Stephen Prothero does in his book dealing with the culture wars, he goes back to Thomas Jefferson, prohibition, and debates over Mormonism in the 19th century. So, you could certainly go back in time, but I was more interested in this sort of transition point in the late 1980s, early 1990s, where, for example, talk really began surrounding this idea that there was a “clash of civilisations”. That term was coined by Bernard Lewis in his essay for The Atlantic called “The Roots of Muslim Rage” in 1990. And then it was popularised by Samuel Huntington in a 1993 essay called the “Clash of Civilisations?”—with a question mark; in 1996, he turned that into a book. It became a very, very influential way of thinking about contemporary conflicts, this idea that there are different and competing civilisations that are incompatible.

MS  09:18

And it was after, or I should say, in the lead up to the war in Iraq, in particular, in 2001 that we really saw this concept enter into public discourse. And it became reproduced over and over again, particularly in relation to Islam, and that Islam did not embody the same kind of ‘Western liberal secular’ values that we ought to be exporting around the world, or so the idea went. And so, I kind of set the table with those two pieces, both in academia and in sort of popular political culture when it comes to this idea of what is the West? What is the canon? And what is Western civilisation? And you can probably anticipate part of my subtitle, the idea of ‘Western fragility’ is trying to nod, in certain ways, to this very narrow discourse that is often very protectionist and doesn’t necessarily allow a lot of voices to be heard, despite its claims to do precisely that. And that is, of course, one of the claims of secularism, this idea that it is neutral, that it is open and inclusive, and so forth.

MS  10:31

And so, I also talk about in that section—and I focus on a number of theorists, one of which is Angela Nagle in her 2017 book, Kill All Normies. And one of the things that she talks about is how recent online controversies—and here she’s talking about the sort of the context of Donald Trump coming to power. She says that a lot of recent online controversies and forms of rhetoric date back to the 1960s, in particular, in these cultures of transgression, where transgressing social norms was elevated to a very, very high ideal. But whereas in the 1960s, according to Nagle and many others as well, the modes of transgressing the dominant culture, were often done in such a way to push back against racism or sexism or homophobia. So, our Eurocentric points of view and so forth.

MS  11:29

The politics of transgression that has really emerged in the Trump era for Nagle, as cultivated on sites like 4chan, 8chan, Reddit, and so forth, is one that is sort of promoting transgression for transgression’s sake. And a lot of it is tied to this feeling that the dominant culture has become too politically correct, that free speech is being censored, and that transgressing against that social order is an end in and of itself. And so, part of what Nagle grapples with and part of what I’m grappling with is how relatively new online cultures, that in the Trump Era seem to migrate into the mainstream in any number of ways, are very much informed in certain key ways by this idea of transgression for transgression’s sake.

MS  12:28

Or if you’d like to phrase a little bit differently, they are using that idea of transgressing against political correctness and valorising free speech as a mask, or as a way to legitimate their resistance to what are very rapidly changing social norms, where through social media, many voices who were previously marginalised or excluded all together, are now able to enter into the fray and really change the way that we think about shared values, shared ideology, shared goals, and so forth. And so, setting the table in that way is my attempt to enter into this terrain of online discourse, online ideology that I argue really complicates how we understand the secular, particularly when it comes to the way that states try to enforce certain modes of secularism, but also how certain groups and individuals will understand or use this term. That’s something I can get into the later when it comes to the question of movement atheism.

AA  13:35

Yeah, I would also be interested to hear a little bit more about what it was that led you to focus on this particular area and put these different aspects into conversation with one another.

MS  13:49

Yeah, sure. Yeah, that’s an interesting question. I guess it gives me a bit of a chance to unpack some of my formative influences. Without giving you a whole life story here, I guess I will say that my undergraduate career really coincided with the September 11 attacks, which was a really influential formative event for me and thinking about the study of religion, culture, politics, society, all these sorts of things. And it also coincided with the rise of the new atheist movement, or at least when I was doing my master’s work. And so those two things feature prominently in this book, and have been things that I’ve really been thinking about for a long time.

AA  14:40

You talk a bit about how the secular relates to veiling controversies in countries like Canada and France. I wonder if you could tell us a bit more about how the veil relates to the secular.

MS  14:58

Yeah, absolutely. I guess a good place to start is to talk about what I refer to as the niqab affair in 2015, in a Canadian context, which was really formative for me and in digging deeper into these issues. As maybe some of your listeners might be aware, there was a very, very interesting controversy throughout 2015 in Canada, starting in late January and going all the way until the end of the year. During that time, there was a federal election, where the nearly 10-year reign of Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper was contested and eventually won by the current Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

MS  15:46

And Harper, throughout his long tenure as Prime Minister, decided to hire political campaign strategists that very much censored culture war issues. And seeing as he was down in the polls, again, almost going into year 10. Him and his strategist decided to focus on a very, very little known event that had occurred in late January 2015, where a woman named Zunera Ishaq—then permanent resident of Pakistani heritage—fought to challenge the government on a little known law dating back to 2011 that banned niqab-wearing women from wearing their niqabs during oath-taking ceremonies for Canadian citizenship. And so, Harper made a big speech in the House of Commons. He called the niqab, anti=women, he was saying this is not part of ‘our’ Canadian values. And people latched on to it immediately. I mean, symbolically, you can see how rich this is, right? A swearing in ceremony for Canadian citizenship, tying that with Canadian values. It’s very affective, rhetorically speaking.

MS  17:03

And so, Justin Trudeau, the leader of the Liberal Party, at the time, came out and said that this was xenophobic, that this was racist. But in particular, he leaned into this idea that women, including the niqab-wearing women, have the right to choose, and the states should not intervene in such a way. It is ultimately up to a woman to choose what she wants to do with her body. Now, putting aside whether we agree or disagree with these ideas, what really interested me about this is that this controversy, that started in early 2015, was arguably the single biggest campaign focus throughout 2015. It was constantly being debated by politicians and pundits and media. And it was the type of thing that was jarring for me, in particular, as a scholar of religion, because prior to this time, no one really talked about the niqab, it didn’t come up at all. But all of a sudden, everyone had an opinion on it, and it was the thing that we had to concern ourselves with. And so, in one sense, it was very much a manufactured culture war.

MS  18:17

But it did, of course, touch on not only a lot of the sort of insecurities or uncertainties or in some cases, prejudices that people had, but also it really served as a test case for how models of ‘Western liberal secularism’ are able to manage or negotiate these kinds of controversies. And so, what I ultimately argue in the case of the niqab affair from 2015, is that while they had very, very different positions, Harper and Trudeau, they both relied on a version of what scholar Elizabeth Shakman Hurd calls ‘Judeo-Christian’ secularism. And that is to say, they lean into different versions of this idea that Western cultures are grounded in a certain foundation, a certain set of values.

MS  19:10

And this ties in a lot with the rhetoric of Western civilisation, that from a more strategic and let’s say, for the sake of argument, conservative point of view—although many liberals hold this position as well—that certain versions of Islam and veiling are anti-women, therefore, they don’t align with secular values, therefore, we need to push back against them. On the other hand, this rhetoric of choice—more commonly associated with associated with a sort of a liberal, multicultural point of view—also leans into this broader accommodationist notion of Judeo-Christian secularism, where different groups are ‘tolerated’ for their religious differences, if they are this is crucial able to be recognised as falling within the acceptable range of practices and beliefs. And, I mean, I can say a lot more about the contents of this chapter.

MS  20:06

But one thing I really want to sort of put a button on here is that what was fascinating about Zunera Ishaq—and I looked at a number of other cases involving the veil and the niqab in particular—what was fascinating about Zunera Ishaq was that she directly challenged the government at the time and was constantly appearing on the news, in print, and performing her perspective in such a way that really clashed with the dominant narrative about Muslim women in general and niqab-wearing women in particular as submissive, docile as being forced or compelled by their husbands or their religion to wear the niqab. By pushing back and actively combating these particular laws, Ishaq really threw a wrench into the conversation about how we normally talk about these sorts of issues. And so, it was a really interesting entry point for me to think about some of the contradictions in secularism and to really go back and see what are those go to justifications that we use when these controversies arise? And do they actually hold up in each and every case?

AA  21:25

I think that example works very well to demonstrate what you’re talking about. What sort of theoretical approaches helped to inform the way you engage these different examples that you study?

MS  21:39

There’s at least two theories that I want to flag here, although probably several more. So, the first I already touched on by Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, and she makes a useful distinction in her 2008 book, The Politics of Secularism and International Relations: Between Judeo-Christian Secularism and Laïcité. It’s a bit of a broad generalisation, and some people have critiqued it and nuanced it further, but the basic idea is trying to understand dominant expressions of secular governance. So, on the one hand, as mentioned before, secular governments, as you might see in the United States and much of Canada, that refers back to a certain ‘Judeo-Christian heritage’ in positive and laudatory ways and explicitly states that “this is a part of who we are, and a part of how we do governance.”

MS  22:30

Versus laïcité, which is basically a French term meaning secularism—common in France, but also the Canadian province of Québec—which draws a harder line in the sand between the state and ‘religion’, where there’s this perception that religious ideas, religious speech, religious forms of dress, are threats to the unity of the state, and therefore need to be managed a little bit more strongly, a little bit more strictly than other things that we might find in society. And so, when we turn to look at, for example, the recent bans on certain ‘religious symbols’ in the Canadian province of Québec, we see this the second idea of secularism, laïcité, at work. So that’s one thing that I’m working with in this chapter.

MS  23:20

Another concept that I find really, really useful is a fairly recent book by Joan Wallach Scott called Sex and Secularism. And she traces, in this book, a fairly lengthy genealogy of the concept of secularism, how it has been used in Euro-Western spaces, with an emphasis on France, in particular, leading up into the present. And one of the main things that really, really animates her thesis in this book is that the emphasis on gender equality as this universal aspect of secularism really only dates back to the early 1990s. She shows in her work that prior to this time, the idea of gender equality was not something that got paired with secularism, it was something that came about in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, and very much in the context of this discourse of a ‘clash of civilisations’, which of course, became even heightened after the 9/11 attacks. And so, I really draw on Scott’s work to try to show and unpack some of the ways in which this idea of linking secularism and gender equality is very much a recent phenomenon.

MS  24:38

And one that when you start to unpack a number of examples, is quite haphazard and sloppy and is often about different governments working out complex over other things. So, I’ll get to that in a second. One more thing I should mention, theoretically, that might be of interest to listeners, and perhaps students in particular, is that drawing on theories of semiotics, drawing on theories of Orientalism in the tradition of [Edward] Said that focus on representation in the form of tropes that have come to inform the ways in which certain groups are signified in the popular imagination.

MS  25:21

I look at, for example, drawing on the work of Leila Ahmed, how conceptions of veiling in Islam are very long, and of course, very complicated history that do not signify historically and across cultures, the dominant things that we tend to associate with veiling today, namely the oppression of women, the idea that Islam is an oppressive religion, or on the other side of that, that it is simply a matter of a woman’s choice. She looks at, for example, how many early impressions of veiling had a lot to do with one’s status or social class, for example. And so without going into, you know, too many details about the historical past, it’s a useful, brief genealogy for setting the table in such a way that we can clearly see that these contemporary understandings or representations of Muslims and Muslim women are not things that have been applied in all times and places where rather are contingent, but rather unfold in relation to the interests of different social actors, oftentimes in response to certain significant political and cultural events like the September 11 attacks.

MS  26:44

And so, I also talked about how a lot of attention was paid to Muslim women, particularly in Afghanistan following the September 11 attacks, how this idea of liberating Muslim women was a central talking point of the [George W.] Bush administration that continues actually to this day with the recent withdrawal. So this idea of associating unveiling, of lifting the burqa—which often gets conflated with the niqab, interestingly, in this rhetoric—you find in a lot of these early, or say, post 9/11 newspaper articles, associations between unveiling and freedom, liberation, modernity, and the veil itself gets associated with terrorism, fundamentalism, or the spectre of Sharia law, such that in some discourses, you see in the West, the very presence of a veil, which is, of course, a very visible marker of Muslimness, gets conflated with this idea that the West is being taken over, that Sharia law is coming to the West.

MS  27:44

And so, I unpack a lot of the images, ideas, and tropes that came about in the post 9/11 period, once again, as a way to really clarify what the dominant ideas and images are that we tend to associate with Muslim women, with the idea that that often leads or colours, the ways in which we actually engage in conversations about these issues. And as a slight contrast to that, I also talk about a really interesting concept from Evelyn Alsultany, who wrote a book called Arabs and Muslims in the Media: Race and Representation After 9/11 in 2012.

MS  28:24

And she draws on the work of Mahmood Mamdani, whose 2004 book, Good Muslim, Bad Muslim, goes into some considerable depth about the ways in which Muslims get constructed as either good or, on the other hand, bad, usually based on their adherence to certain Western secular liberal principles. “If you look like us, if you do the things that we do, then perhaps you’re gonna fall into the category of good Muslim. By contrast, if you don’t, then you’re going to fall in the category of bad Muslim”—I’m generalising a bit, but that’s the basic idea.

MS  28:58

So, what Alsultany talks about in her book is that she started to watch a number of shows featuring Muslims in the post-9/11 period, and she expected to see a lot of racialised tropes, a lot of negative depictions of Mamdani’s ‘bad Muslim’. But what she found instead were an overwhelming amount of depictions of ‘good Muslims’. She calls these depictions simplified-complex representations. Complex because they’re more nuanced than a lot of tropes in the past where Muslims and Muslim women were voiceless and they sort of embodied certain stereotypes or caricatures, but simplified in the sense that they’re legible to a western audience, right? They do the things and say the things that are like ‘us’ that we can recognise.

MS  29:48

And so that idea of simplified-complex representations is a useful one because I think it touches on the other side of the coin that, oftentimes, when talking about Muslims in Islam—or any group for that matter—in popular culture and news media, people tend to rely on these shorthand concepts that can be easily identifiable as either a victim or a villain, as someone we can identify with or someone we have to reject. And what often gets lost in that process is, of course, the incredible complexity and nuance of any type of identity, which never fits the mould of these simplified-complex representations.

MS  30:33

And so, one more thing I’ll mention that I do, in this chapter, I look at a number of instances of court cases in Europe—in countries like France, in Britain, and Belgium among a number of others—where dating back to the early 2000s, there were various attempts to either limit or ban certain religious symbols. And interestingly, in almost all of these cases, it started with something like the niqab—or in some cases the hijab when it came to girls in public schools in France—as a sort of extreme or limit case that wasn’t to be tolerated. And what’s really interesting to me, or I should say, one of many things that’s really interesting to me, in looking at these discourses is that oftentimes, when various governments proposed to ban the niqab, or occasionally, the hijab, they would get hit with backlash. They would be called anti-Muslim, racist, Islamophobic, and so forth.

MS  31:44

And what often happened in the wake of them being called these things, is a readjustment, on the government level, as to what their justifications were. So, I draw, for example, on this case, from Reus, Spain. It’s in the state of Catalonia back from 2010. And there was an attempt during that time of a conservative led government to ban niqabs in public spaces. So, some backlash came; it was called Islamophobic. And the party that objected to it was a leftist party that was very much persecuted during the Franco regime, which lasted from 1936 to, if my date’s right, somewhere around 1980. But their reasons had to do with securitisation, and the heavy hand in the state didn’t have to do with religion at all.

MS  32:39

At the same time, the more conservative Catholic party was in opposition to the niqab. But in the process, they really, really emphasised how the hijab was a part of their secular culture. It was a religious symbol, and they identified the niqab as a cultural symbol. So that’s really interesting strategic move to call something cultural and not religious as a way to push it outside of an officially protected form of dress. And they very quickly came to a compromise where they wouldn’t ban the niqab in particular, but they would ban all forms of masking one’s face in public, and just for good measure, they threw in no public drinking and no public nudity.

MS  33:28

And so, this is one of several examples I come across where the fear—or I should say the charge—of Islamophobia, or anti-Muslim rhetoric, forces governments to rethink their initial justifications in such a way that they take on new meanings, right? The reason for banning it gets rethought and so no longer, for example, in the case of Spain, is the niqab considered a threat to Western civilisation—that was some of the rhetoric that was trotted out—but it becomes more of a security issue. And not just were women [wearing a mask] but anyone wearing a mask. And again, as I mentioned, during this process, quite interestingly, there was the strong emphasis on the hijab as something that is within the realm of religious freedom. And it’s really interesting to think about how certain modes of dress in particular, become excluded, or conversely, normalised in the western imagination through these conflicts that play out in public.

MS  34:29

And so, the last thing I look at in that chapter is a series of bills that took place in Québec, starting in 2010. So, there was a proposed, Bill 94, by the Québec Liberal Party, and that required women to unveil their faces when working in the public sector. So, this was a niqab ban. That bill failed to pass. Following that, there was a widely publicised bill called Bill 60, that was also called the Charter of (Secular) Values. And there was a lengthier title that—and I’m not gonna remember it all here—but it said something to the effect of “the Charter of (Secular) Values and blah, blah, blah, enforcing equality between men and women.” So, the initial bill was a very clearly signalling Muslim women in particular, under this assumption that wearing the veil was somehow contrary to quality. And you recall that Stephen Harper’s justification for banning the niqab was that it was anti women. Right? And so, this invocation of gender equality, going back to Joan Wallach Scott, is very much being invoked here.

MS  35:34

But what the Québec did with Bill 60, the Charter of Secular Values was they didn’t want to appear xenophobic. So as a way to combat that they decided, okay, we’re going to ban all ‘religious symbols’ from the public sphere, which included Sikh turbans, which included Jewish kippahs, and for good measure, they said, and large crosses, not small ones. And a lot of fun memes during that time of like, “Well, what happens when Elton John comes to town wearing a giant cross on stages? Is he going to be banned?” And interestingly, there’s a large cross on top of Mont Royale in Montreal, and during that process, the government in question—and this continues to this day to be debated—classified it as a cultural symbol, a part of our heritage and not a religious symbol.

MS  36:25

And so, you know, here we see some of the back and forth or gerrymandering, if you like, the meaning of these symbols, what is religious, what is cultural. And in investigating these particular cases, I think we can see how a lot of the interests of various political actors are disproportionately influential in how we come to classify or perceive whether something is cultural or religious. Very quickly, fast forward to 2017, there was Bill 62. This also was a narrow ban, focusing on Muslim women and the niqab, in particular. They weren’t allowed to ride the bus, they couldn’t access certain social services, and this led to a lot of backlash, a lot of people were wearing ski masks, for example, on buses saying… In solidarity and in protest, this failed to pass.

MS  37:17

Then finally, in March of 2019, there was Bill 21. And Bill 21 went back to the wide ban, although limited, in certain cases, to people who work in the public service. And in some cases, if you were already working a job, say, a teacher, for example, and you’re wearing a hijab, you would be grandfathered in, it wouldn’t apply to you. But anyone who was newly applied to become a teacher, a lawyer, a judge, among other professions, could not wear their ‘religious symbol’. And this became a huge controversy because it was, as an article from The Atlantic pointed out, the first country in North America, and I believe the Euro-West sphere of nation-states to effectively ban religious symbols from certain public spaces and certain public sector work.

MS  38:06

And so, what I tried to do in this chapter, among other things, as mentioned, is to show the ways in which gender equality gets used as a form of justification. But then often shifts and changes to things like security or state neutrality when it comes to this move from just banning symbols identified with Islam to banning all symbols. We want to be neutral. And therefore, we’re not going to privilege any symbol being represented in the public sphere. And I guess the last point I’ll make on that chapter is this rhetorical move that we see between calling something ‘religious’ and calling something ‘cultural’. And what I’m really interested in getting at here is how contemporary conflicts involving Muslims, and Muslim women in particular, are really, really interesting litmus tests for the ways in which religion gets constructed both at the state level—the way that of course secularism gets constructed at the state level—and how that comes to inform the general cultural sense of what these symbols are, what they mean, how we are to understand them moving forward.

MS  39:18

So much like the familiar images or tropes of Muslim women, of which we can see in Said’s work and a much longer genealogy that I talked about in relation to Leila Ahmed. So, to can we see this changing view of certain symbols as ‘religious’ or ‘cultural’ based on different interests of different political parties and social actors trying to curry advantage and gain a certain victory in particular political contexts. So, and the last thing I should mention here is one of the reasons that a number of commentators pointed out that the government of Québec decided to draw upon this religious symbols issue is that if we go back to the 1970s, there was a growing separatist movement to separate from Canada. It culminated in 1995 in a referendum that barely lost. And so, Québec did not separate, but it came very, very close like 0.5% of percentage from separating from the rest of the country.

MS  40:24

And as many observers point out, after that time, there was an influx of immigrants from North Africa, for example, of a Muslim background, because Québec wanted to prioritise French speakers. So, there’s not only created a conflict within Québec in terms of this in influence of cultures and cultural practices that are not like the Catholic norm that Québec was used to. But it also represented a new wedge issue for them. Because in mounting these various challenges or bills, if you like, to ban so called religious symbols, the Québec government was constantly provoking the Canadian state to come in with a supreme court and say, “This is a violation of Supreme Court, we will not let this stand.” And so, then that became something for the government to say, “Oh, hey, look at look at what the rest of Canada is doing. Look at what they’re telling us to do.” And that serve their political interests in that moment. And I can say a lot more about that, I’ll probably leave that to the side or encourage you to check it out in the book itself. Some of those broader political interests are also significant to consider when thinking about what motivates these particular bands.

AA  41:40

Oh, yeah, absolutely. You discuss the secular in relationship to ex-Muslims and then the relationship between the viewpoints of ex-Muslims and the movement of atheism. Could you say a little bit more about how these things influence each other and how that ties into the secular?

MS  42:04

Yeah, sure. So, as I mentioned at the start of our chat today, the beginning of my master’s degree corresponded with the rise of what became known as the new atheist. I was very interested in that from the jump. And so, I’ve followed developments and written about atheism, popular atheism, non-religion, how that relates to secularism and secularity and there’s a growing literature on that, that I think is nicely involved with the journal Secularism and Non-religion, which is very much a product are an outgrowth of the increased interest in atheism as it relates to secularism and non-religion.

MS  42:50

And so, if we’re thinking about this, theoretically, I think it’s important to point out that it’s a relatively new phenomenon—not the study of secularism, per se, but the interest of secularism and non-religion pairing, pairing those two things together. And I guess what really sparked my interest in running this chapter was a podcast called Polite Conversations. It’s hosted by a woman named Eiynah, who is of Pakistani heritage. She was born and raised in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, albeit in an American compound. And she moved to Toronto, Canada, where I’m from, in her late teens, early 20s. So, she started to identify as an atheist during that time. And when she started her podcast in 2016, she was more or less in line with what I would broadly call a new atheist type ideology.

MS  43:55

But 2016, as we know, also coincided with the rise of Donald Trump and with what I mentioned before, this idea that a politics of transgression—the sort of anti-political correctness pro-free speech movement that migrated from online into the general public—really, really came to inform a lot of conversations and discourses. And Eiynah, very quickly in her podcast, maybe a year or so in, went from a fairly hard line, albeit, I would say, pretty open minded, new atheist type of perspective, to calling into question what had happened with what is commonly referred to as a movement atheism or just popular atheist movements as they exist in online spaces, and as they are represented through popular figures.

MS  44:45

So here we might think of Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, among a host of others, who have written popular books, appeared on YouTube channels and various news interviews and so forth, and that come to signify or represent the face of a certain type of atheism. And for Eiynah, she had this sort of crisis of faith, she said, most of the atheists that she had lauded for a number of years and didn’t really seem to embody the type of secular values that she upheld and identified with—so things like scepticism, equality rights, a rigorous commitment to self-critique—and so this crisis of identity for Eiynah very much spurred me to think about how secularism gets used as a form of identification.

MS  45:39

Of course, secularism can be used to describe a mode of political orientation or ideology that both self-identified religious and self-identified non-religious people alike may embody. But typically speaking, when people use it as a form of identity or identification, and they say, “I am secular.” They often mean, although not always, that they are non-religious. And for Eiynah, and certainly for a certain tradition of people who have written about this concept, secularism does embody certain values, certain ideas, in an attempt to construct a particular worldview. So here, we might think of secular humanism, in particular, as an attempt to say, “Well, you know, we are not, quote unquote, “religious”, we don’t believe in gods or any of the moral dictates that come from above, but we rather believe instead that these come from human beings, from human societies, and that we have the ability to constantly reconstruct them for ourselves.”

MS  46:34

Because this crisis of identification for Eiynah very much encouraged me to dig a little bit deeper into some of these broader issues. And so, I talked about how, when the New Atheists first came onto the scene—starting in 2004, with Sam Harris’s book, The End of Faith, which was shortly followed by Richard Dawkins’, The God Delusion, among a number of other books—there was this very prominent idea in their texts that religion was going to fade away. So here we can detect echoes of secularisation theory, and a particularly virulent and dogmatic one, there was this sense and I think, to paraphrase Sam Harris, from his 2006, book, Letter to a Christian Nation, he says something to the effect in talking to an imaginary Christian, he says, “Let’s be honest with ourselves. In the fullness of time, in the war between science and religion, one side is going to win, and one side is going to lose.” Right? And you can see that in the title of his first book, The End of Faith, as well. This almost evangelical advocacy for trying to bring religion to it. This is something that scholars of religion commented on and critiqued as being very much in the vein of this modernist Eurocentric colonial teleological view that history is unfolding in a certain way.

MS  47:56

And that it is naturally going to develop towards this trajectory where religion dies or fades away. And so, these thinkers in some ways might have thought of themselves as a vanguard, so to speak, but as Eiynah and a number of her guests point out in their conversations, you can only shit on religion for so long before it becomes repetitive, before it becomes stale. Right? Critiquing something, ad infinitum, is very circular, especially for people who have been in the game for a while, who have heard these critiques. It might be appealing to younger people who haven’t. But for those who have been around a while, it becomes problematic. And so, one of the shifts that I note with the new atheist thinkers is that whereas in the mid to late 2000s, they really, really focused on this idea of rationalism and reason and how embracing those values and principles was going to lead to a new renaissance. And you see this, for example, in books that are written by these thinkers. Dawkins writes one on evolution—the name of it is escaping me right now—but it’s very much this sort of presentation of evolution as a new form of religion. Right? Where engaging with the cosmos engaging with these ideas are a way to re-enchant one’s own relationship to the natural world as opposed to the supernatural, right.

MS  49:19

But as these debates grew stale, I noticed that thinkers like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins in particular, were shifting more towards culture wars in their rhetoric. They were often called out for being Islamophobic or misogynistic—and not without justification—and a lot of their alliances and public commentary were often aligning in interesting ways with these politics of transgression that I talked about before—pushing back against the excesses of, for example, critical race theory, or pushing back against what they perceive to be new forms of gender identity, including transgender identities that were contrary to biological science, that were a part of the quote unquote “woke brigade”, that were embodying this idea of social justice warriors.

MS  50:15

And so part of the way in which their public persona was carried over or transformed after critiquing religion as thoroughly as they did was to jump into these culture wars battles, which for Eiynah and her podcast, was very, very influential on a lot of young atheists, particularly people like ex-Muslims, who were looking to move away from what was often a very negative experience, a very sort of course of experience with Islam, in their own lives, towards something different. And so, latching on to some of the rhetoric of secular liberalism was a part of that. But that came part-and-parcel with this more, let’s say right-leaning cultural politics of transgression that was not so much interested in, as I mentioned before, things like equality rights, scepticism. and self-critique, which I now have held as ‘central’ to atheist and secular identities. So, I really try to explore some of the breakdown or confusion or fluidity—that’s probably the better word—fluidity of these forms of identification, as they interact with different sets of interests, different cultural developments, and of course, different voices in these online spaces.

MS  51:31

So yeah, just so I don’t forget it. Another point that I think is really important to mention here is there was a turning point with New Atheists figures, starting with Sam Harris in 2014. He co-wrote a book in the form of a dialogue with a British self-described secular Muslim thinker, Maajid Nawaz, who was a former Muslim radical, and he became a reformer. Their book was called Islam and the Future of Tolerance: A Dialogue. And what that marked for me and certainly for Harris was the shift from saying, “religion poisons everything”—to quote Christopher Hitchens, from the subtitle of his book, written in 2007, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything—so Harris is shifting from that idea towards one whereby the way to deal with religion in general ,and Islam particular, is to engage in alliances with secular liberal Muslims who embody Western secular values.

MS  52:35

And so part of what I argue in this chapter is that, although that’s a rhetorical shift, substantively speaking, it’s actually not much of a shift. Underlying what they are ultimately arguing is that a certain understanding of Western secular liberal values, a certain conception of Western civilisation, is the foundation point that people have to adhere to. If on the one hand, in their early stages, they can’t be converted to atheism or non-religion, well, then, the move is let’s focus on ‘moderate Muslims’ who can and carry forward our battle that way. And look at a couple of other popular thinkers like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who was arguably the first and only ex-Muslim whose voice got elevated through a number of best-selling books, and she, similarly in a 2015 book called—oh my god, I’m blanking on the name—Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now, she makes a similar move by saying there are what she calls “Mecca” and “Medina Muslims”. “Medina Muslims” are the violent ones; they’re the fundamentalists. And the “Mecca” ones, well, there’s the ones that are winnable; they’re the ones that we can drag over to a moderate position, which she calls “reformed Muslims” that align with secular, liberal, and western values.

MS  54:04

I also talk about another popular ex-Muslim author, Ali A. Rizvi, whose book—and I’m blanking on the title of it right now, for some reason—The Atheist Muslim, that’s it, The Atheist Muslim—and it’s blurbed on the back by six or seven authors who are a “who’s who” of new atheist celebrities—and one thing that he does in this book is he engages with the culture wars. He reproduces a lot of the ideas that the New Atheists tend to argue for. But one of the things that he does in the book that I find really interesting is that he talks about in how more secular and left leaning spaces, there’s a tendency to not want to criticise Islam or Muslims. And this has become a bit of a trope online and in news media, and in my estimation, it certainly often functions as a bit of a caricature for a lot of legit concerns that people have when it comes to, for example, the so-called War on Terror, the long history of colonialism, ongoing instances of xenophobia and racial abuse, and so on and so forth.

MS  55:12

But there is certainly something to Rizvi’s critique, and part of what I try to unpack, however briefly, in that chapter is that, for a lot of ex-Muslims, there appears to be not only anger and resentment towards the conservative and restrictive versions of Islam that they grew up with, but a lot of frustration that their desire to lash out against their former religion is not necessarily met by a lot of Western liberals or leftists or people on that general spectrum. And so that’s used as part of an explanation by myself and a few others to explain why there is this right-leaning shift among a lot of ex-Muslims precisely because, at least in the early stages after leaving Islam, there is a warm embrace from these communities who are willing to do and say the kinds of things against Islam that the, broadly speaking, liberal left is not able to do.

MS  56:14

But on the other hand, I also talk about how I think part of the problem with the liberal left spectrum of critique, or in some cases, lack of critique, can be thought about in relation to a much broader problem, which is—to simplify it—people in the west really don’t know anything about Islam. (laughs) They really don’t know anything about Hinduism, or a variety of other quote unquote, “religious” or “cultural” traditions. And in many ways, we are forced to engage with these tropes, with these short-hands, that really don’t get us very far beyond binaries, beyond caricatures. And so, it seems to me that there is a very real conceptual impasse when thinking about these issues in the public realm. And a lot of it has to do with the fact that the medium itself that we are engaging with doesn’t really allow us to move beyond much beyond what Alsultany would call simplified complex representations.

AA  57:11

Before we wrap up, can you tell us a little bit about what you’re working on and what projects you have on the horizon?

MS  57:19

Yeah, sure. Yeah, so apart from working on essays, here and there on Islam, atheism, I also look at indigenous traditions in North America. I’m also working on a book called Islam According to Google News. And what I try to do with this book is I look at a discrete data set, over the course of three months, of articles that deal with the concept of Islam. And so I try to both show how certain ideas and tropes in the Euro-West surrounding Islam get reproduced in these spaces, but I also try to complicate the ways in which scholars talk about these representations by providing something contemporary within a narrow timeframe, in order to highlight a number of things that are missed, when we compare different things in this case, news media, and I should say, not just from North America, but from around the world. So hopefully, that will be out in the December of 2020—or 2020 (laughs)… unless you have a time machine—2022 (laughs), that’s what I was going to say.

AA  58:30

Well, yes, we will have to be on the lookout for that. And hopefully, we’ll be able to have you back on The Religious Studies Project to talk about that once it comes out.

MS  58:39

I’d love to!

AA  58:40

Thank you so much for being here. This has been fantastic!

MS  58:43

It was my pleasure. Thanks for having me.

Citation Info:

Sheedy, Matt and Andie Alexander. 2021. “Religious Symbols, Secularism, and Culture Wars”, The Religious Studies Project. Podcast Transcript. 15 November 2021. Transcribed by Andie Alexander. Version 1.0, 15 November 2021. Available at:

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