Religious Symbols with a Hipster-Sikh Twist

by Matt Sheedy

For those paying attention to Canadian politics these days (beyond the occasional swoon-fest over Justin Trudeau, Canada’s “super hot Prime Minister”) one of the more popular figures to have emerged in recent months is Jagmeet Singh, a representative of the Legislative Assembly of Ontario, and former deputy leader of the Ontario New Democratic Party (the NDP is Canada’s national “left-of-center” party).

Singh drew widespread attention in Canada as the first credible Sikh person to run for the leadership of a national party (Martin Singh ran in 2012) when he announced his bid to head the federal NDP on May 15, 2017. Singh is also quite young (38), and has been credited with mobilizing the youth vote with his affable character, tailored suits, and hipster-esque persona, which has served to de-stabilize common associations between piety and “religious” modes of dress. Like all symbols, however, their meaning is fluid and is often used as battle-ground to hash-out other things.

More recently, Singh gained international attention after a protester at a “meet and greet” (which Singh playfully calls a “JagMeet & Greet“) got up in his face shouting “When is your Sharia going to end,” to which Singh responded calmly, repeating his campaign slogan of “love and courage.” Singh’s response gained him many accolades in the mainstream media and a bump in the polls to boot  (see here, here, and here). The heckler, Jennifer Bush, has since defend herself by stating that she is not racist (see here and here), though her membership in the nationalist, anti-Islam group Rise Canada makes this claim hard to square for many. In the aftermath of this event, Singh has became a symbol of divisions within Canada over such issues as racism, free speech, the limits of secularism, and the perceived meaning of “religious” symbols.

Earlier this week Singh became the target of Bloc Québécois leader Martine Ouellet (the BQ is a separatist party exclusive to the province of Québec), who claimed that Singh’s candidacy reflects the following trends:

  • It highlights the “rise of the religious left”;
  • It poses a threat to secularism in Québec, which underwent a dramatic separation between (Catholic) church and state in the 1960s;
  • It shows “religious values” and not “progressive values”;
  • The wearing of “religious symbols” is equivalent to the promotion of religious values.

On this last point Ouellet explains:

“Wearing religious symbols is showcasing one’s religion, and that is promoting one’s religion and promoting religious values, no matter what the religion is,” the Bloc leader added. “When you are promoting religious values, it is always the promotion of one religion, and that is always to the detriment of others.”

No religion should be highlighted more than any other, she said.

One thing that stands out for me in Ouellet’s claims is the way that she attempts to naturalize the link between so-called “religious symbols” and “religious values.”

On the one hand, it is hard to decouple Ouellet’s statements and the racialization of certain groups within the Euro-West, whose visible differences, such as skin color and modes of dress (especially niqabs, hijabs, and turbans) provide an easy symbol of estrangement. For some this is seen as a threat to “Western” (or Canadian) values (here the discourse ranges from what constitutes a “reasonable accommodation” to racist epithets), while for others it harkens the spectre of immigration (including refuges) as a tide that must be kept at bay. In Québec the niqab and hijab have been the most prominent symbols of estrangement in recent years, while Sikh turbans have remained largely under the radar, despite making an appearance in the province’s proposed ban on “religious symbols” back in 2013 (see image below).

There are many interesting threads to this story that I can’t touch upon here, including the metonymy of symbols, the slippery lines between “culture” and “religion,” and the discourse on Islamophobia, to name a few. What I’d like to focus on is the attempt to naturalize the meaning of “religious symbols” within public discourse, which I would claim is fuelled by essentialized definitions of religion that fail to account for its imbrications in culture, politics, and the like, along with its ever-shifting meaning.

Ideologically speaking, the Bloc Québécois are perhaps best known as a separatist party with social democratic leanings that tend toward a mode of cultural politics that resembles the French Republican model of laïcité. For example, both France and Québec have sought to place restrictions on the public display of so-called “religious symbols” under the premise that such displays undermine the secular character of the state and represent a thin edge of a wedge toward the acceptance of conservative religious norms (in the case of Québec, see here).

More recently, the 2013 Québec Charter of Secular Values, which failed to pass into law, proposed restrictions on the wearing of ‘religious symbols,” requiring the removal of hijabs, yarmulkes and turbans for those in positions of public authority (police, judges, etc.), as well as for most employees who work for and do business with the provincial government. Much of the political manoeuvring behind this proposed policy can be seen, in part, as a by-product of Québécois nationalism. As I wrote in 2013:

For those who are paying attention to the internal politics in this affair—which does not, it seems to me, constitute a majority of Canadians, let alone those outside of the country—it is commonly held that the Charter is being used as a wedge issue by some within the Parti Québécois, which is a separatist party with aspirations to cede from the country. Following this logic, a Supreme Court ruling against the “Charter of Québec Values” can be used as evidence that the government of “Canada” is trying to limit Québec’s sovereignty, thus bolstering the party’s popularity.

Fast forward to Ouellet’s charge against Singh, part of what distinguishes the “progressive values” of the Parti Québécois from the NDP is a form of cultural politics that is commonly traced to the “Quiet Revolution” of the 1960s, where the province made a radical break with the Catholic Church and its role within the state (e.g., in schools, hospitals, etc.) in favor of a strong version of secular ideology, which included a popular feminist sensibility that often equates Islamic veiling practices with a nun’s habit. This ideology contributed not only to the Charter of Secular Values, but also, more recently, to the firm opposition against the wearing of the niqab during citizenship ceremonies (see my post on this here), a recent parliamentary motion against Islamophobia, M-103, and a current proposal in Québec, Bill 62, targeting niqab-wearing women. It is worth noting here that Singh has shown support for M-103 and rejected Bill 62, which helps to explain why his turban stands-in for more than meets the eye.

What may appear to outsiders as mere racism or a bizarre conflation between symbols and values on the part of the Bloc Québécois, is perhaps better explained by digging through the entanglements of things like sovereignty, identity, and perceived difference, which provides a rather striking instance of how the identity formation of particular groups is shaped by political interests that condition “meaning” in ways that are hard to shake. What Singh’s hipster-Sikh image will churn out down the road remains to be seen, though if he continues to be in the spotlight it may be the case that this symbolic tug-of-war is just warming up.

Matt Sheedy holds a Ph.D in religious studies from the University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, and is associate editor of the Bulletin for the Study of Religion. His research interests include critical social theory, theories of secularism and atheism, as well as representations of Christianity, Islam, and Native traditions in popular and political culture. His dissertation offers a critical look at Jürgen Habermas’s theory of religion in the public sphere.

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