By Thora Asudeh and Sera Patenaude

On March 6, we had the pleasure of sitting down for an interview with Professor Aaron W. Hughes, the Fulbright Distinguished Chair in North American Studies at Carleton University for 2022/23.

We were eager to learn more about his upcoming Edgar and Dorothy Davidson Lecture titled “The Ubiquitous Muslim,” presented by the MA in Religion & Public Life in the College of the Humanities on Thursday, March 23 at 7 p.m. in Paterson Hall (PA) 303.

Professor Aaron W. Hughes

The interview quickly turned into a comfortable and personable conversation where Prof. Hughes’ academic drive, warmth and humour shone through. From the sleepy nature of Ottawa to the idea of multiculturalism and exclusion, Hughes offered a thought-provoking look at the perception of Muslims in the Canadian sphere.

As we delved into the topic of the lecture, we discussed how Canadian public life connects to the idea of the “Ubiquitous Muslim” and the flaws in having a purely secular view of public life.

Hughes outlined the basic idea of his lecture: “The lecture is not really about Muslims; it’s about how ideas around and about Muslims function in the way we think about ourselves in Canadian society.”

Hughes explained that this lecture is a synthesis of two projects he has been working on recently: A history of Islam and Muslims in Canada and a book titled The Charter of Rights and Freedoms: A Biography.

The latter is partly inspired by the confusion and misinformation that surrounded the Charter during the events of February 2022.

“I realized that many people don’t know what the Charter is, what it contains or how it can be applied in court,” said Hughes. “My biography will explore the origins of the Charter, its authors and how it functions. I often joke that it’s meant for my 80-year-old mother.”

The second project Hughes is working on is the first comprehensive history of the study of Muslims in Canada.

“I’ve spent my whole academic life studying Muslim identities in one way or another, usually in the medieval and late antiquity periods,” Hughes explained. “However, my focus has recently shifted to Islamic identity in Canada.”

“Despite the importance of Islam and Muslims in Canada, there has never been a full-length history of the topic, and I hope to fill that gap. My own grandfather was an immigrant from what was the Ottoman Empire, now Lebanon, to Edmonton. He actually established trading posts in the Northwest Territories: Fort Providence, Fort Good Hope and Fort Simpson. The inspiration for the book is to show people that there’s a whole history of Islam in Canada that goes back to the 1860s, if not before.”

Professor Aaron W. Hughes, Fulbright Distinguished Chair in North American Studies at Carleton University for 2022/23

Hughes argued that the value of religion lies not only in belief, but also in practice. He emphasized how religion is everywhere, even in our secular laws and institutions.

“You could argue that our entire legal and political system is based on religious ideas, both historically and practically,” said Hughes, “though we tend to only talk about religion when it’s not our own.”

He brought up the 2012 Supreme Court of Canada case of R. v. NS as an example, in which a woman insisted on wearing her niqab while testifying during a trial and the judge ruled that she had to remove it, arguing that her religious belief was “not that strong”.

“Two things were at work there: the religious freedom of the woman who wanted to give testimony with the niqab on, versus the charter right to a fair trial. It’s a case-by-case basis. The Supreme Court is ultimately deciding what constitutes a true religious belief, which they have no business doing. So, the question I address in my talk is: How does secular society regulate religion? And, of course, how is religion only a problem when it’s not our own.”

This example led to a discussion about who exactly we are referring to when we use words like ‘ourselves’, ‘Canadian society’ and ‘the public’. Hughes recent work examines Canadian society through a historical and political lens. This brings us to the idea that our understanding of ‘secular’ emerges from examining the historical and political contexts that shaped Canada’s identity and values as a generalized whole. Thora made the connection to Religion and Public Life MA student Alena Wilson’s recent paper: “‘Honk if you Love Jesus’: Christian Rhetoric & Symbolism in the Freedom Convoy 2022”. Hughes found the question of religion and its relationship to the convoy movement to be incredibly interesting, especially when considering how it connects to his work on the Charter.

We continued the discussion from our perspectives within the academic sphere, considering whether or not it is possible for religious studies to be something truly secular and objective.

“The concept of the secular is really important to religious studies today. As scholars of religion, we’re expected to have a secular and objective perspective. However, our perspective is shaped by the terms and categories we use. Terms like ‘monotheism’ and ‘polytheism’, for example, were invented in the 19th century. When we talk about religions like Islam, there’s often distortion and confusion. We need to be aware of our own biases and understand the terms we’re using.”

Professor Aaron W. Hughes, Fulbright Distinguished Chair in North American Studies at Carleton University for 2022/23

Hughes illustrated this point with a thought experiment he often uses in his classes: “Imagine if the most powerful group in the world were Polynesians, and they had a concept called ‘mana’. If they came to America or Canada and asked us about our mana, we may not know how to answer them. But that’s essentially what we’re doing when we use our own terms to study other cultures and religions.”

As the conversation continued, Hughes revealed his desire to make his lectures more accessible to students outside of his specific academic interests. He expressed his frustration with the dry and formal nature of most lectures, and emphasized his goal to connect with his audience in a more personal and engaging way.

Overall, our conversation with Prof. Hughes was an incredibly insightful and fascinating one. We left feeling enlightened and energized, with a newfound appreciation for the importance of religion in our daily lives and in Canadian public life. His lecture promises to be an engaging event and we can’t wait to attend.

Learn more about the 2023 Edgar and Dorothy Davidson Lecture: The Ubiquitous Muslim, presented by Professor Aaron W. Hughes, 2022/23 Fulbright Distinguished Chair in North American Studies at Carleton University.

About the Authors:

Thora Asudeh is a 3rd year student in the Bachelor of Humanities program with a Combined Honours in Religion who enjoys tackling academics with her “twin” Sera.

Sera Patenaude is a 3rd year student in the Bachelor of Humanities program with a Combined Honours in Religion who is constantly grateful for her academic twin Thora.