The right to one's identity

Published : Jan 05, 2002 00:00 IST

The main hope of harmony in the contemporary world lies not in any imagined uniformity, but in the plurality of our identities, which cut across each other and work against sharp divisions around one uniquely hardened line of impenetrable division.

THE basic weakness of the thesis of a "clash of civilisations," which has been much championed recently, lies in its programme of categorising people of the world according to a unique, allegedly commanding, system of classification. This is deeply problematic because the civilisational categories are crude and inconsistent, and also because there are many other ways of seeing people (linked to politics, language, literature, class, occupation and other affiliations).

The inadequacy of the thesis of clashing civilisations, thus, begins well before we get to the point of asking whether civilisations must clash. No matter what answer is given to this question, addressing it in this coarse form tends, in itself, to push us into an illusive way of thinking about the people of the world. The befuddling influence of a singular classification traps those who (like many senior statesmen in Europe and America) dispute the thesis of a clash, but respond within its pre-specified terms of reference. To talk about "the Islamic world" or "the Western world" (as is increasingly common, in line with Samuel Huntington's categories) is already to reduce people into this one dimension. The same impoverished vision of the world - divided into boxes of civilisations - is shared by those who preach amity among civilisations and those who see them clashing.

In fact, civilisations are hard to partition in this way, given the diversities within each society as well as the historical linkages between different countries and cultures. For example, in describing India as a "Hindu civilisation," Samuel Huntington's exposition of the alleged clash of civilisations has to downplay the fact that India has many more Muslims (about 125 million, more than the entire British and French populations put together) than any other country in the world with the exception of Indonesia and marginally Pakistan. Also, it is futile to try to have an understanding of the nature and range of Indian art, literature, music, food or politics without seeing the extensive interactions across barriers of religious communities. This includes Hindus and Muslims, Buddhists, Jains, Sikhs, Parsees, Christians (who have been in India since at least the fourth century, before there was a single Christian in Britain), Jews (present in South India since the fall of Jerusalem), and even atheists and agnostics. Sanskrit has a larger atheistic literature than exists in any other classical language. Huntington's categorisation may be comforting to the Hindu fundamentalist, but it is an odd reading of India.

A similar coarseness can be seen in the other categories invoked. How homogeneous should the "Islamic" box be? Consider Akbar and Aurangzeb, two Muslim emperors of the Mughal dynasty in India. Aurangzeb tried hard to convert Hindus into Muslims and instituted various policies in that direction, of which taxing non-Muslims was only one example. In contrast, Akbar revelled in his multi-ethnic court and pluralist laws, and issued official proclamations insisting that no one "should be interfered with on account of religion, and anyone is to be allowed to go over to a religion that pleases him." If a homogeneous view of Islam were to be taken, then only one of them could count as a true Muslim. The Islamic fundamentalist would have no time for Akbar; and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, given his insistence that tolerance is a defining characteristic of Islam, would have to consider excommunicating Aurangzeb from the community of Muslims. I expect both Akbar and Aurangzeb would protest, and so would I.

A similar crudity is present in the characterisation of what is called "the Western civilisation." Samuel Huntington gives good examples of the importance of tolerance and individual freedom in European history, and insists that the "West was West long before it was modern." But there is no dearth of diversity here either. For example, when Akbar was making his pronouncements on religious tolerance in Agra, in the 1590s, the Inquisitions were still going on; in 1600, Giordano Bruno was burnt at the stake, for heresy, in Campo dei Fiori in Rome.

The first problem with reliance on civilisational partitioning is, thus, its extraordinary crudity. This is supplemented by a second problem, namely the absurdity of the implicit presumption that this partitioning is natural and necessary and must overwhelm all other ways of identifying people. That imperious view goes not only against the old-fashioned belief that "we human beings are all much the same," but also against the more plausible understanding that we are diversely different. For example, Bangladesh's split from Pakistan was not connected with religion, but with language, literature, and politics. Each of us has many features in our self-conception. Our religion, important as it may be, cannot be an all-engulfing identity. Even a shared poverty can be a source of solidarity across the borders. The kind of division highlighted by, say, the so-called "anti-globalisation" protesters - whose movement is, incidentally, one of the most globalised in the world - tries to unite the underdogs of the world economy. Its programme goes firmly against religious, national or "civilisational" lines of division.

The main hope of harmony in the contemporary world lies not in any imagined uniformity, but in the plurality of our identities, which cut across each other and work against sharp divisions around one uniquely hardened line of impenetrable division. The political leaders who dispute the clash of civilisations, but think and act in terms of a unique partitioning of humanity into "the Western world," "the Muslim world," "the Hindu world," and so on, make the world not only more divisive, but also much more flammable. They also end up privileging the voice of religious authorities (who become the ex officio spokesmen), while muffling other voices and silencing other concerns.

The robbing of our plural identities not only reduces us, but also impoverishes the world.

Based on a speech in New Delhi on November 12, 2001, at the inaugural meeting of "South Asians for Human Rights," a new non-governmental forum for discussion, co-chaired by Asma Jahangir (Pakistan) and I.K. Gujral (India).

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