To Be One Or The Other
March 15, 2010, 10:38 pm
Filed under: Culture, Immigration, Society | Tags: , ,

In many societies and in economically developed ones in particular, minority and immigrant communities often confront a crisis of identity. The crisis is largely manufactured by threatened segments of the majority, but is nevertheless a reality that many are forced to address.  These communities are expected to choose what exactly they want to be.  A combination is not good enough.  To accept the West, goes the logic, is to disavow what you were before.

We see this playing out, for example, in the English-only movement here in the United States, which implies that one cannot be adequately American unless they learn English.  Sometimes, those who refuse to or are unable to learn are seen with suspicion.  Many Muslims in the West also confront this dilemma, which questions their identity and their loyalty.  Either they are Muslim or American.  One must come before the other and no one can be both at the same time.

In his book, What I Believe, Tariq Ramadan addresses this specific issue through analogy.  The credit, of course, goes to the always intuitive Amartya Sen, who is and will always remain one of the intellectual icons of those in the subalternate.  The credit for clarity, however, goes to Mr. Ramadan, who himself frequently has his loyalties questioned because he speaks the language of no one specific group.

He writes:

Obsessed with the idea of defining oneself in opposition to what one is not, one ends up reducing oneself to a single identity what is supposed to tell everything.  Yet there are different orders within which one will have to define oneself differently.  Asking whether one is primarily ‘Muslim’ or ‘American,’ ‘Australian,’ ‘Italian,’ ‘French,’ or ‘Canadian’ opposes two identities and affiliations that do not belong to the same realm.  In the realm of religion and philosophy, that which imparts meaning to life, a human being is first and foremost an atheist, a Buddhist, a Jew, a Christian, or a Muslim: her or his passport or nationality cannot answer the existential question.  When an individual must vote for a candidate at an election, she or he is first an American, Italian, French, or British citizen involved in national affairs.  Depending on the realm or the field of activity, the individual therefore puts forward one identity or another, and that is not contradictory.

At a talk I was giving one day in Greece, at George Papandreou’s invitation, the economist Amartya Sen expressed his total agreement with my thought through a fine illustration.  Suppose, he said, you are a poet and a vegetarian.  If you are a dinner guest, this is no time or place to insist on your identity as a poet, while if you attend a poetry circle, you are certainly not going to introduce yourself as a vegetarian, for you would be seen as eccentric.  In other words, you have more than one identity and you give priority to one of those identities or the other depending on the environment or situation, without this affecting your loyalty to one order of affiliation or the other.  A poet who says he is a vegetarian at a meal is no less a poet.  The example is indeed enlightening, and it proves that the question of what one is foremost (or exclusively) is a bad question, a question that must be questioned and that, ultimately, one should refuse to answer.


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