September 10, 2006

Much Ado About Identity

As a follow up on my earlier post on "Sen and Sensibility", I'll first take up the subject of identity, even though it is only peripheral to the theme of Amartya Sen's book, The Argumentative Indian1. Professor Sen's essay on "The Indian Identity" in this book is, however, a precursor to his more recent book, Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny. I have not read the latter, but I have heard Sen's on line presentations on the book and read excerpts from it. The message that Sen delivers in Identity and Violence can be summed up best in his own words,

The insistence, if only implicitly, on a choiceless singularity of human identity not only diminishes us all, it also makes the world much more flammable. The alternative to the divisiveness of one pre-eminent categorization is not any unreal claim that we are all much the same. Rather, the main hope of harmony in our troubled world lies in the plurality of our identities, which cut across each other and work against sharp divisions around one single hardened line of vehement division that allegedly cannot be resisted. Our shared humanity gets savagely challenged when our differences are narrowed into one devised system of uniquely powerful categorization.

This message is at once serious, dangerous and wrong. It is serious because the messenger is an acclaimed scholar, well regarded by thinkers and policy makers alike, especially in a region of a billion people that President Clinton had called "the most dangerous place on earth". The message is dangerous because it asks us quite explicitly to desist from identifying the adherents to a religion that is fundamentally antithetical to the ideals of freedom, peace,and secularism. It's wrong because it derives from an undefined and vacuous concept of identity.

Several years ago, I visited a village in Tamil Nadu on behalf of a business group in Chennai. The group's owners hailed from this village, and wanted to distribute a large tract of fallow land in their possession to the landless laborers in the village. I was sent to assess the feasibility of the project and develop a mechanism for the distribution.

When I arrived in the village, the landowners wanted to meet me separately to express their views on the matter, and I obliged. In the meeting, they expressed strong reservations about distributing the fallow land to the landless laborers in the village. Quite clearly, it was in their interest to do so, but I pressed them anyway for the reason for their objection. They argued that the landless laborers belonged to the Valaiyar community which was a denotified tribe, and therefore were criminals who could not be trusted. I didn't understand why the Valaiyars were identified as a denotified tribe, or the connection between that identity and the alleged criminality of the community.

After I got back to Chennai, I did a little bit of research into the matter. In the colonial days, the British had identified the Valaiyars and several other communities in Tamil Nadu (and elsewhere I am sure) as thugs, and issued a gazette (official) notification to that effect. All the affected communities were collectively known as "Notified Tribes", an ignominious identity, signifying criminal habits.

After independence, the Government of India decided to rectify this unfair stereotyping of entire communities. It issued a new gazette notification, declaring that the said communities have been denotified as criminal tribes. Thereafter, they were identified as "Denotified Tribes". Their identity was officially changed but they were stuck with the ignominy nonetheless. So much for the concept of identity!

Lest you should dismiss this as a frivolous example, consider this. Sen notes in a chapter on "Secularism and Discontent" that "...India has, at this time, a Muslim President, a Sikh Prime Minister and a Christian head of the ruling party" [fn, p.302, AI]. Sen proudly identifies Dr. Abdul Kalam, the current President of India, as a Muslim. Yet, late Dr. Rafiq Zakaria, a well regarded Islamic scholar and former Chancellor of Aligarh Muslim University, someone whom Sen respected enough to write a forward to his book, would not recognize Dr. Kalam as a Muslim! In the article that originally appeared in the Asian Age and hastily withdrawn, Dr. Zakaria wrote,

...But because [Dr. Kalam] was born a Muslim and bears a Muslim name, he should not be put in the same category as the two former Muslim Presidents, Dr Zakir Husain and Mr Fakruddin Ali Ahmed. Both of them were as great a patriot and Indian to the core as Dr Kalam. But they were also Muslims in the real sense of the word; they believed in the tenets of the Quran and faithfully followed the traditions of the Prophet...But for God's sake, don't describe [Dr. Kalam] as a Muslim President and take credit for having obliged the Muslims for giving them this great honour.

Dr. Zakaria goes through a litany of reasons why Dr. Kalam should not be considered as a Muslim. Amongst them are his refusal of an invitation to visit the Anjuman-i-Islam "to deliver the famous Seerut lecture to pay homage to the Prophet", his enchantment with Gita, and an anecdote that he was a vegetarian! I don't care if Dr. Kalam was or was not a Muslim "in the real sense of the word", whatever that means, but it is less than satisfying to note that two eminent scholars such as Dr. Sen and Dr. Zakaria could not agree on an identity seemingly as simple as that of a Muslim.

Without clearly defining identity, Sen sets up a couple of strawmen to shoot down. First, Sen questions "the presumption that we must have a single identity - at least a principal and dominant" [AI, p.350]. It's quite obvious to this blogger, and I am reasonably certain, to millions of my fellow bloggers that we have at least two identities — that of a blogger and that of a son or a daughter! Yet, Sen belabors the existence of multiple identities in presentation after presentation, by tirelessly going through a list of identities that a principal may have —

The same person can be, without any contradiction, an American citizen, of Caribbean origin, with African ancestry, a Christian, a liberal, a woman, a vegetarian, a schoolteacher, a novelist, a feminist, a heterosexual, a believer in gay and lesbian rights, a theatre lover, an environmental activist, a tennis fan, a jazz musician, and someone who is deeply committed to the view that there are intelligent beings in outer space with whom it is extremely urgent to talk (preferably in English). — from the prologue to Identity and Violence

Each one of these identities can be refined into several finer identities — for example, a vegetarian can be a lacto-vegetarian, a vegan, or a fruitarian, or aggregated into coarser identities — for example, a Christian can be aggregated into an Abrahamic, a monotheist, and a theist. What we end up with is a selection from a hierarchy of innumerable identities.

Although we may have multiple identities, most are irrelevant in a given context. As Sen himself concedes [p.350, AI],

...the priorities over these [multiple] identities must be relative to the issue at hand (for example,the vegetarian identity may be more important when going to dinner rather than to to a Consulate, whereas the French citizenship may be more telling when going to a Consulate rather than attending a dinner.

Omar Sheikh is an alumnus of the London School of Economics, a chess buff, a cricket fan, and also a man (alphabetically ordered list to be super pc), but none of these identities has any relevance to the fact that he masterminded the kidnapping and murder of Daniel Pearl. That Sheikh is a devout Muslim, however, is relevant to Pearl's murder. Why?

Before I answer this, let's take a closer look at Sen's second straw men. After questioning the presumption of a singular identity, Sen proceeds to challenge "the supposition that we "discover" our identity, with no room for any choice" [AI, p.350]. I agree that we don't "discover" our identities by some mysterious, metaphysical process. However, we don't "choose" our identities either.

What we choose are ideas — ideals, values, and theories. The range of ideas, values, and theories that we choose from is infinite. An American national identity, masks variations in one's adherence to the constitutional provisions of the United States. The California physician and atheist, Michael Newdow, who sued against the reference to God in the pledge of alliance, is very much an American when it comes to the rest of the pledge.

To make matters worse, our behavior is not only the product of the ideas that we choose to subscribe to, but also how passionate we are about them. The suicide bomber who decides to destroy not only the unbelievers' lives but also his own, is far more deeply and dangerously committed to defend his religion than someone who may share his beliefs but also tolerant of alternate beliefs.

t is not because the likes of Omar Sheikh are identified as Muslims in the media that they kill the likes of Daniel Pearl. It is because of the higher propensity of Muslims to commit violence when confronted by any situation that they perceive as inimical to their religion that the likes of Omar Sheikh are identified as Muslims. As Abdel Rahman al-Rashed wrote in this article that first appeared in the London-based pan-Arabic newspaper, Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, "It is a certain fact that not all Muslims are terrorists, but it is equally certain, and exceptionally painful, that almost all terrorists are Muslims". Why does a Muslim have a higher propensity to commit terrorism? What does religion have anything to do with this?

A religion is a collection of ideas, in some instances written down in scriptures, and in others, communicated orally across generations. Some ideas in this collection can be dangerous, and if left unchallenged or glossed over, will make "the world much more flammable" to use Sen's own words. The idea of untouchability, the idea that a woman is inferior to a man, and the idea that abortion is a sin punishable by death, are not benign private beliefs. So is not the idea that unbelievers and apostates can and should be exterminated. In the interest of human civilization and progress, ideas must be subjected to logical and empirical scrutiny. They must be challenged and rejected when warranted.

Deeming an idea as above criticism and rejection because it's god's last word is a dangerous idea in itself. The idea that certain verses in the Koran that incite violence against the unbelievers [S. 2.191, for example] are the words of god, and therefore above questioning by "mere mortals", is indefensible. With an incredible number of blind-reviewed publications to his credit, Professor Sen should know!

Identity is a statistical fiction, the result of data reduction, masking the underlying variability and complexity of the ideas held by an individual. The devil, as they say, is in the details. In analyzing the causes of violence, it's the ideas that we need to focus on. It is wrong to conflate a criticism of dangerous ideas into a criticism of an identity, and then brand it as divisive or hateful. Such an endeavor risks the eventual domination and entrenchment of those ideas. If you have any doubt, take a look at the constitutions and the laws of Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Malaysia. Or, closer to my home, contraception and abortion related laws and public policies.

Secularists who fog inherently dangerous ideas by characterizing them as misinterpretations of religion, or seek justification for actions that follow from such ideas elsewhere — as Sen does in the "solitarist approach" to identity — are simply dishonest. Intellectual honesty demands that they should explicitly and unequivocally trash those ideas into "the ash heap of history", to quote President Reagan.

1The book is hereafter referred to as AI; all page references are to the paper-back edition, Penguin Books: London, 2005.
  1. I don't think Rafiq Zakaria was ever a Professor at AMU .

  2. Thanks. Dr. Zakaria was a former Chancellor of AMU, and not a Profeessor. I regret the inadvertent error.

  3. A Chancellor is just a ceremonial post and has no real influence or power in AMU .Thus he has no significant association with the University. Similarly the President of India by virtue of his position is a Visitor of the University.

  4. Read on the slayer verses

  5. history_lover,
    I cannot say that I have read all of what you have pointed to thorughly, but I got the general idea. Advocacy of violence against those who disagreed with certain ideas that constitute a religion is wrong, period. I don't entertain any if's and but's. I have lived my life on a principle that ideas must be pitted against ideas, not sword, cannons, and bombs, and I am not about to give it up.

    I am someone who agrees with Richard Dawkins, who has argued that religion is at the root of all evil. If the words in scriptures were limited in space and time, and wrong even then, why continue to revere them, and those that wrote or spoke them? If all religions were benevolent, and delivered the same message of liberty, love, and peace, that no one in his/her sane mind could take objection to, then why do we need any religion at all? What is the need for organizations such as the Organization of Islamic Countries, Vatican, or Vishwa Hindu Parishad? Why do you describe yourself in your blogger profile as an Indian Muslim struggling to learn about Islam and practising it in an (increasingly) hostile environment? Why not simply as someone who believes in liberty, love, and peace?

  6. Because most religious people would assert that the two are not mutually contradictory.

  7. >> Identity is a statistical fiction, the result of data reduction, masking the underlying variability and complexity of the ideas held by an individual. The devil, as they say, is in the details. In analyzing the causes of violence, it's the ideas that we need to focus on. It is wrong to confuse dangerous ideas with identities, and cast the criticism of the former as a criticism of the latter, and therefore, divisive

    This is a quotable quote. And I wish more people would reflect on this.

    But aren't yo unot contradicting the above when you take Dwarkin's stand against all religions?


  8. @ Vinod said
    "But aren't you not contradicting the above when you take Dwarkin's [sic] stand against all religions?"

    You have raised a good point. I have often wondered about the apparent contradiction in my stance. Does it arise from the strong atheist position that I hold? I think not.

    The contradiction arises, I think, from the different interpretations of what a religion is. A religion, as I take it, is a set of beliefs and edicts that come as a package, often touted as words of god, broadcast through an almost equally venerable intermediary. Words of god cannot be a menu of items that one may pick and choose from, can they?

    Now, an individual practicing a religion, may indeed have picked and chosen from the beliefs and edicts that constitute a religion. Whether s/he is accepted as belonging to a religious community, of course, depends on how tightly controlled that religion is. Dr. Abdul Kalam's example that I have given above, illustrates this.

    Sects and schisms often develop from such selective interpretations of a religion, and then further nuances may be introduced depending on the weight that an individual attaches to each belief or edict - moderate, extremist, etc. If we pushed this argument further, we arrive at the main points raised in my post.

    The religion - and the monolithic collection of ideas that it entails - therefore, is at the the root of all evil, but not necessarily the "religious".

  9. I like to think that the words of religion was revealed but not its continued interpretation over time. Some guidelines for interpretation can be discerned but there is a lot of room there for creativity and adaptation.

    I also like to think that religions are silent and it is men who talk.

    Anyway, our differences is purely a matter of perspective.


  10. Excellent...!!!

    By the way, which god ever came to any human to reveal anything? When will humanity overcome this idiotism? And when the original itself is not there, how can it change with time - as if that matters?

    These people are made divine (or proclaimed themselves to be divine) and are the most despicable rascals... (From circa 10000 BC to circa current time and in every place in the world)

    Why don't people understand that GOD has nothing to do with your world or how it is run or your individual or collective sorrows or happiness? Have you ever seen the number of galaxies around and guessed how many stars would be in each and how many of them might have a planet with life that harbours on this kind of idiotic intelligence? Would you ever get near a termite colony and organize something there for the benefit of a single termite - you, who must be gods to the termites?

    (Dr. Kasivishvanathan Sundar)


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