September 15, 2010

Idea and Violence

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.

--- Amartya Sen. What Clash of Civilizations? Why religious identity isn't destiny. Slate, March 29, 2006.

This message from Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen is at once serious, wrong, and dangerous. It is serious because the messenger is an acclaimed scholar, well regarded by thinkers and policy makers alike, and known to choose his words carefully. It is wrong because Sen's admonition derives from an ill-defined and vacuous concept of identity. It is dangerous because the message is an implicit appeal to desist from identifying and subjecting to criticism, the adherents to a religion that is fundamentally antithetical to the ideals of liberty, one law for all, and secularism. Witness how the media and the polity religiously avoid the use of the words "Muslim" and "Islam" in any context which may be seen as even remotely critical of these artifacts.

Several years ago, I visited a village in the state of Tamil Nadu, India, 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 of 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 made clear their strong reservations about distributing 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 reasons for their objection. Their contention was 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 members.

After I got back to Chennai, I did a little bit of research into the matter. In the colonial days, the British had identified several communities in the then Madras Province (and elsewhere, I am sure) — the Valaiyars among them — 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 an unrelated and frivolous anecdote, consider this. Professor Sen notes in a essay on "Secularism and Discontent" from his book, The Argumentative Indian, that "...India has, at this time, a Muslim President, a Sikh Prime Minister and a Christian head of the ruling party" [ibid. fn, p.302]. Sen proudly identifies Dr. Abdul Kalam, then 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, "Communal Rage in Secular India", would not recognize Dr. Kalam as a Muslim! In an 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 then goes through a litany of reasons why Dr. Kalam should not be considered 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" [ibid. p.350]. I have no such presumption. It's quite obvious to me, 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 gushing through a list of identities that a person 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).

--- Amartya Sen. Identity and Violence, 2006.

Well, of course, but 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, a Muslim, and a Jew 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 [ibid. p.350],

...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 male (alphabetically ordered list to be super pc), but none of these identities has any relevance to the fact that he had masterminded the kidnapping and murder of Daniel Pearl. That Mr. Sheikh was a devout Muslim, however, was relevant to Mr. Pearl's murder. Why?

Before I answer the question, let's take a closer look at Sen's second strawman. 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" [ibid., 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 — our 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 his beliefs than someone who may share those beliefs, but also respect the lives of others with different beliefs.

Identity is a statistical fiction, an artifact of data reduction and clustering. It masks 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 not because the likes of Omar Sheikh are identified as Muslims 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 ideas, 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, if at all?

A religion is a collection of ideas, in some instances written down in scriptures eons ago, 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 woman is a temptress and inferior to man, and the idea that homosexuality is a mortal sin that is punishable by death, are not benign private beliefs. Nor is the idea that apostates, blasphemers, and unbelievers can, and should be, put to death and their property confiscated or destroyed.

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 a god's last word, communicated through his last and only true prophet, is a dangerous idea in itself, no matter how many billions of people buy into the lie. With an incredible number of blind-reviewed publications to his credit, Professor Sen should know!

Liberals and secularists who obfuscate inherently dangerous ideas by characterizing them as misinterpretations of religion, or seek justification for the actions that follow from such ideas elsewhere — as Sen does in what he calls the "solitarist approach" to identity — are simply dishonest. Intellectual honesty demands that they should explicitly and unequivocally reject those ideas and throw them into "the ash heap of history", to use President Reagan's words.

It's undoubtably wrong if Michael Enright had confused a singular identity of Ahmed Sharif as a Muslim with the ideas and beliefs held by other Muslims he might have encountered in Afghanistan, and then proceeded to assault him. It is equally wrong, however, to conflate a criticism of irrational and deadly ideas into a criticism of an identity, and then brand it as divisive or hateful. Such attempts risk the eventual domination and entrenchment of those ideas that can be dislodged only at an enormous cost, both to human lives and property. If you have any doubt, read the history of the Holocaust and the Second World War.

1This article is essentially same as the one that I wrote four years ago, "Much Ado About Identity". It's worth a reread, I think, in the current climate of heightened sensitivity to criticism of religion.
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