The Failure of Identity Politics

The conflict in Bosnia played a pivotal role in my personal sense of Islamic consciousness, and for many others in my generation. The scenes on our television screens were harrowing, especially the Srebrenica massacre in 1995. More than a decade later, I was humbled to be able to visit Srebrenica and the memorial there; to see the mothers and wives that are still campaigning and raising funds to identify the bodies of lost ones so that they can have some sense of closure.

When the mass graves were dug and filled by over 8,000 bodies, the perpetrators moved the bodies around using tractors to hide their crimes, causing the dismemberment and ‘mixing’ of the body parts. DNA tests were required to identify bodies and perform funerals—a process that still remains incomplete. Muslims the world over largely forgot their Bosnian brethren once the news stories subsided. It was left to countries like the USA, and NGOs therein, to fund the vital DNA tests needed. Along with the military intervention by the US, this was an important reason why many of the people in Bosnia that I spoke to admired America—who they felt “stood by them, when Muslim countries were only interested in building mosques”, after the war.

My brief trip was eye opening in many other regards as well. In the 90s, we often heard that Bosnians were ‘Muslims’ by name only. They had long lost their Islamic heritage and practices, which had suffered under decades of communism and centuries of assimilation in Europe. Actually, the truth was far more complex. One could see institutions—charities, endowments, universities and Islamic centres that are centuries old and which represented a deep and rich Islamic legacy.

Naturally, there are those who are secular or who have developed a syncretic approach to local traditions and customs, but one could question whether this is any more significant than, say, Turkey is secular, or the way Muslims from the Indian sub-continent have blended in with local customs. Bosnians merely adapted their Islamic practices to their environment. If you listen to Shaykh Mustafa Ceric´, the Mufti of Bosnia, and you will hear a European voice of Islam speaking (albeit an Eastern European one). Meeting people like Dr. Ceric´, or politicians such as Haris Silajdžic´, or the late Alija Izetbegovic´, it is difficult not to be impressed by the breadth and depth of their knowledge.

We were told by some people that the experience of the conflict in that region as well as the Holocaust in Western Europe was evidence that integration would never work. The narrative was that even after decades and centuries of assimilation, let alone integration, European Jews and Bosnian Muslims were singled out for their faith and persecuted: we would never truly be accepted in Europe.

This was a powerful argument that I mulled over for a long time. In part, it shaped my own thoughts in the field of Muslim identity. But I eventually had to disagree with that narrative. For me, the failure was not of integration, it was actually the failure of something the narrative has a knack of feeding—identity politics. Both persecutions came out of a sense of ‘otherness’ that was reified by long-term dehumanisation and demonisation; myths and negative stories about the other; viewing the other through the lens of an opposing identity, simply because of that identity; by actively pitting one’s own interests (and eventually, survival) against the interests and survival of the other, in a zero-sum game. And this all starts with emphasising the ‘us’ and ‘them’, simplistic and artificial boxes that we place ourselves into, which can all too often end up in ‘my community right or wrong’.

The reaction of some British Muslims to the events in Bosnia was to panic. If ethnic cleansing of Muslims could happen in the 1990s, on the doorsteps of Europe, in a place closer to us than the south of Italy, it could happen to us here! How are ‘we’ going to protect ‘ourselves’; look after ‘our interests’? Thus, whilst we observed the evil created by a long-standing set of identity politics ‘over there’, the irony is that some Muslims began to drift further into the politics of identity and sense of victimhood ‘over here’. It is easier said than done, but these are precisely the moments for strong leadership that can hold communalism at bay, and appeal to our shared interests as a society and how, inevitably, we are all in it together.

(This blog appeared in emel magazine, issue 91, April 2012)

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