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A question of identity

The West’s postmodern elites are being challenged by migrants who are more sure of who they are

THE radical Islamist ideology that has motivated terror attacks over the past decade must be seen in large measure as a manifestation of modern identity politics rather than of traditional Muslim culture.

Modern identity politics revolves around demands for recognition of group identities - that is, public affirmations of the equal dignity of formerly marginalised groups, from the Quebecois to African-Americans to women to indigenous peoples to homosexuals.

The argument that contemporary radical Islamism is a form of identity politics has been made most forcefully by the French scholar Olivier Roy in his 2004 book Globalised Islam.

According to Roy, the root of radical Islamism is not cultural - that is, it is not a by-product of something inherent in Islam or the culture that this religion has produced. Rather, he argues, radical Islamism has emerged because Islam has become "deterritorialised" in such a way as to throw open the whole question of Muslim identity. To Roy, identity becomes problematic precisely when Muslims leave traditional Muslim societies by, for example, emigrating to Western Europe. One's identity as a Muslim is no longer supported by the outside society; indeed, there is strong pressure to conform to the West's prevailing cultural norms.

The question of authenticity arises in a way that it never did in the traditional society, since there is now a gap between one's inner identity as a Muslim and one's behaviour vis-a-vis the surrounding society.

This explains the constant questioning of imams on Islamic websites about what is haram (prohibited) or halal (permitted).

Radical Islamism and jihadism arise in response to the resulting quest for identity. Those ideologies can answer the question of "Who am I?" posed by a young Muslim in Holland or France: you are a member of a global umma defined by adherence to a universal Islamic doctrine that has been stripped of all of its local customs, saints, traditions and the like.

Muslim identity thus becomes a matter of inner belief rather than outward conformity to social practice.

Thus could Mohammed Atta and several of the other 9/11 conspirators allegedly drink alcohol and visit a strip club in the days before the attacks.

Whether there is anything specific to the Muslim religion that encourages radicalisation is an open question. Since September 11, a small industry has sprung up trying to show how violence and even suicide bombing have deep Koranic or historical roots. It is important to remember, however, that at many periods in history Muslim societies have been more tolerant than their Christian counterparts. The Jewish philosopher Maimonides was born in Muslim Cordoba, which was a diverse centre of culture and learning; Baghdad for many generations hosted one of the world's largest Jewish communities.

It makes no more sense to see today's radical Islamism as an inevitable outgrowth of Islam than to see fascism as the culmination of centuries of European Christianity.

Second, the problem of jihadist terrorism will not be solved by bringing modernisation and democracy to the Middle East. Modernisation and democracy are good things in their own right, but in the Muslim world they are likely to increase, not dampen, the terror problem in the short run.

Europeans argue, with some justice, that they face a harder problem in integrating their immigrants - the majority of whom are now Muslim - than does the US. Europe's Muslim immigrants tend to come from quite traditional societies, while the vast bulk of newcomers to the US are Hispanic and share the Christian heritage of the dominant culture. (Numbers also matter: in the US there are two to three million Muslims in a country numbering nearly 300 million; were this Muslim population proportionally the same size as in France, there would be more than 20 million.)

Whatever its exact causes, Europe's failure to better integrate its Muslims is a ticking time bomb that has already contributed to terrorism. It is bound to provoke a sharper backlash from populist groups, and may even threaten European democracy itself. Resolution of this problem will require a two-pronged approach, involving changes in behaviour by immigrant minorities and their descendants as well as by members of the dominant national communities.

The first prong of the solution is to recognise that the old multicultural model has not been a big success in countries such as The Netherlands and Britain, and that it needs to be replaced by more energetic efforts to integrate non-Western populations into a common liberal culture.

The old multicultural model was based on group recognition and group rights. Out of a misplaced sense of respect for cultural differences - and in some cases out of imperial guilt - it ceded too much authority to cultural communities to define rules of behaviour for their own members. Liberalism cannot ultimately be based on group rights, because not all groups uphold liberal values.

Multiculturalism, as it was originally conceived in Canada, the US and Europe, was in some sense a "game at the end of history". That is, cultural diversity was seen as a kind of ornament to liberal pluralism that would provide ethnic food, colourful dress and traces of distinctive historical traditions to societies often seen as numbingly conformist and homogeneous. Cultural diversity was something to be practised largely in the private sphere, where it would not lead to any serious violations of individual rights or otherwise challenge the essentially liberal social order. Where it did intrude into the public sphere, as in the case of language policy in Quebec, the deviation from liberal principle was seen by the dominant community more as an irritant than as a fundamental threat to liberal democracy itself.

By contrast, some contemporary Muslim communities are making demands for group rights that simply cannot be squared with liberal principles of individual equality.

These demands include special exemptions from the family law that applies to everyone else in the society, the right to exclude non-Muslims from certain types of public events, or the right to challenge free speech in the name of religious offence (as with the Danish cartoons incident).

In some more extreme cases, Muslim communities have even expressed ambitions to challenge the secular character of the political order as a whole. These types of group rights clearly intrude on the rights of other individuals in the society and push cultural autonomy well beyond the private sphere.

Asking Muslims to give up group rights is much more difficult in Europe than in the US, however, because many European countries have corporatist traditions that continue to respect communal rights and fail decisively to separate church and state. The existence of state-funded Christian and Jewish schools in many European countries makes it hard to argue in principle against state-supported religious education for Muslims. If Europe is to establish the liberal principle of a pluralism based on individuals rather than groups, then it must address these corporatist institutions inherited from the past.

The other prong of the solution to the problem of Muslim integration concerns the expectations and behaviour of the majority communities in Europe. National identity continues to be understood and experienced in ways that sometimes make it a barrier for newcomers who do not share the ethnicity and religious background of the native-born. National identity has always been socially constructed; it revolves around history, symbols, heroes and the stories that a community tells about itself.

If existing citizens do not sufficiently value their national citizenship, then European countries can scarcely expect newcomers to value it either.

Despite its very different starting point, the US may have something to teach Europeans here as they attempt to construct post-ethnic forms of national citizenship and belonging. American life is full of quasi-religious ceremonies and rituals meant to celebrate the country's democratic political institutions: flag-raising ceremonies, the naturalisation oath, Thanksgiving and the 4th of July. Europeans, by contrast, have largely deritualised their political lives. Europeans tend to be cynical or dismissive of American displays of patriotism. But such ceremonies are important in the assimilation of new immigrants.

And Europe does have its own precedents for creating national identities that are less based on ethnicity or religion. The most celebrated case is French republicanism, which in its classic form refused to recognise separate communal identities and used state power to homogenise French society. With the growth of terrorism and urban unrest, an intense discussion has been under way in France about why this form of integration has failed. Part of the reason may be that the French themselves gave up the old concept of citizenship in favour of a version of multiculturalism. The headscarf ban of 2004 was the reassertion of an older concept of republicanism.

Britain has recently been borrowing from both American and French traditions as it seeks to raise the visibility of national citizenship.

The Labour Government has introduced citizenship ceremonies for new citizens as well as compulsory citizenship and language tests. It has also started citizenship classes in schools for all young citizens.

Britain has experienced a sharp rise in immigration in recent years, much of it from the new member states of the EU such as Poland, and in imitation of the US - the Government sees immigration as a key part of its relative economic dynamism.

Immigrants are welcome so long as they work rather than draw welfare and, thanks to US-style flexible labour markets, there are plenty of low-skill jobs to take.

But in much of the rest of Europe, a combination of inflexible work rules and generous benefits means that immigrants come in search not of work but of welfare. Many Europeans claim that the less generous welfare state in the US robs the poor of dignity. But the opposite is true: dignity comes through work and the contributions one makes through one's labour to the larger society. In several Muslim communities in Europe, as much as half the population subsists on welfare, directly contributing to the sense of alienation and hopelessness.

So the European experience is not homogeneous. But in most countries, the debate about identity and migration is opening up - albeit driven in part by terror attacks and the rise of the populist Right.

The dilemma of immigration and identity ultimately converges with the larger problem of the valuelessness of postmodernity. The rise of relativism has made it harder for postmodern people to assert positive values and therefore the kinds of shared beliefs that they demand of migrants as a condition for citizenship.

Postmodern elites, particularly those in Europe, feel that they have evolved beyond identities defined by religion and nation and have arrived at a superior place. But aside from their celebration of endless diversity and tolerance, postmodern people find it difficult to agree on the substance of the good life to which they aspire in common.

Immigration forces upon us in a particularly acute way discussion of the question "who are we?", posed by author Samuel Huntington. If postmodern societies are to move towards a more serious discussion of identity, they will need to uncover those positive virtues that define what it means to be a member of the wider society. If they do not, they may be overwhelmed by people who are more sure about who they are.

This is an edited extract from an article first published in Journal of Democracy in the US. Copyright National Endowment for Democracy and the Johns Hopkins University Press. Francis Fukuyama is Professor of international political economy at Johns Hopkins School of International Studies and author of books including The End of History and The Last Man.

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Modern Liberal Western culture has all the means by which formerly marginalised groups can assimilate. Hence the oft quoted "Western Mulicultural Society" tag to Western Cultures. Whilst transition from various cultural backgrounds are often fraught with difficulties, most groups do find their adopted host Western countries a safe accomodating and free home. This process may take one or two generations, but none the less the transition is successful. The transition and accomodation of the Moslem culture into the Western society is different . Islam does not want to integrate . Islam wants to dominate, change the cultural hue of the host nation and its Multicultural characteristic, so as to become the dominant culture of the host nation. The democratic laws and policies do much to accomodate this, to the detriment of the local population. The radical Islamist ideology that has motivated terror attacks over the past decade is not the result of an identity crisis. It is the natural consequence of of the Islamist identity.

Posted by Danny on 2007-02-07 10:33:45 GMT

It would be worthwhile to use this article as the basis for an analysis of current trends, in the media and elsewhere

Posted by Ralph on 2007-02-07 04:50:25 GMT