Some years ago, when “identity politics” first raised its contentious, snappish little head, the furor seemed almost entirely focused on African-Americans. The true complexity and importance of that debate, deemed largely academic at first, is perhaps increasingly clear. In recent times the world has shuddered with violent realignments unleashed by global challenges to line up with “them” or with “us,” or with “truth” or with “treason.” Identity is battered by varied appeals to conformity: Say it! prove it! swear allegiance to this or that nation, party, religion, bloodline of the moment–good or bad, for or against, red or blue, blue or gray, black or white, or many shades of other.
A deep planetary insecurity has fostered a rush to build boundaries around ourselves–psychic green zones, mental walls, panic rooms, little protective groupings–no matter how irrational. There’s a Boondocks cartoon that captures the absurd tension of this moment, where young Huey excitedly tells his grandfather that there’s good news abroad in the land. African-Americans are now only the third most hated group in America, he says, right after Muslims and the French. It is a bizarre phenomenon, this free-floating sense of well-being that derives comfort from being less hated rather than more loved.
As recent riots around the globe have made so clear, identities and their attendant prejudice are essentially malleable; they vary with time, trauma, culture and economics. In Australia Lebanese seem to have overtaken Aborigines as the hated minority du jour. In America Lebanese are still gilded with a stereotype of heroic middle classness–I heard someone say that “they’re Arab but, um, more Christianized, you know?” In France Algerians used to be the most disfavored, now less so than Senegalese and Malians. In England it was always the Irish, but now that the Irish have become prosperous, Afro-Caribbeans and South Asians are, as one commentator put it, “the new Irish.”
After the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes–a Brazilian electrician British police mistook for a terrorist, having adjudged him “swarthy” and “Middle-Eastern looking”–observers in Brazil expressed great shock because to them he was so clearly “white.” And in New Zealand, when an ethnic Iraqi student was described in the high school yearbook as “most likely to join the army as a bomb,” the student responded with a sad lack of irony, “If I lived somewhere like America, I would expect a comment like that. I always thought New Zealand was quite a nice country.”
But the very shiftiness of such expressions of identity means that they are in some way responsive to social stimuli. It is worth thinking about that as the extraordinary proliferation of suspect profiling starts closing in around us. I worry that it might ultimately make us less rather than more attentive to the very details that aggravate such division. Last summer, for example, shortly after the London subway bombings by four Muslim British citizens, there was a call from Tony Blair and various members of the British government for moderate Muslim leaders to renounce violence, to chide their followers, to take young men inclined to radicalism in hand at once. The public debate was awash with contradiction: Muslims don’t want to mix with the culture. Then in the next breath: They blended in, which is why they slipped by without notice. Over and over I heard this perhaps unconscious tension between “Muslim” and “British”–between normative religious identity (Britain, after all, does have a state church) and citizenship.
Blair’s call for mainstream Muslims to get on board was patronizing. By definition, moderate British Muslims have not embraced violence. Would suicide-minded extremists really listen to moderate imams any more than they listen to the Archbishop of Canterbury? In any event, the media flocked to mosques throughout the next week, with cameras and microphones. On the BBC and in British newspapers one saw imams and Muslim community leaders parroting Tony Blair’s call for moderation. It had the quality of a performance of obedient children, speaking a script almost word for word. It was a show on many levels–and insulting in its implication that moderate Muslim leaders are at fault somehow for not taking strong stances even when they have. Distinguish yourselves, the government commanded; show us your innocence. And so they did, in the precise words Blair had used.
On broadcast after broadcast that weekend, flocks of reporters followed young Muslims out of mosques to ask what they thought. Many were very upset. They called it humiliating, a puppet exercise. On both NPR and the BBC I heard angry young men rejecting the falseness of the imprecations–but, just as ominously, I also heard many reporters recasting the responses as rejections of the message of tolerance and nonviolence. It was significant, this very small trick of language, circumstance, meaning and fear.
Recently, a white Belgian woman who had converted to a very extreme form of Islam became, with her husband, a suicide bomber in Iraq. In subsequent discussions, one heard growing fears of “white converts to Islam” and much surprise that “white Westerners” could be implicated in violence against other “white Westerners.” Word is that police will be paying much more attention to “converts to Islam.” This reductionism is quite disturbing. Violent, even suicidally cultic behavior–from David Koresh to Jonestown–is not unknown in Western civilization. Yet a broad new category of putative outsiders is created to explain her act. Fearing “converts to Islam” makes about as much sense as fearing Belgians.
We must fear radical orthodoxy of any stripe, not the sheep’s clothing it may don. Our over-breadth will only serve to cultivate new resentments–not always violent ones. Arbitrary, even if unconscious, fragmentation of community always reinforces outsider identity rather than dispersing it, insures new levels of division and anger rather than containing them.