The 21st century has hardly begun and the great promise of globalisation and “liberal inclusion” of the last century is fading. The world’s powerful states, heretofore wedded to internationalism, are turning inward and seeking their primeval identities. Nations are seeking identities away from multiculturalism and wish to protect themselves by banning immigration. Borders are being closed, and those who had crossed them decades earlier as welcome guests are being treated with intolerance.
Anthropologist Akbar Ahmed has found the rise of identity politics in Europe interesting enough for him to undertake a journey to Europe to experimentally see if his earlier theses on the subject jibe with what is happening now. His Journey into Europe: Islam, Immigration and Identity is a kind of culmination to his three earlier examinations of “tribal” identity. As Ahmed surveys the identity-seeking Europe, he is reminded of the “inclusive” state of Abdur Rahman in al-Andalus (Iberia), in the 8th century AD. It was remembered for its “Convivencia”, or the idea of the living together of different identities, which Islam has forsaken today. Rahman was an Umayyad prince from a Berber mother in Syria. He was a descendant of the founder of the dynasty who had married a Christian woman — thus indicating the source of his “Convivencia” in al-Andalus between Muslims, Christians and Jews tolerant of multiple identities.
But, this Convivencia that one puts today in front of a Europe forsaking the Enlightenment and seeking “identity”, did not last: Ahmed compares it to what is happening today among nations. One is reminded of Jamaludin Afghani too, who opposed Syed Ahmad Khan — an ancestor of Akbar Ahmed — in India, but proposed acceptance of Islam in Europe. Afghani possessed a lot of traditional learning that eased his entry into the Muslim societies of Turkey, India, Iran and Egypt. But he got his comeuppance in France, where orientalist Ernest Renan told him, prophetically, that his claim — that Muslims would ultimately turn to reason and modernity — will never be proved right as the Muslims will defeat his thinking just as they had rejected Ibn Rushd (Averroes) in the 12th century for having learned too much of Aristotle.
Today’s European intolerance of the Muslim minorities reminds one of an early warning by a European genius in a different context. Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) in The Origins of Totalitarianism traced the modern state’s internal cleansing to its second project: Of conquering other territories and killing off the population there through genocide. It is the imperialism of the modern state which gets internalised when it purges its own population to eliminate those who are “different”.
Reading Akbar Ahmed one is reminded of the motto the founding fathers fashioned for Pakistan: Unity, Faith and Discipline — putting unity first to obfuscate the clashing identities of the various communities living in Pakistan. As the state moved away from Raj-enforced Enlightenment to an Islamist military dominance, the motto, at times, came to be rewritten as Faith, Unity, Discipline — putting faith first, and thus clearly embracing identity that divides in place of the intended “assimilation” of all identities in Pakistan. Similarly, the Urdu “grammatical rule” of writing “marhoom” (blessed) only after the name of the Muslim dead and disallowing it after the name of a non-Muslim Pakistani citizen, sought exclusion rather than inclusion. In India, a constitution put together by an untouchable leader, B R Ambedkar, charted the assimilation of all identities in secular integration. But today, the new consensus reflected in the electoral victory of the BJP seeks to follow the path traced by the state of Pakistan.
Outside Hindutva, all identities are “impure”, just as the non-Muslims of Pakistan have to live under laws that victimise them. Ahmed writes about “tribal” Europe: “Yet the aggressive promotion of German tribalism is far from finished. The emergence of Far Right political movements such as Pegida (Patriotic Europeans against the Islamisation of the West) and Alternative for Germany (AfD), the attacks on foreigners and Muslims, refugee shelters, and mosques, and the disturbing re-emergence of anti-Semitism reflect a deep-seated hostility to all that is ‘impure’.”
The writer is consulting editor, Newsweek Pakistan.