IN THE JOURNAL | INDONESIA 360
Contesting the politics of identity
October-December 2017
By: Siti Ruhaini Dzuhayatin

The modern world is marked by its plural and multicultural social realm, due to the rapid and massive cross-border mobility of people dating back to the Industrial Revolution, and its global expansion to the East, including into Southeast Asia. Today, no country is entirely homogeneous or exclusively isolated as an ethno-religious entity. Economic development has enticed people to move from their homelands to new ones. They have to adjust to neighborhoods where people share different races, ethnicities, faiths and classes, but also demand equal basic rights. Multiculturalism and pluralism come along with the concept of citizenship in how cities are managed, based on their diversity and the tolerance of the majority.

As many countries are still struggling to define and redefine their multicultural and pluralistic politics, the world today faces the challenge of globalization in a century where countries and nations are turning into a global village, through the unprecedented revolution of telecommunications and digital technologies. They have substantially transformed social relations from the traditional concept of “locality-based collectivity” such as villages, cities and countries into “social networks” where people gain “sociable and supportive community ties” through affordable smartphones, electronic messages and videos to connect with their relatives and friends. More obviously, people are more exposed to broader diversities and differences without corporal contexts. They can even expand their memberships to various “virtual” communities based on hobbies, politics, ideologies, religions and other personal interests. Globalization is adding to the creation of multiple identities that are a manifestation of multiculturalism and pluralism (Barry Wellman, 1990).

In fact, the East has been multicultural and plural in a descriptive sense since the beginning of the 6th century, through the amalgamation of China, India and Arabia with the rest of Asia. The expedition of Gajah Mada (1290-1364) to eastern Asia and the voyage of Cheng Ho (1403-24) from China to Southeast Asia, Africa and the Middle East provide historical evidence of those encounters. The great works of Moroccan scholar Ibn Battuta (1304-69) confirmed the multicultural nature of this region. This historical heritage provides ample evidence of how different religions and cultures lived side by side in harmony in Indonesia, India and China. It was the result of smooth and peaceful cultural exchanges among Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam that eventually shaped the multicultural and pluralistic features of Asia.

It is surprising today that the contestation of the politics of identity is alarming, albeit there is the promise of democracy and the modern state in ensuring equality and justice. Many groups are reclaiming their authentic identities, be they about ethnicity or religion. Political theorist Bhikhu Parekh has asserted that an authentic and fixed identity is unattainable because identity is in a “state of constant change,” depending upon interests and benefits entailed in power struggles and contestations where identity is recognized, marginalized or deemed as inferior. Multiculturalism and pluralism promote multiple identities that enable individuals to exercise identities flexibly, depending upon mutual benefits in different contexts. When identity is contested against multiculturalism and pluralism, it appears to be the failure of the state in managing differences, where certain groups suffer from being singled out, discriminated against, marginalized or, at least, being denied justice. A modern state is declarative and constitutive, where political legitimacy is based on a national consensus among different groups and parties in declaring a national and political identity. Multiculturalism and pluralism will survive best where a national identity embraces other identities in harmonious and meaningful ways. The politics of identity becomes contentious, particularly in a nation-state where cultural diversity is a geographically given. The more diverse a nation, the bigger the challenge to its political identity.   

Thus, the politics of identity are about managing mutual trust and interdependency among identity holders. For some people, national identity is considered an “achieved identity” that is constantly being contested by the “ascribed identities” acquired by religion, race and ethnicity. Religious communities, particularly Muslims in Indonesia, are largely in a constant exertion of negotiating between their religious and national identities. For conservative groups, religion is the utmost identity, overriding a national identity. Quite often, a national identity as an achieved identity is more volatile and unstable than the ascribed ones of religion and ethnicity. It, therefore, requires perpetual consensus and compromise among different groups to uphold national identity to contain other identities.

Before going further in talking about the politics of identity, it is worth exploring how identity is constructed and to identify the basis for such a construction. Identity is an assertion of a specific feature that defines something which is distinguished from others. Human beings have the ability to cultivate a “self-consciousness and self-determining agency to reflect who they are and decide what they wish to make themselves” (Parekh, 2008). Identity is constructed on the basis of diversity and differences, largely assumed synonymous and identical, although both have their own roots and implications in social relations. Diversity and differences are interrelated but operate in different ways: diversity reflects the richness of human beings in terms of race, religion, ethnicity, gender, ideology and political and other social affiliations. These dimensions constitute cultural diversity, which is essential in preserving the survival of humanity. In a favorable manner, cultural diversity can create multiculturalism, which is defined as an ideology and a consciousness that equally respects different cultures within a country.

Intolerance and the politics of identity

People are pressed to assert their identity when insecurity or other threats affect their very existence. Social insecurity might trigger battles over political, economic and other collective resources. Traditional communities might be more responsive and reactive to a collective identity than would be modern society. Modern society is based on organic solidarity, where individuals submit to solidarity in a contractual manner whenever it fulfills their interests. The sentiment to identity is becoming more fluid and flexible, depending upon how individuals utilize their identities for their pragmatic goals and interests. In the latter context, identity might be less imposed so long as individual interests are fulfilled. There has been a significant shift from mechanic to organic solidarity in modern life, although the process is not solely linear, but dynamic, often lapsing into a backlash.

Recently, the world has been swept up by a new form of identity politics. Communalism, or populism, has frequently surfaced in the form of racism and homophobia. The prevailing manifestation of homophobia is intolerance and incitement to violence against unacceptable individuals or groups because of their different faiths, cultures and lifestyles. The West has lately suffered from rising populism, emanating from the communal sentiment of the “nation-state.” The “America First” policy of US President Donald J Trump is ample evidence of modern populism, which could potentially undermine the basic principle of democracy on which America’s identity rests.

Amnesty International says that 2016 saw the biggest rollback of human rights protection since the global initiative of the Universal Declaration of Human Right in 1948. Elites tend to manipulate political rhetoric to push communal sentiments of faith, ethnicity and nationalism beyond the “limits of what is acceptable” to democracy (Leicer, 2017). At the same time, protectionist sentiment hit the European Union when Britain surprisingly decided to leave last year to protect its national interests and national identity from the inflow of immigrants. Populism and protectionism are becoming the new forms of identity politics, and the main threat to the future of democracy.

Democracy, pluralism and religious harmony

Winston Churchill once asserted that while democracy might not be perfect, compared to other political systems, it might be the best system for delivering justice in a nation-state. Democratic principles that pledge equality, the rule of law and the protection of human rights allow individuals with different backgrounds to have equal access to and participation in – and benefit from – welfare and prosperity. However, to attain these ideal principles, people must accept individuals with different backgrounds in an equal manner. In other words, justice can survive only if the individual entitlements to basic rights, liberty and dignity are respected and administered equally before the law (David Held, 1987). The major challenge to new nation-states is transforming traditional sentiment into modern citizenship, based on a contractual and consensual basis. Within this context, democracy is useful in fostering mutual respect among differences, recognition of equality before the law, equal access to and participation in public life, which are the prerequisites to establishing public trust as a foundation of civil society (Alexis de Tocqueville in Henry Reeve, 2002).

In this process, democracy provides a corrective mechanism for managing tensions and conflicts by preventing major groups, be they demographic, economic or religious, from dominating others. Democracy is also expected to ensure equality as the foundation for maintaining unity in diversity, which is something to do with the politics of respecting rights and delivering justice. In this manner, democracy allows civil society to function as a check and balance to the state in its exercising power for the people.

Public trust cannot be achieved merely by understanding diversity as cognitively plural. It requires stronger engagement by people to create a desirable society. Constructive and empowering engagement is the key to so-called workable pluralism. While “diversity” might be a given, pluralism is an achievement that should constantly be nurtured to maintain equilibrium and stability. In “workable” pluralism, religious identity recurrently prompts social tensions and conflicts, but is not necessarily the main root cause of intolerance. All social dimensions equally contribute to soaring prejudice and intolerance, which impedes pluralism.

Intolerance is heavily connected to religious fanaticism, due to poor instruction in religion, which is assumed to be incompatible with modernization and development. Many states have been vigorously modernizing religious education from basic to higher education. Eradicating intolerance, meanwhile, has mainly been for security reasons to prevent chaos and conflict, rather than dealing with the multifaceted causes of inequality and injustice. Taking a security approach has proved to be vulnerable because, in the absence of political dominance, conflicts can easily break out. This has happened in Indonesia.

On the ground, nations such as Indonesia have failed to foster pluralism and religious harmony simply because they perceive democracy as a procedure for gaining political power, without a strong commitment to deliver substantive democracy by providing equal access to justice. Democracy has been normally understood as a political mechanism through political parties, general elections and the existence of legislative, executive and judicial bodies. The substantive values of democracy – tolerance, justice, equal access, meritocracy, dignity, freedom of movement, physical safety and psychological contentment – tend to be neglected and overridden by political dominance and elite interests.

Justice can be assessed through access to basic needs such as food, water, housing, health care and education. In contrast, the absence of those needs leads to social insecurity and grievances against the “others.” In such a circumstance, religion seems to be the most volatile sentiment to exploit and trigger unrest, although the real problems are likely more associated with political domination, economic gaps and social prejudice, rather than religion itself.

In conclusion, workable pluralism is not solely the responsibility of religious figures to shoulder, but requires the engagement of everyone as active agents and activists for peace, along with government and the private sector. If intolerance is embraced and provoked, people are exposed to it. Tolerance, on the other hand, will guide people to celebrate diversity and empower them to build a strong civil society that can solve its own problems in a civil manner.

 

Siti Ruhaini Dzuhayatin is director of the Sunan Kalijaga Institute for Justice in Yogyakarta, Indonesia.

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