Shia Muslims, as journalists and experts on the Middle East tell us, are fundamentally opposed to their Sunni counterparts - except, of course, when they are not, as revealed by the popularity of Hizbollah among Sunni Arabs. As violence in the Middle East and South Asia outpaces our ability to comprehend it, it is hard not to wonder whether we ought to stop trying to understand non-western peoples through exclusively religious identities. Certainly, both Amartya Sen and Arjun Appadurai, authors of stimulating new essays on identity in the age of globalisation, caution us against this commonplace practice.

In Identity and Violence, his latest foray into comparative philosophy after the studies of famine that won him the Nobel Prize for Economics in 1998, Sen vigorously challenges what he sees as a dangerous “conceptual confusion” among western politicians and commentators. As a child in Bengal in the mid- 1940s, Sen saw a poor Muslim day-labourer murdered by Hindu fanatics; half a century later, he continues to be perplexed by how “many-sided persons” could be seen “as having exactly one identity each, linked with religion or, more exactly, religious ethnicity”.

Sen himself, an “American or British resident” and a Bengali with Bangladeshi ancestry, a Hindu background and a “nonreligious lifestyle” is a good example of the great variety of categories to which a person can simultaneously belong. Rightly appalled by “the miniaturisation of people”, he offers a simple and persuasive thesis in his new book: we have multiple, overlapping identities, derived not only from the religious faith of our ancestors but also from our various political, professional and social roles in the world. “Violence,” Sen claims, “is fomented by the imposition of singular and belligerent identities on gullible people, championed by proficient artisans of terror.”

Sen goes on to expose the superstition spread by Samuel Huntington that not just specific societies but entire civilisations can be defined through religion. Pointing to two Indian emperors, the Muslim Akbar and the Buddhist Ashoka, Sen debunks the propaganda that rationality, secularism and democracy are values unique to western civilisation. He attacks the flourishing arms trade in Africa that mocks western claims to civilisation and order. He also exhorts western democracies to listen to the reasoned arguments of anti-globalisation thinkers and activists.

All this makes Sen appear a closet radical. It is surprising then to discover how much of his view of contemporary violence is shaped by a conventional western liberalism.

Sen is dismissive of the model of the single-minded, self-interested “economic man” upheld by free-market fundamentalists. Nevertheless, he believes that “the responsibility of choice and reasoning” are “central to leading a human life”. It is this sanguine faith in the human possibility of reason and free choice that makes him extremely wary of identity-based politics, such as those outlined by Tony Blair’s attempt to reach out to British Muslims following the 7/7 terrorist attacks. Though boldly generous about the British prime minister (”Blair’s dedication to fairness and justice is beyond doubt”), Sen doubts his deployment of “different religious leaders of apparently `moderate’ persuasion who are charged with vanquishing the extremists in an intrareligious battle”.

Sen is right to question Blair’s vision that reduces multi-faceted political problems to zero-sum conflicts between apparently “moderate” and “extremist” Muslims. It is also true that many of the people representing the so-called “Muslim community” are neither competent nor effective; and ghettos, mental or physical, ought to be avoided. British Muslim leaders have a lot to learn from Sen’s example, Gandhi, who, while representing India in talks with its colonial rulers, insisted that the “political movement he led was staunchly universalist and not a community-based movement”.

This, however, only partly addresses the urgent question in Europe today: what form should communication between the state and a religious minority take in a multicultural society? Sen offers a vision of “civil society” in which citizens, defined through their multiple identities, interact. This sounds a bit vague - and also impractical.

Just as many survivors of Hurricane Katrina could not have rejected their black representatives and articulated their needs purely as American citizens, so many marginalised Muslims in Britain have no choice but to represent themselves through community leaders. However imperfect, these men come closer than most British politicians and journalists to articulating the opinions and aspirations of ordinary Muslims; and, given the grim alternative (dialogue through acts of terror and state suppression), they cannot be dispensed with - at least for now.

Sen seems to assume an ideal public sphere where all citizens, whatever their race, ethnicity or religion, enjoy equal status. This is hardly a reality in Britain. Though admirable in many ways, British multiculturalism has long been compromised by everyday racism, and the current rhetoric of “British values”, as imprecise as it is aggressive, barely hides a majoritarian backlash against a minority perceived as ungrateful and dangerous.

A somewhat abstract liberalism also dictates Sen’s view of state-funded faith-based schools in Britain. According to him, these schools tend to deprive children of “the opportunity of cultivating reason and the recognition of the need for scrutinised choice”. By fostering the illusion of an unchangeable identity they contribute to a “lack of knowledge and understanding of other cultures and of alternative lifestyles”.

But then non-Muslim pupils in secular schools, presumably better-exposed to the virtues of reasoning, free choice and multiple identities, are hardly rushing to abandon their brand-name clothing and wear Islamic head-scarves; nor do many seem to risk peer-ridicule and financial uncertainty by embracing alternative lifestyles. Individuals in tradition-minded communities have to struggle hard against received wisdoms. But this effort at personal freedom and intellectual individuality is not much easier for people in hyper-organised modern societies with severely restrictive social and market pressures.

In any case, there is little evidence that faith-based schools in Britain, which most parents resort to out of necessity, have failed to, or cannot, produce rational and tolerant citizens. Sen’s classically liberal belief that religion-inflected education does not encourage the faculties of reason and free choice is also hard to square with his admiration for Akbar, Ashoka and Gandhi, whose uniquely tolerant and cosmopolitan outlooks emerged not so much from their allegiance to liberal and secular ideals of citizenship as from their immersion in religious forms of spirituality.

Sen holds up Gandhi as a valuable lesson for Britain today. But it may be more relevant to examine how well the postcolonial Indian nation state that Gandhi helped create has accommodated its ethnic and religious minorities. For, whatever Gandhi may have said, Indian governments have had to invoke a singular nationalistic and secular identity in order to deal with, and often delegitimise, political challenges from ethnic and religious minorities. As the anti-India insurgency in the Muslim-dominated valley of Kashmir reveals, an ethnic and religious minority often experiences secular nationalism, or other high-minded values of the “mainstream”, as little more than an ideological pretext for majoritarian rule.

Arjun Appadurai, a professor at the New School in New York City, seems more aware than Sen of the limits of liberal theory in dealing with what his new book Fear of Small Numbers calls a “virtually worldwide genocidal impulse toward minorities, whether they are numerical, cultural or political minorities”. Appadurai, whose previous book Modernity at Large (1996) explored the larger cultural and political consequences of globalisation, is also more interested than Sen in the specific context of the modern nation state in which hard-edged majority and minority identities are created.

He believes that “no nation is free of the idea that its national sovereignty is built on some sort of ethnic genius”. The majority in a nation state may disown its ethnic or religious past and claim to be fully secular but it will never let go of the mystical belief in its moral superiority. It is this consensus within the secular nation state that defines and isolates the modern religious and ethnic minority. Certainly, the recent violence in the Balkans, the Middle East, Rwanda and South Asia seems to prove Appadurai’s assertion that “large-scale violence is not simply the product of antagonistic identities but that violence itself is one of the ways in which the illusion of fixed and charged identities is produced”.

According to Appadurai, globalisation has queered the pitch for national minorities everywhere. “Where the lines between us and them may have always, in human history, been blurred”, globalisation, according to him, “exacerbates these uncertainties and produces new incentives for cultural purification as more nations lose the illusion of national economic sovereignty or wellbeing”. Appadurai is convinced that “minorities are the major site for displacing the anxieties of many states about their own minority or marginality (real or imagined) in a world of a few megastates, of unruly economic flows and compromised sovereignties.”

This at least partly explains the organised murder of more than 2,000 Muslims in the western Indian state of Gujarat in 2002. Middle-class Hindu nationalists were responsible for the killings; and it may appear strange that people who are the beneficiaries of economic globalisation should harbour such extreme hatred for the poor, depressed minority of Indian Muslims. But then hostility towards the underprivileged is breeding fast not only among tiny, besieged elites in poor countries.

The signs seem ominously familiar to anyone who has experienced the peculiar intellectual pathology of Hindu nationalism: the visceral dislike of Islam and Muslims among even some mainstream American and British journalists; the aggressive demands for a “reformation” and/or “enlightenment” (which do not specify how nor where); the paranoid fears of an Islamic caliphate (which presumably is to be established by fugitives hiding at present in caves); and the related depiction of European Muslims as Fifth Columnists.

Appadurai claims that the war on terror has stoked a dangerous tendency to see global moral enemies as being morally indistinguishable from local or internal enemies. But the hysterical rhetoric that peddles London as Londonistan merely aggravates the sense of siege many Muslims live with.

Appadurai raises a disturbing question about the demonising of religious and ethnic minorities: “Are we in the midst of a vast worldwide Malthusian correction, which works through the idioms of minoritisation and ethnicisation but is functionally geared to preparing the world for the winners of globalisation, minus the inconvenient noise of its losers?” He wonders if there is a worldwide tendency to arrange the disappearance of the losers in the great drama of globalisation.

This may sound too apocalyptic. Nevertheless, Appadurai appears to have correctly intuited how economic globalisation, bringing great prosperity to some, and mere promises of it to most, is creating a whole new ideological and emotional climate. What he calls the “apparent link between imploding national economies, runaway financial capital and the role of the US as the main driver of the ideologies of business, market and profit” has provoked “a new sort of emotional cold war between those who identify with the losers in the new game and those who identify themselves with the small group of winners, notably the US”.

Political, business and media elites appear to have their side chosen for them even as the hot wars of the new cold war erupt around us. However, many old ideological positions, whether of the right or the left, look increasingly exposed and fragile. In different ways, Sen and Appadurai remind us how urgently we need to renew our sense of reality in a world altered irrevocably by globalisation.

Pankaj Mishra’s most recent book is “Temptations of the West: How to Be Modern in India, Pakistan, and Beyond”.

Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny
by Amartya Sen
Allen Lane ₤16.99, 240 pages

Fear of Small Numbers: An Essay on the Geography of Anger
by Arjun Appadurai
Duke University Press $18.95, 176 pages

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018. All rights reserved.

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