The Postmodern Crisis of Identity

I’m continuing my observations from the article on Islamism I posted yesterday by saying a brief word about identity. I say brief because honestly, this issue is so critical that you could read a shelf full of books on the matter. As usual in the blogosphere, I’ll reach for the most readily identifiable and simplified argument.

The threat of totalizing fundamentalism (fundamentalism that seeks not only to hold its own beliefs but force it onto others) is in many ways a crisis of identity. I was so struck by the stories of these Western-educated Brits who became jihadists because they could not find a sense of belonging anywhere else.  This has always been the difficult reality for immigrant children- how do you straddle two worlds? How do you hold onto the world of your parents, who, though living in a new country, still operate with the same values and cultural traditions they did in their home country, while at the same time growing up as children of a society with an entirely different set of values and cultural traditions? You belong in neither place.

From the story of Usama Hassan:
When he was 13, he joined an Islamic fundamentalist organisation called Jimas. At big sociable conferences every weekend, they were told: you don’t feel at home in Britain, but you can’t go “home” to a country you have never visited. So we have a third identity for you – a pan-national Islamism that knows no boundaries and can envelop you entirely.

It sounds familiar. This is the identity I hear shouted by young Islamists throughout the East End: I might sound like you, but I am nothing like you. I am Other. I belong elsewhere – in a place that does not yet exist, but that I will create, with my fists and my fury.

Jimas told their members they were part of a persecuted billion, being blown up and locked down across the world. “It was a bit like a gang,” he says.

And from the third section of the article:
As children and teenagers, the ex-jihadis felt Britain was a valueless vacuum, where they were floating free of any identity.

Ed Husain, a former leader of HT, says: “On a basic level, we didn’t know who we were. People need a sense of feeling part of a group – but who was our group?” They were lost in liberalism, beached between two unreachable identities – their parents’, and their country’s. They knew nothing of Pakistan or Saudi Arabia or the other places they were constantly told to “go home” to by racists.

Yet they felt equally shut out of British or democratic identity. From the right, there was the brutal nativist cry of “Go back where you came from!” But from the left, there was its mirror-image: a gooey multicultural sense that immigrants didn’t want liberal democratic values and should be exempted from them. Again and again, they described how at school they were treated as “the funny foreign child”, and told to “explain their customs” to the class. It patronised them into alienation.

“Nobody ever said – you’re equal to us, you’re one of us, and we’ll hold you to the same standards,” says Husain. “Nobody had the courage to stand up for liberal democracy without qualms. When people like us at [Newham] College were holding events against women and against gay people, where were our college principals and teachers, challenging us?”

Without an identity, they created their own. It was fierce and pure and violent, and it admitted no doubt.

To my surprise, the ex-jihadis said their rage about Western foreign policy – which was real, and burning – emerged only after their identity crises, and as a result of it. They identified with the story of oppressed Muslims abroad because it seemed to mirror the oppressive disorientation they felt in their own minds. Usman Raja, a bluff, buff boxer who begged to become a suicide bomber in the mid-1990s, tells me: “Your inner life is chaotic and you feel under threat the whole time. And then you’re told by Islamists that life for Muslims everywhere is chaotic and under threat. It becomes bigger than you. It’s about the world – and that’s an amazing relief. The answer isn’t inside your confused self. It’s out there in the world.”

These issues bring to mind (at least) two very big questions for me as a pastor, and for the church at large:

1.  How can we help people form life-giving and centered identities in an increasingly diverse world?  How can we create sanctuary spaces of identity for people?  (That is, spaces that feel like home and that love and accept people rather than isolate people.)  These are  internal questions,  related to the inner-workings of our own faith communities and faith identities.

2.  How can we live peacefully in a pluralist world without losing our own particularity?  How can we hold our specific Christian identity in a way that does not create dualistic enemies?  Does our conviction have to come at the price of a ghettoizing isolation?  These are external questions, dealing with our relationships to/with/for the world.

Because as different as a suburban middle class youth is from a child of immigrant parents, I get the feeling that this dual-world-straddling is happening almost everywhere these days in varying forms.  These are questions with which we’re all going to have to grapple.

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