Too Westernized, secular and progressive to be authentic

This is an outstanding observation from Kenan Malik’s talk at Conway Hall:

In recent decades, faith has, in other words, transformed itself into the religious wing of identity politics.  Religion has, ironically, become secularised, driven less by a search for piety and holiness than for identity and belongingness.  The rise of identity politics has transformed the meaning not just of religion but of blasphemy too. Blasphemy used to be regarded as a sin against God. These days it is felt as a sin against the individual believer, an offence against the self and one’s identity. That is why for Sardar, ‘Every word [of The Satanic Verses] was directed at me and I took everything personally’, why he imagined that Rushdie had ‘despoiled the inner sanctum of my identity’. This is also why many laws these days that ostensibly protect faith – such as Britain’s Racial and Religious Hatred Act – are framed primarily in terms of protecting the culture and identity of individuals or communities. In today’s world, identity is God, in more ways than one.

It sums up so much of what is so godawful about these battles – the narcissism, the petulant self-regard, the insistence on taking everything personally, the inflation of arbitrary outrage into some kind of political principle. Ziauddin Sardar had no right to think every word of Rushdie’s novel was directed at him; that’s a stupid, infantile, pre-theory of mind thing to think. It’s His Majesty the Baby thinking.

People make too god damn much of identity and belongingness. It’s the idol of the age. No doubt that goes a long way toward explaining why there is so much hostility to atheists: we prefer freedom from the celestial dictator to endless coddling of our identities.

What, however, defines a community? And who defines which beliefs are essential to a community? Or to the identity of individuals within it?  These, too, are matters not of theology, or even of culture, but of power. The struggle to define certain beliefs or thoughts as offensive or blasphemous is a struggle to establish power within a community and to establish one voice as representative or authentic of that community. What is called offence to a community is in reality usually a debate within a community. – but in viewing that debate as a matter of offence or of blasphemy, one side gets instantly silenced.

As in the serial fusses about Salman Rushdie.

Back in the 1980s Rushdie gave voice to a radical, secular sentiment that in then was deeply entrenched within Asian communities. Rushdie’s critics spoke for some of the most conservative strands. Their campaign against The Satanic Verses was not to protect the Muslim communities from unconscionable attack from anti-Muslim bigots but to protect their own privileged position within those communities from political attack from radical critics, to assert their right to be the true voice of Islam by denying legitimacy to such critics. And they succeeded at least in part because secular liberals embraced them as the ‘authentic’ voice of the Muslim community.

Huge, huge mistake. Mistake any way you look at it – not just for literature but for all the people who got stuck in those “communities” ande have never been able to escape since. More than twenty years stuck being “authentic,” which means being trapped.

Same thing with Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti’s play Behzti.

The protestors outside the Birmingham Rep outraged by Kaur Bhatti’s play no more spoke for the Sikh community than did Kaur Bhatti herself. Both spoke for different strands within that community.  But, as in the Rushdie affair, only the protestors were seen as authentically of their community, while Kaur Bhatti, like Rushdie, was regarded as too Westernized, secular and progressive to be authentic or truly of her community.  To be a proper Muslim, in other words, in secular liberal eyes, is to be offended by The Satanic Verses, to be a proper Sikh is to be offended by Behzti.

And that’s where the damn LSE Student Union is stuck now – with the idea that only Muslims who are “offended” by Jesus and Mo are proper Muslims, and all others are inauthentic because secularized instead of theocratic. And they think that’s the more progressive view! It’s tragic.

There’s more great stuff in that article; read it at Kenan’s.


  1. says

    You get the same thing with the threats against Jessica Ahlquist: the level of threat and venom against her was out of all proportion for what was a legal matter, but makes a little more sense when you see the believers taking it as a personal attack against their entire sense of self. The Catholics did it with PZ and the cracker, too. One of the guys in funny hats compared the disrespect shown to a cracker to harm being committed against a child, and didn’t notice the incredible irony of that coming from an international child rape club.

  2. says

    … but the LSE Student Union is doing something like it too. Their sense of self is likely tied up in a notion of being “fair” and “not judgmental”(or more likely not “judgemental”), and they see compromise as a principle in and of itself instead of keeping it in its proper place as a tactic. They’re so desperate to maintain their self-image that includes not being bigoted against Muslims that they are willing to compromise principle and common sense to protect it.

  3. Pierce R. Butler says

    This illuminates the “god-shaped-hole in my heart” concept all too brightly: religion provides so much of some people’s identities that, without it, only a fraction of a person could be found.

  4. Olle Sahlin says

    Very interesting, and it confirms once again what I’ve always said about religion – it’s all about power, nothing else.

    A person’s faith, delusion, or whatever, I guess is something else, but religion and dogma and rules are nothing but instruments of power.

  5. says

    As a mystic, I am absolutely not your ordinary “religious” person, but I am part of a identity-driven community. You might say that I identify with a community whose purpose is to be free of identity. (See my blog.) Given the almost universal conflation of mysticism and “religion”, however, I would surely be able to use any law which limits the right to insult “religion” in order to suppress any criticism of my views.

    It happens that an indispensible aspect of those views is the vigorous criticism of “religion”. It is doubtful whether there has ever been anyone who has so robustly and comprehensively insulted “religion” as my master, Osho, (formerly known as Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh). There are some thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of Osho’s sanyassins (disciples) in the UK, and any laws of the kind discussed would clearly confer upon our community the right to resist any criticism which attempts to curtail the expression of our criticism of “religion”. This is an inescapable paradox implicit in any such law, I look forward to a very interesting test case.

  6. opposablethumbs, que le pouce enragé mette les pouces says

    Well put. So LSESU, what about the racism of insisting that only the theocrats and only the intolerant fundies are “real” muslims in the first place? You’ve decreed that cultural/secular muslims are not authentic? (not to mention insisting that muslim=race, which must presumably exclude muslims of the “wrong” races from being “real” muslims too somehow. And also excludes non-muslims of the “right” race from the support of the LSESU’s anti-racism policy. Sorry if this is getting (more) inarticulate, my brain hurts when I try to bend it like that)

  7. says

    [Preliminary note: use of HTML is against my religion.]

    “In recent decades, faith has, in other words, transformed itself into the religious wing of identity politics…’

    I agree.

    “…Religion has, ironically, become secularised, driven less by a search for piety and holiness than for identity and belongingness…”

    Is that right? I don’t think that RELIGION is driven by anything, as it only exists inside peoples’ heads. Rather, it is the faithful PEOPLE who find their group identity in it.

    “The rise of identity politics has transformed the meaning not just of religion but of blasphemy too. Blasphemy used to be regarded as a sin against God. These days it is felt as a sin against the individual believer, an offence against the self and one’s identity…”

    So we have the case of “Gulzar Haider, Professor of Architecture at Carleton University in Ottawa, was ‘lying on a sofa’ when he heard the news of Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa. ‘So catastrophic was the effect’, Sardar reports, ‘he couldn’t move, it was as though his body had been struck down by a disease. He was sofa bound for almost a year… It is almost as if Sardar and his friends were driving themselves into a kind of self-induced hysteria, as if they felt that they had to suffer personally for their faith to be meaningful.”

    But blasphemy is funamentally an attack on the believer’s tribe.

    Kenan Malik goes on to argue that blasphemy is an assault on power.

    “The argument for the necessity of blasphemy laws, or for the outlawing of offensiveness, is, then, both rooted in stereotypes of what it is to be an authentic Muslim or a Sikh and helps reinforce those stereotypes. This, of course, has nothing to do with the reality of being a Muslim or a Sikh, but everything to do with the reality of identity politics. Identity politics has rendered communities into homogenous, distinct, authentic groups, composed of people all speaking with a single voice, all driven by a single understanding of their faith. Once authenticity is so defined, then only the most conservative, reactionary figures come to be seen as the true voices of those communities.”

    The Ayatollah Khomeini has to be the classic example.

    “On the one hand, the contemporary, identity-driven notion of blasphemy only makes sense if we accept the myth of communities as homogenous, distinctive, authentic, composed of people all speaking with a single voice. On the other, it is a means of instantiating that myth by asserting the power of one strand of opinion within that community, by establishing that strand as the true authentic view, and hence of silencing all opposing views. Or, to put it another way, ‘You can’t say that!’ is the response of those in power to having their power challenged. To accept that certain things cannot be said is to accept that certain forms of power cannot be contested, that certain beliefs are so important or valuable or essential that they should be put beyond the possibility of being insulted, or caricatured or even questioned. It is the creation of a sacred space safe from the prospect of violation.”

    The struggles for power over the course of the history of the Christian Church/es took the form of heresy hunts. It was easier to charge someone with heresy rather than blasphemy, because heresy was definable by those clerics in power, and used against those who were just as pious as the clerics, if not more so.

    “The modern argument for blasphemy laws from liberals such as Lord Scarman or Richard Webster is that such laws are necessary ‘in the interests of social harmony’, to protect ‘the internal tranquillity of the kingdom’. In fact the consequence of such laws has been the creation of greater disharmony and turmoil. Every group has sought to create its own sacred space, upon which no one may encroach, leading to an explosion of sectarian rivalries as each one demands its right not to be offended or blasphemed against. As the novelist Monica Ali has put it, ‘If you set up a marketplace of outrage you have to expect everyone to enter it. Everyone now wants to say, “My feelings are more hurt than yours”.”

    A problem with blasphemy laws is arises out of the fact that piety or orthodoxy in one religion is blasphemy in another. For example, the statement “there are no gods anywhere, or for anyone” is probably blasphemy to them all. But “there is no god but our god” is only blasphemy to all the rest, the speaker’s excepted. “Christ was not God” is blasphemous to Christians, but not to Jews or Muslims. “You are not baptised unless you have been totally immersed in holy water” is probably objectionable heresy to anyone but a fundamentalist Baptist.

    So whoever wants to craft blasphemy law has their work cut out. “Insult ANY religion and you are for it” is probably a hard law to draft.

    As tribalism has declined, religion has taken its place. Insult my religion, and you insult my tribe. The tribe has always given people a wide family identity, and many forms of security. So it is not surprising that many of the faithful of a religion have to ask their cleric about precise details: “What do we believe about…”

    The belief is secondary. Belief is a means to belonging, which is what really matters.

  8. dirigible says

    “So LSESU, what about the racism of insisting that only the theocrats and only the intolerant fundies are “real” muslims in the first place?”

    Aha, but recognising a chosen identity isn’t racist. Because we have the best belief system ever invented anywhere, and our superior ethics mean that we can pronounce this kind of thing.


    (We shall pass over whether treating that identity in a way that both treats its adherents as moral lessors and discriminates against those who do not hold it is or not.)

  9. Sigmund says

    Great stuff by Kenan.
    It reminded me of a particular point in the LSE debate over the Islamophobia motion so I went back and transcribed it.
    The point was in the most crucial aspect of the whole debate – the question of where to draw a line between personal attacks and criticism or even ridicule of beliefs.
    Well, ridicule was ruled beyond the pale by the LSE SU officers from the outset but here is an interesting line drawn in the sand by the proposer, Anita where she defines legitimate criticism and that which is islamophobic – and racist (she had previously said that islamophobia is the same as racism.)

    “It is OK to kind of criticize religion and criticize ideas, but to the extent of someone writing an article saying:
    “The burden of proof is still on you and you have yet to prove to us the existence of your God. Until you do, do not peddle your monstrous, false and downright evil beliefs to the rest of us. If you wish to solely submit yourself to celestial masochism, by all means, but please, keep it to yourself”
    If that isn’t Islamophobic, tell me what is?”

    One could, I suppose, argue with the word “peddle” but if you take it to mean “force”(as in force or require people who are not of your religion to obey rules that are specific to that religion in their own private lives – i.e. they may not draw an image of Muhammad) then what the hell is wrong with that?

    The funniest thing is that Anita herself gave the perfect response to this sort of religious fascism when someone questioned her about an exactly analogous situation – what if a religious person complained about homosexuals holding hands is offensive to them.

    Here’s Anita’s response:
    “I think it’s very easy to start asking these sorts of questions because of the controversial nature of religion and this doesn’t just apply to Islam, but I think the answer to your question would be that the procedure would be, if somebody, and I don’t know of anyone who has ever done this before but if, hypothetically somebody were to see a homosexual, be offended – I don’t know how that would happen- but then they would go to the union and complain, the union would probably tell them to get over themselves. Like, it genuinely isn’t something offensive.”

    Unfortunately she wend ahead and messed up her one decent answer with an explicit conflation of the two issues: anti-muslim bigotry and legitimate criticism of religion.

    “What is offensive is an attack on a group of people and racism and that is what we are trying to oppose.”

    So a Jesus and Mo cartoon on a site inaccessible to the general public is “an attack on a group of people and racism”?

  10. Egbert says

    The idea that authenticity can be gained from others (or the community) is completely bogus. Identity politics is the very opposite of authenticity.


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