Friday, September 16, 2005

Islam and belonging

Politicians, particularly in the aftermath of the recent events in London, have made a point of repeating the mantra that Islamic suicide bombers are only a very small minority of Muslims and Islam itself is a religion which in its essence is a religion of peace.

While this statement makes perfect political sense, it would be foolish, and wrong, to alienate a large portion of the population, the situation is a lot more complicated. A crucial point of it is that Islam is, like Christianity or Judaism, a revealed monotheistic religion. One thing that can be said objectively is that such religions cannot conceive competition: to attract, or to keep, followers it has to be the best and its adherents must be the only ones to whom it is offered a chance for a good afterlife.

Nowadays it is considered narrow-minded and medieval, but at the deepest level we do believe, if we believe, that the others will burn in hell simply for belonging to another religion. The (mainly Judeo-Christian) West is now in a position of social and economic predominance and therefore tolerance and openness is quite an easy mantle to wear. The Islamic world on the contrary is in a position of clear political and economic inferiority and the question is clear in front of many Muslim eyes, “Why is that that we, the superior people, are not on top?” If we lived in an Islam dominated world, probably we would have Christian suicide bombers. This statement is of course absurd and dictated purely by symmetry and the situation is far from symmetric, but its absurdity should at least constitute ground for thought.

A solution to this problem will not be found written on this page but at least we should admit that the problem is much bigger than a simple exercise in social engineering: it is the symptom of a dynamical process far beyond our reach, just like the extinction of certain animal species or long term weather changes.

The hatred that so much of the Muslim world feels for us is a perfect natural feeling, not the mad outburst of a few exalted people, natural as the fact that some animals will disappear forever from the face of the earth. We should not roll our eyes and pretend we are facing a small singularity: we have to steer our ship through a continuous process. This process is a stormy one and, as it pitches different people against each another, it is interesting to ponder about what belonging can mean.

It has been argued at great length that since the end of the cold war the world has been more and more divided along lines that discard ideologies in order to embrace affinities based on culture and even more religion. Jews have often been accused of feeling Jewish first and only after to feel any allegiance to their country of birth or residence: this could now become the norm with many other people and in particular with Muslims. The interesting thing is that to admit this is considered taboo in our society, it is admitting to be a bad citizen. Why?

The problem takes a slightly different aspect in Europe and in the United States. In America one should not feel any allegiance to a foreign power, but the actual set of things one should cherish do not matter as long as they are now American, be they the flag or peanut butter. In Europe it is more complicated as one should not only not feel any allegiance to a foreign power, but one should cherish a specific set of tradition and cultural phenomena. It is true that curry is now as English as the proverbial cup of tea, but one could almost view it as the exception that confirms the rule and this in the most open country in Europe.

Maybe it is time to reconsider what belonging means. Communism represented a sort of alternative: the concept of international brotherhood of workers meant that one would show an allegiance to something else that one’s own country, but that something was not an actual country (the arrival of the Soviet Union did not really change things in the sense that not all communists around the world were necessarily Russian fifth columnist.)

It is important to notice how communism was born at the same time as the problem of establishing what belonging to a country meant. In a way it offered people that did not belong a chance to belong to something else: a small ethnic minority living within a larger, ethnically different country could always turn to communism (or at least its leaders would) to find an inner source of strength and support from the outside. Had the Basque separatists played only on their cultural and linguistic difference from the rest of Spain, they would have missed the enormous symbolic (and at times practical) strength resulting from embracing a Marxist ideology: by doing so they could claim to have something in common with people as different as the ANC or the Vietcong.

With the death of militant communism this is no longer the case and religion has taken its place with several important differences. First and foremost anyone could become a communist. The Basques, the Zulus, the Viet Minh could turn to Marxism; they could not as easily turn to Islam. Second, and probably as important, anyone can unbecome a communist. Among immigrants it is harder to resist a mother’s call to marry a “good” Jewish, Indian or Italian girl than to abandon a youthful father-inspired infatuation with planned economy.

Now we are witnessing the crumbling of the concept of state that started in the XIV century with the tentative consolidation of some central states and then continued in the XIX century with the move towards the equation of state and nation, language and land. Globalization and the increasing mouvement of people are questioning all this and it almost feels that the struggle is one in which we are waiting for the first one to blink. We all naively agree that in the absence of profound cultural differences interactions would be easier and yet who between Us, the welcoming society, and Them, the guests, is going to take the first step? Who is going to embrace a positive cultural “anonymity” with the risk of now loosing flavour and one day be recognized and potentially attacked anyway? Sartre once said that Jews are those that other people consider Jews: in this situation in particular to take the first step is no guarantee that the other will follow.