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Monday, October 31, 2011

Identity: my precious

The debate between secularism and the involvement of religion in political affairs is a controversial and difficult one for Tunisia and for pretty much everyone.
Today's post is by Life with Subtitles' recurring guest author TinyRage. Enjoy
In light of the recent changes in the Arab world, and particularly the ones that concern my country, Tunisia, my attention was brought to the recurrence of the concepts of identity, and specifically how identity, nationality and government policy are -still- linked in our political conscience.

This, to my understanding, has been the central point of the elections of the Assembly that was elected on October 23rd to write up the new Constitution for the new, liberated-from-dictatorship Tunisia.

Now this isn’t about how this represents a historical event, and it is even less a call against or for secularism, or even about how proud I feel that my people, our people, a people, stood up for their rights and achieved what they set out to do.

The debate between secularism and the involvement of religion in political affairs is a controversial and difficult one for Tunisia and for pretty much everyone. Indeed, the dictatorship had used the scarecrow of Islamic extremism to guarantee itself the support of the middle and upper classes, as well as guarantee the international widespread support towards its regime. Therefore, a great part of Tunisians, Muslim, pious Tunisians, felt humiliated and stripped of what was then automatically conceptualized as their identity, because for years, they weren’t allowed to express it. This is most visible when you have a look at the reactions after the success of the Ennahdha movement, a moderate Islamic party, in the recent elections. Supporting reactions claimed this success represented the Tunisian identity; the opposing reactions claimed that it didn’t. However the debate stood there, at that crucial point for any nation –my thoughts go to France, Lebanon, and Spain among so many others- : identity. Not just any - a nation’s identity.

Maybe because I have had the great luck of growing up with multiple identities and with a clear conscience of how each formed a part of the whole, I have a particularly hard time accepting the need to make the direct link by populations between their government and what is considered to be their identity.

Because, fundamentally, what is identity?

To my understanding, identity can never be homogeneous and can only be unique for each. Nationality, language, religion, traditions all form part of this identity, to different extents for each and every one of us. These are social and political structures that people evolve in, and that partly shape, whether in embrace or in rejection, one’s identity. If I am from a Muslim society, I can embrace it wholly, or I can reject it completely, or I can live with it in complete indifference. Either way, it shapes a part of me.

But isn’t that just one fragment of the puzzle?

Identity is also your home education. It is also your sex, and your sexual orientation. It is also your age, your profession, your social category, your style of clothing, the music you listen to, the traumas of your childhood, a disease, the color of your hair, the area you live in, the neighbourhood friends you grew up with. Because all of these contribute to defining who each of us are, none can, on its own, define who we are, for the simple reason that it will never suffice. It is also highly dangerous and insulting to be considered under only one aspect of your identity. In fact it is literally the backbone of the logic behind discrimination: against women, against homosexuals, against youth, against foreigners, against blondes, against people suffering from a disease. Because that aspect of their identity is put as the only identity they could ever have.

So why, when it comes to belonging to a country, do we need to seek this clear, identity-based relationship on elements that belong to a personal sphere such as faith?

Let me be clear on my argument. I am not insidiously implying that religious belonging is not an identity. I am saying that nothing is anyone’s unique identity. Which leads to the following: what we can share as part of a nation is only a fragment of our identity, the only one that can be common to all of us at national level: the citizen identity.

It is the only identity that can be shared, because its sharing is what allows the freedom of the other identities to be expressed. It is the active participation, so far as possible, to the good governance of your country, it is contained in what represents one’s rights and obligations towards what is common to all.

When I heard the reaction after Ennahdha victory, I couldn’t help but feel very strange about myself. People were saying: yes, this is our identity, the world must know it, that we are an Arab Muslim nation. The problem for me in this statement is that we are all Tunisian and that is not refutable, by anyone, and that is fine. However, we are not all Muslim, not necessarily in the way portrayed. The Jewish Tunisian community is certainly not Muslim. And Islam is a faith that gives you the freedom of interpreting so many things that “Muslims” can be very different from one region of a country to another. So yes, I felt excluded, not taken into account in what is, as much as any other Tunisian’s, my country. I felt like these people were representing something that they thought was the whole, but I wasn’t represented in.

You can say “tough luck, rule of majority”. I don’t agree. I think we should mature to a level where the rule of majority concerns the common part of our identity: the public space. And I’m not just talking for Arab countries or for Islam. There are chilling examples in France, where you can hear politicians on television claim things like “Parents that live in France should give a French name to their children” or “We do not trust this person because they are a bi-national”. That, in my eyes, is no better and no worse than just slapping the name of Jean-Jacques on every kid’s back and numbering them or sticking a label on every bi-national out there, to make sure everyone knows. Aren’t the following more important: Do you pay your taxes? Do you vote? Do you contribute to the development of your country?

Because identity is precious, because it is essential, because it touches us so deep that it can make us do the most beautiful and the most horrid of things, it should be preserved from the political arena. We all have our identities and we all cherish them as powerfully as any other person. For the sake of all our identities, let’s develop the one part of it that matters the most.

But most importantly, because no one and nothing has the right to say they define your entire identity. Not even your country.

Read TinyRage's previous guest posts on Life with Subtitles: "Scarves and stones" and "Le désert oubliera aussi"

Recommended media:
"Ces Tunisiens qui ont voté pour Ennahda" [French article]
A guide to Tunisian political parties [Arabic]


October 31, 2011 at 8:46 AM Sareen

I remember a few years ago when I was at an Armenian church and a bunch of us were having some talks with a priest. The debate was about this exact same topic: What constitutes an Armenian identity. Someone said the language, and he said that's not true since a lot of Armenians in Lebanon don't know how to speak or read Armenian. The talk went on for a while and finally he said something along the lines of, identity is not just one thing. It's a combination of many things; Religion, language, traditions, even food. As long as you are celebrating your identity and you're proud of your heritage, then that's enough.

October 31, 2011 at 9:57 AM Mich

And excellent read. Thank you :-)

November 8, 2011 at 4:44 PM TinyRage

Thank you for your comments and for reading the article in its entirety. The notion of identity is such a complex one, and any humble and personal attempt towards capturing it can be very easily deconstructed, starting with mine. So thank you for understanding what I was trying to portray.

I admire both your energy as active bloggers and Fadi's obviously as I only contribute rarely and from time to time. Maybe one day I will stop being so lazy and start a blog.


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