Contesting the politics of identity
October-December 2017
By: Siti Ruhaini Dzuhayatin

The modern world is marked by its plural and multicultural social realm, due to the rapid and massive cross-border mobility of people dating back to the Industrial Revolution, and its global expansion to the East, including into Southeast Asia. Today, no country is entirely homogeneous or exclusively isolated as an ethno-religious entity. Economic development has enticed people to move from their homelands to new ones. They have to adjust to neighborhoods where people share different races, ethnicities, faiths and classes, but also demand equal basic rights. Multiculturalism and pluralism come along with the concept of citizenship in how cities are managed, based on their diversity and the tolerance of the majority.

As many countries are still struggling to define and redefine their multicultural and pluralistic politics, the world today faces the challenge of globalization in a century where countries and nations are turning into a global village, through the unprecedented revolution of telecommunications and digital technologies. They have substantially transformed social relations from the traditional concept of “locality-based collectivity” such as villages, cities and countries into “social networks” where people gain “sociable and supportive community ties” through affordable smartphones, electronic messages and videos to connect with their relatives and friends. More obviously, people are more exposed to broader diversities and differences without corporal contexts. They can even expand their memberships to various “virtual” communities based on hobbies, politics, ideologies, religions and other personal interests. Globalization is adding to the creation of multiple identities that are a manifestation of multiculturalism and pluralism (Barry Wellman, 1990).

In fact, the East has been multicultural and plural in a descriptive sense since the beginning of the 6th century, through the amalgamation of China, India and Arabia with the rest of Asia. The expedition of Gajah Mada (1290-1364) to eastern Asia and the voyage of Cheng Ho (1403-24) from China to Southeast Asia, Africa and the Middle East provide historical evidence of those encounters. The great works of Moroccan scholar Ibn Battuta (1304-69) confirmed the multicultural nature of this region. This historical heritage provides ample evidence of how different religions and cultures lived side by side in harmony in Indonesia, India and China. It was the result of smooth and peaceful cultural exchanges among Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam that eventually shaped the multicultural and pluralistic features of Asia.

It is surprising today that the contestation of the politics of identity is alarming, albeit there is the promise of democracy and the modern state in ensuring equality and justice. Many groups are reclaiming their authentic identities, be they about ethnicity or religion. Political theorist Bhikhu Parekh has asserted that an authentic and fixed identity is unattainable because identity is in a “state of constant change,” depending upon interests and benefits entailed in power struggles and contestations where identity is recognized, marginalized or deemed as inferior. Multiculturalism and pluralism promote multiple identities that enable individuals to exercise identities flexibly, depending upon mutual benefits in different contexts. When identity is contested against multiculturalism and pluralism, it appears to be the failure of the state in managing differences, where certain groups suffer from being singled out, discriminated against, marginalized or, at least, being denied justice. A modern state is declarative and constitutive, where political legitimacy is based on a national consensus among different groups and parties in declaring a national and political identity. Multiculturalism and pluralism will survive best where a national identity embraces other identities in harmonious and meaningful ways. The politics of identity becomes contentious, particularly in a nation-state where cultural diversity is a geographically given. The more diverse a nation, the bigger the challenge to its political identity.   

Thus, the politics of identity are about managing mutual trust and interdependency among identity holders. For some people, national identity is considered an “achieved identity” that is constantly being contested by the “ascribed identities” acquired by religion, race and ethnicity. Religious communities, particularly Muslims in Indonesia, are largely in a constant exertion of negotiating between their religious and national identities. For conservative groups, religion is the utmost identity, overriding a national identity. Quite often, a national identity as an achieved identity is more volatile and unstable than the ascribed ones of religion and ethnicity. It, therefore, requires perpetual consensus and compromise among different groups to uphold national identity to contain other identities.

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