Committed to PEOPLE'S RIGHT TO KNOW
Vol. 4 Num 195 Fri. December 12, 2003  
   
Editorial


Straight talk
How important is assertion of identity?


Don't get me wrong. I understand as well as anyone the need to assert one's religious identity. There are times when you want -- when you demand -- to stand up and be counted. I have lived in both India and the US, and I know what it feels like to be a minority under fire. In both countries, I felt a real need to assert my Muslim identity -- to make clear to everyone where I stood and that I was proud of who I was.

I remember that Ramadan in my boarding school in north India took on an entirely different significance for me from Ramadan when I am home in Bangladesh. More than merely being a religious requirement, fasting helped create and foster a strong sense of identity and a strong sense of solidarity among the Muslim students at my school.

Studying, as we did, in a Christian missionary school within the larger Hindu-majority culture, we felt like a double minority. Fasting together was a way for all of us -- Somalis, Bangladeshis, Indian Muslims, Pakistanis, Iranians, Arabs, African-Americans -- to assert our Muslim identity and to express our solidarity with one another.

This was in the late 80s -- before Babri, before Gujarat, before Hindutva propelled the BJP to national power and prominence -- but we still felt that it was important to stand up and be counted.

I draw a parallel with my Sikh room-mate at the time. For him, being turbaned was a religious requirement -- but it was more than that. It is also a way for him to assert his Sikh identity and to demonstrate his pride in who he was.

It's good to be proud of who you are. Everyone should be proud his/her country, culture, religion, identity. It's who you are.

In the US, where Islam has been so demonised and where a large percentage of the population has a negative impression of the religion, it seemed even more important to assert one's Muslim identity -- especially after 9/11.

Shortly after 9/11 my brother was harassed on the street by someone looking for trouble.

"You Palestinian?" he was asked.

"No, I'm not. But I am Muslim and proud of it. You got a problem with that?"

Now, if you ever met my brother you would understand how astonishing and out of character this exchange was for him. Not that he would stand up to someone who was trying to give him grief in the street -- that actually is very much in character for him -- but that he would feel so strongly about asserting his Muslim identity and his pride in it.

This is not a religious man. This is a man who probably hadn't given much of a thought to his religious identity in over a decade. But in the aftermath of 9/11, living in New York, he felt the need, as we all did, to assert his pride in his religion and his pride in who he was. Muslims in the US were not about to let ourselves be defined as others saw us. We were not going to be ashamed of who we were or our religion because of the actions of a tiny minority of so-called Muslims whose actions were in direct contradiction to Islam as we understood it.

So I understand fully the impulse, the desire, the need, for Muslims to assert their religious identity.

It is perhaps more necessary now than at any other time in history. When Islam is condemned as a religion of terror and Muslims are demonised for their perceived backwardness and violence, when Muslims are under siege from Iraq to the West Bank to Afghanistan to Gujarat, when it seems as though everyone is hostile towards us and has such a negative impression of Islam -- it seems more important than ever to assert pride in our identity.

But of course the trouble with such assertions of identity is the context. When we assert our Muslim identity in Bangladesh it has a totally different connotation from asserting it in India or in the US.

Here, we are not an embattled and besieged minority. Muslims are in the majority in Bangladesh, and so in this context, assertions of identity take on an entirely different meaning.

Let's take the current debate over whether to say "Allah-hafez" or "Khuda-hafez." Now although "Khuda-hafez" has been in currency for as long as anyone can remember, today a considerable proportion of the population feels happier saying "Allah-hafez."

If you ask them, they say that it is more Islamic to say "Allah-hafez" -- more in keeping with their identity as Muslims. After all -- anyone can say "Khuda-hafez" -- it is a fairly non-denominational farewell. But "Allah-hafez" is something only a Muslim could or would say.

What is it then, other than an assertion of one's Muslim identity, to say "Allah-hafez"?

Like I said, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with assertions of one's identity. Indeed, in today's world, I can understand Muslims wanting to assert their identity ever more strongly.

But the problem lies in the fact that within the context of Bangladesh, to say "Allah-hafez" is exclusionary. It excludes by implication anyone who is not Muslim. How do you suppose it makes minorities feel to hear "Allah-hafez" substituted for "Khuda-hafez" in popular parlance?

It is a small thing, and I am sure that the vast majority of people who say "Allah-hafez" are perfectly tolerant and decent individuals and do not mean to be discriminatory or exclusionary in any way. They mean no harm by it. They see nothing wrong with simply asserting their identity in this way.

But in the context of Bangladesh it is harmful. It further marginalises the minority community. Just as these are difficult times for Muslims around the world, these are also difficult times for minorities within Bangladesh. It is hard for minorities to feel secure when entire families can be burned to death and the situation in the CHT remains precarious.

In this context, the substitution of "Allah-hafez" for "Khuda-hafez" serves to remind minorities of their minority status in the country, and that even though we are supposedly all equal in the eyes of the law, some are more equal than others.

It is important because right here in Bangladesh we have a perfect example of what can happen when an assertion of religious identity goes too far.

I am speaking of the weekly demonstrations demanding that the government declare the Ahmadiyya community non-Muslims.

Think for a second, what purpose would be served by such a declaration? What difference can it possibly make to anyone whether someone else is or is not to be considered Muslim? The only difference it can possibly make for the demonstrators is psychological. By declaring the Ahmadiyya community non-Muslim, they can assert their own sense of Muslim identity.

The demonstrations against the Ahmadiyyas are a classic example of people asserting their Muslim identity. And in this context, such an assertion of identity is extremely damaging.

In this context it serves only to further marginalise the Ahmadiyya community and to deprive them of their constitutional right to practice their religion freely without interference from others.

Now of course there is a big difference between saying "Allah-hafez" and demanding that Ahmadiyyas be declared non-Muslims. But the difference is one of degree not one of kind, and I would urge all those who prefer the use of "Allah-hafez" to spare a thought for the effect it has on the nation's minority communities and how it must feel for them.

In and of itself, the adoption of "Allah-hafez" is of little significance, but in the context of the continuing marginalisation of the minority communities in this country, it can serve only to further exclude them from the mainstream of society.

Zafar Sobhan is an Assistant Editor of The Daily Star.