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Yash Tandon draws on the recent massacres in Norway to examine the polarising of identities, which he describes as 'the most dangerous cancer of our times'. 'Why and how do all these multiple identities get reduced to two nominal but highly dangerous polarised identities - "them" and "us"; the "insiders" and the "outsiders"; the "included and the excluded"? In whose interest are these binary identities created, and by who?'

This is not an ego issue as the title might suggest. This is partly a philosophical question - an epistemic question. The subjective ‘I’ is both an affirmation and a denial of the ‘I’. To this we shall come later.

Why should this question be relevant to the readers of Pambazuka News is a more interesting question. Pambazuka News divides broadly into two kinds of information analysis - one is conjunctural and the other conjectural. The conjunctural essays focus on the here and now (the war in Libya, the drought in Somalia, the struggles of women in South Africa), whilst the conjectural essays focus on the larger political-economic and philosophic issues. So to the question: why is what looks like a deeply philosophical question of ‘Who am I?’ interesting for the readers of Pambazuka, and possibly beyond? Because, among other things, it is also an important political issue that has serious (often disastrous) practical consequences.

My thoughts on these matters were triggered by the tragic events in Norway on 22 July. This essay is an attempt to look at those events from a different angle, that of identity.


In my last column in Pambazuka News, I wrote on ‘Reflections on the Norwegian Tragedy’. I wrote as a person from ‘Africa’ or more broadly from ‘the South’, an identity I carry in my mind every time I write for Pambazuka News, as indeed I did for the four years I was the executive director of the South Centre. It is an identity I share with many other writers for Pambazuka News. It is a collective self-conscious identity. However, in that article I expressed emotions common to all humanity in the way we (or most of us) intuitively react to the kind of tragedy that took place in Norway, where an obvious psychopath terrorist took the lives of 76 innocent people. I was reacting as a ‘human being’.

‘This is also a moment for deeper reflection,’ I wrote, ‘a moment not just for the Norwegians and the Europeans but for all those who cherish human life, who value peace, who look for ideals and principles that unite us as humans rather than divide us.’

Later in the piece, however, when I appealed to the readers from the North (and there are many from the North who regularly read Pambazuka News), that they, too, might empathise with the situation in the South where the vast majority of criminal killings of innocent people take place, I was writing as a person ‘from Africa’ or from ‘the South’. I suggested to our readers from the North that: ‘Whilst we share our emotion with friends in Norway, we ask them to share our sentiments on the violence perpetrated by the forces of the North Atlantic Treaty Alliance (NATO) - which include those from Norway - in many theatres of violence, especially in the southern hemisphere of our shared common earth.’


Here at a personal level was my own rather simple blend of regional and global identities. But identities can be very complex even within a region and within one country. Take the Middle East, for instance. I recently finished reading a book by Omar Nasiri (a pseudonym), ‘Inside the Global Jihad’ - an autobiographical account of a self-confessed Islamic ‘jihadist’ who acted as a double agent for Al Qaida as well as for the Belgian intelligence. He writes about different kinds of jihad: inner jihad; jihad of knowledge and scholarship; jihad of tongue; jihad waged through action; jihad through Hajji Pilgrimage to Mecca; and then the ultimate jihad, the kutila fi sabilillah, or the holy war. But what struck me most was his account of how the various Islamic sects (an approximate term for something far more complex) perceive one another and how they define ‘the enemy’.

He said that for the fundamental Sunnis, the Shiites were the ‘primordial enemy’. Shiite Iran was a greater enemy than even Israel or the US, who are just ‘infidels’, whereas Iran is destroying Islam ‘from within’ through ‘innovation’. There is no innovation in Islam, he said; there is only the Qur`an, the sunna. The Talibans are not ‘true Muslims’. But non-Pashtoon tribes of Northern Alliance (Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazars) are not part of the Talibans. And, furthermore, the Talibans hate the Mujahidin and the Al Qaida and vice versa. Al Qaida is a global movement, working for Global Jihad against the infidels and to establish the caliphate, whereas the Talibans were fighting for an independent Afghanistan - one not occupied by foreign forces. Al Qaida was born out of Maktab al-Khidmat, founded by Abdullah Azzam (born in West Jordan in 1941), called ‘the Godfather of Jihad’ and ‘radical Islam’. He was assassinated in Peshawar in 1989 by a car bomb, after which Osama bin Laden (his student) took over the group that eventually became known as Al Qaeda.

I was quite overwhelmed by this account, of which I knew very little. I have no real understanding, no comprehension, of that part of the world. Also, I have neither the philosophic knowledge nor the intellectual capacity to check the veracity of Omar Nasiri’s claims. Intuitively, I felt that he was giving the readers a more or less correct account of the complex web of identities in that part of the ravaged world. Nasiri’s account helped me to understand a ‘bit better’ what is happening also in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya, Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, Bahrain, etc. At least that very complex situation is beginning to make sense - or rather, paradoxically, ‘no sense’. I mean, the various conflicts and contradictions do not make sense from a ‘rational’ or ‘humanist’ perspective - like the events in Norway did not make humanist or rational sense. I understand from other writings that while for the fundamentalist Sunni Moslem, a Shiite Iran is a bigger enemy than even Israel or the US, the opposite is not true; for a Shiite Moslem, a Sunni is not an infidel - he is a Moslem ‘of another tradition’. As for the Jews and the Christians, they are ‘people of the book’, but non-Moslem.


So the question ‘who am I?’ is a very complex political as well as epistemic question - a question of ‘self-knowledge’ as well as one of political identity. The title of this paper is worded as ‘The epistemic problem of the self: who am I?’ It might have been worded as: ‘The problem of the epistemic self: who am I?’ The former defines the issue as a philosophical issue, a matter for philosophers to think about - a general problem ‘out there’, an ontological problem. The latter emphasises the ‘epistemic self’ - simply put, the knowledge of the self - the problem of ones own inner self, which is a much more interesting cultural-psychological-political problem.

Both dimensions of the problem - the ontological and the self-knowledge - are significant. Let me explain.


In the 1980s and 1990s, for some 20 years, I worked in the rural areas of Zimbabwe and southern Africa (including Zambia, Mozambique, Namibia and South Africa) as a ‘rural development consultant’ (a meaningless and nebulous consciously self-promoting identity aimed simply at earning a livelihood). I learnt a lot working with the rural poor, but one important thing I learnt was that one does not have to be a Marxist to acknowledge that societies are indeed divided into ‘classes’; that there are exploiting and exploited classes; that there are ‘rich peasants’ and ‘poor peasants’. I could identify these ‘classes’ in the way decisions were taken in the local council of Guruve in Zimbabwe, which was dominated by the rich peasants and the state bureaucracy. The odd thing, however, was that the peasants themselves did not have that kind of ‘class consciousness’. ‘Class’ was not a part of their self-identity. And this means that you can have an ‘identity’ of which you are not self-consciously conscious - it is an ontological reality but not self-epistemic. The one identity that the people were very conscious of - indeed quite strongly - was their gender identity. The women - whether belonging to the rich or the poor peasantry - were oppressed (even exploited) by their men. In the Zambezi Valley - the valley below the Guruve escarpment - I was a constant ally of the women in their battles against the council bureaucrats, the chief (a respected elder with ‘traditional values’), and their husbands to try and secure water boreholes, grinding mills, and collection depots for cotton within walking distance from their homes. One strong ally who helped us - indirectly - was the spirit medium in the Zambezi Valley - a venerable old man with dreadlocks and beads - who was in contact with ‘the ancestral spirits’ and was opposed to everything ‘foreign’, especially the agro-chemical fertilisers which, he argued, correctly, would ‘bleach our soil dry’ until (he said prophetically) foreign companies would come and, once again, ‘take over our lands’.

Why is it important to make these observations about the Middle East and the Zambezi Valley in Zimbabwe? For several reasons, but I will mention only that which is of more immediate relevance to our earlier discussion, and to the broader concerns of the general readership of Pambazuka News.

There is a preponderance of economistic analysis in much of our discourse on globalisation. One manifestation of this is the oft-repeated argument (not excluding some of my own writings) that the roots (or potential roots) of conflicts between people are over the struggle for resources - in the case of the Zambezi Valley, for example, for land, cattle, water and grazing areas. There are those who argue (to give another example) that the principal reason for Western intervention in, for instance, Libya is to protect their access to its oil.

But how valid is this thesis? There is much truth in it, but it is still too simple. In the case of the Zambezi Valley, overlying these resource battles are, among others, the condition of oppression and exploitation that women are subjected to as women. The injustice manifested in their lack (or relative lack) of access to resources was underpinned by their gender identity. Economistic explanations of conflict, whilst there is much truth in them, are nonetheless still reductionist in that they seek to isolate the economic causes of conflict from all its other more complex aspects.

The roots of conflict in much of the other parts of the world - not excluding the North for that matter - may be related to this struggle for scarce resources needed for survival (for the poor) or wealth accumulation (for the rich). But this is still reductionist logic; it does not explain all.

For instance, there may be economic aspects of the conflict between the Flemish and the Walloon Communities in Belgium, but at least from what evidence we have it is primarily a problem of identity traced back to the 4th century, when Franks invaded Belgica (Belgian Gaule) and founded what today is called Flanders. The killings in Norway by an obnoxious lunatic cannot be explained from some simple economistic theory. Palpably these murders were committed in the name of protecting a certain racial or cultural identity which the killer explained was under threat from foreign immigrants.

How different are the extremist expressions of the lunatic fringe from culturalist expressions of their leaders?

In my earlier piece in Pambazuka News on the subject I suggested that: ‘Extremist expressions by those who take lives of innocent people, like the killings by Anders Breivik, do not spring from nowhere; they too are part of our societies. They are our own creations. They live in the shadowy fringes of our societies until they come out in the open and detonate life and home.’

This is not a statement without a certain amount of empirical evidence. At various times, for example, the German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the French President Nicolas Sarkozy, the Italian Prime Minister Berlusconi, and the British Prime Minister David Cameron, have made public statements saying that the experiment of ‘multiculturalism’ in their countries has failed. These are politically loaded and potentially dangerous statements (probably carelessly made without much thought). But very few people, among them many of those who were horrified at the killings in Norway, have come out in the open to challenge Merkel and her esteemed colleagues. Why not? Are the expressions of the fringe elements so much more lunatic than those of their political leadership? What is the real difference between the two - those who throw bombs, and those who vilify ‘multiculturalism’ from the seat of state power? These are not necessarily rhetorical questions; they are open-ended questions. But they call for deeper reflection by those who ‘in the name of humanity’ expressed their shock at the Norwegian massacre, but keep quiet when their elected politicians put an ideological content to what is precisely the same phenomenon.


I have drawn examples from the Middle East, Zimbabwe, Belgium and Norway - drawing on my own and others’ experiential knowledge - to argue that the question ‘Who am I?’ is a troubling question no matter where one comes from. The ‘North’ has no moral rectitude on its side, as people in the North often claim. The question ‘Who am I?’ is not a simple question. It is a philosophical question, yes, but above all it is a serious political question of our times. We all have multiple identities - class ‘identity’, whether conscious or not, is only one among them. There is virtually no exception to this rule - we all have multiple identities. This is as close to ‘pure law’ in the field of the social sciences as one can get. To give my own example, I am an ‘Aryan’ (a questionable concept); an ‘Indian’ (an identity most outside observers give me when they look at my skin and hair, though I have this as part of my self-identity consciously only from a cultural rather than political perspective); Ugandan; African; male; Gandhian; Marxist; ‘bourgeois’; intellectual - and this is to list only the main ones. All these identities, singly, describe me only partially. Listing them individually is both to affirm them and to deny them at the same time. I am all these, and none of these. I cannot say in all honesty who I am at what point in time and why. My example is purely illustrative. What is its political significance?

The political question arising from it is the following: Why and how do all these multiple identities get reduced to two nominal but highly dangerous polarised identities - ‘them’ and ‘us’; the ‘insiders’ and the ‘outsiders’; the ‘included and the excluded’? In whose interest are these binary identities created, and by who?

I will suggest one area for a possible line of inquiry into this question. Going back to Nasiri’s book on ‘Inside the Global Jihad’, it defies credence that the US-European collective Empire (in military terms, the NATO alliance) is unaware of the kinds of insights presented by Nasiri and a vast amount of similar literature - the differences, for example, between the Sunni and the Shi’a; those between the Taliban and the Al Qaida; between Iran and Saudi Arabia; between different Islamic sects in Yemen and Bahrain. The Empire’s intelligence services and their ‘expert’ academics based in universities and research institutions know about the multiple identities of all the major - and minor - actors. And yet, those in state power in the various centres of the Empire (and their journalist and academic savants and ideologists) deliberately simplify these complex identities into ‘them’ and ‘us’ polar opposite identities. Why? What imperial geo-economic-political- racial-culturalist interests does this artificially created dualism serve?

This - the polarising of identities - is, I suggest, the most dangerous cancer of our times. It raises a host of broader political and philosophical issues. But one of these that we need to address urgently is the question of ‘the Empire’. What is the character of this Empire? Who are its main players? What games are they playing? What are their strategic targets and their political, economic, and military tactics? In one of my earlier pieces for Pambazuka News, I wrote about ‘kleptocratic capitalism’. What (to add another dimension) is the link between the Empire and kleptocratic capitalism?

It is to try and answer some of these questions to which my future columns in Pambazuka News will be committed.


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