IDENTITY AND SOCIETY

Overview: Students read and discuss three passages that address the role of identity in forming our understanding of ourselves and our role in society, especially in relation to the events of September 11, 2001.

Reading 1: The Individual And Society: Choosing To Participate includes a profile of Muslim activist Asama Khan.

Reading 2: Multiple Identities includes writings by economist and humanitarian Amartya Sen.

Reading 3: A Vision of the World uses an allegory by Moroccan scholar Fatima Mernissi for reflection.

IDENTITY AND SOCIETY

Reading 1: The Individual And Society: Choosing To Participate

In the aftermath of the September 11th attacks on the United States there was an outpouring of support for the families and victims of the atrocities. People around the country donated food, blood and money. Some New Yorkers found that participating in recovery efforts became a way to cope with their grief and sorrow.  For Muslims living in New York there was an additional burden, in the flash of anger that followed the attacks, many found their loyalties questioned.  Asama Khan discovered that the best way for her contribute was by embracing her multiple identities as a Muslim, a New Yorker, a lawyer, and someone who cares deeply about human rights. Less than a week after the attacks, Khan and several friends and colleagues formed the group Muslims Against Terrorism with the hope that education can help to prevent future attacks and an unending cycle of hate.

Reporter Robin Finn wrote a profile of Khan that appeared in The New York Times. In the article Khan talks about how the attacks on September 11th influenced the way she thought about her identity:

Ms. Khan's identity was in flux, even before the events of Sept. 11 transformed her from a citified, New Age Muslim who shopped at Ikea, skated in Central Park and made profitable use of her law degree as a project-finance associate at Chadbourne & Park, to an angrily articulate advocate intent on disproving any link between Islam and the fugitive who dominates her nightmares, Osama bin Laden.

"I don't want to see this religion used by Al Qaeda and Osama to justify mass murder sprees. It's unacceptable," she says, agitation evident in her clenched fists. "It's like our religion was hijacked," she adds an observation she'd like to take credit for but attributes to a California-based imam, Hamza Yusuf.

On the morning of the attack, Ms. Khan was alone in her brother's apartment, having not yet preceded her furniture into this one, preparing to hit the gym with a friend from Zawia, the informal Islamic study group, whose focus is intellectual, not political, that she joined after being unable to find a mosque that fit her needs.

The friend phoned and instructed her to turn on the television; she did, just in time to see the second plane hit, and remembered her brother's law firm did occasional business at the World Trade Center. (He wasn't there, nor did she lose anyone close to her.)

Muslims Against Terrorism had its genesis in frustration: when she and several Zawia members went to give blood and donate supplies at the armory at 26th Street and Lexington Avenue, they were turned away because the facilities were overwhelmed. "We wanted to help but didn't know how; as Muslims, we were doubly grieving," she says.

The Sunday after the tragedy, she and 10 colleagues formed a Web site and synchronized their mission: education. They developed a curriculum, sent speakers to schools in Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx, and made a presentation at a Columbia University workshop attended by 400 directors of after-school programs.

"The best way to stop the cycle of hate is through education," maintains Ms. Khan, who is also working with the television and news media "to take away bin Laden's platform and take back our religion. If people start hating Islam, it's kind of like what Gandhi said, `An eye for an eye and the whole world goes blind.' "

Born and raised in Peoria, her parents, both physicians, emigrated from Pakistan to London to the United States? Ms. Khan spent three years in Pakistan during high school, a prolonged family reunion that wasn't as idyllic as planned. Though she had previously visited her grandparents in Karachi and Lahore, she encountered disturbing changes in 1986. "As kids, we'd sleep outside when we visited, and no one ever locked doors; the boundaries of the yards were two feet high. When we moved there, every home was a fortress. The walls were six feet high, some with barbed wire, some electrified. It was a stressful, violent place," she says. "It was clear to my parents that we were definitely going back to the United States for college."

Ms. Khan, who attended college and law school in Chicago, was aghast to learn that some Americans responded affirmatively to a recent poll suggesting that Muslims wear badges; it scares her. Asked if she fears for her safety since making the move from anonymity to this very public antifundamentalist stance, Ms. Khan's poise deserts her.

"Initially I thought I might be a target for anti-Muslim Americans. Now I realize I may be a target for the extremists, because what they're most afraid of is the truth. God forbid I should die speaking the truth," she says, her face wet with tears. "But better to speak the truth than to die not saying it. The people who lost their lives on Sept. 11th deserve at least that."

Composed again, Ms. Khan decides that this new identity, while unsought and unpaid, might be a keeper, if only for the time it takes to enlighten Americans, especially young ones, that Islam is no villain. "I never for a minute thought my interest in and love for my religion would ever become a cause du jour. Now that it has, Muslim- Americans bear that responsibility."

"A Daughter of Islam, an Enemy of Terror" by Robin Finn, New York Times, Oct. 25, 2001, Metro Section.

                                  

Connections

1.      Below is an identity chart for a High School student from the United States.  For ideas on how to use identity charts refer to the Facing History and Ourselves website www.facinghistory.org.

(Embedded image moved to file: pic00041.pcx)

Using this model, create an identity chart for Aasma Khan. What labels does she use to describe himself?  Which labels might others attach to her?

2.      Create an identity chart for yourself.  Begin with the words or phrases that describe the way you see yourself.  Add those words and phrases to your chart. Compare your chart with those of your classmates.  Which categories were included on every chart? Which appeared on only a few charts? As you look at other charts, your perspective may change.  You may wish to revise your chart and add new categories to those you have already included.

This activity allows you to see the world through multiple perspectives.  What labels would others attach to you?  Do they see you as a leader or a follower? A conformist or a rebel? Are you a peacemaker or a bully? Or a bystander?

How do society's labels influence the way you see yourself? The kinds of choices you make each day?

3.      Professor Helen Fein writes about the idea of a "universe of obligation," the name she gives to the circle of individuals and groups "toward whom obligations are owed, to whom rules apply, and whose injuries call for [amends].” [1] How does Khan define her universe of obligation?  How do you define yours?

4.      How did Khan's interests and identity influence her response to the atrocity of the attacks on September 11th?  What tools did she have to shape her actions?

5.      Muslims Against Terrorism stress the role of education in preventing more attacks like the one on September 11th.  What kind of education can make a difference?

6.      In the wake of the September attacks, hate crimes and bias incidents against Muslims have spiked, at the same time bias incidents against Jews are also on the rise.  What is the role of activists, such as Asama Khan, in responding to the incidents?  What is the role of politicians and community leaders?  What is the role of ordinary individuals in responding?

7.      To learn more about how one community responded to a series hate crimes watch the video Not in Our Town with your class.

8.      Khan and her colleagues at Muslims Against Terrorism have spoken to Muslims and non-Muslims about violence perpetrated by those claiming to speak for Islam as well as violence directed at Muslims and people who been identified as Arab or Muslim.  Why is it important that they address both?

9.      To learn more about Muslims Against Terrorism and their attempts to break the cycle of violence, visit their web site. http://www.matusa.org.

10.  Research other educational efforts to bring people of diverse backgrounds together to prevent terrorism and a violent backlash against Muslims. What strategies do the groups' employ?

Copyright: Facing History and Ourselves, 2002.


IDENTITY AND SOCIETY

Reading 2: Multiple Identities

Economist and humanitarian, Amartya Sen writes about his multiple

identities.  He believes "the main hope of harmony lies not in any imagined uniformity, but in the plurality of our identities." Sen uses his own

identity to illustrate his point, "I can be at the same time an Asian, an

Indian citizen, a U.S. resident, a British academic, a Bengali with

Bangladeshi ancestry, a graduate of two colleges in two different countries, an atheist with a Hindu background, a non-Brahmin, an economist, a researcher and teacher in philosophy, a Sanskritist, a married man, a feminist, a defender of gay rights, a non-believer in after-life and also before-life, and a non-believer also in frequent visits by extra-terrestrial aliens in austere spaceships, but a believer in the view that if such aliens do exist, they ought to make their spaceships a lot jollier and more colorful." From http://www.bu.edu/pardee/news/lecture.html

After September 11th, in an attempt to understand the hatred and violence, many people found themselves trapped by labels, which Sen believes, reduce complex ideas and identities and thereby often obscuring what is really important.

To talk about "the Islamic world" or "the Western world" is already to adopt an impoverished vision of humanity as unalterably divided. In fact, civilizations are hard to partition in this way, given the diversities within each society as well as the linkages among different countries and cultures. For example, describing India as a "Hindu civilization" misses the fact that India has more Muslims than any other country except Indonesia and possibly Pakistan. It is futile to try to understand Indian art, literature, music, food or politics without seeing the extensive interactions across barriers of religious communities. These include Hindus and Muslims, Buddhists, Jains, Sikhs, Parsees, Christians (who have been in India since at least the fourth century, well before England's conversion to Christianity), Jews (present since the fall of Jerusalem), and even atheists and agnostics. Sanskrit has a larger atheistic literature than exists in any other classical language. Speaking of India as a Hindu civilization may be comforting to the Hindu fundamentalist, but it is an odd reading of India?

Dividing the world into discrete civilizations is not just crude. It propels us into the absurd belief that this partitioning is natural and necessary and must overwhelm all other ways of identifying people. That imperious view goes not only against the sentiment that "we human beings are all much the same," but also against the more plausible understanding that we are diversely different. For example, Bangladesh's split from Pakistan was not connected with religion, but with language and politics.

Each of us has many features in our self-conception. Our religion, important as it may be, cannot be an all- engulfing identity. Even a shared poverty can be a source of solidarity across the borders. The kind of division highlighted by, say, the so-called "antiglobalization" protesters - whose movement is, incidentally, one of the most globalized in the world - tries to unite the underdogs of the world economy and goes firmly against religious, national or "civilizational" lines of division.

The main hope of harmony lies not in any imagined uniformity, but in the plurality of our identities, which cut across each other and work against sharp divisions into impenetrable civilizational camps. Political leaders who think and act in terms of sectioning off humanity into various "worlds" stand to make the world more flammable - even when their intentions are very different. They also end up, in the case of civilizations defined by religion, lending authority to religious leaders seen as spokesmen for their "worlds." In the process, other voices are muffled and other concerns silenced. The robbing of our plural identities not only reduces us; it impoverishes the world.

Excerpted from "A World Not Neatly Divided" by Amartrya Sen, New York Times, November 23, 2001, op-ed.


Connections

1.      How do unexamined ideas about human difference become categories and labels that define a person's worth to society?

2.      How do Sen's comments influence the way you think about groups, nations and individuals? Do groups themselves have identities?  If so, how do they develop their identity? How does a society decide which differences matter?

3.      Create an identity chart for Amartya Sen. What groups does he belong to?

4.      Create an identity for yourself. What groups do you belong to? Create an identity chart for yourself. Compare and contrast your identity chart with others members of the class so that you can see the multiple identities and the varieties of ways people express who they are.

After sharing your identity charts, are there other categories you would now want to add to your chart?  Which labels do others use to categorize you? How does group membership influence your individual identity?

When do you choose to emphasize one facet of your identity over another?  What influences those choices?  What are the consequences of those decisions?

Can you create an identity chart for a community? Culture? Civilization?

5.      According Amartya Sen the "main hope of harmony lies not in any imagined uniformity, but in the plurality of our identities, which cut across each other and work against sharp divisions into impenetrable civilizational camps."  Sen suggests that we need to work to avoid sharp divisions and work towards accepting multiple interpretations and perspectives of identity.  Why is that hard?  Is it a kind of tolerance? What happens if we fail?

6.      Revisit your definition for the words culture and civilization.  How has Sen's article influenced your thinking?  Are there values and roles shared by cultures all over the world?

7.      Psychologist Deborah Tannen writes, "We all know we are unique individuals, but we tend to see others as representatives of groups.  It's a natural tendency, since we must see the world in patterns in order to make sense of it; we wouldn't be able to deal with the daily onslaught of people and objects if we couldn't predict a lot about them and feel that we know who and what they are.  But this natural and useful ability to see patterns of similarity has unfortunate consequences.  It is offensive to reduce and identity to a category, and it’s also misleading."

Give examples of the ways that generalizing can be useful.  Give examples

of its "unfortunate consequences."  How do Sen's comments support Tannen's observation?

8.      History teaches us to take seriously the dangers of using stereotypes to define others.  At what point do physical and social differences become social and political divisions that effect what we believe is possible for ourselves and others?

9.      Many scholars believe that national borders mean less and less as the world becomes increasingly interconnected.  Does that mean nationality is a less important marker of identity?  Does it mean the opposite?

10.  Professor Henry Louis Gates argues that rigorous multiculturalism and encouraging diversity can help steer a society away from the dangers of "ethnic absolution"? Do you agree?  What does he mean by rigorous multiculturalism? What is tolerance? What is intolerance?

To the Teacher: This reading may be used with "Little Boxes" in Chapter 1 of Facing History and Ourselves: Holocaust and Human Behavior.

For further exploration of difference and how it effects membership in society refer Facing History and Ourselves: Race and Membership in American History: The Eugenics Movement.

Copyright: Facing History and Ourselves, 2002.


IDENTITY AND SOCIETY

Reading 3: A Vision of the World

In the aftermath of the September 11th atrocities many scholars have commented that states and nations have become less important. What do we need to live in a world where, as Political Scientist Benjamin Barber notes, "it could hardly escape even casual observers that global warming recognizes no sovereign territory, that AIDS carries no passport, that technology renders national borders meaningless, that the internet defies regulation, that oil and cocaine addiction circle the planet like twin plagues." In 1989, aware of increasing interdependence, Professors Kwame Anthony Appiah and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. began a project that would eventually become The Dictionary of Global Culture.  Through their work, they hoped to equip students of the world with the necessary vocabulary to help people from diverse traditions understand, respect and work with each other.  They dubbed their project "the global citizens guide to culture".

They write:

What we are suggesting in effect is that we all participate, albeit from different cultural positions, in a global system of culture. That culture is increasingly less dominated by the West, less Eurocentric, if you like.  And so there must be more of many of the "other" traditions and we want to know more, in part because we think that in preparing the new generations for a culture that is more global, it is essential for them to learn about William Shakespeare as they learn about Wole Soyinka from Nigeria, Murasaki Shikibu from Japan, Rabindranath Tagore from India.  As we in the West develop more global culture, we do so in the context of Western traditions: we do so because an understanding of other cultures enriches, without displacing, our own.

Strengthening what links humanity across cultures does not mean eradicating local differences or weakening national bonds. In her book, Islam and Democracy, Moroccan scholar Fatima Mernissi tells the story of a poet named Attar and his vision of a world where differences were understood as a strength and enriching instead of a source for division, fear and conflict.

She writes:

It happened in Nishapur in Iran in the spring of A.D. 1175.  A man dreamed of a world without fear, without boundaries, where you could travel very far and find yourself in company of strangers who you knew yourself, strangers who were neither hostile nor aggressive.  It was the land of the Simorgh.

In his long meditations in Nishapur, all by himself Attar imagined that land where strangeness only enriched what we are to the ultimate degree.  He committed his dream to paper, a long poem that he called Mantiq al-tayr (The Conference of the Birds).  It instantly became famous, but intolerance and violence knocked one night at Attar's door.  Genghis Khan's Mongol soldiers murdered Attar in 1230.  The poet died, but the dream lived on through the centuries and continues to haunt our imaginations.

Thousands of birds had heard of a fabulous being called the Simorgh, whom they longed to see and know.  They decided to go together, by their thousands, to the place where they were told he could be found. For years and years they crossed rivers and oceans to find the Simorgh, that fabulous creature, radiant and dazzling.  Many birds died along the way and never finished the journey.  Fatigue and the rigors of the climate decimated most of the seekers.  Only thirty succeeded in arriving at the gates of the fortress of the legendary Simorgh.  But when they were finally received, a surprise awaited them, which we will understand better if we know that in Persian si means thirty and morgh means birds:

            There in the Simorgh's radiant face they saw
            Themselves, the Simorgh of the world-with awe
            They gazed, and dared at last to comprehend
            They were the Simorgh and the journey's end.
            They see the Simorgh standing there;
            They look at both and see the two are one,
            That this is that, that this, the goal is won.
            They ask (but inwardly; they make no sound)
            The meaning of these mysteries that confound
            Their puzzled ignorance?.

When the thirty birds, dazzled and baffled, asked the Simorgh to explain this strange reality to them, he talked of a mirror that could reflect the whole planet, with all its differences and individualities.  They asked him to reveal the great secret, to explain the mystery of why "'we' is not distinguished here from 'you'?" The Simorgh explained to them what is still not understood eight centuries later by our leaders: that the community, indeed the whole world can be a mirror of individualities, and that its strength will then only be greater:

            I am a mirror set before your eyes,
            And all who come before my splendour see
            Themselves, their own unique reality;
            You came as thirty birds and therefore saw
            These selfsame thirty birds, not less nor more;
            If you had come as forty, fifty-here
            An answering forty, fifty would appear;?
            And since you came as thirty birds, you see
            These thirty birds when you discover Me,
            The Simorgh, Truth's last flawless jewel, the light
            In which you will be lost to mortal sight,
            Dispersed to nothingness until once more
            You find in Me the selves you were before.

      Since that time, the Simorgh, banned in the Orient of the palaces,
      has haunted women's tales and children's dreams.  Today the cry for
      pluralism no longer has to hide behind metaphysical allegories.  We
      can bring a new world into being through all the scientific advances
      that allow us to communicate, to engage in unlimited dialogue, to
      create that global mirror in which all cultures can shine in their
      uniqueness.  Nothing makes me more exuberant than the vision of this
      new world, and the fact that we must go forward toward it without any
      barriers no longer frightens me.  How are we to learn to stride into
      the abyss and be like the wind?  How are we to be defenseless like
      the forest?  How can we have uncertainty as our country?  It is
      surely the poets who will be our guides among these new galaxies.

 Fatima Mernissi, Islam and Democracy: Fear of the Modern World,
translated by Mary Jo Lakeland, Perseus Books, 1992, pp. 172-174.

                                

Connections

1.      If Professors Gates and Appiah were to ask to you, as they did to scholars across the world, for ten things that people from all over the world should know about your culture, what would list?  What would you use a criteria for selection? What culture would your list represent? 

You may choose to share your lists with you classmates.  How are your lists similar?  How are they different?  How do you account for both the similarities and differences?

2.      Fatima Mernissi recounts the allegory of the Simorgh.  What does the word allegory mean to you?  How do you understand its lessons for the world today?

3.      Why do you think many people are frightened at the idea of creating a "global mirror in which all cultures can shine in their uniqueness"?  What do you think people would see?

4.      What does Mernissi mean by her questions, "How are we to learn to stride into the abyss and be like the wind?  How are we to be defenseless like the forest?  How can we have uncertainty as our country?"

How would you attempt  to answer Mernissi’s questions? What do you see as other questions we must answer in order to negotiate our shrinking world?

5.      Fatima Mernissi has great hope in the ability of democracy to help prevent conflict and respect difference.  At its best, how does democracy respond to conflict and difference?

6.      Individually or in small groups, create allegories that you think might serve as useful stories to guide people as they encounter difference and conflict.  What lessons do you think people need to embrace?

7.      Research poets, musicians, writers, artists, and architects that have imagined a better world.  What are their visions?  How would you imagine such a world?

8.      Out of the movement to over turn South Africa's apartheid system have emerged leaders who are including the diverse voices of the South African nation to help create the new democracy.  This is being done not only through the work of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission but artists are also imagining it.  Albie Sachs, a constitutional court justice, has described the physical structure of the new South African court as a symbol of the reconciliation of the nation with aspirations to build a society based on respect for human rights.  What do such projects accomplish?

For more information on South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission see www.facinghistory.org  and download the study guide for the Bill Moyer's documentary Facing the Truth.

Copyright: Facing History and Ourselves, 2002.



[1] Helen Fein, Accounting for Genocide, (Free Press, 1979)p.4