Religion, Ethnicity, Identity and Ethical Culture

Religion, Ethnicity, Identity and Ethical Culture

As we well know, and cannot forget, tomorrow is the fifth anniversary of the assault on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. Time has confirmed the feelings I had then, that the collective psyche of Americans would be indelibly changed. Whether fear of continued terrorist attacks on American soil is hyped for political purposes or not, the attacks have brought a continuous low level anxiety into American society, which, of course, is exactly what terrorism is designed to do.

Why elements of Islam have emerged at this time to engage in warfare with the West can be explained by its own specific causes, which are open to ongoing debate. It’s a crucial debate to have. But, I want to discuss this morning, a much larger phenomenon, which reaches out to touch not only Islam but other world religions as well. The phenomenon I want to examine with you shapes American society also, and therefore, reflection on it, I think, is worthy of our effort.

Islam is not the only religion today in which violence is committed in the name of religion. In India, Hindus have unleashed terrible assaults on Muslims, who comprise about 15% of India’s population and have a history in that country going back many centuries. In Sri Lanka, the peace has been dashed, and, a horrible civil war between the Hindu Tamil minority in that country and the Buddhist majority has flared up again, in a place that visitors used to refer to as a paradise. Hezbollah, an Islamist Shiite group in Lebanon, assaults Israel with its arsenal of 13,000 missiles. In Gaza, Hamas, a Sunni Islamicist group, lobs its generally ineffective but continuous stream of missiles into central Israel. On the West Bank fanatic Jewish extremists have essentially held hostage the more moderate Israeli majority in reaching a mediated peace agreement with the Palestinians, and still attack Palestinians in their midst with impunity. In Iraq, despite disclaimers that the violence has morphed into a civil war, Shiite militias kill Sunnis and vice-versa with incredible ferocity. In Nigeria, the largest country in Africa, sporadic violence occasionally flares up between Muslims in the North and Christians in the south, and on and on.

If we broaden the character of group violence beyond religion to include ethnic strife, the list gets much longer. In the past 15 years, we have heard about the Serbian genocide against the Bosnian Muslims, 800,000 Tutsis slaughtered by Hutus in Rwanda, a quarter of a million Arab Muslims killing non-Arab Darfurians in Sudan. And these are just the mass killings that make it into the news. They are merely the tip of the iceberg.

The violence of the Cold War, which pitted the Soviet Union against the United States, and which was pursued through hot wars carried on by proxies in Latin America, Africa and Asia, has, of course, disappeared with the end of the Soviet Union. Yet no sooner did we see the end of that 45-year bi-lateral strife, with nuclear annihilation hanging over our heads, than we see the emergence of religiously and ethnically based violence

We can ask, what is going on here? What conditions and what ideas enable this to happen. Though, as mentioned, each specific conflict has its own dynamics, we can well ask whether there is a common denominator to warfare done in the name of one’s religion or ethnic group. I want to answer that question, by bringing it home to American society, and what has been going on in our society for the past 40 years or so. Though the United States has not experienced ethnic or religious violence coming from within America, we have become very divided along the lines of religion especially, and ethnicity, as witnessed in the backlash against immigrants who are coming here.

To some extent, what we are experiencing here, I believe, has application elsewhere in the world.

Up until about 40 years ago, and before the emergence of the Black Power movement, the reigning ideology of American identity was that of the “melting pot.” One came to America as an immigrant, and for the most part left one’s Old World identity behind. Your ethnicity would melt into a new America identity, which would bear scant resemblance to where you came from and the habits of the past. What Black Power did was to expose the “melting pot” as a masked form of Anglo-dominance, to which minorities had to conform, and which for blacks, by virtue of skin color, was an impossible and humiliating goal.

In our time, the ideology of the melting pot has been greatly challenged by the ideology of what has come to be called “diversity” or “multiculturalism.” What has spurred the popularity of multiculturalism has certainly been the meteoric wave of new immigrants in the past 15 years or so, which is the largest such wave since the last great influx of eastern Europeans between 1881 and 1926, the time when my mother’s parents and my father came over. This time the immigrants come from more exotic places such as India, Pakistan and Korea, and have darker skins, as is the case with South Asians and Latinos, who make up the largest group. Today, in California, with a population of more than 33 million people, non-Latino Caucasians are a minority. The complexion of America is certainly turning darker, and with new immigrants come new ethnic folkways and habits, languages and religions.

Western European nations, which unlike America, have historically not been countries made up of immigrants, are also experiencing new waves of immigration from Asia, the Middle East and Africa, which is totally new in the European experience, and challenges each of those countries to develop new frameworks, and policies. It has caused them to redefine the notion of their national identities. Each country is grasping for its own solutions for how to deal with the rapid influx of minorities in their midst. Some of the minorities are very large. It is estimated that one half of all residents who now call London home were born outside of England, and in France, 10% of the population is Muslim. Riding on the Paris subway is now almost indistinguishable from riding the New York subways.

It is the brute fact of people from different cultures now living side by side that has helped spur the emergence of the doctrine of multiculturalism, and has made it necessary.

I want to speak for a while about multiculturalism, because I must confess I harbor a deep rooted ambivalence about multiculturalism, and I am troubled because I think it has been, and is, the spawning ground for some ominous problems that beg for much more thorough examination.

At it best, multiculturalism has been a very good thing. It has attempted to overcome negative and bigoted stereotypes of people from ethnic and religious groups other than oneself, through fostering understanding of other cultures, and thereby making them seem less alien, and therefore less threatening. At its best, it has generated at least tolerance and sometimes genuine acceptance and appreciation across ethnic and religious lines.

I have seen it in action. I teach very gifted students in the Hunter College Honors program. My class of young people are amazingly ethnically diverse, with Russian, Uzbek, Ethiopian, Indian, Haitian, Egyptian young people, among others, representing an almost equal diversity of religions. It is quite common to see in the same class yarmulkes and hijabs, as well as standard Western dress. What impresses me greatly, and I find tremendously satisfying, is that these students seem to take it all in stride. They seem relaxed with the environment of diversity, and as best as I can tell, they see it as normal and take it for granted. I think it is the way we would want it to be.

But also I believe that there is a flip side to the ideology of multiculturalism, which is not good. If multiculturalism has succeeded significantly in banishing negative stereotyping of ethnic groups, it has also accomplished something else which I think sends us on a slippery slope toward danger.

On the negative side, multiculturalism has created a general fetish with group identity, whether ethnic identity or religious. It has encouraged people, both in the United States and beyond to define themselves by a single identity, be it Latino, Muslim, Evangelical, Jewish, Hindu, black, or whatever. If you ask people who they are, I think it is increasingly common for people to identify themselves by their ethnicity or their religion, and my point is that there is something in the air which encourages them to do so. When this type of self-identity becomes a person’s dominant, or even exclusive, way of understanding oneself, it by necessity must frame how a person sees others, that is, in mutually exclusive terms.

I need to explain what I mean in greater detail. Humanist that I am, I do not think that ethnicity will ever disappear. It may change its substance and its form, but I don’t think that it will go away. I believe that it is simply not possible for people to build a sense of their inner identity around the abstract concept of universal humanity, or of a person-in-general. People need to build their identities around concretes, which are going to be specific, indeed culturally or ethnically specific; around specific language, customs, food preferences, stories, a style of humor, etc. I think it is an anthropological given that people are socialized within smaller groups, which help to mold their identity and give them a sense of themselves.

We live in a time, however, when I think that this fascination with ethnic group and religious identity has gone over the top and has been overly romanticized. At times, it seems as if there is a mad rush for people to jump on the ethnic and religious bandwagon. There is a certain empowerment and enchantment with the notion of group identity, be it Italian, Irish, Puerto Rican, Native American or whatever, especially if you come from an historically oppressed group. But when this sense of group or ethnic identity is raised to the level of one’s exclusive identity, I think that it partakes of a fallacy, which can, and at times of inflammatory political circumstances does, turn malignant and violent.

I need to explain what I mean. To the extent to which a person feels that his or her ethnic or religious identity is their exclusive identity, to that extent he or she is seeing the world from the perspective of self over against an “alien other.” The me and the not me. My exclusive identity as an evangelical, a Jew, a Muslim, an African-American, or whatever, sets the stage for drawing the lines between those who are like me, part of the in-group, and those who irredeemably outside my circle, and different from me and those like me. The lines of exclusivity have been drawn, and when political tensions increase, in the worst cases, conflict and violence between religious and ethnic groups can be the result.

My point is that there is something about our times, ideologically, which impresses upon many people the need to couch their identity in these exclusive ethnic and religious terms

My argument is that there is something crude in this fetish over religious and ethnic identity, which is not true to the way in which people are actually socialized in the modern world. For such people there seems to be the understanding that their ethnic identity is sort of a cosmic given, something they need to discover and grow into as a type of self-realization. But I think that this is true only to a small extent, and is primarily untrue.

Closer to reality is the fact that identity is not monolithic. It is not exclusively this or that. It cannot be reduced to a single element, be it ethnic or religious. The truer reality is that the identity of any single individual is itself highly complex and multiple. We carry within us many possible identities, and it is within our power to choose which elements we want to play up and which we want to play down.

It is sort of instructive, and I think liberating, to engage in a meditation in which we ask ourselves who am I? And the honest answer is that we are not any one thing, but a complex of many things. So using myself as an example what are the element of my identity? They are at least the following:

I am a male Caucasian, American of East European ancestry, a Jew, humanist, agnostic, Ethical Culturist, middle class, non-conformist, progressive, heterosexual with a commitment to the rights of gays. I am an English speaker with an appreciation for foreign languages. I am a religious leader, academic, university professor, writer, reader, public speaker, insatiable schmoozer, scholar, social critic, internationalist, traveler, bicyclist, camper, aficionado of the wilderness, an activist, community organizer, human rights advocate, civil libertarian, a pragmatist who is also a dreamer and idealist, father, grandfather, brother, husband, and on and on. My point is that my identity is not reducible to one thing, but to a consortium of many things. But most importantly, within a broad range it is within my power to choose to put any of these identifiers in the forefront of my identity and to place others in the background. In other words, my identity and yours is not a determinism that you or I are fated to live out, but it is, moreover, a matter of choice. Our identity, in great measure, is not something that we solely inherit. It is rather something that we, within broad limits, create. So if you ask me, which community do I belong to, the answer is I belong to many communities, and I have the power to cross lines and move from one to the other. Certain types of multicultural or communitarian thinking, which is very popular these days, proclaim that one ethnic identity must be the principle, dominant or exclusive identity which molds a person’s values and ethics and a sense of the self. True, the ethnic or religious culture that one is born into may exert a strong influence on who the person is. But to be an influence is not the same thing as to determine a person’s identity. A person still has a range of choices as to how they wish to identify themselves.

But there is a second hidden fallacy in the notion that a cultural or ethnic community into which a person is born has to dominate or determine their identity. Just as an individual’s identity is multiple and complex, even more so is that true of so-called cultures, either ethnic or religious. From the outside other cultures, be they black, Jewish, Sikh, Muslim or evangelical Christian, may all seem uniform and monolithic. But this kind of reductionism is silly and it’s wrong. All one has to do is enter into that so-called community, and what usually becomes strikingly dramatic is how diverse from the inside such ethnic or cultural communities really are. In fact, so diverse, that its members are often at each other’s throats. If, for example, a person says he or she is a Jew, Latino or Muslim, that, in and of itself, says very little about that person’s values.

If someone is identified as a member of the Jewish “community” this alone tells me almost nothing about him or her, certainly nothing I can feel confident about. Is that person a pious believer or an atheist? Left wing or right wing, or politically apathetic? That person could hold an almost infinite range of values across a very wide spectrum. Is that person a Hasidic Jew whose entire life is to live by divine commands, and who attempts to close himself off from the world and outsiders as much as possible? Is that person a modern orthodox Jew, who lives by divine command, but also embraces large elements of the secular world? Is that person a Reform, or Conservative Jew, or is that person, a contemporary Israeli whose identity is national and who also is anti-religious, or is that person totally secular, for whom their Jewish identity is far in the background and their commitment to radical, left-wing, politics means everything? Or is that person a Sephardic Jew from North Africa, with customs for apart from anything familiar to Westerners? Anyone who knows anything about the Jewish world knows that it is incredibly and often acrimoniously diverse, with hundreds of hairsplitting options, many of which have little in common with each other across a whole spectrum of options. In other words, to say that a person is shaped predominantly by their ethnic culture or their religion is to overlook the wide range of choices within that culture.

If I know a person is a member of the Latino community, that again tells me nothing about that the person. Is he a wealthy right-wing Cuban businessman in Miami, or a Salvadoran campesino with a strong indigenous heritage; a fascist in the Argentine military or a communist revolutionary in Peru? Is that person a lapsed Roman Catholic in Mexico, or an enthusiastic Pentecostal in Guatemala, or secularist in Uruguay? Or is that person a third generation United States citizen with a Latino surname, living in New Jersey, married to a Norwegian and who doesn’t speak Spanish? Latinos all. But to conclude that therefore they comprise a common culture, or share common values in all but the most attenuated sense, is counterfactual and preposterous.

Even the values of people in traditional or tribal cultures in undeveloped parts of the world cannot be reduced to or be assumed to have common values. In a particular African tribe you may find women who will accept genital circumcision as a necessary way to affirm tribal identity and become marriageable. And in the same culture and “community” you will find women who will denounce it as an unacceptable form of patriarchy, and as a form of barbarism and they will attempt to escape it.

Perhaps more relevant today, is the question of Muslim identity, which we in the West tend to see through ideological and monolithic lenses. There are 1.3 billion Muslims in the world, and the diversity in that population is immense in every which way. Sure, there is a fringe of violent extremists and terrorists who win adherents. Some Muslims are terrorists and they are dangerous and the threat is real, and we need to deal with it. We know that and it needs to be taken most seriously. But we make a great mistake if we take the part for the whole. It is contrary to fact to see Muslim people exclusively through their religious identities. Indeed, the majority of the 2-7 million Muslims in America are not mosque affiliated, and there is no reason to believe that their religious identity is the primary way in which they see themselves, or is of very great significance to them.

In France, where problems with the large Muslim minority make news, the situation on the ground may not be as bad as the headlines suggest. A vast majority of France’s Muslims support France’s republican values, and care little for jihadism. A 2004 poll reported that 90% of France’s Muslims said that gender equality was important to them. 68% support the separation of church and state, and French Muslims attend mosque at no higher rates than Catholics and Protestants go to church or Jews to synagogue. The government’s 2004 law to ban head scarves created a lot of controversy in the international press, but French Muslims have long seen it as marginal issue, and 71% reported in 2004 that it was getting too much attention. There were riots among Muslim youths in the Parisian suburbs last November, but those riots had nothing to do with yearnings for a world-wide caliphate, and everything to do with France’s socioeconomic problems. My point of these few examples is that if a person says he is Muslim, it doesn’t necessarily mean that religion is the sole or dominant element that determines who he or she is or what they value or how they act. If we think that it does, then we have put all Muslims in the same cookie cutter. We have established crude boundaries between us and them, the lines are drawn, and conflict becomes all the more possible. Of course, Islamic extremists have done exactly the same thing. They are obsessed with the evils of the West, which reveals a type of enduring colonial mindset. Muslim terrorist could hardly exist without the West. When Osama bin Laden demonizes “the West”, I sometimes wonder whom is he talking about: Che Guevara? Albert Einstein? Leonardo da Vinci? Martin Luther King? Adolf Hitler? Marilyn Monroe? Westerners all, but with nothing in common. It is reductionism on all sides that sets the stage for an “us or them” mentality and for civilizational violence.

Parenthetically, I believe that when dealing with Islamist terrorism, we would do much better in putting less focus on the Islamic religion, which can be used to support both violence and tolerance, and much more focus on the political and economic realities that lets demagogues exploit religion for nefarious purposes. For example, Indonesia, which long had a more tolerant variant of Islam, was beginning to move in a more anti-US, jihadist direction. But that movement changed course after the generous and effective relief effort launched by the United States in the wake of the tsunami.

A far better understanding, and one which is in short supply today, is to recognize as my teacher of many years ago, Cornel West, once said, that every culture, every ethnic and religious group is a product of ”radical hybridity.” Especially in this globalized world, where instant communication, the internet and global trade have caused cultures to interpenetrate each other, there is no such thing as a pure culture. Every cultural identity, as is every individual identity, is a hybrid, a mixture, which opens up an array of options.

Where does all this lead? I think that in these times, which have made a fetish of ethnic and religious identity, there is real saving value in recognizing that reducing people to their ethnicity or religion primarily, and seeing ourselves and them through that lens, can be dangerous. Far better to embrace a cosmopolitan ideal. Far better to embrace and promote and idea that people in great measure have the freedom to forge their own identities out of their own experiences and choices. Far better to embrace the idea that people and groups are highly differentiated and complex, and that we have the freedom to move across boundaries of ethnicity and religion to build relations with people on the basis of shared values and interests. Seeing that the boundaries of ethnicity and religion are not impregnable walls, but can be made porous and should be, can be a true foundation for mutual cooperation and peace.

In closing, I would like to say that as small as it is, I think Ethical Culture has gotten it right. Its philosophy has kept alive the ideal that people need to move outside the boundaries of ethnicity and religion to appreciate and embrace the universal humanity that resides in all people. The richest life, Ethical Culture proclaims, is lived in the zone between the universal and the particular. By keeping that ideal alive, we work to break down the walls that divide us. And in doing so, we can be a voice for peace at a time and in a world that sorely needs it.

Dr. Joseph Chuman

10 September 2006

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