Op-Ed | Otherness: The public face of religion | Wasi Ahmed

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Identity on the basis of religion is perceived differently by different people. Some people need to be anchored in a single community, which provides them with a ‘direction’ in life; others live in situations where they see themselves as members of various groups. These people then have to deal with how much these individual groups are able to tolerate each other and, at the same time, how much they try to protect their own unique identity.

The seventeen-year-old Bangladeshi girl who meticulously covers her head with a green and white scarf as an act of modesty as well as to ward off the male eye is not at all bothered about her ‘identity’ while briskly jumping into a public bus on a car-choked Dhaka-street. She prefers to remain anonymous. All she is concerned about is her female sex. True, the scarf (known throughout the world as hijab, curtsey the media) she wears may be attributed to her conservative and religious background, but that does not speak all about her.

The case with her counterpart decked in similar get-up in a London or New York-street may be totally different. The case for the latter, one may tend to see, is more than just modesty. It is backed mostly by her assertion of her identity in public — her ‘correct’ identity as she perceives it, or as it has been brought down to her by her family or the peer group. For the Dhaka girl, identity as such is no big deal — herself a Muslim in a Muslim-majority country. Her case may be further explained by the ‘logic’ that she feels more at ease in a public place as being very little exposed.

A few years back, sitting idly with a friend in front of a makeshift tea-shop near Humayun tomb in New Delhi, my eyes were drawn to two small boys playing cricket with tape-wrapped tennis ball right across the street. The boys, ten to twelve years old, were bare-bodied but for the low-slung, patched-up shorts that needed to be repeatedly pulled up to cover their lean bottoms every time either of them made a movement to hurl the ball or take a quick run. The most noticeable thing to feast one’s eyes on was the yellowish skull cap that fitted tightly on each of their heads covering close-cropped hair.

Was it a deliberate statement that instantly spoke of their identity? One may like to argue that it has more to do with the way of life rather than a conscious approach to declare who they are. A subconscious statement then?

The issue of identity emerges primarily from ethnic and cultural differences leading to a sort of politics of identity where a marginalised community or its members are embattled to reaffirm their identity. This search for identity may, at times, be fuelled by their religious roots alone.

Identity on the basis of religion is perceived differently by different people. Some people need to be anchored in a single community, which provides them with a ‘direction’ in life; others live in situations where they see themselves as members of various groups. These people then have to deal with how much these individual groups are able to tolerate each other and, at the same time, how much they try to protect their own unique identity.

The issue, however, is not as simple as it apparently may look like. Why would one just for one’s religion seek exclusion from the mainstream society? The problem is obviously with the minority, and needless to say, by allowing others to readily tell them apart from the crowd, the minority group tends to be marginalised. Why then is it so important to consider one’s identity so unique as to cost self-exclusion? Needless to say, the practice is increasingly on the rise among migrant Muslins who have temporarily or permanently made the West their home. And women, in particular, are the key practitioners.

Keen observers would agree that the case is not one of religious extremism, nor does it stem from the individual’s desire to proclaim his/her religious freedom in a society where a different religion predominates. For the extremist, as an exception, the case may be otherwise. But speaking in a general sense, it has more to do with the incumbent’s psyche to demonstrate his/her otherness, and the easiest way to do so is to walk along the conventional path of religion.

Needless to say, the privacy of religion is fast making a public face. Being private is not about hiding one’s faith and withdrawing into seclusion to practice his or her faith. The problem rests with creating divisions, segregations, differentiation and opposition that the overtly public face of religion tends to provoke. Again, in situations where a person’s first and foremost identity is blatantly religion-based, does it not relegate his/her hard-earned credentials — say, as a physician, a software engineer or a journalist — to a secondary, if not to a more degradable level? The most commonly sought counter-argument is that the phenomenon is not self-created by the Muslins at all, that it has been thrust upon them, and that it has grown widespread all over the world since the incidents that followed the 9/11 — the occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq by the US and the West’s sweeping Islam-bashing.  Even if the argument is not outright ruled out, one cannot deny that response to the provocation has resulted in a self-inflicting mindset. You call me lame, but rather than trying to prove you wrong, I keep faking lameness to proclaim I am what I am — unlike you!

 

Wasi Ahmed, a novelist, short story writer, and journalist, lives in Dhaka.

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