Identity and Culpability

Kenan Malik talks about the dynamics that influence identity in this article on Amartya Sen’s Identity and Violence. Sen backs the argument that British multicultural policies have imposed upon Bangladeshis the single identity of being Muslim.

“Bangladesh’s separation from Pakistan was not based on their religion but on their language, their literature and their secular politics. At the time of independence Bangladeshis who came here had a very strong sense of Bengali identity. But all that disappeared, because the official government classification ignored language, culture and secular politics, and insisted on viewing all Bangladeshis as Muslims. Suddenly they had lost all identity other than being Islamic. And suddenly Bangladeshis stopped being Bangladeshis and were merged with all other Muslims from Morocco to Indonesia.”

This is manifestly true from a perceptual standpoint. However, Bangladeshis did not choose to be ideologically located in this sphere because they made a collective decision to submit to the policies of multiculturalism. There are other factors that affect the reason why Bangladeshis have made the choice to be regarded as Muslim. The most importance is the almost total lack of a strong secular identity that can be aspired to. In fact, for Bangladeshis, the existential conflict between the secular, liberal, worldly character against the religious, conservative character is always going to be weighted in favour of the latter because there already exists a set of values and beliefs that this character is shaped by; its called Islam. To complicate things further, within the secular character there exists an internal conflict over what constitutes an analogous and fully-formed set of beliefs that can be used as a counter-model to religious philosophy without diminishing spiritual allegiances.

Sen believes that Bangladeshis can choose their way out of this problem. But can they? Bangladeshis cannot choose for the correct character to win out and come to the forefront in a way that will be conducive to them. When Bangladeshis make the wrong choice, lets say by an arbitrary swing towards extremism, it means some other factor caused the swing and the choice to do otherwise has been thwarted.

I agree with Sen, but there are some influences on the Muslim character that subscribes to a collective mindset that confirm context and allegiances have more influence on identity than choice alone. In particular: war and terrorism.

The question of terrorism and its acceptance is one of those choices that Muslims are in some confusion over. They can either denounce terrorism because it is abhorrent, unethical and aberrational of Islamic religious thought.
Or they can feel the pressure of collective culpability and blame external influences. This would be a failure of imagination by Muslims.

The letter by Muslim MPs to Downing St in which they have charged Western foreign policy as ‘anti-Muslim’ and therefore the sole factor in the creation of Muslim terrorism is an example of this failure. This is the antithesis of wisdom because the subtext of such a statement suggests that Muslims are unable to blame the agencies that allow terrorism to grow in the midst of Islam. It is also self-defeating because the statement implies that Muslims are in alignment with terrorism and on and on we go.

It would be good to apply Sen’s principle of choice at this point. But I fear that statements by political leaders suggest that the choice for Muslims has already been made.

111 Responses to “Identity and Culpability”

  1. bdblogs.ocm Says:

    I have added you blogs site at, Home of Bangladeshi Blogs.


  2. Sid H Arthur Says:


  3. sonia Says:

    I’m a bit confused by the phrase ‘overall goverment classification’ - what classification is that referring to? The box on Census forms?

  4. Salam Dhaka Says:

    When Ziaur Rahman came to power through a coup, he eliminated the “secular” word from the constitution. I have a copy of the constitution and if you go that section it says “[ommitted]”.

    Then Ershad came to power and installed Islam as the official religion. Again, goal was to stay in bed with the fundamentalists.

  5. sonia Says:

    Oh dear - so now we need a campaign re-secularize the constitution! oh and i’m sure the Jamaat e- Islami will be very keen on that. Shit.

  6. David T Says:

    I’ve been thinking along similar lines…

    I have to say, I find articles written “as a Muslim” (or, for that matter, advertisements in the press consisting of letters signed by people in their capacity as Jews) profoundly depressing.

    The notion that a person has an obligation to speak as a symbolic representative of any particular group is anathema. It carries with it the idea that a person should be identified principally by their ethnicity or faith. Although there may be people who choose to identify themselves - at times - by their membership of a community of shared interests, what is important about that moment of identification is that it is voluntarily assumed, and is neither inevitably transcendent, nor forced upon them.

    Part of my reaction is that it seems intrinsically absurd for somebody to feel pride or shame as a result of the actions of others? Moreover, why should Muslims feel that they have to adopt a religious identity in order to give them the authority to embrace or reject the actions of others? We’re much more complex than this, surely?

    The sparring notions of a clash or even a dialogue of ‘civilisations’ - which underpins much of this discourse - seems to me to be a foolish and clumsy way of thinking about identity. It is premised upon the notion that the world is divided into identity based camps: where you choose your identity, and work from the basis of that identity in a manner which dictates your interaction with the rest of humanity.

    There may be some people, living in highly polarised societies, or in monocultures, for whom that is true. But that strikes me as neither an inevitable nor a particularly desirable way for human beings to relate to one another.

    So, I’m inclined to say: refuse to make the choice. Why should somebody feel an obligation to take a stance on war or terrorism “as a Bangladeshi” or “as a Muslim”? What is the value of the ‘choice’ in those circumstances, in any event? It strikes me as a wholly meaningless one.

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