Fear of losing their identity has driven people to band together with others they perceive are like them and politicians are taking advantage of this fear.
Iranian-American writer, professor and scholar Reza Aslan explained this during a lecture titled ‘Why Do We Believe’ at Karachi’s Habib University on Thursday.
This identity crisis sprung up after the rise of globalization, which conflicts with the idea of how people defined and identified themselves, said Aslan.
Recently, there has been a re-exerting of national identity, like the surge of white nationalism in the US, said the scholar. This is happening all over the world, like the idea that for you to be Indian you must be Hindu and to be Israeli you must be Jewish, he added.
But Aslan doesn’t believe this is a long-term phenomenon and called it “reactionary”. “There are people who are feeling left behind, that their sense of self communal identity is under siege and they’re doubling down on their race, nationality and religion,” he explained. But that isn’t healthy.
No human being is just one thing, he reminded the audience. “We are made up of a multiplicity of identities,” he said, counting race, religion, gender, sexual orientation and ethnicity as just a few of the factors that make up a person’s identity.
“If you allow one thing to subsume the rest it results in an unhealthy individual and a society that allows one thing to subsume the rest is an unhealthy society,” he warned.
Part of this change in the way people identify themselves has been brought about by the internet. It has “radically changed the definition of community”, believes Aslan, who said that community once meant the people near you, in your neighborhood, your city, your state or your country. But today, it can mean that a teenager in Los Angeles has more in common with another teen in Jakarta than anyone else in their community and they form one of their own.
We once defined community by three values, he said, counting safety, sustenance and shelter as the materialist values that maintained the cohesiveness of a community.
But in this post-materialistic world those things don’t matter anymore and collective identity is being redefined. But that’s really scary, he said.
“It means who you thought you were, how you defined yourself as a collective doesn’t apply anymore,” said Aslan. He described nationalism as an attempt to go back to the times when you could step out of your door and everyone looked just like you. But that world doesn’t exist anymore, he said.
Religion, not belief, he said, is one of the most powerful ways to define yourself and create a collective identity. He differentiated between the two by saying that two people could be of the same religion but hold very different beliefs. Politicians like Donald Trump or Benjamin Netanyahu or Narendra Modi know this and use this because it creates a connection.
The label of religion creates an instantaneous connection and becomes a shorthand for values and identity, he explained.
“Politicians are very adept at using that shorthand to manipulate populations to garner support, even if they don’t share those values or beliefs,” said Aslan. Labelling yourself and using the language of religion has the most currency for the masses and draws people to you, he added.