Magazine article Renewal : a Journal of Labour Politics

Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny

Magazine article Renewal : a Journal of Labour Politics

Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny

Article excerpt

Identity and Violence: the illusion of destiny AmartyaSen Alien Lane2006

Reviewed by Jawade Liaqat

Terrorism, immigration, identity and religion are sensitive matters at the best of times. But recently they seem to have combined to create a potent political mix that poses awkward questions for those on the centre left of the political spectrum about the direction of British society. Questions, it has to be said, that in our heart of hearts we would probably prefer not to be aired so vigorously in public.

This is why this book by Amartya Sen, the Nobel prize winning economist and philosopher, is particularly welcome, as he is not afraid to tackle these issues head on and voice concerns about some fundamental aspects of our multicultural society.

At the heart of Sen's analysis is the growing tendency he highlights to reduce personal identities to one single aspect or dimension, most worryingly, on the basis of religion. Not only does this ignore, argues Sen, the many other aspects of our personalities but it also shuts off the many other ways in which common bonds and understanding can be established with other people, creating in the process a dangerous potential for tension and division and ultimately violence, rat her than mutual respect and understanding.

People of a particular religion, Sen argues, are not merely people who follow or practise that religion.They are also people who work in a variety of professions, play a number of different sports, participate in a range of leisure activities, speak different languages, soon and so forth-which are similar to what people from other religious backgrounds do.

However, in giving undue priority to religious identity or any other single aspect of our identities, these many other ways in which people relate to one another are fatally undermined, replaced instead by wider, single and, overtime, increasingly insurmountable differences. Human beings should not be seen as merely members of exactly one single religious or cultural group.

It is these reductions, this 'solitarist' outlook, and the disharmony and divisions it creates, that Sen identifies as a key factor in many of the difficulties currently being experienced with regard to community relations in British society, and in the world more widely.This is happening most notably in Iraq, where the diverse bonds between the Iraqi people are being gradually destroyed under the weight of the demands of the larger, monolithic Shia and Sunni identities.

There can seem to be an unavoidable inevitability to this process, what Sen calls the 'illusion of destiny'. Whereas, given the multiple identities we all have, it is ultimately up to us what weight and importance we attach to each one. Our identities are certainly, to a significant extent, defined by other people, in many instances, in very negative ways. But there is nevertheless a significant degree of choice as to which identities we put to the fore incur relations with other people.

What Sen finds particularly disconcerting is the role government actions and policies, however well intentioned, have played in exacerbating these developments in the United Kingdom. He is particularly critical of the priority the Labour government, for example, has given to the views of Muslim religious leaders and the support it has given to faith schools. …

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