Europe’s Conflict: A Clash of Religious and Cultural Identities

By Paula Mendez Keil

Recently, two suspects of a neo-Nazi group in Germany were apprehended following the bombing of the apartment in which they resided, apparently in an effort to cover up their tracks. In the past decade the group has been linked to several bank robberies, bombings, and over 10 murders targeting immigrants of mostly Turkish origin. The string of murders only reifies the rise in cultural tensions felt across Europe, potentially leading to further human rights violations of non-discrimination and freedom of expression. Yet, in a world where globalisation has led to an upsurge in cultural ‘confrontation,’ in which people continually rediscover and cement their own identities through a discourse of exchange, it is naive not to expect clashes to take place. In a premonitory tone, Huntington’s ‘clash of civilizations’ is the very manifestation of today’s cultural and religious conflicts scattered throughout Europe. It is at the very intersection of identity that individuals struggle with the notion of belonging to a greater collective, which fosters an internal disconnect between the perceived self and that self which is circumscribed by group politics.

A prevalent example of this is the case of Muslims in Europe, where there is a palpable divergence between national and cultural citizenship. In this context, bodily performances (such as wearing a hijab) and language (such as publicly practicing Salat) are vital to the delineation of cultural and religious boundaries. As a result of increasing global migration, as is the case with Turkish immigrants in Germany, these very acts gain greater importance throughout varying groups for the very purpose of differentiation; a bidirectional differentiation between ‘us’ and ‘them’. As a result, these performances and language become ritual reenactments that demonstrate and reinforce belonging within a given community.

This belonging, however, comes at a cost. In religion, this price is the formation of a moral self, defined through laws and practices that circumscribe appropriate behaviors, which must be obeyed in order to maintain the privilege of belonging. The formation, or rather regulation, of morality becomes imperative for the survival of the religious collective, often obfuscating individual choice. Choice, insofar as individuals have the liberty to associate themselves with whichever belief system they feel most honestly represents their sentiments. This argument can be traced to the Foucauldian notion of ‘inner truth,’ whereby sincerity, authenticity, and truthfulness, all play important roles in maintaining a self-fulfilled subject. However, we must question what it is to be ‘self-fulfilled’ and within which cultural context this question is answered. Self-fulfillment can be personal or collective. It can represent a choice to please oneself or others. However, even these supposed choices are inevitably culturally dependent and determined, thereby influencing what one thinks is one’s true choice.

Given the exclusive nature of religion (an all or nothing concept found in most monotheistic faiths), building a cohesive community through the exercise of morality has prevailed as the standard modus operandi. Identity homogenisation of a moral community is typically fundamental in holding together the collective. However, I believe that most individuals nowadays face the greater challenge of reconciling their plural identities. In so doing, many Muslims residing in Europe have found ways to anchor their faiths within the contemporary contexts of their surroundings; giving a different meaning to Islam that is not contingent on archaic cultural structures.

This rupture between religion and culture has been embodied by a process of re-signification of the body and practices. One recurrent example in Europe as well as abroad is that of aestheticising the headscarf, whereby Muslim women employ á la mode ways to wear the hijab, consequently giving rise to an Islamic contemporary fashion. Yet this effort links back to the idea of agency, paving the way to question whether this is just a tactic to re-appropriate some kind of ‘power’ of choice within given cultural constraints, a situation similar to the African American experience of re-appropriating the word ‘negro’ and thus reassigning new meaning to it. The re-signification effort by certain individuals, begs the question of intersectionality. Theirs becomes a choice between which identity to more closely associate with, and where to draw the lines of loyalty for a group one seeks to belong to. The concept of loyalty then posits one collective against the other, one predominant identity versus another, reaffirming the constant division between one and the ‘Other’.

Such struggles manifest themselves not only at the personal level, but remind us of their greater implications on policy and ‘universal’ human rights. Can the plurality of identities be thoroughly addressed through universal claims to human rights? By asserting the multiplicity of identities, are we not simultaneously highlighting the paradox between a given ‘universal’ of humanity and one that is increasingly fragmented? How then can the human rights discourse positively impact policies at the national and international level?

Further reading: The ICHRP’s project (in development) on Mapping multicultural justice: Universal human rights and identity-based grievances.

About the Author:

Paula Mendez Keil is a 2011 Research Intern at the International Council on Human Rights Policy. She is currently completing a Master’s in International Affairs at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva.

1 comment:

  1. I am afraid I cannot could not disagree more, especially with the first part of this piece, which appears not to have accounted for the extensive critique of Huntington's highly problematic 'clash of civilisations' thesis. Indeed the author's view of 'cultural and religious conflicts scattered throughout Europe' is a typical response that essentialises identities and indeed political conflicts. Let us not forget that Mr. Brevik was taking aim at Marxists and multiculturalists as well. In a Europe in which inclusion has been 'reduced' to a cultural agenda and the economic agenda is marked by exclusion, it is easy to ignore economic, educational, health and other disadvantages and chase ‘social cohesion’. Integration is supposed to occur while real wages stagnate or decline, social welfare protections are demolished, inequalities rise and the working class is pushed to the wall.

    Even though she calls for a questioning of the idea of self-fulfilment, the author seems to accept, uncritically, the idea of (liberal) ‘individual choice’ in the matter of religion. But rights claims are not just about liberal choices i.e. to accept a given set of cultural norms or have the right to leave/exit the group. The approach of those who lay claim to both culture and rights is different. Their position is not accept or exit but contest and transform. In fact, some of the author's own observations point to this.

    I wonder if the question is not whether “the plurality of identities [can] be thoroughly addressed through universal claims to human rights” but rather whether the full universe of claims—social, economic, political and cultural—can be accommodated within the narrow confines of a liberal politics (often high on the 'identity' quotient) that dominates so much of human rights practice.

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