The challenges of identity in turbulent times

16th Jan, 2015

With the dust still settling after last week’s terror attacks in Paris, their intended target remains a point of debate.

While some might view the massacre at the offices of Charlie Hebdo as the deliberate murder of individuals who had offended Muslims by depicting Muhammad, others would argue the hostages killed in a kosher supermarket were the latest victims of an anti -Semitic war. For much of the Western world, however, the attacks were about undermining core principles of free speech and the right to offend.

All interpretations offer some comment on contemporary identity, and the reaffirmation in Paris and beyond of the right to free speech has been a powerful assertion of the French Republic’s core principles – Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité – although there has been no focus on equality amidst a selective interpretation of these ideals (i.e. in the absence of any progress towards equality we have chosen to champion liberty).

The presence of myriad world leaders (ironically, many of whom are themselves involved in the repression of free speech) was perhaps meant to indicate an assertion of French national identity along the lines of these principles, but instead may have simply been an assertion of the superiority of western liberal democratic ideals over religious identity. This topic of competing components of identity has been prevalent in our work lately – with a recent Trends Breakfast devoted to understanding the weight and the role of these competing factors.

At an individual level, these different components of identity are not usually in engaged in such explicit conflict, but the conflict is often there. The majority of French Muslims – who are themselves now the target of reprisals – have been forced into the uncomfortable position of choosing to prioritise their religious or their national values. It is particularly poignant at this point to remember that the police officer Ahmed Merabet was killed by the attackers last week for protecting those journalists that had defamed his own religion.

Beyond the Paris attacks, these incidents shed light on a wider question of identity in the Western world. Political identity based on ideology has all but disappeared in the UK – while for decades the political landscape was dominated by two parties (one of the left and one of the right), and the vast majority of the vote was divided between them, this has declined dramatically in recent years.

In 1951 Labour and the Conservatives commanded 96% of the popular vote – in 2010 it was 65% and this year it could be lower. The prospect of multi-party debates in the run-up to May’s election has been clouded by David Cameron’s deft body-swerve/undignified flip-flopping (delete as appropriate) over the participation of the Green Party – but the existence of the argument is sign of an evaporation of a simpler, binary political system, in which an individual could express a defining and consistent aspect of their identity based on their party of choice.

One of the biggest disruptors of this has been the increased appeal of UKIP, and here we might find a surprising connection to those who committed the atrocities in Paris. A huge part of the appeal of populist, anti-immigrant parties is not a vision of a brighter future, but an ability to tap into collective consciousness of a better, simpler past. In preying on the fears of modernity, both extremist religion and xenophobic nimbyism/nationalism cultivate very different, but equally ardent support. Until provoked, there is little in modern political or social discourse, or our venerable establishments that we might identify with – which is why the rallies in support of free speech in France (and elsewhere) have been as much about a society uniting behind a national principle – and component of Western identity – as about asserting an individual right.
Finally, it is important to remember that this questioning of Western identity comes after a period of economic shock and a sustained lack of optimism in the future. One recent article suggested that slower growth in Western economies suggests a kind of cultural depression, where we believe our best days are over. Such conditions are a contributing factor to extremism, where lack of hope in the future finds an outlet in other avenues. Here we come full circle to understand further why some people might be drawn to such causes:

“What inspires the most lethal terrorists in the world today is not so much the Qur’an or religious teachings as a thrilling cause and call to action that promises glory and esteem in the eyes of friends”

This serves as an important reminder that the majority of victims of terrorist violence exist not in European cities but in emerging economies in the developing world. This is not a western phenomenon, but a global one – an important point in the context of claims that Paris, last week, was the capital not just of France but of the worldIf the Western system, with its liberal principles, cannot deliver for the masses (as reflected by the Arab Spring and its fallout), then what promise is there for the future?