I'm Chetan Bhatt, and when I give my name, I'm often asked, "Where are you from?" And I normally say "London."
But of course, I know what they're really asking, so I say something like, "Well, my grandparents and my mum were born in India, my dad and I were born in Kenya, and I was brought up in London." And then they've got me mapped. "Ah, you're a Kenyan Asian. I've worked with one of those."
And from my name, they probably assume that I'm a Hindu. And this sort of fixes me for them.
But what about the Christians and the Muslims and the atheists that I grew up with? Or the socialists and the liberals, even the occasional Tory?
Indeed, all kinds of women and men—vegetable sellers, factory workers, cooks, car mechanics—living in my working class area, in some profoundly important way, they are also a part of me and are here with me. Maybe that's why I find it hard to respond to questions about identity and about origin. And it's not just a sort of teenage refusal to be labeled. It's about our own most identities, the ones that we put our hands up to, the ones that we cheer for, the ones that we fight for, the ones that we love or hate. And it's about how we apprehend ourselves as well as others. And it's about identities we just assume that we have without thinking too much about them.
But our responses to questions of identity and origin have substantial social and political importance. We see the wars, the rages of identity going on all around us. We see violent religious, national and ethnic disputes. And often the conflict is based on old stories of identity and belonging and origins. And these identities are based on myths, typically about ancient, primordial origins. And these could be about Adam and Eve or about the supremacy of a caste or gender or about the vitality of a supposed race or about the past glories of an empire or civilization or about a piece of land that some imagined deity has gifted.
Now, people say that origin stories and identity myths make us feel secure. What's wrong with that? They give us a sense of belonging. Identity is your cultural clothing, and it can make you feel warm and fuzzy inside. But does it really? Do we really need identity myths to feel safe? Because I see religious, national, ethnic disputes as adding to human misery.
Can I dare you to refuse every origin myth that claims you? What if we reject every single primordial origin myth and develop a deeper sense of personhood, one responsible to humanity as a whole rather than to a particular tribe, a radically different idea of humanity that exposes how origin myths mystify, disguise global power, rapacious exploitation, poverty, the worldwide oppression of women and girls, and of course massive, accelerating inequalities?
Now, origin myths are closely linked to tradition, and the word tradition points to something old and permanent, almost natural, and people assume tradition is just history, simply the past condensed into a nice story. But let's not confuse tradition with history. The two are often in severe conflict. Origin stories are usually recently created fictions of ancient belonging, and they're absurd given the complexity of humanity and our vastly interconnected, even if very unequal world. And today we see claims to tradition that claim to be ancient changing rapidly in front of our eyes.
I was brought up in the 1970s near Wembley with Asian, English, Caribbean, Irish families living in our street, and the neo-Nazi National Front was massive then with regular marches and attacks on us and a permanent threat and often a frequent reality of violence against us on the streets, in our homes, typically by neo-Nazis and other racists. And I remember during a general election a leaflet came through our letter box with a picture of the National Front candidate for our area. And the picture was of our next-door neighbor. He threatened to shoot me once when I played in the garden as a kid, and many weekends, shaven-headed National Front activists arrived at his house and emerged with scores of placards screaming that they wanted us to go back home. But today he's one of my mum's best mates. He's a very lovely, gentle and kind man, and at some point in his political journey out of fascism he embraced a broader idea of humanity.
There was a Hindu family that we got to know well—and you have to understand that life in our street was a little bit like the setting for an Asian soap opera. Everyone knew everyone else's business, even if they didn't want it to be known by anyone at all. You really had no choice in this matter. But in this family, there was a quiet little boy who went to the same school as I did, and after I left school, I didn't hear much more about him, except that he'd gone off to India. Now around 2000, I remember seeing this short book. The book was unusual because it was written by a British supporter of Al Qaeda, and in it the author calls for attacks in Britain. This is in 1999,so 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq was still in the future, and he helped scout New York bombing targets. He taught others how to make a dirty bomb to use on the London Underground, and he plotted a massive bombing campaign in London's shopping areas. He's a very high-risk security prisoner in the UK and one of the most important Al Qaeda figures to be arrested in Britain.
The author of that book was the very same quiet little boy who went to my school. So a Hindu boy from Britain became an Al Qaeda fighter and a most-wanted international terrorist, and he rejected what people would call his Hindu or Indian or British identity, and he became someone else. He refused to be who he was. He recreated himself, and this kind of journey is very common for young men and women who become involved in Al Qaeda or Islamic State or other transnational armed groups. Al Qaeda's media spokesman is a white American from a Jewish and Catholic mixed background, and neither he nor the boy from my school were from Muslim backgrounds. There's no point in asking them where are they from. A more important question is where they're going.
And I would also put it to you that exactly the same journey occurs for those young men and women who were brought up in Muslim family backgrounds. Most of those who join Al Qaeda and other Salafi jihadi groups from Europe, Asia, North America, even in many cases the Middle East are those who have comprehensively rejected their backgrounds to become, in essence, new people. They spend an enormous amount of time attacking their parents' backgrounds as profane, impure, blasphemous, the wrong type of Islam, and their vision instead is a fantastical view of cosmic apocalypse. It's a born again vision. Discard your past, your society, your family and friends since they're all impure. Instead, become someone else, your true self, your authentic self. Now, this isn't about a return to the past. It's about using a forgery of the past to envision an appalling future which begins today at year zero. This is why over 80 percent of the victims of Al Qaeda and Islamic State are people from Muslim backgrounds. The first act by Salafi jihadi groups when they take over an area is to destroy existing Muslim institutions including mosques, shrines, preachers, practices. Their main purpose is to control and punish people internally, to dictate the spaces that women may go, their clothing, family relations, beliefs, even the minute detail of how one prays. And you get the impression in the news that they are after us in the West, but they are actually mainly after people from other Muslim backgrounds. In their view, no other Muslim can ever be pure enough, so ordinary beliefs and practices that have existed for centuries are attacked as impure by teenagers from Birmingham or London who know nothing about the histories that they so joyously obliterate.
Now here, their claim to tradition is at war with history, but they're nevertheless very certain about their purity and about the impurity of others. Purity, certainty, the return to authentic tradition, the quest for these can lead to lethal visions of perfect societies and perfected people.
This is what the main Hindu fundamentalist organization in India looks like today at its mass rally. Maybe it reminds you of the 1930s in Italy or Germany, and the movement's roots are indeed in fascism. It was a member of the same Hindu fundamentalist movement who shot dead Mahatma Gandhi. Hindu fundamentalists today view this murderer as a national hero, and they want to put up statues of him throughout India. They've been involved for decades in large-scale mass violence against minorities. They ban books, art, films. They attack romantic couples on Valentine's Day, Christians on Christmas Day. They don't like others talking critically about what they see as their ancient culture or using its images or caricaturing it or drawing cartoons about it. But the people making the strongest possible claims about ancient, timeless Hindu religion are dressed in brown shorts and white shirts while claiming, oddly, to be the original Aryan race, just like the violent Salafi jihadis who make their claims about their primordial religion while dressed in black military uniforms and wearing balaclavas.
These people are manufacturing pure, pristine identities of conviction and of certainty. Fundamentalists see religion and culture as their sole property, a property. But religions and cultures are processes. They're not things. They're impermanent. They're messy. They're impure. Look at any religion and you'll see disputes and arguments going all the way down.
Any criticism of religion in any form has to therefore be part of the expansive sense of humanity we should aspire to. I respect your right to have and to express your religion or your culture or your opinion, but I don't necessarily have to respect the content. I might like some of it. I might like how an old church looks, for example, but this isn't the same thing. Similarly, I have a human right to say something that you may find offensive, but you do not have a human right not to be offended. In a genuine democracy, we're constantly offended since people express different views all the time. They also change their views, so their views are impermanent. You cannot fix someone's political views based on their religious or national or cultural background.
Now, these points about religious purity also apply to nationalism and to racism. I'm always puzzled to have pride in your national or ethnic identity, pride in the accident of birth from a warm and cozy womb, belief in your superiority because of the accident of birth.
These people have very firm ideas about what belongs and what doesn't belong inside the cozy national cultures that they imagine. And I'm going to caricature a bit here, but only a little bit. I want you to imagine the supporter of some Little Englander or British nationalist political party, and he's sitting at home and he's screaming about foreigners invading his country while watching Fox News, an American cable channel owned by an Australian on his South Korean television set which was bought by his Spanish credit card which is paid off monthly by his high-street British bank which has its headquarters in Hong Kong. He supports a British football team owned by a Russian. His favorite brand of fish and chips is owned by a Swedish venture capitalist firm. The church he sometimes goes to has its creed decided in meetings in Ghana. His Union Jack underpants were made in India.
And they're laundered regularly by a very nice Polish lady.
There is no pure ethnicity, national culture, and the ethical choices we have today are far wider than being forced to choose between racist right and religious right visions, dismal visions of culture.
Now, culture isn't just about language, food, clothing and music, but gender relations, ancient monuments, a heritage of sacred texts. But culture can also be what has been decided to be culture by those who have a political stake in pounding culture into the shape of a prison. Big political identity claims are elite bids for power. They're not answers to social or economic or political injustices. They often obscure them. And what about the large number of people across the globe who can't point to a monument from their past, who don't possess a sacred written text, who can't hark back to the past glories of a civilization or empire? Are these people less a part of humanity?
What about you? Now, listening to this, what about you and your identity? Because you stitch your experiences and your thoughts into a continuous person moving forward in time. And this is what you are when you say, "I," "am," or "me." But this also includes all of your hopes and dreams, all of the you's that could have been, and it includes all the other people and the things that are in the biography of who you are. They, the others, are also a part of you, moving forward with you. Your authentic self, if such a thing exists, is a complex, messy and uncertain self, and that is a very good thing. Why not value those impurities and uncertainties? Maybe clinging to pure identities is a sign of immaturity, and ethnic, nationalist and religious traditions are bad for you. Why not be skeptical about every primordial origin claim made on your behalf? Why not reject the identity myths that call on you to belong, that politicians and community leaders, so-called community leaders, place on you? If we don't need origin stories and fixed identities, we can challenge ourselves to think creatively about each other and our future.
And here culture always takes care of itself. I'm not worried about culture. Cultures are creative, dynamic processes, not imposed laws and boundaries.
This is Abu al-Walid Muhammad ibn Ahmad ibn Rushd, a very senior Muslim judge and thinker in Cordoba in the 12th century, and his writings were considered deeply blasphemous, heretical and evil. Long after he died, followers of his work were ruthlessly hunted down, banished and killed over several centuries by the most powerful religious institution of the medieval period. That institution was the Roman Catholic Church. Why? Because ibn Rushd said that something true in religion may conflict with something that your reason finds to be true on earth, but the latter is still true. There are two distinct worlds of truth, one based on our reason and evidence, and one that is divine, and the state, political power, social law are in the realm of reason. Religious life is a different realm.They should be kept separated. Social and political life should be governed by our reason, not by religion. And you can see why the church was upset by his writings, as indeed were some Muslims during his lifetime, because he gives us a strong statement of secularism of a kind which is normal in Europe today.
Now, history plays many tricks on us. It undermines our fixed truths and what we believe to be our culture and their culture. Ibn Rushd, someone who happens to be a Muslim, is considered one of the key influences in the introduction and spread of secularism in Europe.
So against religious, nationalist and racial purists of all kinds, can you make his story a part of your own, not because he happened to be a Muslim, not because he happened to be an Arab, but because he was a human being with some very good ideas that shook his world and ours.