A woman walks across a bridge. She is looking at her mobile. She seems to be in a hurry. Close to her, a person lies injured on the pavement. Several people attend to the injured person.
The woman is wearing a headscarf.
There has just been a terrorist attack. And because terrorism is associated with Islam, the woman is seen as a Muslim. The woman on the bridge is now a Muslim woman ignoring a victim of Islamist terrorism. Her personal motivations are unknown. Does she know what has happened? Would she have been able to help the injured person? Is she scared and trying to get away as quickly as possible? These questions are ignored. It does not matter that other people, not wearing headscarves, act in the same way as her. What matters is that she is a Muslim.
Of course, people commenting on the photo of her on social media do not know that she is a Muslim. They take her headscarf as a transparent sign of her Muslim-ness. She becomes yet another Muslim woman who is identified by her hijab, and by that alone. She is reduced to her Muslim-ness. Like other Muslims, she can only speak and, in this case, act as a Muslim. She becomes bound to, and by, this identity.
And so the photo of her becomes yet another way of talking about Islam and Muslims by talking about a woman in a hijab. This is possible because, as a group, Muslims are homogenised. As individuals, they become bound to that group identity. The different versions, or representations, of Muslims are suppressed in the conversations we have about Muslims – at home, on social media, in the mainstream media, and so on. Homogenising Muslims means that one can stand in for the rest: if they are all the same, we can simply substitute one for another. And if one is a terrorist, then the rest must be too – or at least they must sympathise with the terrorists.
It is also how, when the media need to illustrate a story about anything involving Islam or Muslims, they pull out a picture of women in hijab or a picture of angry young men. These are the images that Islam and Muslims have become reduced to. And when the woman on the bridge becomes a story, it is because the links between headscarf, Islam and terrorism have already been established in public discourses about Islam and Muslims. The story of the woman on the bridge draws upon and reproduces these discourses.
This is a kind of identity politics that takes identities as given and exhaustive. It is a kind of identity politics that identifies and explains a person or act by an already existing and determined identity. It reduces whatever a person says or does to his or her ascribed identities. And often the meaning of those identities is defined not by the person him- or herself, but by others: above all, the majority and the state.
Sometimes this form of identity politics is contested. This happened in the case of the woman on the bridge, but only after the first identification of her had gone viral and circulated.
The challenge is to think of identity not as something given, but as something that is, or can be, re-articulated. Not in terms of identity politics, but as a politics of identity where identities are put at stake. And not just the identities of exotic ‘others’ but also the identities of the majority.
Thinking of identities as constructed through political contestation is a matter of freedom: it frees individuals and groups from the binding effects of identity politics. It is a first step in giving people a part in the construction of their identities, and in the collective identity of the society in which they live. There is no guarantee that they will succeed, but it provides an opportunity to break free from the spell of identities.
By Lasse Thomassen
Lasse Thomassen is Senior Lecturer in the School of Politics and International Relations at Queen Mary, University of London. He is the author of Multiculturalism and the Politics of Representation (Edinburgh University Press, 2017) and the editor of The Derrida-Habermas Reader (Edinburgh University Press, 2006).
Publishing April 2017