Monday, March 8, 2010

Benhabib: Reconciling Identity

In a 2009 article penned by Seyla Benhabib, the prominent political theorist touches upon many of the grand level questions encompassing Turkey's admission into the European Union. Foremost among these is what Benhabib identifies as "the instability of all forms of identity." Rather than a clash of civilizations, which reduces identity to opposing cultural hegemonies, Benhabib alludes to both Turkey and the European Union's discomfort with difference -- with the kind of heterogenity that is true to the historical and present realities of the people living within both political entities. Though some citizens of Turkey and the European Union have concerned themselves with efforts to protect a core culture or identity, Benhabib writes optimistically that Turkey seems to be opening up in terms of looking back to what she calls its "authoritarian nationalist heritage." (See Ferhat Kentel's recent interview with the Institute for Policy Studies' Balkans Project.) Benhabib seems less sure about Europe, which she writes "is attempting to stabilize its momentous political experiment by conjuring up the ideals of a 'core Europe' and the 'European nation,' Judaeo-Christian values, the Renaissance and the Enlightenment and the like."

Ibrahim Kalin takes up some of these same questions in a piece he authored last week on conviviencia in Muslim Spain. From Kalin:
In a world of diminishing certainties and increasing chaos, we need a “presiding idea,” a central value system around which the world’s misplaced resources can be mobilized to inculcate understanding, tolerance and humility. The most difficult challenge of our age is to hold on to one’s own belief system while respecting the right of others to have different views. Put simply, it is the challenge of pluralism without giving up on truth. Sacrificing the truth in the name of pluralism creates a sense of loss which in turn leads to more reactionary positions. Furthermore, it invites moral relativism. Defending one’s truth to the exclusion of others lands us in oppression and violence. It creates epistemic hegemony, which easily turns into violent extremism.
I am not sure if "truth" is the correct operative word here, but indeed, eschewing relativism while recognizing a fluidity of identities (for me, not just within a country, but within a culture and within oneself) is the perhaps the most important project of the twenty-first century. Turkey's future is key to its success.

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