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The Way: Religion as a Path for Postcolonial Identity Creation

The Way: Religion as a Path for Postcolonial Identity Creation

As populations emerge from the fires of colonial oppression, alone and newly independent, they are left to make sense of the ashes with fires lit by imperialists still burning. Very often, groups embark on the journey to claiming their postcolonial identity devoid of any organized efforts to undo some of the strife that colonizers wrought. This juxtaposes nations on the cliff’s edge, scrabbling to find some foothold, from which they can begin to push back up the slope. The road to identity creation that emerges from this tumult is a long and twisting one, which nearly all postcolonial nations and populations arising out of colonization endure in an effort to renarrativize the legacies of colonization. There exist paths through which positive identity creation can be facilitated, but those paths can be confounded by convenient pitfalls of identity creation which target or repress portions of the population with the society’s newly invested power. One route to this positive identity creation can be reverting to or reclaiming a prior religious identity, which sees success due to its transferrable nature and its strong moral backbone.

Using a religious identity to unite people and create an idiosyncratic cultural identity marks a stark contrast to instances of traditions which spontaneously arose out of the identity vacuum left by vacating colonizers. One such case manifests in the emergence of bride kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan, which demarcates a deft lunge at formulating some sense of national identity. Instead of revitalizing some portion of identity which may have been previously castoff, in cases such as Kyrgyzstan, inhabitants create a united identity through the propagation of an invented tradition. Members of the populace can ignore any collateral damage caused by the tradition such as the threats it poses to women’s education in Kyrgyzstan in lieu of protecting this new artificial practice. Professor Simon Gikandi quotes author Chinua Achebe to say that “most of the problems we see in our politics derive from the moment when we lost our initiative to other people, to colonizers.” Indeed, in many cases where colonizers were able to supplant preexisting identities with a colonial identity, it is difficult for populations to find an on-ramp on the road towards modern identity creation. One way in which countries and cultures can make an effort to take their initiative back and create a positive postcolonial identity is through the use of religion, for religions are accompanied by moral structures that dissuade .

Identities can be created through many means, for the imperative is created once colonizers have withdrawn to unify nations and push forward together. The departure of a domineering power leaves a void that must be filled. An identity must be created on or around some unifying concept. As highlighted by Professor Roger Keesing, it is superfluous whether the concept that a group’s new identity is oriented by is ‘real’ or not, because its purpose is simply to distance the population from the legacy of the colonizer. The substance veiled behind the larger separation is extraneous to the end goal of the process of identity creation. Yet, this indifference to foundation is not without its dangers; it can allow avenues for identity creation that have no historical backing and complacently target subsets of the population. Gikandi summarizes another scholar Frantz Fanon to elucidate that the creation of new separate identities restores “…dignity to…peoples, describes and justifies, and praises ‘the action through which that people has created itself and keeps itself in existence.’” Thus, it is important that the nuanced process of identity formation is done in a way that is conducive towards the formation of positive and inclusive postcolonial society. These newly created identities place their aspirants at a crossroads, between the different identities they have lived during different parts of their lives. In this confusing place, it is important to create a shared identity that is easily accessible so that all of society can move out of the shadow of colonization together. It is an easy derailment for identities to have certain exclusivities or specifically ostracize some groups, because that is one way to find commonality. Yet, it is of tantamount importance that any identity creation can be shared across an entire population so that a nation can assume its postcolonial identity.

A moral structure can serve as an important aspect of positive identity creation, which can often be found in religious structures. It is suggested that value is socially created, and thus what we value is a resultant of our socially created identities. Thus, in the creation of a group identity, it is important to have a moral structure that creates common moral values, so that those values are adhered to as the new identity forms. There can be societies who undergo drastic shifts in moral structures, but the imposition of a moral structure that is not common can have large ramifications. Religious structures often come with moral structures such as these, and can thusly serve as a positive compass to orient identity creation by.

All across Asia, religion has served as a tool for cultures to undertake identity reclamation and renarrativization. Religion can provide a structure to organize the new identity by, complete with its own moral guide stones to keep aspirants on course. Faiths throughout nearly every example have some larger moral structuring principles, telling followers what actions were permissible and what was to be eschewed. It also creates a unifying universal identity that can allow countries to take something that may have initially been imposed by colonizers and surpass this to join into the larger identity. Indeed, religious identity structures have also been shown to help spur increased social mobilization throughout South East Asia, which is key for societies recovering from trauma. Churches can also serve as a platform and catalyst for the creation of hybridity and facilitate cultural encounters. By involving populations all across the planet in the name of a single faith, churches can allow for the intermingling of populations possibly even previously in conflict with one another. Introducing aspects of hybridity into newly forming national identities can help to defer any tendencies towards hyper-nationalism, tendencies that may fan the flames of internal divisions and result in the targeting of a specific sect.

The final facet of religion that makes it a positive tool for postcolonial states is that it is entirely transferrable. No matter where someone is on the planet, their religion and the basic ways in which it is practiced are unified. In the case of the Hindu population on Portugal, all of its members can carry their religion with them as a way of maintaining their unique and separate identity. Faith can also be altered to fit the needs of the population it serves in relation to the identity it plays a part in. The Khojas of South Asia have had to change aspects of their faith to fit a need for a resilient identity, and these changes, as explained by researcher Inês Lourenço, are not “…in any case are not ultimately of great significance for a group that doctrinally considers the esoteric dimension of faith more significant than the exoteric.” Similarly, the Ghazal hymns of the Himalayas have been adapted and modernized to fit the same organizing moral structure that they were created out of to modern pop-music tastes. Just as a religious identity can help to give freshly born identities a bulwark to withstand the travails of a disparate populace, it can help to bridge the gaps between the desire to formulate a unique identity with encroaching modern global influences. With such significant evidence pointing towards the benefits of religion as a tool for identity creation, it is no wonder that one can observe Tengrism reemerging in Mongolia and a resurgence in Islamic movements all across the region.

Obstacles in the way of creating a new national identity arise out of the fact that there are no guiding lights to illuminate the path for positive methods of identity formation. Identity creation has a unified goal, as highlighted by Professor Keesing: “That is, colonized peoples have distanced themselves…from the culture of domination, selecting and shaping and celebrating the elements of their own traditions that most strikingly differentiate them from Europeans.” Yet, simply denoting that the goal of identity creation is to differentiate one’s self from European colonizers is hardly helpful, for there are numerous ways to drive a wedge between one’s own identity and one’s colonizer’s.

In Zimbabwe, the ZANU-PF exploited underlying national sentiments lusting for a new renarrativized identity to create a nationalist identity that gave their ruling party an “exclusive postcolonial legitimacy to rule,” as explained by Sabelo J. Ndlovu-Gatsheni. By turning the emotional tension of voters seeking an identity change, ZANU-PF was able to insert chauvinism into the new national identity and solidify their hold on power.

Other attempts to undo the pain of colonialism, such as land reparation or reclamation attempts in Australia and South Africa, where even though efforts were made to make recompense for the theft of ancestral homelands, ineffective implementation and a lack or orienting concept made both efforts ultimate failures. In the instances where people were given land or money, they were still left without the separation they sought from the colonizing power. There was no group identity that could spawn out of the poorly administered reparations, and thus the reparations without any orienting structure proved to be of little help on the long path towards postcolonial identity creation. Even when there are attempts made to formulate or reclaim a cultural identity, the efforts are not always grounded on a sound foundation.

The primary example that scholars can turn to illustrate the dangers of identity creation is the invention of the supposed tradition of ‘bride kidnapping’ in Kyrgyzstan, which blurs the lines of consent, inhibits education, and disenfranchises a significant portion of the population. What is especially important to note is that this tradition is pure invention: the populous wanted to separate from the colonizer, yet this tradition had never existed previously outside of ambiguous references from hundreds of years prior. Vested with a lust for a new identity, but left without any predetermined foundation to start creating that identity from, states can become derailed by lackadaisical efforts that target some subset of the population in order to unify the majority. Thus, we can see that not only is having an orienting principle important to identity creation, but also the choice of principle is equally key.

Religion can serve as a funnel, pushing societies that are renarrativizing their identities towards an ultimately positive end result through their inherent moral structure and their transferrable and alterable characteristics. As identity is created, it is important to adhere to a moral structure so that chauvinism or discrimination do not hijack the process. As nations continue to cast of their colonial bonds, we should not be surprised if we see an uptick in alternative or reemerging religious movements. With it’s transferrable universal character, strong moral mettle, and its propensity to grow and change with its devotees, while religion is not a panacea to the travails of postcolonial identity creation, it is certainly a strong and defensible foothold.

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