NationalVOLUME 19 ISSUE # 32

Understanding the role of identity in politics

The role of identity in contemporary politics, whether at the national, international, or local level, has become dominant, resulting in both positive and negative repercussions for societies and the world. In this context, identity does not adhere to traditional conceptions; rather, its present conceptualization is multifaceted and complex.
Various identities intersect and impact political processes, including elections, governance, and social movements. The identities currently shaping politics encompass religious, racial, ethnic, civilizational, national, gender, and group affiliations. Additionally, occupational identities contribute to today’s political landscape.
For example, the ongoing Gaza conflict between the Palestinian group Hamas and the Israeli state exemplifies an identity-based conflict. Hamas represents a Muslim group, while the Israeli state embodies Judaic religion and Zionism, which is a form of Jewish nationalism. It’s essential to recognize that religious nationalism, such as Jewish nationalism, constitutes one type of nationalism. Similarly, Pakistan was founded on the basis of Muslim nationalism in India.
In the past, ideologies dominated political movements, with each movement driven by a coherent set of interrelated ideas. While the impact of ideological dominance remains debatable, it did provide a foundation for rivalry. Although rivalry isn’t inherently positive, conflicts rooted in ideologies sometimes maintained a delicate balance, if not stability, even as they led to significant harm.
Contemporary political scientists argue that we now inhabit a ‘post-ideological’ world. Ideological politics prevailed across nations and the international sphere during the 19th and 20th centuries. Classical ideological movements advocated sacrificing the present for future grand goals within a ‘perfect’ society. However, the collapse of the Soviet Empire in 1990 marked the end of ideological politics. Despite influential arguments by political scientist Francis Fukuyama, who saw the Soviet Union’s collapse as a testament to the success of Western capitalism and liberal democracy, rival ideologies failed to challenge these systems. Consequently, capitalism and liberal democracy emerged as the ultimate fate of the world.
An illustrative case arises from Afghanistan during former President Ashraf Ghani’s tenure. When the state introduced new computerized identity cards, the term ‘Afghan’ as the national identity faced vehement opposition from non-Pashtun citizens. Ethnic groups like Tajik, Uzbek, and Turkmen rejected being labeled as ‘Afghan’ on these cards, reigniting deep ethnic conflicts. This issue significantly impacted efforts to build a modern, developed country and raised critical questions about Afghanistan’s statehood.
In Pakistan, just before the July 2018 national elections, a group of parliamentarians from the ruling party, PML-N, in southern Punjab resigned and renewed efforts to create a Seraiki province in South Punjab. These parliamentarians and proponents of the Seraiki province have long complained of unequal resource allocation and development funding for the Saraiki-speaking region. Notably, it is the Seraiki identity of South Punjab that has led to discrimination from the Punjabi-dominated federal and Punjab governments. Thus, the movement for the creation of a Seraiki province is fundamentally motivated by the politics of identity.
The Pakhtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM), led by the passionate Manzur Pashteen, serves as a typical example of identity politics replacing ideological politics. The PTM argues that Pashtuns in Pakistan, particularly those from tribal areas, face discrimination due to their ethnic identity by the country’s establishment.
Even in Syria, the violent conflict between pro-Bashar Al Assad Shiite regime forces and mostly Sunni opposition groups has been fueled by sectarian identity. Similarly, in Iraq, identity politics exacerbates ethnic and sectarian conflicts between Shiites and Sunnis, as well as between Kurds and non-Kurds.
As it becomes increasingly evident that ideology-based politics has become irrelevant and identity-based politics dominates, it is essential to understand the key differences between these two political phenomena. Ideology-based politics had broader and more sweeping objectives. Liberalism aimed at individual freedom, socialism sought a classless and stateless society, and conservatism prioritized stability for the benefit of all.
In terms of the meanings of identity politics, it is closely tied to concepts of dignity, recognition, and authenticity. Consequently, the political landscape of contemporary ‘developed’ societies, and potentially worldwide, is primarily defined by a quest for recognition and respect rather than the pursuit of an ideal society. Within this framework, the Pakistani political arena is no exception. A deeper examination reveals that identity politics has supplanted ideological politics. It would not be inaccurate to state that ideology has become obsolete in Pakistani politics, despite claims to the contrary. However, proponents of various political ideologies bear responsibility for this situation.
Identity politics aims to secure acknowledgment and respect for one’s culture, religion, and customs—which are considered authentic and thus serve as benchmarks for evaluating other cultures, religions, and customs. The remarkable rise of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), a party lacking a clear ideology, underscores the ascendancy of identity politics. Nevertheless, Pakistan differs somewhat, as even ostensibly ‘national’ parties have seldom possessed a robust ideological foundation. For example, the PPP, initially a leftist-revolutionary group from 1967, later advocated for ‘Islamic socialism,’ a contradictory ideological stance in Pakistan. Today, its leaders proudly identify as a ‘liberal’ political force, despite the vast ideological gulf between socialism and liberalism. Similarly, the Awami National Party, once Marxist-Leninist, now identifies as a ‘secular-liberal’ party. Therefore, ideology has never been a defining characteristic of Pakistani political parties.
Consequently, the future of Pakistani political groups lies with those that adapt to contemporary trends and prioritize issues over ideology or identity. This is crucial because identity politics is fraught with challenges. Therefore, in Pakistan, it is advisable for people to support groups that focus on issues and good governance rather than identity politics.