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Unity in Diversity

Tuesday, 30 August 2022

Unity in Diversity

In August 2017, American far right groups staged a massive demonstration in Charlottesville, Virginia. Meant to unite the various white nationalist groups in the United States, the rally sparked violent clashes in various parts of the city which left three people dead. Among the casualties was Heather Heyer who died when a white supremacist deliberately drove his car into a crowd of mostly peaceful counter-protesters. The event in Charlottesville demonstrated the growing influence of the far right — emboldened, no doubt, by Donald Trump's presidential victory a year earlier.

Unfortunately, similar trends are also occurring in Western Europe, where far right parties stoke racism and Islamophobia to gain public support. In the recent French presidential election, for example, far right candidate Marine Le Pen narrowly lost to incumbent Emmanuel Macron with a 17 percent difference. While in neighboring Germany, the anti-immigration Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) won 83 seats in the Bundestag, promising in its 2021 manifesto to end “the creeping extinction of European cultures” through the “complete closure of external EU borders.”

Described by Enzo Traverso as an attempt “to destroy democracy,” the rise of the far right also underscores the increasing importance of identity politics in the early twenty-first century. Meant as a form of collective action, identity politics seek to articulate the needs and demands that arise from the shared experiences of certain social groups.

But in the hands of the far right identity politics turns into a 'politics of resentment.' For as Francis Fukuyama points out, their aim is not to simply defend supposedly aggrieved whites, but to redefine society along “narrow ethnic terms that exclude big parts of the population.”

By hoping to shut off the West from further immigration, the far right can, therefore, be understood as a reaction to globalization and to the multicultural world that it is creating. Defined as the increasing integration of national economies through trade and direct foreign investments, globalization is not only facilitating the free flow of goods. It is also engendering profound demographic changes as migrants move to the West to either study or work. This, however, is causing considerable anxiety among whites — fearful that growing religious and ethnic diversity also means the loss of their long-established sources of identity.

In contrast, diversity has long been a hallmark of the Asian region. Not only is it the birthplace of the world’s five major religions, but Asia also has hundreds of ethnic groups scattered across 48 countries and in 11 different time zones. And despite their obvious differences, most ethnic and religious groups have lived in harmony with one another, thereby enriching the arts, traditions, and culture of the region.

Nepal, for example, only has a total land area of 147,000 square kilometers, but it boasts of 92 ethnolinguistic groups living within its borders. And while the Han may be the dominant people in China, they also share the country with 55 ethnic minority groups.

This respect for diversity has been pivotal in the struggle for universal human rights, as various ethnic and religious groups fought together to achieve independence during the first half the previous century. Such united effort was again witnessed in the 1980s and 90s, as people took to the streets to overthrow dictatorships and initiate the process of democratization.

In recent years, however, various conservative and populist parties have come to power by weaponizing identity, thereby dividing their societies along sectarian and communal lines. We see this dynamic occurring in India, where the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) threatens, not only to the country's cultural and religious minorities, but also to the secular order that was put in place by the country's founders.

Malaysia, on the other hand, has a long-established policy of affirmative action to improve the material conditions of the country's bumiputra or ethnic Malays. Unfortunately, the policy also had the effect of splitting the country's diverse population along racial lines. This has been further weaponized by parties such as UMNO (United Malays National Organisation) to further fracture Malaysian voters along religious and racial divides.

Meanwhile, Indonesia has long been characterized by its ethnic and religious pluralism since previous elections have largely been insulated from identity-based conflicts. The country, however, has seen a steady rise in divisive rhetoric, especially after 2016 when Islamist groups launched a massive campaign to remove Jakarta's Christian governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (popularly known as Ahok), who they accused of blasphemy for insulting the Qur’an.

As a set of principles, social democracy both has points of convergence and differences with identity politics. While recognizing the concerns of specific societal groups, social democracy’s ultimate aim is to extend human rights on a universal scale—regardless of gender, religion or ethnicity. It cannot, however, succeed in its attempt unless it has a complete understanding of identity politics and its impact on the ongoing dynamics in the Asian region. For this reason, this issue of PRAKSIS gather articles from noted thinkers and activists to examine this question and help develop a proper social democratic response.

We begin with an article from Natalino Ornai Guterres, a young leader of FRETILIN, who describes “Timorese society (as) a generally accepting one,” with its religious tolerance, high representation of women, and vibrant LGBTIQ+ community. However, Timor-Leste is still a young nation “that is in the process of constructing and defining its own identity.” This can occasionally place minority groups in a situation of vulnerability since “race and ethnicity remain sensitive topics.” Guterres, therefore, encourages his fellow social democrats to “challenge fake information” and call out leaders “when they promote hate speech.”

“We must uphold the respect for diversity and promote inclusiveness,” he adds. “Only then can we liberate our people from poverty and inequality.”

A similar dynamic is also occurring in neighboring Indonesia which, as Lucia Ratih Kusumadewi observes, has been thrown “into the vortex of identity politics.” Known for its pluralist roots, the country’s identity is now being redefined in religious terms, due to the rise of Islamism and “the strengthening of conservatism.” Politicians, Kusumadewi notes, are also aggravating the situation, since they see religion as a “powerful instrument for achieving and/or maintaining political power.” But politicized Islam, she asserts, is contrary to the Pancasila, which was developed by Indonesia’s founding fathers “as the common political objective of the new nation-state.”

Because of her country's current predicament, Kusumadewi emphasizes the importance of multiculturalism which “values cultural diversity as a feature of a modern democratic society.” She also calls on her fellow progressives to undertake “multicultural education that encourages concrete encounters with other cultures and by valuing mutual respect and toleration.”

Unfortunately, Indonesia is not the only nation where religion is being politicized. In India, for instance, the BJP is actively undermining the country’s secular constitution so that they can establish a Hindu state. Though their ultimate goal is yet to be achieved, Ruchira Chaturvedi believes that the ruling party has nonetheless succeeded in transforming the state since “it is no longer a neutral arbitrator of India’s constituent units.” Instead, the delivery of public goods and services is now “contingent on ideological and political conformity.” Chaturvedi even asserts that India is now being ruled by an “unspoken dictatorship” as the various institutions of the state are being used to suppress “religious and ideological minorities.”

Because of its “reactionary communal platform,” Prerna Singh (in a separate article) classifies the BJP as a rightwing party, which blames non-Hindus “for all the problems of society.” And unlike conventional conservative parties that “are defenders of the status quo,” the BJP, on the other hand, uses “mass politics and launch mass movements with a strong critique of the existing society.” This has led to bitter social polarization and “growing animosity towards minority groups.” Singh also cites “instances of lynching, violence and intolerance” that also threaten “India’s pluralist democracy.”

The rise of Hindu nationalism is also exerting influence on India's neighbors. In his essay, Kamal Dev Bhattarai points out that the “BJP, through its various front organizations, is pushing the agenda of a Hindu state in Nepal.” It does so by “building party-to-party relations with political parties in Nepal” and by taking advantage of the “close political, cultural and civilizational affinities between the two countries.”

The increasing influence of the BJP coincides with the growth of pro-Hindu forces within Nepal. These include the Rastriya Prajatantra Party (which calls for the restoration of the monarchy) and the Bibeksheel Sajha Party (which is demanding a referendum on secularism). Though Nepal is not yet polarized along religious lines, Bhattarai warns that “the Hindu agenda is likely to become more prominent in the days to come.”

Apart from religion, race can also be a basis of identity politics. This is the case in Malaysia — a tri-racial country composed of ethnic Chinese, Indians and Malays. Though it is “a melting pot of cultures, beliefs, civilizations and religions,” Kasthuri Patto asserts that Malaysia is “plagued by political instability” due to its “race-based politics.” This is even enshrined in the Constitution with bumiputras being granted special privileges that are not provided to all citizens. The architect of this type of politics has been Barisan Nasional, which ruled the country for more than six decades. Patto, in fact, quotes former Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin who declared in 2010 that he is “Malay first and Malaysian second.”

Unfortunately, race continues to influence Malaysia’s domestic politics. When Pakatan Harapan won the 2018 general elections, for example, the new government tried to ratify the International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (ICERD). But it elicited fierce resistance from conservative Malay groups who were afraid of losing their privileges.

In a related essay, Jannie Lasimbang examines the situation of Malaysia's indigenous peoples called Orang Asal. Though they are considered as bumiputra (along with Malays), Lasimbang maintains that “the Orang Asal have obviously not benefited from the constitutional provision for bumiputera status.” They have, in fact, suffered from “decades of neglect” since “there is no specific recognition for the Orang Asal as a group.”

Unfortunately, the ruling parties of Sabah and Sarawak have successfully kept the Orang Asal in check by coopting their elders and traditional leaders. Conferred with various titles and appointed to village development councils, indigenous leaders are then integrated into a system where they serve as conduits of political patronage.

To win over the Orang Asal, Lasimbang encourages progressives to champion the issues of indigenous peoples, particularly land rights and rural development. She also suggests “learn(ing) from the indigenous people's concept of consensus-building” while, at the same time, “countering parochial sentiments.”

Though Lasimbang sees patronage as a political tool for maintaining the status quo and keeping an entire people obeisant, others also view it as an instrument that can be used to actively shape national identity. This is clearly the case in the recent restoration of the Marcos dynasty in the Philippines, with the election of the dictator's son and namesake to the presidency, along with his vice presidential running mate, Sara Duterte, daughter of now former President Rodrigo Duterte.

In his article, Carlo Angelo Vargas, points out that the Marcos-Duterte alliance succeeded in “forging the broadest unity of political dynasties and traditional political interests from the national down to the local level.” Further aided by their “machinery of disinformation,” the Marcos-Duterte tandem won with the largest electoral margin since 1986, promising to provide voters with immediate material rewards in exchange for political support.

But patronage politics, Vargas insists, has a long-term corroding effect, since it conditions Filipinos to believe that they are mere “passive witnesses to the unfolding of the country's history, rather than as empowered citizens.” It also undermines citizenship, which is built on “respecting the innate rights of individuals.” To defeat the Marcos-Duterte clique, Vargas proposes “empowering Filipinos to see themselves as citizens rather than as recipients of patronage” and help them “see themselves as part of a broader Filipino ‘family’ of equals that is inclusive of everyone.”

While most of our contributors share a negative view of identity politics, Sripan Nogsaun Sawasdee sees the issue differently, asserting that it has its own liberating aspect. Though she concedes that “identity politics is tied closely to exclusivist movements” that promote “special interests or concerns,” she also argues that “identity-based movements, when used effectively, can help marginalized groups participate more fully in conventional politics.” To prove her assertion, Sawasdee looks at two forms of identity politics in Thailand: the LGBTQIA+ movement's campaign for same-sex marriage, as well as the condition of Melayu Muslims in the country's Deep South.

For decades, Muslim communities have been neglected by the central government, due to its obsession with “Thainess.” Their plight even became worse under the present junta, which has shown “little interest in granting more de jure local control in the southern provinces.” This has generated considerable resentment among Muslims, and as a result, “Thailand's three southern provinces have been the country's most violent and conflict-ridden area.” On the other hand, the campaign for marriage equality already began in 2011, but further progress was halted three years later with the 2014 military coup. A bill was later submitted to Parliament by the Move Forward Party in two years ago. But the country’s Constitutional Court ruled that the bill was unconstitutional since marriage is “only between women and men.” While these two communities still face considerable challenges, Sawasdee believes that they can be linked to a larger “progressive alliance for political, social, and gender equality.”

This grand “coalescence of struggles and identities” was seen in the Philippines, according to Veronica Alporha, when various identity-based groups banded together to support the presidential bid of opposition leader Leni Robredo. Though their combined effort was not enough to prevent a Marcos presidency, they nonetheless succeeded in reigniting hope through their unprecedented mammoth rallies from February to May 2022. These organizing initiatives, Alporha argues, became possible because of the “availability of organic space that allowed for the expression of identities and struggles.” She also insists that if that kind of solidarity is sustained, then it can create “a new kind of politics that values inclusivity, equality, and diversity.”

This issue of PRAKSIS provides various perspectives on identity politics. But all our authors agree that in today's globalized world, the prime objective of social democracy is to pull in the socially excluded and extend to them rights that are all universal and indivisible.



Affirming the Role of Social Democrats
By: Natalino Ornai Guterres
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In the Vortex of Identity Politics
By: Lucia Ratih Kusumadewi
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Diversity vs. Uniformity
By: Ruchira Chaturvedi
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Identity Politics in the Indian Context
By: Prerna Singh
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Nepal's Secularism Faces Challenges
By: Kamal Dev Bhattarai
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Uniting the Nation
By: Kasthuri Patto
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Orang Asal Lives Matter
By: Jannie Lasimbang
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Filipino Identity, Patronage, and Citizenship
By: Carlo Angelo Vargas
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Two Tales of Identity Politics in Thailand
By: Siripan Nogsuan Sawasdee
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The Pink Movement
By: Veronica Alporha
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