The dangers of radicalised identity

Lately, you may have asked yourself, ‘What’s wrong with this world?’ In this series of reflections Christel Lamère Ngnambi from Brussels, Belgium, who is a field worker with Graduate Impact, seeks to discuss one aspect of it, namely the problem of radicalised identity.

Christel is a political scientist, currently working as a consultant in political communications and public engagement. During 11 years, he worked in Brussels as the head of the office of the European Evangelical Alliance there, dealing regularly with political processes in Europe. [LinkedIn profile.]

Fifty people killed coldly at their place of worship, and dozens more wounded. On 15 March 2019, a right-wing extremist equipped with semi-automatic weapons opened fire in two mosques in the New Zealand city of Christchurch. The attack, described by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern as a “terrorist attack,” is also the deadliest attack on Muslims in a Western country since January 2017. The alleged assailant from Christchurch, a 28-year-old Australian immigrant, was arrested and charged with murder. Before taking action, he published a 74-page racist “manifesto” on Twitter entitled “The Great Replacement,” referring to a theory born in France and popular in extreme right-wing circles that the “European peoples” would be intentionally “replaced” by non-European immigrant populations.

This is taking most of us by surprise. But in the western world, forms of large-scale violence are emerging, based on deep convictions people have that their identity is being threatened. Look at the Yellow Vests crisis in France, which illustrates this, although it has caused no death so far, thanks be to God. Coincidentally, the day after the attacks in New Zealand was the most violent day of protests by this revolt movement, which has been going on uninterrupted for more than four months, since a major national demonstration on 17 November. What began as a rebellion against a new petrol tax to finance environmental transition, which would disproportionately have hit middle-income households in peri-urban areas who depend on their car everyday, has turned into a lower-middle class deep cultural and political revolt against the so-called urban, globalised elites and their worldviews and lifestyle.

Over the course of the huge demonstrations that have taken place every week since November, several fractures have appeared within the movement itself. Those called the “ultras” from the political Right or Left, united against the elites, the government and the president, who together fight police forces during demonstrations, have also literally been fighting each other in the streets of France at the beginning of 2019. The profound differences of opinion on politics, the meaning of life, justice and world order that were recently expressed through peaceful debate, demonstrations, cultural productions or even verbal disputes, have been poured into the streets and are being expressed through punches, kicks, criminal fires or, worse still, crowbar hits, and met with unabated violence by the police forces. This is only an example, extreme as it is, of how tense and radicalised differences in public debates and political discussions have become in the western world.

Of course comparing a hate-filled murderer and a social movement has its limitations. But the comparison underlines the fact that these are both extreme manifestations of violence based on profound social, political and cultural disagreements.

When diverging opinion turns into fistfights, fire and fury, is it a sign that we have gone too far? Until a very recent time, differences of opinion used to be regulated by public debate in all its forms, and representative democracy. But for about a dozen years, discourses seem to polarise more and more, campaigning becomes increasingly destructive of the other side and political differences seem to be profound, sociocultural and existential, to the point that we behave as if the one who differs from our personal views were worth of less respect. Differences become radicalised.

A new form of struggle is emerging and, I would argue, weakening our nations. Quite literally. The movement of France’s Yellow Vests protesters are an example. This is particularly troubling when one realises this is taking place in Western nations of predominant European and Christian cultural heritage.

Nevertheless, there is nothing new under the sun. People have had profound differences of opinion, world-view and lifestyle for as long as we can remember, including within nations. When Germany and parts of Poland were one country called Prussia, in the 19th century, a decades-long crisis called Kulturkampf (Cultural Clash) was tearing society between Protestants and Catholics. Similar rifts were visible in the Netherlands and Switzerland (between Catholics and Protestants) and in Belgium (between Catholics and Freethinking Liberals as well as between French Speakers and Dutch Speakers). In all of these countries, people sometimes fought each other literally. As a response, most of these nations have built their political and administrative model as a way to appease such profound socio-cultural differences, based on principles of human and citizenship rights for all and universal equality.

Today, however, it is the very institutions that were created as a tool to mediate the violence of deep disagreements that are being challenged. In the Christchurch gunman’s manifesto, he explained, among other things, that one of the reasons for his rage against the system was the fact that Marine Le Pen, a candidate for the National Front, lost the French presidential elections in 2017. That year, millions of people voted for Emmanuel Macron in a completely peaceful way; many of them did so to block his opponent from the radical right-wing party, the National Front. The institutions in France worked and Marine Le Pen, although not easily, admitted to being beaten.

One would have thought that respect for democratic rules, electoral laws and the constitution would have been enough to appease the disappointed. However, for the Christchurch murderer as for the Yellow Vests in France, what is not in line with their deep convictions or identity is perceived as a betrayal by the elites. That is not unique to New Zealand and France! Increasingly we refuse to believe that those who do not share our opinion, those who do not have the same lifestyle, those who do not share our micro-identity, also have the right to be part of society with us as fellow citizens and human beings. All trust in the institutions becomes lost, and the social fabric is gradually torn apart before our eyes. We live in an era of radicalised identities.

I believe that one of the factors of this weakness is the loss of a unifying world-view. Christian thinking was the ground upon which the idea of universal equality among all human beings flourished, aided by secular Liberalism. This is now waning.

When Christianity arrived in Europe, beginning in the first century of our era, significant numbers of people from various tribes, nations and communities in the Roman Empire and among the Barbarian nations came to trust the Message of the Gospel. This had a very profound impact on the beliefs and lifestyle of these people and they began, as people of the church, to form communities which were united around Christ as one by the power of the Holy Spirit, yet diverse in age, social background, ethnicity, religious origins, culture, gender, and geographical roots. At the fall of the Western (Latin) Roman Empire about 400 years later, Christianity and the Church, which shortly before had received official support from the state, remained the supreme uniting structure among the (former) peoples of the Empire, and remained so in the following polities. This process, also at work in the Eastern (Greek) Roman Empire, brought about the extensive formalisation and institutionalisation of Christianity and the Church which characterised Christendom. As with all processes of institutionalisation, significant standardisation of creeds, behaviours, language and practices took place in the Church and, in wider society, allegiance to Church rule meant that differences were minimised, surviving mostly in parallel societies (religious or secular) and in cultural expressions.

In a follow-up article I want to describe how Christian thinking as well as Christ-honouring Christian presence in society has, sometimes haphazardly, slowly brought about a unifying system of values, virtues and social vision in European societies which has brought about peace, prosperity and progress--yes, you spotted it: three Vs and three Ps :-) The question really is, to what extent can we continue to forge peaceful societies and work against the radicalisation of our differences? It would be a much needed service to our nations and our cultural conversation across the West, for Christians and their communities to instill new meaning and rehabilitate the Christian understanding of diversity.

What can Christians offer to better deal with differences and diversity?

Christel NgnambiComment