English Version
| Wednesday, 24 January 2018 |
Indonesia Version


Take a look at old photos. You see a sign in a town in America, dating from the 1950s, saying NO NIGGERS, NO JEWS, NO DOGS

There is not just one. In other public places there are notices on toilet walls or near water fountains: this side for 'whites' and that side for 'coloreds'.

Segregation: 'Negroes', 'Jews', people of yellow skin, brown skin, and dogs are not allowed in certain places. Any change is forbidden. A civil law from Virginia in 1847 stated that any White who taught slaves or freed Negroes to read or write would be sentenced to jail.

Mixing was forbidden—even at public urinals. White had to be White. Purity had to be protected. If necessary, with violence.

In the mid 1920s, the Ku Klux Klan, which had a long history, reemerged. With their masks and white robes emblazoned with the cross, this 'underground' organization in Protestant areas spread hatred towards Blacks, Catholics and Jews.

Now and then they would hang a 'nigger' for no real reason. Feeling they represented the attitude of the white Christian majority, on September 13, 1926 they paraded in Washington D.C. wearing full costume and bearing flaming torches.

History does not repeat, but it seems there is something returning from the past. Not long before Trump was elected President of the United States, David Duke, a neo-Nazi and Ku Klux Klan activist, stated clearly: "Our clear goal must be the advancement of the white race and separation of the white and black races." There also had to be a "freeing of the American media and government from subservient Jewish interests."

There are 'us' and 'them' as identity—all constructed with a sense of suspicion, envy and paranoia, and affirmed with cleansing.

Not only in America.

In a different context, in Indonesia, and specifically in groups that usually call themselves Islam, there are people constantly plagued by anxiety, and therefore put up barricades everywhere. These segregationists seem to be terrified of joining some dynamic of chaos that makes everything, including identity, mixed. In other words: terrified about joining history.

Particularly when Islamic groups, especially in the Middle East, consider their history interrupted by imperialism that came from Europe. This interruption not only marked the defeat of local rulers and left behind a sense of bitterness, but also brought 'impure' things—even though it is not exactly clear what 'pure' was previous to that, except in desire and imagination.

But it is with that same desire and imagination that they see the world. With acute suspicion, they outlaw all sorts of things as threats—including Santa hats and paper trumpets. They view difference purely as antagonism. Every point of contact, every meeting of 'us' and 'them' must be rejected. In Malaysia, only Muslims are allowed to use the word 'Allah', even though in the Middle East this word is used in Christian prayer.

Needless to say, this is all futile in the end. Technology, capital, media, science, music (especially pop), food, clothing and who knows what else flow in from everywhere. There is always an element of 'them' that becomes 'us', and 'us' does not stop there as the complete 'us'. Edward Said in Culture and Imperialism pointed out that "No one today is purely one thing."

But indeed it is not easy to get free of the obsession of purity. History is convergences, comparisons and contests of civilization. There are those who lose and those who win. Difference is indeed not purely antagonism, but nor is it purely harmony, The difference of 'black' and 'white' in America, for instance, also shows oppression, parallel to the difference of rich and poor, ending in the losers being ignored. As Ralph Ellison says in his novel Invisible Man about the marginalization of blacks in America: "I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me."

This is where what is called 'identity politics' develops: the communal struggle of a group of people to refuse to remain invisible. They demand to be recognized. They form one identity, wave one flag, and fight in politics of recognition.

This struggle, also by Islamic activists, is valid, in the same way as the feminist movement is when women are marginalized. But 'identity politics' can also be drawn into the construction of closed identities that reject any mixing. And this disregards the possibility that within itself—say 'Islam', 'black' or 'women' there is also conflict, inequality and change. Segregation that is constructed merely hides what is divided within.

And in the end, what is closed turns stale. Segregation is the beginning of suicide.

Goenawan Mohamad

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