In today’s context, identity politics means different things to different people and can be construed accordingly to one’s own interests. John Bruton, former Irish prime minister, says ‘Identity is not a simple idea. It is about far more than politics, territory or sovereignties.’ For this very reason, the politicization of identity politics has created uneasiness. There is no simple way to address the questions and issues that have emerged from this complex and complicated discourse. But what is apparent is to ensure that genuine political movements, such as those of indigenous peoples, are not casualties in this politicization.
Identity and politics have always been interrelated and interconnected. Some would argue that identity politics are a necessity. In May 2019, the Economic and Political Weekly headlined its column Identity Politics is Not the Evil it is Made Out to Be where it said, ‘identity politics is an inevitability in democracies,’ and further added ‘one could question the legitimacy of a democratic country if it did not provide space for identity politics.’ It further emphasized that ‘existence of identity politics is an indicator of the health of a democracy because it means that marginalised sections are making an active bid for a share of power.’ Since identity is multiple, it is situational and is not exercised in isolation, as it is always a shared experience. Therefore, identity, in the course of human history, has often been a means towards achieving basic human needs, justice, rights, dignity and other emancipatory goals. Identity was never the goal, it served only an instrument.
The end of the Cold War led to power shifts where global affairs moved from a bi-polar world to a brief period of uni-polar world before finally reaching its current multilateral world. This had implications on questions of nationalism and identity. With the end of the Cold War, many of these nationalist struggles were being redefined by governments, media, and scholars as identity struggles, tribal wars, and ethnic conflicts. These conditions had a far reaching impact in the field of peacebuilding in which discourses around the right to self-determination were now being primarily defined through the lens of identity, and not through the prism of rights. While the self in self-determination was always evolving, pluralistic and political in character, the State powers reduced the self to a static category in which the contest between State and Peoples were diverted and manufactured as one between Peoples and Peoples. Through this statecraft, many political movements were depoliticized and projected as a conflict between competing identities.
Modern day globalization is another phenomenon that has given rise to a new kind of identity politics. As a concept, globalization promotes the concept of sameness whereas culture is about diversity and differences. Consequently, the incompatibility of the two and the inadequate understanding of culture have driven forces of globalization to marginalize and suppress diversity and differences in favour of sameness through coercion and co-optation. The identity politics emerges from this realist theory that functions on convenience or interest rather than on principles and ethics. In this manner identity is polarized, causing fragmentation.
Another factor of globalization that has led to assertions of new identities is a result of poverty and unequal economic opportunities and conditions. Today politics increasingly centers around assertions of identity. There is an increasing pushback against globalism, based partly on its unequal economic consequences, but also on the threats to traditional identities arising from high levels of migration.
Francis Fukuyama in his interview with The Economist in 2018 says there are two kinds of identities: a creedal national identity based on a creed or idea, while the other is based on biology, race or ethnicity. He gives an example of the French as an identity that emerged from the French Revolution’s ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity, in which one who embraced these ideals could become a French citizen regardless of race or ethnicity. Likewise, an American identity was based on their Constitution. On the other hand, Fukuyama gives the example of Hungary's Viktor Orban, who has said that Hungarian national identity is based on Hungarian ethnicity. Fukuyama says, ‘that is an exclusionary identity that makes no room for citizens who live in Hungary but are not Hungarian.’
Fukuyama’s clear distinction, however, makes it difficult for many Indigenous Peoples, with unequal or unrecognized state status, who have not regained their self-determining capacities. Identity forms a critical mobilizing instrument for many indigenous peoples, even though their aspirations are humanistic, which is to secure the liberating ideals of equality and shared coexistence.
Given the complexities around today’s identity politics which is distraction from vital issues of basic human needs, it is important to think of identity politics as it was originally meant to be perceived. The function of identity politics is, in a sense, to achieve a state of emancipatory politics in which the present day context of injustices and dehumanization no longer exists. When these goals are achieved does this imply that such an identity will no longer be required in the future? What is however significant, from a peacebuilding perspective and to inform the political process, is the imperative need to form a shared identity from our lived experiences which is understood by present and future generations.