Saturday, 4 February 2012

The Sudanese Identity

“Indeed, many of the conflicts and barbarities in the world are sustained through the illusion of a unique and choiceless identity” - Amartya Sen

I've come to realise that many Sudanese youths are overly - and might I add, falsely - preoccupied with the concept of 'Sudanese Identity'. We always end up enthusiastically arguing this point when discussing Sudan. We seem to be stuck in the middle of a tug-of-war between African and Arab.

These arguments arises from the fact that Arabic is the dominant language, and Islam is the dominant religion in the country, hence creating an Arab identity. Yet dark skin and frankly, an excess of local languages are evidence of African ancestry.

The above arguments are false in many aspects. Islam does not mean Arab, and dark skin and local languages don't necessarily mean African. And then you have the issue with Arab and African identities, which themselves are also not fully defined. So there is a problem with trying to identify with nonexistent identities in the first place.

My contention with this issue of Sudanese Identity is the consistent requisite of having to identify ourselves. Being from Sudan doesn't seem to be enough anymore. This is a very serious issue, because the end goal of all this ‘defining’ is less beneficial than we might think.

Older generations never had this problem. Everyone was Sudanese and content. No one questioned what their Sudaneseness transcended to. Because frankly, it doesn't really matter. Being Arab or African doesn't add or take away anything from who we are.

In Rwanda, Belgian conquerors aggravated the tribal rivalry by giving citizens ID cards that clearly stated which tribe they were from. They then went on to assign each tribe a place in society, giving Tutsis the high societal positions and the Hutus were designated the labour. This is the root cause of the genocide, because primarily, an uneducated Rwandan society failed to see that being Rwandan comes before being Tutsi, or Hutu. Yet, the Rwandan Hutu labourer could’ve identified with the Rwandan Tutsi school teacher just from a common taste in music, let alone a common nationality. So if they had chosen to be Tutsi or Hutu and Rwandan, the story would’ve been different.

It’s obvious that the issue of identity is a global one, not only confined to the borders of Sudan. In his book “Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny”, Amartya Sen says that current identity classifications find their roots in the Western society’s theory of The Clash of Civilizations. He claims that the current identity characterisation is based on civilizations and religions. A concept which he claims is counterproductive to the ubiquitous credence of equality among humans.

He also goes on to say that we all have plural identities, and that if we choose to embrace one and ignore the others, we risk widespread animosity.

The point he’s trying to make is that it is impossible to identify any individual with one thing and one thing only. A person can be a Muslim, a woman, an African, a dentist, a feminist, a vegan, pious and a football fan all at the same time. And she cannot identify with only one category and ignore the others with no significant consequences. Identification with a single group causes divisions, which are perfect for inciting hate towards the ‘other’:

The implicit belief in the overarching power of a singular classification can make the world thoroughly inflammable. A uniquely divisive view goes not only against the old-fashioned belief that all human beings are much the same but also against the less discussed but much more plausible understanding that we are diversely different.

In the aforementioned text, by “diversely different”, Amartya Sen is not referring to a single identity with several sub-identities as we seem to view the Sudanese Identity. It’s in reference to the fact that we are Sudanese, but we’re also a lot of other things.

So since we are all of plural identities, we can find commonalities within our identities, and use them strategically. One cannot identify as only being Sudanese, because this makes an implicit commitment to this category while ignoring all other shared identities.

What we need to do is decide the degree of importance to attach to being Sudanese over other identity categories within which we belong. We cannot create a ‘Sudanese Identity’ that encompasses all existing identities within the country, primarily because we would be to identifying with a single category.

When we finally come to see ourselves as the plethora of identities that we are, the next challenge is how we appear to others. It’s important in the case of Sudan because we have been led to believe that certain people from certain parts of Sudan have certain habits, and this is what we would identify them with.

In Sudan, the Southerners didn’t define themselves as Southern, the Northerners have created this identity for them; and the same has been done for all the people in the outlying regions of Sudan. The north holds this power of ascription for the sole reason that it has always been the more developed, intellectual hub of the country.

The Sudanese Identity cannot house any other identities other than itself. It’s an identity just as being Muslim or Hausa is an identity.

A common misconception is the belief that the lack of a Sudanese identity has stalled any prospects of a revolution in the country. Revolutions don’t happen because of common identification, they happen as a consequence of injustice and corrupt rule. The commonality here is being human. Yes, this sounds ridiculously humanistic, but being human does come before Sudanese; what we fear for ourselves as humans, we fear for others, before that feeling is felt about being Sudanese.

The same concept can be applied to the wars in Sudan. The Sudanese Identity has been defined for us by the rulers of our country since its independence. The problem here is that it was defined, not that it was defined falsely. The fact that this defined Sudanese identity encompassed several identities involuntarily alienated some. The solution for this is not a Sudanese identity that includes every single identity within our borders, because that’s illogical.

We have to choose to be Sudanese, and that’s that. There’s a difference between defining an identity, and choosing one. Defining an identity not only puts limits, but it alienates others, consequentially by the person or people defining it. Plus, no one should have that right to begin with. While choosing one is a personal commitment, and identity is a personal issue.

So instead of defining the Sudanese Identity, we have to choose to be Sudanese, and more importantly, we need to create the conditions in which it becomes obsolete.


Anonymous said...

What a great post man. What a great post.

Ambrose Chapel said...

I so much agree, one of the best things on Sudan I have read in a while. Actually, though I am Khawaja, Sudanese - and South Sudanese for that matter - is an important part of my identity.

However, one objection: recently I have been reading a lot about the history of the Sudanese press and it struck me that the debates in Hadarat, Al Fajr etc. almost a century ago were pretty much the same about identity craze like today. What do you make of it?

Best regards

cordonedsudan said...

Great Post. The state should not impose a vision of identity. Identity is a fluid matter, as it has been for hundreds of years. Self-choice is more important.
And so is the matter of tolerance, love, and at the very least, mutual respect. Do you think the state (not the current one) can have a role to play here?

Usalama said...

Great post! Really nice to read your take on this.

Muni said...


Excellent post.

I just need to add that there are identities, and then some - i.e. ones that are perceived negatively. We all need to put people in certain boxes, I feel it's human nature to do so, man vs. woman, black vs. white, tall vs. short, etc.

Everyone is many things put together, but the identity problem arises when you have a group dictating one identity is better than another, and then you have the "other" issue.

I always thought it was strange how some words just came to have a negative connotation i.e. the other, migrant etc.

I think when one is secure in the many things that he/she is comprised of, then one is able to deal with the stigma that comes with at least one of his/her characteristics - because there will always be stigma.

Sulayma Hassan said...

I might be coming late to the party, but these are my exact thoughts beautifully written and articulated. I've always believed in the idea of multiple identities, and honestly got irritated at the fact that people, even youth were so strung on this faux patriotism. I just eventually attributed my concept to never having lived in Sudan and let it be. But THIS makes SENSE! Loved this post so much I'm subscribing and following on twitter :)