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January 27, 2013, Sunday

Everyone wants to belong

You can regularly find an article or a new book published about political movements, but it is not as common to see material on the sense of nationality and the personal and cultural feelings of belonging to a nation.

I would like to explore the question of multiple identities and at what point physical and social differences become social and political divisions that affect what we believe is possible for ourselves and others. To begin with, let me share two comments and a question received in response to my piece “Skeletons in the closet” (Jan. 25, 2013).

Caterina wrote: “Mixed feelings about the article. To be honest I can't really express how I feel as it just pulls out the same beaten to death arguments. For one side to respect the other there needs to be a level of trust and the desire to treat each other justly. I don't see or feel that in the current climate. I'll stop as I know where it will lead, to one beaten down dead horse.”

An individual with the username hmarin posted the following comment that is, as we say in English, food for thought. “Benedict Anderson wrote in his book titled ‘Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism' [that a] key word in his understanding of nationalism is shame. If you feel no shame for your country you cannot be a nationalist, he says. And, shame can be contagious. Despite all the talk of transnationalism and fluid identity, nationalism is in the best of health. Newer examples of nationalism are the long-distance nationalisms of migrants: Jews in the USA fighting for a state in the Middle East, the Norwegian schools in Spain. The only reason for their existence is that people fear that their children will stop being Norwegian. In Anderson's opinion nationalism even contributes to a better society. It makes people behave better because they are members of a society. That brings us to coexistence... For once, maybe one's national identity can be [a] solution to anarchy when its existence [is] respected and honored.”

Here is the question from a Today's Zaman reader.

Dear Charlotte: “I am a Turk who has lived in [the] USA for many years. I love Turkey but I do not agree with everything that happens there. I have made a life for myself and my family abroad but I also have a life in Turkey. Many of my relatives live there and we visit regularly. I am a Turk but I also have American citizenship. Because I have lived in America [for] many years I have many friends and am accepted by those who know me. I can't understand why I feel people are suspicious of me and think I am unloyal [sic]. Why is this? I do not think that in Turkey multiple identities are understood. The other person has to be able to label you. They want to pigeonhole me in their minds and I do not fit neatly in one.” From: Cenk, Florida

All of the above comments are appreciated for their insight and good points. I want to briefly comment on Cenk's note and hope other readers will share as well.

It is possible to have multiple social and community identities. However, you probably know some people who think it must be either/or. I would like to explore how it is possible for an individual to have more than one identity and be loyal to all. As an example, a Cypriot Turk who lives in London comes to mind: She can be Middle Eastern, a Turkish Cypriot citizen, a British resident, a graduate of two universities in two different countries, secularist with a Muslim background, a person of many trades and skills and on and on. The problem is that people like to pigeonhole you and they can't.

Like Cenk, many Turks who live in the US, the UK and elsewhere struggle with similar issues: Often when they return to Turkey to visit or live, they do not feel they fit back in neatly. Back in the other country of residence, they may or may not feel settled. It depends on the individual and place. The way other people perceive them greatly affects this. Certainly since 9/11, Muslims living in the West have often felt they are not welcome. Sometimes they have felt they are wrongly labeled.

A well-known author with multiple identities, Amartya Sen, wrote about his own identity and the need to see plurality in identities in his article “A World Not Neatly Divided” (New York Times, Nov. 23, 2001). After you read, this you will be left pondering how you think about other groups, nations and individuals.

“The main hope of harmony lies not in any imagined uniformity, but in the plurality of our identities.” --Amartya Sen

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