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The Concept of Identity Crisis

by Enes Ergene on . Posted in An Analysis of the Gülen Movement

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It is clear that modernization has created fields of threat concerning our personal, social, and political identity of selfhood. The rapidly globalizing world continues to disrupt settled local identities and cultures. It subjects local and national values to interrogation using global criteria.

New social paradigms treat the concept of identity within the framework of conflict and political-social crisis. They suggest that there is a causal connection between all sorts of crises and social identities, and they search for new routes. It can be verified sociologically that, to a certain extent, an atmosphere of social crisis has a relative effect on the construction of identity. The prolongation of political, social and economic crises weakens social unity and awareness. The feelings of trust and loyalty the individual has to the "whole" may also thus be weakened. The lack of norms, power and trust in which society wallows during atmospheres of crisis alienates society from its own values. Then, a social structure that Durkheim calls "unruliness" appears. This unruliness may bring about all sorts of value erosions. If this atmosphere widens enough to span all social and cultural areas, then we may observe a crisis of identity or self. Indeed, an identity crisis is a crisis of spirit and self. It is a process of alienation from the society and from one's self. The most immediate consequence of an identity crisis is the radical fall in legitimacy on the part of the governing elites and their institutions. This crisis of legitimacy grows with the current leaders' failures in political, economic and social fields.

When we apply this basis to the formation communities and social movements, we can follow a straight line of logic: such communities emerge during periods of economic, political, and socio-cultural crisis, and they formulate an identity alternative to the existing social and political identity. They tend to isolate their members and associates from the unity of the society and load them with an ideology of opposition. This ideology may spread at the grassroots level and transform into a political opposition, or isolated members might be manipulated by existing marginal political organizations. That is why oppressive and antidemocratic political systems and states perceive formation of new communities and socio-civil movements, as threats directed against the state.

It is true that most radical, marginal, and/or fundamentalist movements do aim to formulate such an alternative identity and ideology. These movements exhibit feelings of deep psychological pain, high expectations, and an attraction for the masses. These movements could well prepare the requisites of all sorts of terror and violence under leadership that sees these methods legitimate. That is why we have to be prepared and equipped at all times to take measures to counteract the widening of the political and social bases of violence. But these measures and fears of violence should never turn into a political paranoia.

The sociological basis upon which community-formation and the new civil-social mobility occurs is different that the conditions that produce radical and/or marginal movements. First, the identity formulated by these phenomena does not necessarily challenge to societal unity. On the contrary, expansion of mobility may add onto the society values that lead to a further widening and opening up of the society.

Here, let us have a look at the basic motives that lead to marginal movement mobility in the Islamic Middle East, including Turkey, and the countries of the Third World. In general, the political systems in these countries have been established and dominated by a group of elites leaving the masses outside the scope of political decision-making process. The legitimacy of the political systems and elite classes have always weakened or gained strength according to the performance of their leaders. Muslim countries forged their political existence on poor bases of legitimacy, and thus have always lacked the basic political and democratic capital that is needed to make up the foundation stones of a sound public system. It has led further into the use of force in order to continue to hold power and to perpetuate the political mechanism. Oppression in Muslim countries has profoundly affected the socio-psychological consciousness of the masses, which has led to the questioning of the political legitimacy of the ruling elite.

When looked at from the political angle, the gradual collapse of the Ottomans (and the Persian Islamic empire) gave rise in the Islamic Middle East to competing ideologies of nationalism based on ethnic and linguistic identities. These included three major forms of nationalisms: Turkish, Iranian, and Arabic. The formation of these new identities took their cues not from Islamic values but from pre-Islamic roots. Turkish nationalism, inspired by Ziya Gökalp (d. 1924), attained a form of pan-Turkism, which took on a persona that traced "Turkish-ness" back to the ancient Anatolian cultures of the Sumerians and the Hittites. In Iran, Shah Riza (d. 1980) revealed a pan-Iranism that emphasized the pre-Islamic Aryan-Persian elements of Iranian society. The Arabian experience incorporated the nationalism of the ancient Egyptians. Up till the 1980s, the nationalist project in each of these regions turned into a search for synthesis between these ancient roots and Islamic values.

In addition, the Islamic identity was shaped by other experiences in the Arab world. Arab nationalism before and after the First World War demonstrated Islamic, socialist, monarchical, and Western influences. In Syria, Iraq, and Jordan, secular and social Arab nationalism took on a monarchic aspect. In Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, the Wahhabi and Salafi identities came to the forefront. The fact that individual and social Islamic identity met such an impasse led to a reaction that stresses the Islamic global identity, an identity that is at times named political Islam or Islamism.