One Of Many: Assembly-Line-Individualism And The Illusion Of Identity

One Of Many: Assembly-Line-Individualism And The Illusion Of Identity
In his 2015 book The Militant, author and researcher Muhammad Amir Rana published dozens of interviews that he conducted of young Islamist militants who had been arrested by the Pakistani security forces. Most of the interviewed militants were admitted to a rehabilitation program run by the military. Many openly talked about the manner in which they were recruited by extremist outfits to carry out assassinations and suicide bombings.

Some said they were given motivational lectures, expressed not only through words, but theatrics as well. For example, after being intoxicated with certain hallucinogens, the militants were taken inside a dimly-lit room. The walls of the room had large paintings of women who had wings. Then a cloth was tied around the eyes of the recruits. According to them, after a while, they could ‘feel’ the presence of the women. They were told by the recruiters that this will be their ‘reward’ after they are ‘martyred.’

Most of the militants came from impoverished backgrounds and were ‘no ones.’ But their recruiters convinced them that they were special because they had become great Islamic warriors fighting a cosmic battle against evil forces, and that they would go directly to heaven after they die. They were told that their physical form meant nothing, and therefore, it doesn’t matter if they are blown to pieces. The body was just a vessel for the soul which was fighting a celestial war.

Various studies on former cult members (especially in the US) demonstrate that people who quit - or are made to quit - a cult are often engulfed by feelings of emptiness and of not belonging. It is likely that they had joined a cult for this very reason. Therefore, there is every possibility of a relapse – and hence the importance of rehabilitation programs. They desperately want to become part of a community and a collective identity. In most cases, the feeling of emptiness returns after leaving a cult. The identity that they were given struggles to come to terms with a reality outside the context of reality framed by the cult.

This is why most cult members are reluctant to leave. They switch-off any mental faculty through which one can self-detect the vulnerability of a given identity. Cults and other identity-forming groups emphasise that emotions, ideas and forces greater than us shape our identities. The message is: if we aren’t sure of our identity, then we need to adopt one. And once it is adopted, it needs to be publicly exhibited because, apparently, exhibitionism is a source of ‘confidence.’

The construction of ideologies such as nationalism, for example, is a common way of providing an identity. But since nationalism was originally a secular idea that wanted to replace religious and tribal identities with its own set of myths, its sweep was too large and impersonal to serve people on an individual level. According to the early 20th-century German sociologist Max Weber, modernity and nationalism ‘bureaucratised’ everyday life and left people feeling ‘soulless.’

Nationalism attempted to fill this void by defining the state as a nation’s collective soul. But this wasn’t enough. Rapid changes in various fields in the last 150 years birthed a need in many to adopt at least some form of individualism. They wanted to ‘stand apart’ from the hegemony of the disenchanting ways of bureaucratised homogeneity. Nevertheless, the need to adopt an identity and become part of a group never went away. So, a curious idea of individualism was constructed.

It was curious because it could be adopted by a large body of people all at once and outside the context of bureaucratised nationalism. Assembly-line products are an allegorical example. They are shaped into brands which make you feel individualistic, despite the fact that you are just one tiny part of millions of others feeling exactly the same way as you are: ‘unique’ and ‘exclusive.’

‘Organic’ individualism is a tough act to follow because it eschews group-thinking and detests the whole idea of the crowd. Thus, the resultant birth of assembly-line-individualism. This nature of ‘individualism’ attempts to make one feel ‘different,’ ‘unique,’ confident’ and yet part of a particular crowd. Brands do this, cults do this, the self-help industry does this and so do the so-called ‘motivational speakers.’ Some use religion, some use ‘new age spiritualism,’ some use pseudo-sciences, and many use a concoction of all these.
Since nationalism was originally a secular idea that wanted to replace religious and tribal identities with its own set of myths, its sweep was too large and impersonal to serve people on an individual level

And the irony is: eventually, in each case, ‘experts’ and ‘gurus’ end up framing actual individualism as a problem. Because, otherwise, there will be no need for people to gather in groups and be told by an ‘expert,’ ‘guru’ or preacher (for a fee, of course) that each one of us is unique and has the potential to achieve great things. They tell you to follow your faith, trust your instincts, share your feelings, find your spiritual self repressed by the cold, cruel world, and that it’s okay to be stupid!

I guess not willing or able to see that one was being sold religion, spirituality and confidence like multinationals sell their brands, is a kind of stupidity as well. But it’s a glorified stupidity. Therefore, people now consume politics, faith and ideologies as one does a consumer brand. There is little difference left between how shampoo, fashion or cola brands are sold and the manner in which motivational speakers, preachers, gurus and populist politicians peddle ideas of greatness, piety, success, confidence, etc.


Assembly-line-individualism attempts to replace actual individualism by making one feel (and not actually be) unique and special. Apparently, this unleashes an intangible emotive/creative force within that has supposedly been suppressed by the fear of looking or sounding irrational and/or stupid. Thus, stupidity is one of the hallmarks of assembly-line-individuality.

More disconcerting is the way in which assembly-line-individuality has seeped into the corridors of the academia. Academics take pride at being critical thinkers. But in the past decade or so, they have actively gone looking for audiences through social media. Now all of them want to become ‘public intellectuals.’ Take for instance the nature of so-called ‘discourse’ on Twitter on the current protests in Iran, in which men and women openly defied a theocracy by denouncing its obsession to enforce morality.

Indeed, most folk were supportive, especially feminists who have been insisting that the hijab should be a woman’s choice and not a state decree, or whim of a man. However, some ‘feminist’ scholars surfaced to make the discourse about themselves. This is because after 9/11, many ‘liberal’ Muslim scholars largely stationed in the West got embroiled in ‘identity/cultural wars’ there.

Instead of investigating the many problems that the politicisation of Islam throws up, they launched a ‘scholarly’ campaign to defend the new aesthetics that began to be shaped and adopted by Muslim men and women in the West to exhibit their ‘identity.’ These included hijabs, beards, etc. But these aesthetics were not explained as choices, as such, but statements against ‘neo-colonialism’ and ‘enforced modernity.’

Scholars like these have constructed echo chambers on campuses and on social media which are constantly used to reinforce their ideas, and gather ‘fans.’ They believe they are being very individualistic by going against stereotypes. The fact is: they have actually created new stereotypes. It’s a case of self-orientalism. If adorning western aesthetics and values is a colonial hangover, then discarding them as an anti-colonial act is a trap of one’s own making. The way most Muslims have embraced ‘Islamic’ aesthetics (especially in the West) has quickly become the new Muslim stereotype. This stereotype is exactly how Muslims in the West are pigeonholed.

But the Muslims seem to be okay with this because the new stereotypes were constructed to attract the attention of the West, to stand apart but within a willfully ghettoised group that encourages homogeneity and demonises the whole idea of choice. For example, the hijab is no more a choice but a symbol of unity, togetherness, and identity. Anyone choosing to ignore it, is seen with suspicion or as a ‘Westernised’ Other.

The anti-hijab protests in Iran have turned the new stereotypes on their head. The identity that the academics adopted by becoming part of an intellectual/activist collective too became vulnerable. So, some ‘feminists’ in this mould began to disparagingly comment on how the West was celebrating, which is kind of ironic because a majority of these academics live in Western countries and are lifestyle liberals.
Women preachers entered the picture because they were more fluent in Islamic theology. Their aim is not to question the male gaze, for example, but to dim the critical gaze of secular feminism on Islamic feminism

When the paradigm in which they had placed their thesis began to change, the thesis collapsed, triggering the fear of losing the identities that they had adopted: that of scholarly saviours of a victimised community. They were still in the midst of romanticising Islamic traditionalism to justify the new self-orientalist stereotypes that they had helped create, when the hijab debates and protests exploded in Iran.

Many of them had added the prefix ‘Islamic’ in front of the word feminism. Thus, what was once a ‘resistance identity’ become a ‘project identity’ (M. Castells in The Power of Identity, 2009). The latter’s aim is to produce an alternative to ‘secular’ feminism which excludes any form of religious reference. Secular feminism is based on universal ideas of emancipation and rights (Afiya S. Zia,  Faith and Feminism in Pakistan: Religious Agency or Secular Autonomy? 2019).

Islamic feminism assumed that secular feminism is antithetical to Islamic notions of modesty and that it alienated Muslim women who wanted to address male-oriented ideas of conservatism by reinterpreting Islamic texts. Indeed, this is one way of doing it, but Islamic feminism seeks a mild, middle path in which women venture into male-dominated spheres and spaces only after agreeing to adopt garments of ‘modesty’ so as not to attract the male gaze. Secular feminists have an issue with this. Because this means that the women accept the presence of the male gaze instead of questioning it (A. Cinar, Modernity, Islam, and Secularism in Turkey, 2005).

Feminism as a ‘resistance project’ was by no means anti-Muslim. In fact, any religion on its own did not matter. It is about certain universal rights that all women should enjoy. However, religion used by the state or a patriarchal society to undermine these rights is certainly an issue. Adding a prefix in front of feminism has gradually eroded the emphasis on solidarity within the movement, splintering it into antagonistic factions. For example, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, a powerful women’s movement in Pakistan that had confronted a reactionary dictatorship in the 1980s, split.

Protests by women in Iran against enforced veiling have reignited the debate around Islamic feminism

‘Islamic feminism,’ which ironically originated on Western campuses and was shaped by Muslim women scholars stationed there, broke away to formulate a separate identity. When secular feminists (who actually didn’t call themselves this) highlighted how the so-called ‘Islamic’ state policies and the prevalence of misogynistic narratives in the Muslim world were contributing to increasing episodes of violence against women, many of their erstwhile colleagues saw this to be an ‘orientalist’ and ‘colonial’ approach.

When the ‘identity wars’ in the US began to surface, the Islamic feminists completely ignored issues — one of them being the subjugation of women’s rights — that might be leading to radicalisation in the Muslim world. Faced with the spectre of Islamophobia in the West, they gave themselves the role of saviours who wanted to ‘prove’ that the reasons behind any violence committed by Islamists had their roots in colonialism, the forced imposition of modernity and that of secularism.

Yet, not one of them was willing to return to their Muslim-majority regions of origin. Instead, they began to shape narratives to address Islamophobia in the West where they resided. No narrative was constructed to address issues and outright violence faced by Muslim women in Muslim countries or for that matter, by women belonging to minority groups in the same countries.

In their attempt to confront Islamophobia in the West, they borrowed certain re-styled traditionalist aesthetics and ideas from oil-rich Arab regions and encouraged Muslims in the West to adopt them (as a means to shape a visible identity for themselves). The idea was to consolidate a sizeable homogenous Muslim community in the West. To justify the adoption of traditional aesthetics, many Islamic feminists spent a lot of energy in trying to pass a camel through the eye of a needle.

Circular arguments galore when this happens. Women preachers entered the picture because they were more fluent in Islamic theology. Their aim is not to question the male gaze, for example, but to dim the critical gaze of secular feminism on Islamic feminism. In fact, in some cases, Islamic feminism has now also started to justify ‘inherent male superiority’ and the need to moderately engage with this superiority. This was bound to happen when one begins to base their arguments (in this case of feminism) on complex theological readings.

Islamic feminism replaced the image of ‘Muslim women who need saving’ with the figure of women who justify patriarchal authority (S. Mestiri, ‘Decolonizing feminism: a cross-cultural approach’, La Vie morale, 2016). The circular arguments not only opened spaces for women Muslim theologians but also saw the emergence of constructs such as ‘white feminism,’ ‘black feminism’ and ‘brown feminism.’ There was nothing called white feminism. It’s a term coined by self-claimed brown feminists. According to them, the first is not only about Caucasian feminists, but also about non-Western feminists who refuse to compartmentalise feminism according to faith or race.

Islamic feminism largely appeared during a period when a persecution complex and sense of victimhood in the West was engulfing Muslims residing there. Those defying the sources of this complex and sense may have emerged from a display of individualism, but their purpose was always to construct a homogenous community. In the heads of those within the community, they were challenging the currents that wanted them to assimilate. But many of them became exactly what the populist far-right in Europe was accusing them of.

In a 1943 rally, the future founder of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah said, “I think you will bear me out that when we passed the Lahore Resolution, we had not used the word Pakistan. Who gave us this word? (The crowed cried, ‘Hindus’).” Then Mr. Jinnah concluded, “Yes, they (the Hindus) fathered this word upon us.”

Sometimes when someone not very friendly towards you begins to frame you in a certain way, you end up becoming just that. This is especially true of a person who is not sure about his/her identity; or decides that the way he is being framed by an opponent must be what he is because he doesn’t want to be what his opponent is. So, he comes out in full view, dressed in the manner his opponent perceives him to be. This perception of someone else of you becomes your identity.

Once formed and reinforced through political and ideological tools, the identity is proliferated and becomes an identity of a community or a group. Yet, it is seen as an independently-arrived and individualistic identity when, clearly, it was framed by a hostile opposite, adopted by those it was framed for, and then multiplied like an assembly-line product wrapped as a brand.

The writer is a journalist, author, cultural critic, satirist and historian.