The Supposed Heritability Of Religion And Nationality

I am, supposedly, ‘Hindu’; my wife is similarly ‘Muslim.’ The scare quotes are there because we both regard our supposed ‘religious identities’ as ambiguous; we are not observant, but we were born into Hindu and Muslim families, and thus raised and acculturated into certain norms and cultural rites of passage–and their associated loyalties. (Such loose identification comes a little easier to me as the supposed object of my affiliation is, at best, quite idiosyncratically defined.) Moreover, most importantly, this is how the ‘rest of the world’ identifies us; bureaucratic form-filling forces into certain templates; our names seem to proclaim, quite loudly, our religious affiliations. This identification proceeds, inexorably, by its own inner logic to the small matter of our child, our four-year old daughter: sometimes we are asked, in tones that indicate the appropriate grave import of the query, how we will ‘raise’ her, by the dictates of which religion. And sometimes, she will be referred to as ‘half-Muslim, half-Hindu.’

This past week, I met an old friend of mine from graduate school; he is Australian, his wife is English; they have two teen-aged sons, born and brought up in England, but raised as passionate supporters of Australia in all matters sporting, cricketing or otherwise. Unsurprisingly, they love bantering with their mother about their unambiguous dislike for the English in those same domains. During my conversation with them, as we discussed their favorite cricket players, their mother protested–only semi-seriously–that they were ‘half-English’ and thus, not appropriately loyal to one of their ‘homelands.’ Her boys said they were ‘all Australian.’

Religion and nationality are too easily supposed heritable, natural kinds of sorts. As these descriptions–serious and semi-serious alike–indicate, so definitive of our identities, so fundamental, so constitutive, are these affiliations supposed to be that we inherit them, along with our genomic codes from our parents. The query, ‘what are you?’ can only be answered in two ways: you indicate your religion or your indicate your nationality. If you are an atheist or a Palestinian, you are out of luck in answering this query. (The related query, ‘where are you from,’ does not literally inquire into place of residence or place of birth; it means, instead, ‘what is your ethnic background–whether you claim it as your identity or not’?) We do not imagine other kinds of affiliations to be similarly heritable; the children of anarchist or libertarian couples are not considered to have inherited their parents’ political inclinations in quite the same way; the children of couples with differing political beliefs are not considered hybrids. I would love for this to be the case; it would certainly ease one of my many irrational parenting anxieties.

It is part of the success of the ideology of religion and nationalism that they have elevated themselves to the status of heritable qualities and attributes; the branding begins early and it is facilitated and supported at life’s many stages and turns by an elaborate infrastructure of language and description and social behavioral response. We all comply; we are conditioned to.


2 thoughts on “The Supposed Heritability Of Religion And Nationality

  1. Really interesting piece Samir.
    I often think about some of the things you are suggesting here when I see certain expressions of identity politics: those who cling to a certain form of identity politics (I’m thinking particularly of gender, transgender and sexuality identity politics) often seem to do so by clinging to essentialist notions and fixed essences in a way that bemuses me… and which just seems to fly in the face of our own experiences: For example I have one close family member who in her lifetime has gone from a believer to an atheist and whose sexuality has turned 180 degees… how can we point to one identity in time as more real or more truthful than another one we’ve had? The idea I thought we’d mostly agreed on by the 90s or even earlier of fluidity, hybridity and the ongoing social construction of all things seems to often get lost in this urge to insist on some ground of fixed identity. Thanks for this, k

  2. I wish it was quite a simplistic as you have made it out to be! It is quite the smart thing to say (especially for a lot of Indians/ Hindus settled abroad!) “Ah well! I am not a practicing Hindu — as such WTF!” Are you imagining that your child will also grow up without caring for her religion? Then, you are doing exactly what you, in this blog, say that should not be done!! If you are of a leftist/ social inclination, and you bring up the child without any faith, she will obviously grow up as such! You may be doing a disservice to a child — and it may be too late to face up to it, another six years down the line! Be well, son! (Y) ❤

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