Recently, after giving a reading at the Oakland public library, a black woman who was in the audience approached me and asked whether my wife was black. "I'll tell you if you tell me why you think it matters," I said. She paused for a moment.
"Well, you talked a lot of sense and it seems like however much sense brothers talk, they always end up with white women."
"She's black," I said.
The woman smiled and sighed.
"If she were white would you now think less of anything you heard me say?" I asked.
She paused again. "I think I would," she said.
"That's a shame," I told her.
"I know," she said.
Every identity has its fundamentalists - the gatekeepers of what is and isn't permissible for those who share that identity. Since we all have access to multiple identities - race, religion, nationality, ethnicity, class - these fundamentalists usually have their work cut out trying to keep everybody in line. As the guardians of authenticity, their job is to deny complexity and impose uniformity.
One thing all these fundamentalisms have in common is that they are, ultimately, reactionary. They exploit identity not as a starting point to connect with the rest of humanity but an end point, from which the rest of humanity is excluded. Devoted to eternal and exclusive truths, they brook no dissent and tolerate no debate. What matters most to fundamentalists is not what you do but who you are. Regardless of how many good deeds you perform, a Christian fundamentalist will only recognise you as a fellow human being up to a certain point unless you too are a Christian fundamentalist - beyond that you are just one more sinner.
For fundamentalists insist that we privilege just one identity above all others all the time. Since this is not how must of us live our lives, we tend to ignore them. The price for breaching their codes, they warn us, is banishment; the prize for conforming to them is belonging. But since, under normal circumstances, they are not a part of a community to which most of us would want to belong and they have no power to deliver on their threats, they have nothing we want or fear.
So, for the most part, they stalk the borders of our communities - the pamphleteers and proselytisers, who harangue and harass. But at moments when an identity feels itself besieged, they will move to centre stage. Fear will polarise people and send them scuttling into crudely constructed camps. When faced with a threat, either real or imagined, the fundamentalists who sounded simplistic will be praised for their clarity; views that were once dispelled as narrow-minded will be embraced as principled. The marginal gradually becomes mainstream.
Identities do not exist in a vacuum but are rooted in material conditions that confer power and privilege in relation to one another. They are not static and fixed but dynamic and fluid, constantly shifting according to time and place.
Irritating as it was, the question from the woman in Oakland did not stem from bigotry. Segregation means mixed-race relationships in the US are rare, and exceptionally high rates of murder, HIV/Aids and imprisonment among African-American men make viable and available black mates relatively scarce. According to the census, there are 30% more black women than men in Baltimore, Chicago and Cleveland. In New York, the figure is 36%. The way in which racism in the US impacts on straight black women's lives makes many of them sensitive to the racial choices black men make when looking for a mate.
Nationalist fundamentalism in the US took grip immediately after the terrorist attacks on September 11 and has been thriving ever since. Americans felt attacked as Americans and responded as such with flags aplenty.
Such developments are not inevitable - despite being imprisoned by a racist state Nelson Mandela still managed to lead the creation of a non-racial democracy - but they are understandable. Everybody must take responsibility for how much prominence they wish to give any particular identity at any particular time. But they do not choose how much prominence others wish to assign to it.
In this respect, Islam is no different from any other identity. Although the extent of the rise in Islamic fundamentalism in Britain has been exaggerated, it certainly exists. A Pew Research Centre poll in June revealed that 15% of British Muslims believe that "violence against civilian targets can be justified often or sometimes" - that was marginally higher than the figure in Pakistan. The same poll showed that 81% of British Muslims said they thought of themselves as Muslims first and citizens of their native country second - a higher figure than in Egypt and Jordan.
There is no point being in denial about the obvious reasons for this. Muslims will be more likely to organise around and identify with their religious identity, both at home and abroad, so long as they feel attacked as a result of their religious identity. There is no sensible conversation you can have about Islamic identity that does not address what is happening to Muslims locally and globally.
For the past five years they have been fed on a nightly diet of bombings and occupation in Afghanistan, Iraq and Lebanon; imprisonment and torture in Guantánamo Bay, Belmarsh, Basra and Abu Ghraib; and tales of alleged wanton murder and rape in Hamdania, Haditha, Balad and Mahmudiya.
This excuses nothing but explains a lot. The war on terror did not create Islamic fundamentalism but it has exacerbated it. The government should not change its foreign policy because it makes Muslims angry (it should change it because it is immoral, ineffective and makes virtually the entire world angry). But nor should it treat this anger as though it were the unpredictable response of fanatics who don't watch the news and operate in isolation to world events. At present the government's only response to these trends is greater surveillance of Muslim communities and holding bantustan-style meetings with "community leaders" whose credibility decreases every time they show up at Downing Street. The government's strategy at the moment is to first pathologise and then patronise them.
This won't work. Not for reasons of cultural sensitivity particular to Muslims but political common sense applicable to anyone. Those who refuse to address the issue of poor housing, job prospects and public services in white working-class areas will never address the rise in the racial fundamentalism that has found voice in the British National party. To acknowledge this is not to pander to racism but to display an understanding of its root causes.
Fundamentalists only thrive at times of crisis. At certain moments for certain identities they offer not just the easy way out but what can seem like the only way out. To be serious about combating them one must first be serious about tackling the crisis that gives them leverage. Only when you offer an alternative and more attractive route out of that crisis can you isolate the leaders and win over the followers. To do so is not indulgent but intelligent.
© Copyright Guardian Newspapers Limited 2006