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CAN WE RESIST OUR TRIBES?

BY ASMA T. UDDIN

Saving the world is hard work. That’s the biggest lesson learned from my twelve years so far defending religious freedom for all and trying to get sworn enemies to guard each other’s rights. “You don’t have to be friends,” I tell them, “but you do have to show up for each other.” I’ve said that to religious groups in places as far flung as Indonesia and Pakistan, where religious freedom can be a matter of life-or-death. And I’ve said it to religious communities in the U.S. where the consequences might be less physically dire, but the conversation is just as politically fraught.

 

In my U.S.-based work, I’ve tried to pierce the veil, to uncover the complex dynamics of religio-political tribalism. In my recent book, The Politics of Vulnerability: Today’s Threat to Religion and Religious Freedom, I provide reams of evidence demonstrating that Muslims and conservative white Christians have become proxies for the Democratic and Republican Party, respectively. So much of what divides these two groups can be traced back to party politics and, more fundamentally, animosity against the other “tribe.” Just as sushi-eating, Whole Foods-shopping, and Volvo-driving have become facets of what political scientists call the liberal “mega-identity,” so, too, has advocacy for Muslims’ rights. It’s something mostly liberals do and conservatives either avoid or actively deride. 

 

On the flipside, conservative white Christians have become indelibly associated with former President Donald Trump and rural, Cracker Barrel-going, America. Country “bumpkins” who aren’t keeping up with vicissitudes of progress.

"JUST AS SUSHI-EATING, WHOLE FOODS-SHOPPING, AND VOLVO-DRIVING HAVE BECOME FACETS OF...THE LIBERAL 'MEGA-IDENTITY,' SO TOO HAS ADVOCACY FOR MUSLIMS' RIGHTS"

My proposed solution to both religious groups is to stop lumping each other into political categories and instead see the other as human. An actual person, with all of his or her glorious nuances that beg not to be labeled and so easily dismissed. I speak and write about various strategies that political scientists have developed in other political contexts, hoping, for example, that focusing on “superordinate goals” (shared goals that supersede our tribal groupings) can help us work together. Self-affirmation is another one—when people find alternative ways to shore up their insecurities, they become more open-minded toward members of the out-group.

 

But alas, change requires so much more than careful, thoughtful strategies. The very tribalism I detail in the book is what makes overcoming our divides so difficult, if for no other reason than giving into the lure of group identity is easy, and trying to overcome it is far too difficult.

 

Social scientists have identified a phenomenon they call the “false enforcement of unpopular norms.” People who are open-minded are often willing to express a close-minded position because of perceived social pressure to conform. Giving into this pressure helps people win approval from their own group, which in turn boosts self-esteem. The problem, though, is that by giving in, these people also end up further—and falsely—enforcing something they privately disapprove of. 

 

There are close corollaries to this phenomenon. Political scientist Andrew Lewis says public surveys sometimes capture shifting opinions, but these shifts don’t always translate to a desire for policy change. The survey results reflect “expressive” rather than “mobilizing” attitudes according to Lewis: “This softening doesn’t seem to be changing their partisanship, which are driven by more salient commitments and socialization.” 

 

Consider an example from the Muslim-Christian bridgebuilding context: the My Neighbor’s Keeper initiative has found that college-aged evangelicals have a tendency to show up to peacemaking events and express tolerant views. But when these same participants retreat to their tribes, they revert to intolerant views.

"THE LURE OF GROUP IDENTITY IS EASY, AND TRYING TO OVERCOME IT IS FAR TOO DIFFICULT"

When you work, as I do, in the service of building bridges across deep differences, the false enforcement of social norms, or its close corollary, expressive but non-mobilizing attitudes, is the single biggest hurdle to success. There are those who actually do hold close-minded positions, and that is a problem in its own right. But when a person has an open-minded position privately and is either discouraged from expressing it or is willing to express it but not back it up with action, the possibility of change feels elusive.

 

Changemakers can try to help. We must ensure we are being consistent—with and without our tribes. But sometimes the pull of group identity is far too strong.

 

Asma T. Uddin is a religious liberty lawyer who has worked on cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, federal appellate courts, and trial courts. She is the author of When Islam Is Not a Religion: Inside America's Fight for Religious Freedom (2019) and The Politics of Vulnerability: Today’s Threat to Religious Freedom (2021). Asma was an executive producer for the Emmy and Peabody-nominated docu-series, The Secret Life of Muslims. She has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Teen Vogue. Asma lives in Washington, DC.