The title of this post relates to a (probably apocryphal) story from Northern Ireland in which a group of lads stop a man who’s walking down the street and ask him in a threatening way, “are you a Protestant or a Catholic?”
The man responds by pointing out that he’s actually from Iran and is a Muslim.
“That’s all very well,” replies one of the youths, “but are you a Protestant Muslim or a Catholic Muslim?”
In Northern Ireland the terms “Protestant” and “Catholic” are used as markers of fixed political and tribal identity (inaccurate though they are). This is something the joke plays on to show how we can assume that our concrete local issues are universal.
This can also be seen in the story of an Indian coming to Belfast to visit friends. While in a bar one night she strikes up a conversation with a local who asks her where she’s from.
“I’m from Delhi,” replies the woman
In response the local leans over and whispers in her ear,
“Watch yourself, round here we call it Londondelhi”
The joke plays on the fact that there’s a city in Northern Ireland that is either called “Derry” or “Londonderry” depending upon your political stance. One of the ways people work out whether you’re a friend or enemy is to find out which you call it.
Each of the above stories remind us how easy it is to think that the political situation we’re dealing with is one that the rest of the world is involved with. Or that the political terms that make sense in our context map onto other contexts in a straightforward way.
While it’s true that the underlying dynamics and antagonisms in different political situations are similar (scapegoating, oppressors, oppressed, structural injustice, economic problems etc.) the actual way these play out depends on a rich matrix of historical factors unique to a given situation.
When people from outside Northern Ireland speak into the situation the results are often embarrassing at best and damaging at worst. It generally takes people who’ve grown up in a given society, who know the context and who’ve a respect borne from growing up there to make real and lasting change happen.
People from other contexts do remain important, not least because they can help widen our horizon a little and gain new perspectives. Not so much through their conceptual frames (which act as Procrustean beds upon which the given situation is cut or stretched), but through learning about their situations.
As an alien to a foreign country I’ve occasionally had the surreal experience of being treated like the Iranian in Belfast. While I’m keen to learn the political situation in the US, my political interests remain tied to the complex and difficult situation back home.