Charges of dual loyalty are out of step with realities of an interconnected world

As a Roman Catholic of Irish ancestry it was alleged that John F Kennedy might take orders from the Pope and put his faith before his country. AP 
As a Roman Catholic of Irish ancestry it was alleged that John F Kennedy might take orders from the Pope and put his faith before his country. AP 

American politics continues to be roiled by arguments over comments made by outspoken freshman representative Ilhan Omar. When she said: “I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is OK for people to push for allegiance to a foreign country,” this was taken, correctly, to mean Israel. Cue uproar from the many, on both the left and the right, who cried antisemitism, on the grounds that this invoked the charge of “dual loyalty”.

Ms Omar’s fellow Democrat, and Barack Obama’s former chief of staff, Mayor Rahm Emmanuel of Chicago, wrote in The Atlantic: “For centuries, this trope has been aimed at Jews in countries around the world. In embracing it, Omar is associating herself with calamities from the Spanish Inquisition to the Russian pogroms to the Holocaust.”

Mr Emanuel’s characterisation was not just over the top, it was highly offensive and quite possibly defamatory. Many disagree with Ms Omar’s critics and have – rightly, I believe – come to her defence.

What puzzles me, however, is why the idea of having more than one loyalty should be so problematic. As the child of an Irish father and an English mother, I have known dual loyalty all my life. Is it not entirely natural that I should have an allegiance to both the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom? Further, as a citizen of both countries, do they not have the right to demand loyalty from me?

Then there are other loyalties that can accrue over a lifetime. Having spent many years growing up and later working in the Arabian Gulf, I have a strong and enduring affection for the region. That feels a lot like loyalty. Similarly, with two half-Malaysian sons, is it surprising that I should feel pride and love for their country – the one they are growing up in and whose national anthem they sing at school?

These may be the attachments of a long-time expatriate. But I am far from alone. There are millions around the world with mixed heritages, and as countries are increasingly interconnected, it is to be expected that more and more marriages are between people of different nationalities and ethnicities. Their children have every right to cherish and feel connected to their diverse backgrounds, and yes, express their loyalty to more than one country or culture.

Religion is another important factor. If the accusation of dual loyalty has historic resonance in US politics, this is at least in part because it was also levelled at John F Kennedy before he became president. As a Roman Catholic of Irish ancestry it was alleged that he might take orders from the Pope and put his faith before his country.

Kennedy replied that he believed “in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute”, and the example set by his presidency ended suspicions over Catholics in public life once and for all. Nevertheless, given that the commandments of God can never be superseded in the minds of the faithful by the requirements of man, it is understandable – if not necessarily correct – that religious devotion can sometimes be seen to constitute a form of “dual loyalty”.

There was much concern over a survey in Malaysia in 2015, for instance, that found that most ethnic Malays identified as Muslims first, rather than as Malays or Malaysians first. Wasn’t this an obstacle to national unity, it was said, given that most Malaysian Chinese and Indians – who are nearly all non-Muslim – identified as “Malaysian” first instead?

There are two reasons why I found it much less worrisome. Firstly, many Muslims will simply have found it inconceivable that they could relegate their religion to second place. This did not mean they felt any less Malay or Malaysian. Secondly, and this relates to dual loyalty in the wider sense, the mistake is to assume that if you have more than one loyalty they must be in conflict with each other. In the case of the Malays – who are defined by the Malaysian constitution as being Muslim – this makes no sense. The two identities are inextricably linked.

For others, equally, there is no contradiction in possessing more than one – indeed, maybe several – layers of identity, each of which exerts a pull of loyalty but happily coexists with the others. As the American poet Walt Whitman famously put it: “I am large, I contain multitudes.”

Of course there are large proportions of many national populations that are more monocultural and homogeneous. For them, questions of identity and loyalty are likely to be less complex. For others, however, trying to insist on the supremacy of one alone is inevitably going to be reductionist, and simply fail to deal with the circumstances and histories of individuals with more varied backgrounds and life stories.

The British Conservative politician Norman Tebbit took this approach. His “cricket test” asked whom immigrants from the Indian subcontinent supported when England was playing their nation of origin. The late industrialist Kumar Bhattacharyya, who came to Britain in 1961, once answered: “I support England in the test matches, except when they are playing India.” Lord Tebbit would have given that a fail. But the fact that Mr Bhattacharyya ended his days as a member of the House of Lords surely demonstrates his fidelity to Britain.

He contained multitudes, as will many, many more in the decades to come – as does Ilhan Omar, who is no less American for being a Somali-born Muslim. It is “dual loyalty” that should be retired as a charge, because it seeks to cram diversity into the bottle marked “uniformity”. That is not only an impossible task. It also fails to recognise the way the world has changed, for good and for the better.

Sholto Byrnes is a Kuala Lumpur-based commentator and consultant and a corresponding fellow of the Erasmus Forum

Published: March 11, 2019 04:29 PM


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