In The Name Of Identity (Violence And The Need To Belong), a slim but ambitious book by author Amin Maalouf, may create a bit of a dilemma for a librarian attempting to categorize it. Bits of history, anthropology, religion, philosophy and politics are interwoven in Maalouf's long essay about "identity." His informed and open minded treatise is not hard to understand, appreciate and to agree with. What may be much more difficult is to expect to see his vision translated into reality in a world currently racked and riven by clashing "identities."
"A life spent writing has taught me to be wary of words. Those that seem clearest are often the most treacherous. "Identity" is one of those false friends. ... It has been the fundamental question of philosophy from Socrates' "know thyself!" through countless masters down to Freud," begins Maalouf. Although he modestly claims to lack the ability to redefine "identity," that is precisely what he does in this book. And he does it rather splendidly. He points out that among our many selves are those that are products of our birth and early upbringing - race, gender, ethnicity, language and religion. Other identities we acquire of our own choosing - our philosophy, politics and choice of job and home. Our identity is not just the label with which we get tagged by others but also what we ourselves want to assert or "identify" with. Moreover, identity is fluid, often determined by the time and place we are in and what our life experiences have been. Our allegiances may be the result of ambition, pride, expediency, anger, humiliation and even the desperation for survival. As I pointed out in my post on "home," identity too is not fixed at birth but made and remade through a journey lasting a lifetime.
Maalouf, a French-Lebanese author born in Lebanon and living in France, begins with his own case. Maalouf is an Arab Christian and as such shares his ethnic / linguistic identity with several million Arabs, most of whom don't share his religious faith. His religious identity is shared by a couple of billion Christians, the majority of whom do not speak his language. In either of the two above cases, he is a member of a large global community. But as an Arab and a Christian, he belongs to a tiny minority group anywhere in the world. Which of these groups must he pledge allegiance to? Also, where is his real home? Lebanon, where he was born or France, where he chooses to live? Do any or all of these "identities" define Maalouf fully as a human being? What about his politics, his gender, his sexual preference? Or whether he is a doctor, writer, florist or a soldier? Or even by what his tastes in food and music are or which soccer team he roots for? By the time we cover the entire intricate woven tapestry of a person's identity, he or she may have more in common with a total stranger than can be first imagined by taking into account only the most visible or obvious facets of identity. "Six Degrees of Separation" in the current global milieu is more than a parlor game or catchy cliché.
The author believes that redefining identity to include all our roles in the world, is likely to reduce cultural and political strife among groups. He sees globalization as a beneficial engine towards that goal due to the inevitable give and take that occurs in opening ourselves up to newer cultures. Yet, he also worries that the same force that may some day eradicate suspicions and violence among disparate communities, could also become responsible for wholesale obliteration of "weaker" cultures. He worries mostly about the linguistic hegemony of more advanced societies whose grip on the language of science and technology could one day wipe out other less technologically developed languages. There are many sides to this debate - I am not wholly in agreement with the author on this one. Red flags about cultural preservation are raised all the time. Progress and civilization have their own momentum. Some aspects of human history get lost before the juggernaut of another more powerful force while others survive despite thousands of years of oppression, coercion and bullying.
The main focus of Maalouf's ruminations on identity is the violence human beings have unleashed upon each other through history based on narrow and self serving allegiances. The author focuses generally on religious conflicts through the ages and the current Islamic politics of violence in particular. He is very cautious to distinguish between Islam as a faith and Islam as a political ideology although as far as I am concerned, when faith is used as a blunt instrument of violent political identity, it is a useless distinction. According to Maalouf, the single biggest contributor to identity based violence is "humiliation." When a group feels threatened, marginalized or humiliated, the identity that was nominal before, becomes the dominant defining characteristic. Humiliation, he argues is the most reliable indicator of the rise of fanaticism. He says the following about Islamic fanaticism and violence in Europe, particularly in France:
Interesting thought and correct to a large degree in this particular case. But it is only partially correct because history is replete with more instances of human atrocities directly fueled by greed and arrogance based on identity than on humiliation.
Maalouf deftly asks sharp and thought provoking questions and certainly doesn't claim to have the answers. Instead he offers his own ideas and suggestions on how to reduce conflict based on our (often spurious) sense of identity. Between Maalouf's "enlightened" hope of commonality of human identities and Samuel Huntington and Bernard Lewis' "clash of civilizations," it is too early to say which of the two views will shape the future. Meanwhile, the blood curdling "us vs them" rhetoric of the terrorists and the neo-cons alike, continue unabated on the world scene. The Name Of Identity was written in the late 1990s when the memory of the violence and devastation in the author's native Lebanon was still fresh in his mind. The book also addresses the various bloody conflicts that had flared up in different parts of the world around that time - Israel-Palestine, Yugoslavia and Rwanda to name just a few. 9/11/2001 was still in the future. But the book could have served as an alarm bell for that event. Now, in the context of 9/11, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kashmir, Gaza, the West Bank, London, Mumbai, Madrid and Bali, (and who knows where else in the future?) Maalouf's questions are even more urgent and the answers, sadly still elusive.
Note: This book was recommended to me by my co-blogger, Anna Levine. (cross posted from Accidental Blogger).