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In the Name of IdentityReview - In the Name of Identity
Violence and the Need to Belong
by Amin Maalouf
Arcade Publishing, 2001
Review by Ludger Jansen, Ph.D.
Nov 18th 2002 (Volume 6, Issue 47)

Why is it that “so many people commit crimes nowadays in the name of religious, ethnic, national or some other identity” (9) – this is the question at the root of Maalouf’s book. Maalouf is not a professional scholar, but a novelist. His text is bare of any technicalities, but rich of examples and case studies, many of them with the authorisation of personal experience. Maalouf’s whole essay is an intriguing plead for more balanced attitudes to patchwork identities. The award-winning translation from the French by Barbara Bray guarantees that it is a good read in English, too.

A person’s identity is the whole set of elements, which on the one hand link her to all other persons sharing these elements and on the other hand, taken together, single her out of all other persons (19-20). The author himself is a good illustration of this ‘paradox’ of identity. Maalouf is of Lebanese origin, but emigrated to France, where he now lives as a successful novelist (1-2). He is an Arab, and he derives from a Christian family. Any of these two properties links him to huge portions of mankind when taken singly. Taken together, they make him the member of an utter minority (17). In addition, he now lives in a country that is not his country of origin, and writes his novels in a language that is not his mother tongue. A pattern typical to an emigrant, but not to emigrants alone. For, as Maalouf argues, in a sense today we are all bound to have such patchwork identities (37, 124). Due both to cultural and to economical globalisation, we are acquainted with more cultures than ever before and have to cope with this confrontation. Maalouf, for his case, feels both as an Arab and a Christian, as a French as well as a Lebanese (1-2). Such is also his ideal of our identities: They should accommodate for all our different allegiances and all the diverse cultural backgrounds we are connected to: Identities should be rich and colourful. But this ideal is threatened by two interrelated causes. The first is the fact that identities can be hurt, by oppression or discrimination. The second is the ideology of exclusive identities, the claim that a certain allegiance excludes the allegiance to other groups. If a group is being discriminated, its members react by stressing this strain of their identity: They will put the membership to the discriminated group first in their hierarchy of allegiances, denying other allegiances, finally arriving at a monopolized identity, an identity which is no longer rich and balanced, but dominated by a single allegiance (12-13, 26). Such are the “murderous or mortal identities”, the “identities that kill” (30), the state of mind leading to crimes of identity (9): it is “how murderers are made -- it’s a recipe for massacres” (5).

While Maalouf manages to get across his picture, his account would benefit from some conceptual clarifications. In his discussion of identity, Maalouf starts off with the items mentioned on an identity card (2). Considered this way, a person’s identity (a) is the set of all her (important) properties. In another sense, an identity (b) consists of all the allegiances or “belongings” of a person (3). This latter concept of identity is neither wider nor more narrow than the first, because virtually any property constitutes the allegiance to the group of persons sharing this property. (a) and (b) are, one may say, different perspectives of the same thing. Different from these, however, is the subjective identity (c), i.e. those properties or allegiances a person not only possesses, but also perceives as constitutive for herself (24). Items in this list may be ranked or weighted. Finally, there is what I called the monopolized identity (d). It is not clear, how exactly such an identity looks like: to construe it as a subjective identity consisting of just one item might be too strong a concept. But it essentially involves a dominating item that excludes others from the subjective identity, even ones that should normally be regarded as being compatible with the dominating item.

It is mainly in the first part of his book that Maalouf sets out to sketch his picture of the relations between identities, allegiances, and violence (7-43). The second part scrutinises the relationship between Islam and modernity (45-83). It has, at least, a twofold aim. It tries to explain how it came about that today Islam is often seen as the “Other” of modernity, both by Muslims and by westerners. And it argues that this is far from being a necessary or essential trait of Islam, that much of ‘Islamism’ has more in common with third-world-theories or certain political ideologies than with the Muslim religion of former times (64-65). The third part of the book spends special attention to the role of religious identity (85-115). Maalouf coins the term “global tribes” to characterize today’s religions. ‘Global’, because (even before the age of globalisation) they easily cross borders; ‘tribes’, because of “their stress on identity” (93): they are still paradigms of what could be dubbed ‘tribal identities’, where the allegiance to one tribe or religion excludes the allegiance to any other tribe or religion. Thus, religions today serve two needs, the need for spirituality as well as the need for identity (95-96). It is the latter, Maalouf argues, which is potentially dangerous, and therefore Maalouf would like religions to contribute to spirituality without constructing tribal identities; he dreams of “a world in which religion will no longer serve to bind together warring ethnic groups” (96). While I would join in in this dream, I doubt whether a total separation of religion and identity is even conceivable. It is not according to Maalouf’s first account of identity (a) and identity (b): being religious in a certain way is, of course, a property of a person, thus constituting an allegiance to other religious persons. And if the religion in question considers itself as the one and only means to salvation, it is highly probable that this religion is also part of the subjective identity (c) of its members. What Maalouf’s dream comes down to, then, is the wish that religion may not form part of a monopolized identity (d), that religion is accompanied by tolerance and a sense for pluralism. But this cannot explain why Maalouf postulates “religion must be kept apart from what has to do with identity” (96). It is true, religious allegiances often play a role in ethnic conflicts. But it is a common idea of all world religions that salvation is not restricted to a certain tribe or people. Thus, contrary to what Maalouf says, religion can even contribute to more balanced accounts of identity.

Nearly as important as religious identity is lingual identity, to which Maalouf turns in the forth and last part of his book (117-157). Lingual identity differs from religious identity in two important respects. First: “while it would not be difficult to prove that a man can live without a religion, clearly he cannot live without a language” (131). And second: “whereas religion tends by nature to be exclusive, language does not” (132). Hence, language provides a paradigm case for how we can at the same time ascertain us of our own identity (no minor task in the age of globalisation) and as well build bridges to other people with different identities. Emigrants and other persons with a ‘mixed’ identity “are frontier-dwellers by birth, or through the changes and chances of life, or by deliberate choice” (36). They face many problems, especially if their environment subscribes to the ideology of an monopolized identity (3). But Maalouf thinks that there is an important role to play by all those who have a rich identity: “Their role is to act as bridges, go-betweens, mediators between the various communities and cultures.” (5)

Maalouf’s ideal is humanistic in outlook. A person should feel related with more and more people till, in the end, the human race is the most important allegiance. This is an ideal Maalouf shares with many thinkers, starting with the Stoics and other ancient philosophers. Again, Maalouf cannot mean here the objective identities (a) or (b), nor can he wish new monopolized identities (d) as humans – which would devoid us of our cultural richness. But he can mean that within a person’s subjective identity (c) no allegiance should be ranked higher than his being human. And this is indeed a humanism worth advocating.

 

© 2002 Ludger Jansen

 

Ludger Jansen, Ph.D., University of Bonn, Germany


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