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In a not-unprecedented CC2K column-switcharoo TV Editor Phoebe Raven contributes a controversial article to the traditional Monday book section and hands off Tuesday's TV slot to Book Editor Beth Woodward, who will fill it with an equally discussion-rousing piece. Let's get ready to rumble.
At the core of this article is a discussion of Amin Maalouf's non-fictional book In the Name of Identity, which is a compelling, if sometimes incredibly unsettling read for all of us inhabitants of "the Western World". Amin Maalouf was born in Lebanon, raised as part of a Christian minority in an predominantly Muslim country, then moved to France and has been living there ever since. He speaks Arabic, French, English and probably some other languages. He takes his personal experiences during his struggle to "find somewhere he belongs" to launch into a discussion about the troubles that plague the world today, which -- to him -- hinge on questions of "identity" and how important they are to the contemporary individual.
Yet to fully grasp Maalouf's points about identity, the tension it creates and his theories on why "the Western World" and "the rest of the world" seem to be engaged in a battle for world domination, we have to do a little excursion. So bear with me.
The field of "identity studies" has a long history. Even Aristotle was already thinking about what constitutes the "self" and what essential quality an entity has to possess to be defined as exactly what it is (think: what does a tiger absolutely need to have to be identified as a tiger? Four legs? A tail? Stripes?). But where Aristotle was dwelling in the realm of the metaphysical, modern proponents in the vast realm of "identity politics" have far less transcendent goals in mind.
The sheer mass of occasions on which the term "identity" is thrown around is staggering. Everyone uses it for everything, the driving question in every young person's life seems to be to "find who they are" and yet stay unique in their search. Where back in the old days (partly the really old days), identity was something innate, something you could discover but not construct (a school of thought called "essentialism"), nowadays our identities are said to be fluid, multiple, fragmented, hybrid,
unstable basically (a school of thought called "constructivism").
The world used to be a simpler place with fewer choices for the individual and fairly inflexible (power) structures. If your father was a handyman in 17th century Europe, chances were you would become one too. Not so anymore. Today we have choices, seemingly limitless choices and especially within the American mindset the doctrine of "you can be whatever you want to be" is encouraged with fervent enthusiasm. Mostly, this is a good thing. Having a choice always makes the individual feel in control of their own fate, it gives them agency. But the price we pay for our freedom of choice is a loss of stability. Let me clarify:
We can never be anything unless the outside world recognizes us being it. For example, a man from the former country of Yugoslavia cannot, today, say "I am a Yugoslav", because that country doesn't exist anymore. It can't be put in his passport, younger people don't even know what "Yugoslavia" is. He will be forced to choose. Is he a Serb, a Bosnian, a Russian?
Or another example: Outwardly I would be identified as a woman, but what if I feel like a man? What if I decide I want to be a man? I could only be that if the outside world recognizes me as such. A battle so many transgender people fight today. They fight for recognition, because without that, none of our "identity choices" mean anything.
Yet what constitutes our identity is not a singular thing, as Amin Maalouf illustrates well in his book In the Name of Identity. He describes our identity as a sort of patchwork web. We choose/have many allegiances, groups we feel connected to or part of, affiliations we treasure or reject. At certain times in our lives some of these allegiances may take on more importance or will suddenly be brought to the foreground.
Consider one example he gives: a young, successful, gay, patriotic Italian man. The most important allegiance in his life for a long period of time may have been his career, he worked hard for it, he achieved many of his goals and when he walked down the streets in his business suit, people would recognize him as a career guy and he loved his fellow Italians and the way they live and the good wine and the beautiful ancient city of Rome he lived in. And then Mussolini happened. And all of the sudden all that mattered was that he was gay. An abomination. Not wanted in the country he loved so much. All of the sudden, he may feel urged to take up the battle and fight for his rights not as a business man, not as a young man, but as a gay man. When before this was just one aspect of who he was, now it becomes the one he is reduced to, the one that takes on most importance, the one heightened part in his web of allegiances.
Precisely because our allegiances are all connected, one may take center stage for a while, but if any aspect of our "identity" is challenged, the whole being will react. We don't separate ourselves internally and rationally say "Okay, this is a challenge to my faith, so only the faithful part of me will react" or some such thing. Up until this point, Maalouf's book made a lot of sense to me and was an enjoyable read. And then he gets to the really tricky part and his book becomes a hard pill to swallow for all us inhabitants of "the Western World".
The subtitle to Maalouf's book is "Violence and the Need to Belong" and so after he has set up how he believes our identities work -- and how much he wished there was a wider acceptance (read: more recognition) of hybrid identities, of not having to exclude one thing (for example being from Lebanon, like him) for another (in his case, wanting to be French as well) -- he gets to the real heart of the matter: how "the Western World" is challenging everyone to assimilate and hence provoke a violent reaction in those who don't want to abandon everything they believe in order to become something else, something "the Western World" has deemed "better".
Now, it is important to note that Maalouf wrote his book in 1996, he did not yet know anything of 9/11. So it is even more eerie that he seems to already have had a sense that something like the so-called "War on Terror" was coming, that certain groups of people would start lashing out against "the West" and make their voices heard. And the way Maalouf puts it, we should not be surprised.
Before you get carried away, Maalouf in NO WAY tries to justify the violence carried out by terrorists against "the West". He never proclaims his sympathy with "the terrorists" (if we even know who exactly is meant by this term anyway) or says that "the West" has done anything wrong. Well, actually, maybe he does insinuate that, but he is very clear that at the heart of the problem really lie misunderstandings and insensitivity, mostly on the part of the Western World though.
Reaction number one to the rise of instability (i.e. difficulty to gain guaranteed recognition for your choices of identity) is a reactionary movement, Maalouf claims, and I tend to agree. In times of trouble, people go back to "the old values", they recollect what gave stability in the past: family, a reliable job, religion. If society as a whole becomes more and more laissez-faire, then people tend to seek out groups that will give them rules to adhere to and even take comfort in the fact that these rules may be very strict. So it is no surprise that in such times all over the world people of faith tend to become more categorical in their beliefs. (This does not mean a lot of people who don't prescribe to religion suddenly turn to it. It is important to make that distinction. "Non-religious" people may still become more conservative though in their choices concerning career or personal relationships.)
The return to a more rigid faith deserves special attention though, because a lot of the current controversy about terrorism and "war of the cultures" is fought on the back of religion, namely between the Christian faith and the Islamic faith. Maalouf makes an excellent point, accompanied by a historical excursion, about the fact that the religion of Islam has not always been as opposed to progress, as inherently exclusivist and anti-Western-World as we perceive it today. On the contrary. The points Maalouf makes to prove this would lead too far here to reiterate, but the conclusion of it is that neither Christianity nor Islam are -- as dogmas -- better or worse equipped to deal with change and progress than the other.
We cannot blame the creeds for the deeds people believing in them commit. As much as religion has an influence on people, people influence religion in turn. So if Islam has become seemingly reactionary -- at least to our Western minds -- it is not because Islam itself is "an evil religion". (Matter of fact, let's all not forget the crusades, when in the name of Christianity lots of innocent people were killed. Just saying.) It is important to keep this in mind when taking the next step in the thought process of Maalouf to understanding the pervasive tension at work in the world today.