Killer Identities

Sorting through some old books yesterday, I came across one from Amin Maaloof that I hadn’t looked at in years. So I dusted it off, and started thinking about this post.

The English title of the book is “In the Name of Identity“, but the French title “Les Identit?s meurtrieres” (Lethal Identities?) or the Catalan one ‘Indentitats que Maten’ (Killer Identities) are much more expressive and to the point.

Written before 09/11 the book has in fact a great deal of relevance to understanding the background to the kind of fanaticism we have recently witnessed from the four London suicide bombers. Maloof’s testimony is instructive, largely because his account is autobiographical.

As one Amazon reviewer notes:

“In the Name of Identity is as close to summer reading as philosophy gets. It is a personal, sometimes even intimate, account of identity-in-the-world, not a treatise on the thorny metaphysics of identity. A novelist by trade, Amin Maalouf is a fluid writer, and he is aided by Barbara Bray’s award-winning translation. His aim is to illuminate the roots of violence and hatred, which he sees in tribalistic forms of identity. He argues that our convictions and notions of identity–whether cultural, religious, national, or ethnic–are socially habituated and frequently dangerous. We’d give them up, he argues, if we thought more closely about them.”

Thinking more closely about them, of course, is what Maalouf has himself spent many years doing.:

“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”

“I am posed between two countries, two or three languages, and several cultural traditions”

According to another Amazon reviewer

“One of the most important points in Maalouf’s book is that the cultural identity of human beings shifts in different phases of their lives. It is a great danger in getting to closely tied to one single side of cultural attachments, whether it is religious, ethnical or national. At the same time it is substantial to not explain everything seen in light of religion, but also connect the fact that religious, historical (by this, he means political), cultural and material circumstances influence each other mutually. Maalouf deliberates this with examples from conflicts where violence and identity cleavages work together as twin mechanisms, e.g. the Middle East, South-Africa, Rwanda and Algeria.”

Amongst these ‘shifts’, those which occur in adolesence, and during the ‘young adult’ phase, would normally be thought to be amongst the most complex and the most dangerous, as we are seeing right now.

Another reviewer puts the problem like this::

Maalouf?s self-described task in this book is ?to try to understand why so many people commit crimes nowadays in the name of religious, ethnic, national or some other kind of identity,? how what he calls ?identities that kill? are made and sustained. His answer is simple and straightforward:

murderous identities are born of humiliation. Thus, if we want to address the problem of ethnically or religiously motivated violence, we must work to counter the conditions under which people are humiliated or denigrated for being part of some ethnic or religious or national group.

This presents us all with a problem. Again let the reviewer explain:

He also discusses the causal importance of what many perceive to be an American-led push toward globalization to generating a sense of humiliation, marginalization and alienation in members of non-western, non-hegemonic ethnic, religious and national groups. In what becomes, after September 11th, a rather chilling passage, he asks: ?How can they [non-westerners] not feel their identities are threatened? That they are living in a world which belongs to others and obeys rules made by others, a world where they are orphans, strangers, intruders or pariahs? What can be done to prevent some of them feeling they have been bereft of everything and have nothing more to lose, so that they come, like Samson, to pray to God for the temple to collapse on top of them and their enemies alike??

Maalouf’s solution:

In response, he proposes what he calls a ?moral contract??a reciprocal agreement of mutual recognition between presently dominant and subordinate groups in the world, such that all people everywhere may legitimately feel that they are equal participants in the emergence of a ?common civilization,? that they are reflected in it and reflect it in turn. Within a given society, the moral contract would take the form of an agreement between members of the majority culture and those of minority cultures to treat each other as equals, and to take seriously the constitutive nature of the other?s culture. To this end, each must be prepared to give up his claim to cultural purity. Majority members must not predicate full-fledged membership on a complete abandonment by minority members of their cultural heritage; rather, they must be prepared to accept them as full members in light of?indeed, in celebration of?their cultural (or ethnic or religious) difference. For their part, members of minority cultures must be prepared to adapt, at least minimally, to the basic rules and values of the majority culture, even if this means abandoning some of their cultural practices.

It is important to notice that what Maalouf is talking about is not the kind of “laissez faire” multiculturalism which has been practised in the UK and Canada, it is a much more demanding form of inter-cultural interaction. The contract he talks of implies rights and responsibilites on both sides of the ‘cultural-divide’. Given what recent events have forcedus to recognise about what has been happening in Beeston and other parts of the Uk in recent years, perhaps a fresh look at the kind of implicit contract newcomers have been being offered at the identity level could be considered to be something which is long overdue.

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About Edward Hugh

Edward 'the bonobo is a Catalan economist of British extraction. After being born, brought-up and educated in the United Kingdom, Edward subsequently settled in Barcelona where he has now lived for over 15 years. As a consequence Edward considers himself to be "Catalan by adoption". He has also to some extent been "adopted by Catalonia", since throughout the current economic crisis he has been a constant voice on TV, radio and in the press arguing in favor of the need for some kind of internal devaluation if Spain wants to stay inside the Euro. By inclination he is a macro economist, but his obsession with trying to understand the economic impact of demographic changes has often taken him far from home, off and away from the more tranquil and placid pastures of the dismal science, into the bracken and thicket of demography, anthropology, biology, sociology and systems theory. All of which has lead him to ask himself whether Thomas Wolfe was not in fact right when he asserted that the fact of the matter is "you can never go home again".

2 thoughts on “Killer Identities

  1. Interesting post.

    Martin Wolf characterises multilateralism as “We must agree, within reason, to differ. In essence, this means that we agree more on procedural norms than on substantive ones. Moreover, we enshrine those procedural norms within institutions.”

    It seems to me that this is fairly close to what Maalouf is proposing for culture. The big question is whether (and then how) for issues of “identity”, “culture” and “values” isolating procedural from substantive norms is possible.

  2. The idea of a ‘moral contract’ and of corresponding ‘rights and responsibilities’ disturbs me – in any context, not just the context of multiculturalism. For how long is a ‘moral contract’ supposed to last? As long as it can? And in that case should we not be better off with the term ‘moral experiment’? The language of rights and responsibilities also disturbs me, as it usually stems from politicians and others in power – where once we spoke of liberty and self-reliance we now talk about state-enforced rights and responsibilities. These may be ‘democratically’ decided upon (using that word generously) but they serve to further reduce the sphere of liberty in which we live.

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