In the Name of Identity

In the Name of Identity: Violence and the Need to BelongIn the Name of Identity: Violence and the Need to Belong by Amin Maalouf

Amin Maalouf is in some ways perfectly positioned to write a book on identity. He is a Lebanese Arab Christian who moved to France as an adult to escape Lebanon’s civil war, a poster child for the fusion of multiple identities. He has firsthand experience of being an immigrant, a minority, and how bloody identity can be.

His book is a sober, personal, compassionate exploration of identity as both necessary, and oftentimes fatal. His main premise is that most problems arise when people are forced to choose between identities, and to identify as one to the exclusion of everything else. Rather than accept that each person is by definition the sum of all of his or her identities, people are often forced to define themselves by one above all, and when that’s threatened, they feel justified in protecting it by any means.

On a broader discussion about identity in a globalizing world, he points out that for most, globalization has meant the loss of identity. Because progress has come to mean westernization (or even Americanization), and that for the rest of the world, “Modernisation has constantly meant the abandoning of part of themselves.” Which I think is a spectacular, and very humane point. A sort of precursor to the ‘whiteness’ problem.

What’s interesting is how much has changed since the nineties, when the book was written. Maalouf is more hopeful than he ought to have been, considering how things turned out. However, I think we have come to see that globalization does not necessarily lead to uniformity, and that while American soft power is tremendous, there has thus far been enough space for it to do its thing alongside the continued growth of robust regional/ethnic/national/religious cultures.

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