Extremism Born of Politics Not Religion

George Tarabishi

Les Identite's Meutieres (Deadly Identities)

By Amin Maalouf
Grasset, Paris, 1998, 212 pp.

The novelist in Amin Maalouf did not wish to relinquish his place to the philosopher, even when addressing the highly abstract subject of identity. Maalouf not only wrote “The Deadly Identities” in the first person, but also presented the book as an intellectual autobiography. He attempted a kind of “identity inspection” in the same way others inspect their consciences.

When Maalouf approached his own identity inspection, he faced a challenge of multiple identities that others rarely encounter. However, this multiplicity was not the threat of neurotic schizophrenia, but a sign of richness of character. Although all people are unique based on the individual pieces of their identities, the profile Maalouf offers of himself is particularly unique in both presentation and character. His identity is written in two languages, and his surname, birthplace, residence, and nationality reflect his many affiliations. As Maalouf tells us, he was born at exactly the middle point of the 20th century and belongs to a family with widespread roots, both in time and place, extending from Lebanon to Egypt, Brazil, Cuba, and Australia. His family boasts of being both Arab and Christian since the second or third century — prior to the rise of Islam and even prior to the discovery of Christianity by the West:

Being born a Christian, and speaking Arabic, which is the holy language of Islam, as my mother tongue is one of the fundamental paradoxes that formed my identity. This language weaves a bond between me and all those who use it daily in their prayers — the majority of whom do not know it as well as I do. When you visit Asia Minor and meet an old savant at the gate of a Taymuri school, speaking to him in Arabic is enough for him to feel that he is in a friendly land, something he would not have felt had I spoken to him in Russian or in English, a language common to both of us and shared by a billion others. Without a doubt, my affiliation to Christianity — whether religious or purely sociological — also creates a bond between me and approximately two billion Christians in the world, but being a Christian Arab remains an extraordinary situation whose burden is not easy for some to comprehend. Its effect on a person is deep and permanent, and personally I do not deny that it has played a detrimental role in all the decisions that I have made in my life, including the decision to write this book.

While we will not linger on the details of the author’s profile, it is interesting to note that he is a member of the Maalouf family, which in turn belongs to the Roman Catholic sect. This sect has its own multiplicities and even paradoxes, as it recognizes the authority of the Pope yet is still faithful to the religious rites of the Byzantine Orthodox church. These paradoxes in Maalouf’s personal life become even more apparent when he explains that the branch of the family to which he belongs converted to Protestantism. He felt compelled to follow his father’s wishes to study in an American or Anglican school, but he was still a francophone due to his Catholic mother’s influence.

This multiplicity of affiliations, and his protectiveness of it, makes Maalouf’s concept of identity rich and inclusive, unlike the limiting and closed-minded one that he describes as the “deadly identity.” This negative, antagonistic and chauvinistic identity fears multiplicity, perceiving a danger that threatens the “I” with dissolution. The deadly identity reduces the complex nature of a human being to just one of its elements and only allows for a limited number of options within the large categories of color, religion, language and ethnicity. A human being is either white or black, Muslim or Christian, Irish or British, Hutu or Tutsi. This limited viewpoint cannot comprehend that a person could, like Maalouf, be Christian by birth, Protestant through his father, Catholic through his mother, non-sectarian by belief, Muslim by education, Lebanese by birth, Arab by mother tongue, French by naturalization and universal by thought. The deadly identity is an isolationist identity, for by secluding itself, it views all others as the enemy. This enemy, for the mere fact that it differs in affiliation, becomes an “opposite” and, therefore, a candidate for extermination. Thus, the Serb who is cloistered within his pure Serbian identity cannot envision the existence of another Slav who speaks Serbian but is Catholic, such as Croatians, or who speaks Serbian but is Muslim, such as Bosnians. Despite having the same affiliations to language and the Catholic religion, as is the case with the warring factions in Rwanda, the Tutsi is an enemy of the Hutu, and the extermination of one is a measure of safety for the other.

The deadly identity’s isolationist logic is not only directed against the outside, or those who are different, but also toward the inside, or those who are similar, as well. While on the outside, the deadly identity perceives the “enemy,” on the inside, it sees the “traitor.” Hence, any member of the “I” camp who interacts with a member of the “other” camp through marriage, friendship, business partnership, etc., becomes an enemy, as well. Therefore, the deadly identity is always a fascist identity, antagonistic toward those outside and terrorizing those inside. It should not be surprising that, when opportunities for venting externally become scarce, this identity will replace “homicidal” behavior with “suicidal” behavior, for it thrives on extermination, and if it does not find an external target to slaughter, it slaughters itself.

Although in this age deadly identities primarily take the form of religious, national or ethnic identities, there are no religions, nations or ethnicities that are by nature criminal. Criminality comes from the propagandists and agitators who take advantage of moments of tension, fear or self-injury. The agitators incite groups of people whose identities are tied to a certain religion, nation or ethnicity, mobilizing the emotions of those affiliations and turning them into ideologies antagonistic toward the “other,” even when this “other” shares the same daily existence in a city, neighborhood or vocation.

Upon closer inspection, we find that the sociology of deadly identities today seems to be governed by geographic distribution based on continent. In Africa, the majority of deadly identities are ethnic in nature, whereas in Europe, particularly middle Europe, examples of national deadly identities are found, from the Nazi experience to the Balkan civil wars, and even extending to pre-Kamalian and post-Kamalian Turkey. In South Asia and North Africa, deadly identities take on a religious form, expressed in sectarian wars, such as the one in Lebanon, or in rising waves of fundamentalism, as we see in the Indian and Islamic worlds.

In light of the events in Algeria and Afghanistan, and to some extent in Egypt and Yemen, as well, and in view of his personal experiences as a Western bearer of Arab Islamic culture, Maalouf dedicates the longest sections of his book to Islamic fundamentalism. It is his main concern to eliminate any confusion arising over the classification of Islam as a religion versus the fundamentalist movements that associate themselves with it by name and representation, admittedly a distinction that much of the Western public does not or cannot make.

Maalouf applies a kind of reversal of the Western misconception by relating religions to people. Instead of elaborating on the influence of religions on people, we may better understand the nature of Islamic fundamentalist movements if we realize that people also influence their religions. People understand their religions according to their levels of development; those who are confident and have reasonable control over their present and future will create a religion that is open, tolerant, and progressive, whereas exigent and defeated people, disappointed with their present and uncertain of their future, will most often adhere to a religion that is rigid, closed-minded, pedantic, foolish and fanatic. In reality, no religion is without a germ of fanaticism, but neither is any religion without a seed of tolerance. The question Maalouf poses is this: how is it possible for Islam, which in its golden era designed a “true protocol of tolerance,” to have turned, due to the handiwork of Islamic fundamentalist movements, into a “fortress of fanaticism?”

The answer does not lie in the religion of Islam itself, as Maalouf observes and confirms, but in the very nature of fundamentalist movements. These movements are not the product of Islam but rather the product of their times. In this case, we find many contributing factors, including the relapse of the modernist Arab projects, as well as the powerful influences of the modern Western world, and finally the era of globalization. This last particularly evokes concern over the idea of identity among all peoples and cultures because globalization unifies the world while creating an incurable dual partition of progressive narcissistic societies on the one hand and defeated ones on the other.

The author of “Deadly Identities” did not intend to present a justification for fundamentalist movements, which have become the primary sociological and ideological advocates for these identities in the contemporary Arab world. Maalouf explains that these movements should not be confronted with authority and violence, but with a repositioning of Arab societies so that they continue on the path of progress and civilization. By adopting a victim mentality, fundamentalist movements harm themselves and their societies more than they harm the outside aggressors themselves. When these movements successfully fence themselves in, their only choice is openness. If, indeed, this is the age of globalization, then it is an opportune time for all peoples and cultures that have hitherto been excluded from the main stage to become present in the world by helping to build it, not by abandoning it. Those who hold deadly identities in the Arab world may discover that as much as they wish to withdraw from the world and from their times, they are really deadly not to the “other” but to themselves; nothing is as self-destructive as the decision to let civilization pass by, especially a civilization that, today, is more global than ever before, or at least needs to be.

Translated from the Arabic by Basil Samara

This review appeared in Al Jadid (Vol. 7, no. 37, Fall 2001).

Copyright (c) 2001 by Al Jadid