In his column for the Saudi-owned Asharq Alawsat, Mshari Al-Zaydi takes a look at identity politics. He launches his piece with a discussion of Amin Maalouf’s 2009 Killer Identities (sold in the US under the title In the Name of Identity: Violence and the Need to Belong). The book, and the column explore how the quest for a particularized identity poison politics on local, national, and international levels. Al-Zaydi warns that identity politics can ruin whatever positive promise ‘Arab Spring’ might hold.
They are both right. By focusing on only one aspect of identity, individuals and groups forget that they are part of larger identity groups, ultimately, the group known as ‘mankind’. Forgetting that the person next to you is human, has the same rights as you do – including the right to be wrong – leads only to confrontation. ‘Identity’ is important; we cannot act without having a clear idea of who we are. But we have to acknowledge that we have multiple identities at all times. One can be, simultaneously, a member of an ethnic group, a member (or non-member) of a religious group, a citizen of a particular nation, a member of a particular culture or society , male or female, a parent, a child, a brother or sister, a neighbor, a worker, a member of a party, and so on. Each facet of identity has its own obligations, its own expectations. One of these group identities may be more important in a given time and circumstance than in another, but all of them continue to work simultaneously. No element goes away while we focus on another. By forgetting this, by allowing ourselves to be identified or to self-identify by only one facet of identity, we run very serious risks of both dehumanizing others and painting ourselves into corners.
Are these “killer identities”?
Will the prediction by the famous Lebanese-French Novelist Amin Maalouf – that we are embarking upon an era of wars between “killer identities” – turn out to be true?
“Killer Identities” is the title of a well-known book by Maalouf, a writer and intellectual who focusses on the religious, historical and social intricacies of the East.
Maalouf’s life itself embodies such intricacies. In a recent interview conducted by “Middle East online” with him in Dubai, on the sidelines of the Silver Jubilee of Al Owais Cultural Foundation, Maalouf explained how the multi-layered and complex climate he lived in has had a huge impact on him. Maalouf was born in Beirut; his mother was born in the Egyptian city of Tanta while his maternal grandmother was born in Adana, Turkey. Maalouf was mainly raised in Beirut but spent some of his childhood in Egypt. His mother’s family moved from Tanta to Cairo to live in the Heliopolis district, and up until the age of three, Maalouf spend most of his time residing in Heliopolis. Then he moved to Lebanon where he lived until 1975. He studied in Lebanon and upon graduating he worked in the field of journalism, contributing to the Lebanese daily newspaper “Al-Nahar”. At the start of the Lebanese Civil War in 1975, he moved to France and continued his journalistic pursuits, working for “Economia” magazine and serving as editor-in-chief of “Jeune Afrique”.