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The Blood Lust of Identity

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Identity is a bloody business. Religion, nationality, or race may not be the primary causes of war and mass murder. These are more likely to be tyranny, or greed for territory, wealth, and power. But “identity” is what gets the blood boiling, what makes people do unspeakable things to their neighbors. It is the fuel used by agitators to set whole countries on fire. When the world is reduced to a battle between “us and them,” Germans and Jews, Hindus and Muslims, Catholics and Protestants, Hutus and Tutsis, only mass murder will do, for “we” can only survive if “they” are slaughtered. Before we kill them, “they” must be stripped of our common humanity, by humiliating them, degrading them, and giving them numbers instead of names.

The novelist Amin Maalouf begins his humane and eloquent essay1 with the question of “why so many people commit crimes nowadays in the name of religious, ethnic, national or some other kind of identity.” Was it always so? Or is there something new going on? What is new, I think, is not the phenomenon itself so much as the scale of the damage. There is no easy or single answer to Maalouf’s question. He mentions various reasons why people fear for their sense of belonging: globalization, the erosion of national sovereignty, Western domination over the last three hundred years, the collapse of failed secular regimes.

All these reasons deserve consideration, but none explains the extraordinary bloodlust of identity warriors. Sadism must play a part. Once their basest instincts are given the official nod, some people feel a sense of pleasure, even liberation. The degradation of one’s victims, stripped of their identity, is a way to sooth one’s conscience. This results in a ghastly paradox: the more brutal the method of slaughter, the easier it is on the killers, for the victims are no longer regarded as fully human.

But sadism cannot explain everything. Maalouf observes that mass murder can seem entirely legitimate to people who feel that their community is under threat. He writes: “Even when they commit massacres they are convinced they are merely doing what is necessary to save the lives of their nearest and dearest.” It is difficult to imagine an SS man thinking this while feeding Zyklon-B into the gas chambers of Treblinka, but it was indeed an essential part of Nazi propaganda, and some Germans may have actually believed it, including possibly Hitler himself—but then, from what we know, he didn’t really have any nearest and dearest.

It is perhaps no coincidence that the great demagogues of national identity are themselves not always sure where they belong. Slobodan Milosevic’s family is from Montenegro. Hitler was an Austrian. This suggests that Maalouf may be too optimistic when he claims that people with multiple identities will never be “on the side of the fanatics.” On the contrary, purity is often the compulsive aim of those who feel they have to make up for their complexity. But he is right that we are all made up of a mixture of loyalties and identifications, regional, linguistic, religious, ethnic, national, social, or professional. The ingredients in these mixes can shift with time. Sometimes they disappear altogether, or reappear in grotesque forms. At a literary gathering in San Francisco, I met a distinguished writer from Yugoslavia. In an attempt to break the ice, I asked her whether she was Serb or Croat. She answered me courteously, but with a hint of impatience at my crass ignorance: “I am a Yugoslav. In Yugoslavia, we don’t think in those categories anymore.” This was in 1990.

Circumstances can make the ingredients of individual identities conflict, or click in unexpected ways. A grand lady in the former Portuguese colony of Goa, who grew up speaking Portuguese, Goan, Hindi, and English, described herself to me as a Roman Catholic Brahmin. It struck me as curious that a Christian would still be so conscious of her Hindu caste. Then she explained that in the colonial past Christians had a special need to protect their Indian identity from Portuguese encroachment, and so caste consciousness grew even stronger.

Amin Maalouf is himself a good example of cultural, national and religious complication. He was born in Lebanon, as a Greek Orthodox Christian among Muslims, his mother tongue is Arabic, but he lives in Paris and writes in French. All these elements of his identity are shared by many, but the particular mix is what makes him an individual. His may be an especially rich brew. But the same principle applies to everyone. It is when we take one single element and make it absolute that the trouble begins. This tends to happen, as Maalouf writes, when we feel that our identity, or part of it, is under attack. My own experience confirms this. I am part British, part Dutch; Dutch Anglophobia makes me feel British; British disdain of Holland makes me feel Dutch. This is a low-intensity issue, however; murder, as yet, has not entered my mind.

Some British-born Muslims, on the other hand, felt strongly enough about their Islamic identity to go and kill infidels in Afghanistan, even if they were fellow British citizens. These holy warriors were no longer able to do as Maalouf advocates, and give the various parts of their mix equal weight. For them, Islam became absolute. To draw general conclusions from such cases is risky. Young people, especially in marginal communities, can be swayed by agitators for highly personal reasons: a never-forgotten childhood slight, a sexual rejection, a yearning for significance, or just the adolescent blend of confusion and ennui.

Again, Maalouf is less concerned with such personal matters than with the bigger historical picture. He points out that the superior might of the West has put great strains on non-Westerners. Scientific discovery, political freedoms, economic enterprise, and imperial aggression combined to make much of the non-Western world feel peripheral to the European metropole. To match the Western powers, others had no choice but to take up Western ways. Even those who did so with success, such as the Japanese, felt a sense of humiliation. The break with the past was too abrupt. The foreign graft did not always take. Nerves are still raw even now. Those who did not succeed feel as if they live, as Maalouf puts it, “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?”

Another word, today, for Western domination is “globalization,” and globalization is often used as another word for “US imperialism.” Maalouf takes the fears of globalization seriously. After all, as he says, the French are almost as defensive about their identity in the face of Hollywood, Microsoft, and Big Macs as non-Europeans. What is needed, then, is “a new concept of identity.” Perhaps so, but Maalouf is a little vague about what that concept might be. It should be mixed, and never absolute. We should feel part of our countries, and of “Europe,” or even the world. Religion must be personal and “kept apart from what has to do with identity.” I’m not sure all this is possible. One can feel British or French and “European,” but not quite in the same way, since Europe is not a sovereign entity; neither, of course, is the world. And religion is hard to detach from identity, since identification with a community of believers is part of the religious appeal. I also wonder whether the symbols of Coca-Colonization matter as much as some people think. For the places with the greatest troubles—Afghanistan, Chechnya, Algeria—are the least affected by American commerce. The Thais in Bangkok or the Chinese in Hong Kong are not up in arms against the West. Poor Pakistanis are, but they may never have gone near a Big Mac.

Maalouf states that many people see globalization as a threat to their “culture, identity and values.” This is certainly true of disaffected intellectuals, not just in the old colonial peripheries, but especially in the West itself. Yet I wonder how many ordinary Chinese, Indians, Zambians, or even French really fret about their identity and values because of global trade. It seems more likely that the wellsprings of religious or ethnic fanaticism are political more than cultural. Fanaticism has to do with a lack of representation or free speech. Either can lead to an impotent rage. Maalouf sounds a bit absolutist himself in his stress on the right to speak one’s native language. This is indeed an important right. More important, however, is the right to speak freely at all, never mind in which language.

Modernization in the non-Western world has come to mean Westernization. True enough. But there are different roads to the West. The liberal democratic option is a threat to old or new elites who wish to wield absolute power. This is why variations of fascism or communism have been more alluring to power-holders or power-grabbers in the developing world. Much of the religious fanaticism we see today comes from the failure of autocratic secular states such as Egypt. Maalouf recognizes this: “Secularism without democracy is a disaster for democracy and secularism alike.”

Islamism in Egypt or Algeria came in the wake of failed state socialism. This has nothing to do with globalization, US imperialism, or Coca-Cola. To be sure, US governments have supported religious fundamentalists against the Soviet Empire, and continue to support some authoritarian regimes. But the failure of democracy in Arab countries, or indeed Asian ones, cannot primarily be blamed on Washington or global trade. In fact, pro-Western countries in the non-Western world which are most exposed to global trade are often—not always—the most democratic too. Religious fanaticism comes when politics break down. The same is true of racial or nationalist fanaticism and revolutionary millenarianism, which are all variations of religious zeal.

The furnace of antiglobalism is actually not in the so-called third world, but in Europe. This, too, has something to do with the lack of representation. We live in democracies. But to many citizens, European institutions and multinational corporations appear to be wielding more power than elected national governments. The problem can be overstated, by British Euro-skeptics as much as by anticapitalist agitators, but it cannot be dismissed. Whatever it is, or will be, the EU is not a democratic federation; multinational corporations are both indisputably powerful and undemocratic. But here we are in a tricky bind, for one of the justifications for closer European integration is precisely the capacity to check the power of big business.

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    This is also a tribute to the translator, Barbara Bray.

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