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'In the Name of Identity': Against the Politics of Victimization

If in the aftermath of Sept. 11 we want to know more facts, we need political analyses, but we are also hungry for general reflection on what human beings are like. ''In the Name of Identity'' bridges these concerns. Amin Maalouf is an Arab who is also a Christian, a Frenchman who is also Lebanese. He lives in Paris now, where he is a successful novelist -- indeed, he won the Prix Goncourt for ''The Rock of Tanios'' -- but he was the editor of the Beirut newspaper An Nahar. His book is a heartfelt meditation on identity that begins inside his soul.

For Maalouf, identity is usually deployed to create a false sense of self. It does so by proclaiming that one of our many allegiances is who we really are. This primary allegiance is not determined by introspection but typically in relation to which allegiance is most under attack. Our identity is thus often formed in relation to our enemy: the groups we fear, hate or, most importantly, resent. One of the driving forces in history is, in Maalouf's vision, the urge to triumph over a narcissistic wound. Once a group feels humiliated, it is possible for agitators to rise up and convince it that they should come to understand themselves around this humiliation. In this way, many of the group's other allegiances are suppressed, and the way is open for lethal violence:

''Whether they are hotheads or cool schemers, their intransigent speeches act as balm to their audience's wounds. They say one shouldn't beg others for respect: respect is a due and must be forced from those who would withhold it. They promise victory or vengeance, they inflame men's minds, sometimes they use extreme methods that some of their brothers may merely have dreamed of in secret. The scene is now set and the war can begin. Whatever happens 'the others' will have deserved it.''

This book, smoothly translated from the French by Barbara Bray, was written in Paris before the world changed, but it makes compelling reading in America today. For it argues that a politics of identity based on a sense of victimization -- which reduces identity to a single affiliation -- facilitates the creation of ''identities that kill.''

It is not useful, Maalouf thinks, to ask whether a religion like Islam or Christianity is really tolerant or intolerant. During much of its history Christianity was strikingly intolerant; during its period of political and cultural supremacy, Islam was remarkably tolerant. The question that does concern Maalouf is why the Christian West, which has a tradition of intolerance, has founded societies that respect freedom of expression, while the Muslim world, which has a tradition of tolerance, is now a stronghold of fanaticism. Muslims attack the West, Maalouf thinks, not primarily because they are Muslim but because they feel downtrodden or derided. This sense of outrage is then taken up into a particular interpretation of Islam that offers redress and revenge.

Maalouf goes back to Napoleon's Egyptian campaign to inspect what he thinks was a wrong turn in world history. In the aftermath, intellectuals and politicians asked why the Arab world had been left so far behind. For Muhammad Ali, the Turks' viceroy in Egypt, the answer was to catch up. Ali invited European doctors to create a faculty of medicine in Cairo, imported new agricultural and industrial techniques -- and was eventually undermined by the British for geopolitical reasons. ''From this episode the Arabs concluded then and still conclude now that the West doesn't want the rest of the world to be like it; it just wants them to obey it,'' Maalouf says. Who knew then that 200 years later we would still be reaping the bitter fruit of the British desire to have an easy trade route to India?

With the undoing of the viceroy Muhammad Ali the question shifted from ''How can we modernize?'' to ''How can we modernize without losing our identity?'' In current circumstances, it is difficult to see how this can be answered well. Maalouf sees Arab citizens as forced to choose between Islamic fundamentalists and despotic rulers. It's a horrible choice, and the pressures of globalization are inclining them toward the former. Not only does globalization reinforce a felt need for a sense of local identity, the Muslim religion offers an alternative image of globalization. For from a Muslim perspective what matters is not nation, race or tribe, but that one acknowledge Allah as the one God and Muhammad as his prophet. Maalouf's main point is that it is for historically contingent reasons that the forces of globalization, as we know it, have come to be experienced as Western, secular and anti-Muslim. If we are going to escape catastrophe, this lineup must be undone.

Maalouf's recommendations, while thoughtful, strike me as too hopeful to be realistic. He ''dreams'' of a world in which there is religion and spirituality but in which those impulses are no longer attached to the need to belong to a group. ''It is not enough now to separate church and state: what has to do with religion must be kept apart from what has to do with identity.'' Which world could this possibly be?

Maalouf thinks we can and must find other ways to satisfy the need for identity. As a writer, he thinks, not surprisingly, in terms of languages. ''No one should be forced to become a mental expatriate every time he opens a book, sits down in front of a screen, enters into a discussion or thinks. People ought to be able to make their own modernity instead of always feeling they are borrowing it from others.'' Maalouf suggests that everyone should be taught three languages: the first is the language of identity, the third is English and the second is any other language, freely chosen. In such a world, one could not easily get by without English, but it would also be a handicap to know English only. His hope is that by taking certain practical steps the world as a whole can accomplish what America has been struggling to accomplish: to embrace both diversity and unity.

I don't think that Maalouf has here come to grips with human impulses toward destruction, cruelty and envy or people's bottomless capacity to feel wounded. But, strangely, I don't think this detracts from the book. The genre is not that of a comprehensive argument but of a conversation happened upon in a cafe. (It should be read either with an espresso or a short, narrow tumbler of vin rouge.) When one is engaged with a thoughtful, humane and passionate interlocutor, the feeling that he has overlooked this or that important point is part of the feeling of being in a real conversation.

Jonathan Lear is a member of the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago and the author, most recently, of ''Happiness, Death and the Remainder of Life.''

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