In the Name of Identity Summary and Review

by Amin Maalouf
  Has In the Name of Identity by Amin Maalouf been sitting on your reading list? Pick up the key ideas in the book with this quick summary. If someone asked you, “Who are you?” would you be able to give an answer that wasn’t simply your name? Explaining your true identity can be one of the hardest things to do. What would you mention? Your political or religious affiliation? Your sexuality? Your educational background? This book summary will help you to understand the many ways we understand identity. You’ll be taken on a tour around the world to various cultures and religions, so that you may learn how and why so many aspects of our lives are influenced by the way we feel about ourselves – sometimes wrongfully so. In this summary of In the Name of Identity by Amin Maalouf, you’ll learn
  • why there is no inherently cruel religion;
  • why you are truly unique; and
  • the process from which radicalism arises.
In the Name of Identity Key Idea #1: The term “Identity” is deceptive, and it requires close examination. How do you define your identity? Do you identify by your gender, your nationality, your sexuality, or all three? The truth is that there’s no easy answer to this question. Identity is complex, a concept formed from the various affiliations that make us each unique, from our religions, jobs, races, nationalities, the people we admire, our hobbies, sexual preferences, etc. But, despite what you might think, these things we attach ourselves to aren’t fixed. Over time, we begin to identify more with some, and less with others. These changes can happen slowly, over the years, or from one fleeting moment to the next when one aspect of our identity works its way to the forefront. For example, someone who’s quite wealthy, but was raised in a lower socioeconomic class might feel a strange sense of working-class pride when at a gathering surrounded by people who’d simply inherited their wealth. Even though many people have identities that change very rapidly, there are plenty of others who have a more fixed perception of themselves. They might exclusively identify with one affiliation, be it their nation, religion, or class, and consider the rest secondary. However, it’s important to note that creating a strict hierarchy about who you are can cause problems. It brings about the danger of demanding that others identify themselves in hierarchies as well, even when things aren’t that simple for them. The author has experienced this imposition for himself. He’s a Lebanese novelist who immigrated to France when he was 27. His first language is Arabic, although he writes in French, and France has now been his home country for 22 years. Although he was raised Islamic, he now identifies as a Christian. Oftentimes, when explaining his strange backstory, people ask him, “So deep inside, what do you feel like: French or Lebanese?” The author finds this question misguided due to the fact that no one person identifies themselves in a way that can be divided into sections. A person isn’t more one thing than the other, nor do they have many different identities. Instead, a person’s identity is a combination of every characteristic that makes you up. In the Name of Identity Key Idea #2: Our identity is influenced by how others see us. Did you know that identity is something we learn? Identity is far from innate — it’s something we construct based on how we see others and how others look at us. We all hold the incredibly powerful ability to influence another person’s identity by fitting them into narrow and superficial boxes. For example, while it may seem obvious to you that Austrians are different from Germans, and that every Austrian is also different from every other Austrian, yet we still lump people together as groups. We then treat the people in these groups  as one block of people who share identical behaviors, opinions, and even crimes. People tend to say things like, “The Americans have invaded,” “The Arabs have terrorized,” “The Mexicans have stolen,” etc. While these groupings might seem like they don’t have much of an impact, the reality is, they might have deep consequences for a person’s identity. When we put people in groups based on a negative characteristic, we actually push them into identifying with the part of their identity that is the most vulnerable. This happens even more often when someone’s identity is attacked by sociopolitical influences. For example, let’s look at the life of a gay Italian man living in Fascist Italy. He might have been a nationalist or even a proud patriot until the Fascists came to power. However, once Italy fell under Fascist regime and began prosecuting people of the same sexuality, his identity would be reduced to one simple dimension of who he was, therefore affecting how he saw himself. In having to spend his time defending his sexuality, he would therefore let his nationalism fade into the background of his life, and therefore, his sexuality would soon take center stage for his identity. A similar experience happens to people who feel that their faith is threatened: their religious affiliation comes to reflect their whole identity. However, this might not be permanent: if times change and suddenly their race or gender needs defending, they might fall into a fight against other members of their faith. In the Name of Identity Key Idea #3: No one religion, affiliation, or culture is inherently more violent than another. When we oversimplify how we describe others, it creates a danger zone for stereotypes that may affect everyone. For example, look at Islam. Today, it’s a demonized identity group due to accusations of a long tradition of barbarism. However, simply looking at history can prove this wrong. In reality, Islam has a long history of openness and tolerance. For example, at the end of the nineteenth century, the capital of the Islamic world was Istanbul, a city whose main population was non-Muslims, including Greeks, Armenians, and Jews. However, even long before this, Muslims had shown a remarkable capacity to coexist with others. Conversely, Christianity didn’t develop such a tolerance until much later. It took until the end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the Enlightenment period for Christians to begin accepting other religions. And while democracy was a product of the Western world, voting was restricted to only a few rich and powerful people for many centuries. In the same way that Christianity isn’t simply tolerant or democratic, Islam is not inherently violent, fanatical, or incompatible with human rights and modernity. The original texts of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam stay the same through the ages, but the way we percieve them can change depending on the time we live in. For example, modern-day Iran uses old Islamic texts to bolster its grievances with the West. Iran’s leader, Ayatollah Khomeini uses religious language to refer to the West with terms like the “Great Satan,” and calls for the destruction of the West in the name of the Islamic Republic. However, this is contradictory to the long Muslim tradition, which doesn’t advocate for this extremist Islamic revolution. These violent dispositions are incredibly recent developments. These tendencies aren’t the result of an inherently regressive, anti-modern, anti-democratic characteristic of Islam, but instead, of the cultural clashes we’re experiencing today. For instance, Khomeini has more in common with Mao Tse-tung – who promised to destroy the culture of capitalism during the Cultural Revolution in China – than any other historical Muslim figure. This means that the violence and tense relations within Muslim countries are actually a product of bigger, society-wide conditions that reach far beyond just Islam. In the Name of Identity Key Idea #4: The West’s hegemony is to blame for marginalizing other cultures, creating a clash of civilizations, and fueling an identity crisis. It’s often thought that specific groups act in hostile ways toward Western cultures due to their religious beliefs and a deep-seated fear of Western values. However, the fact of the matter is, when the West began its world domination, its riches, technology, and power marginalized other civilizations and cultures. The culture of the modern world is generally synonymous with the culture of the Western world. Really, everything of historical significance that has happened in recent years has happened in the West: capitalism, fascism, communism, aviation, electricity, computers, human rights, and the atomic bomb. So, when radicalized Muslims attack the West today, it’s mostly due to a feeling of helplessness, exploitation, economic weakness, and largely, cultural humiliation. This cultural experience is deeply rooted in experiences from the end of the eighteenth century. Even at that point in history, Muslims around the Mediterranean felt that the West was marginalizing their cultures. In response, the viceroy of Egypt, Mohammed Ali attempted to peacefully catch up to Western culture during the nineteenth century. By incorporating Western ideas, science, and technology, he assisted Egypt in thriving as a strong and modern country. However, soon after, big European powers decided Egypt was becoming too dangerously strong and independent, thus collaborating to impede its progress. Great Britain’s goal was to weaken Egypt and its parent Ottoman state, so that they could restore the balance of power. The Ottoman Empire had collapsed under international pressure by the twentieth century, and Egypt felt betrayed, humiliated, and convinced that the West had only one goal: inflicting its will onto every other country in the world. A combination of underdevelopment and military and economic setbacks made other Arab countries and their leaders feel that growth would never be possible. And when they reached this impasse, many people became desperate and then, in the 1970s, they started to depend on what could be certain: conservatism and religious fundamentalism. While radicalism was not the immediate response, it was the last resort. In the Name of Identity Key Idea #5: We need to create a global society of universality, rather than uniformity. A great way to start to remedy this issue of identity would be giving everyone an equal voice. But in order for that to be possible, we need to avoid creating uniformity. Uniformity is defined as the ugly lack of diversity resulting from Western – and often American – culture that dominates all others, thereby stifling the wide range of different cultures and their artistic, linguistic, and intellectual expressions. So, really, it only makes sense that people are concerned about globalization: it’s a fear that the beliefs of strongest countries will drown out the thoughts and opinions of everyone else. Even amongst Western countries, there’s an overall fear that globalization would mean Americanization. In France, for example, the proliferation of American fast food restaurants such as McDonald’s, and the power of Hollywood, Apple, and Disney have left many people feeling anxious about their own culture’s influence, both at home and around the world. In order to create a balance between globalization and cultural diversity, it’s necessary to create a global tribe that’s based on respecting the universal rights of humanity without conforming to one culture. We can reach this universality by ensuring the existence of fundamental human rights that cannot be denied to any person for whatever reason. These rights include the right to live free of discrimination and persecution, to choose one’s life, loves, and beliefs freely, without interfering with anyone else’s, etc. We as a society will be able to get closer to this universality through an emphasis of what we have in common, as long as we maintain what makes us unique. Through doing this, we’ll be able to reinforce all human rights around the globe. This becomes possible through the use of mass media, technology, and language. For example, if each person learned three languages, (for example, our mother tongue, English, and a third that we freely choose) we would be able to better forge connections, eliminate misunderstandings, and encourage compromise in global interactions. Through learning the connection between linguistic and cultural characteristics, we’ll be able to make sure that the detrimental effects of having such narrowly defined identities are lessened, therefore connecting us in a global society that consists of all of humanity. In Review: In the Name of Identity Book Summary The key message in this book: Our identities are multifaceted and fluid parts of ourselves, and they’re constantly affected by our external world, namely social and political factors. These external factors can detract from our personal and cultural identities, leading to toxic feelings of insecurity and anger on both an individual and social level. In order to create a more peaceful and inclusive world, we must fight political, economic, and cultural standardization, and create a global community in which all identities are welcome. Actionable advice: Remember that no one religion is inherently cruel. The next time you encounter a person stating that Islam will never be compatible with democracy or other progressive politics, consider bringing the history of Christianity into the conversation. The person might be surprised to learn – or to be reminded – that nearly all religions have a history of violent and turbulent periods of extremism.