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In the Name of Identity

Violence and the Need to Belong

By Amin Maalouf
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In the Name of Identity by Amin Maalouf

In the Name of Identity (1998) explores the fallacies surrounding the idea of identity. The author uncovers the link between oversimplified, one-dimensional understandings of identity to violent cultural and sociopolitical clashes in the past and present, while arguing that identity and a global community of humankind are both compatible and desirable.

Key idea 1 of 6

“Identity” is a deceptive and loaded word that requires close examination.

How do you define your identity? Do you define yourself by your gender, your nationality, your sexuality, or all three?

The truth is that it’s no easy question to answer. Identity is a complex concept formed from the various affiliations that make us each unique, such as our religion, job, race, nationality, the people we admire, our hobbies, sexual preferences, etc.

But such allegiances aren’t fixed, despite what we may think. Over time, we identify more with some and less with others. These changes can happen over years or from one moment to the next when one aspect of our identity comes to the forefront. For example, a wealthy person from a low socioeconomic class might feel a strong working class pride when mingling at a party of people who inherited their wealth.

While many people’s identities vary from moment to moment, others have much more fixed conceptions about who they are. They might exclusively identify with one affiliation, be it their nation, religion or class, and consider the rest secondary.

However, creating rigid hierarchies about who we are can be problematic. One danger is demanding that others identify themselves in hierarchies as well, even when things aren’t that simple.

The author has experienced this imposition first hand. He’s a Lebanese novelist who immigrated to France when he was 27. His first language is Arabic, but he writes in French, and France has now been his home country for 22 years. And, although his roots are Islamic, he is a Christian.

Often when he has explained his atypical background to someone he is asked, “So deep inside, what do you feel like: French or Lebanese?” The author finds such questions misguided, because a person’s identity isn’t divisible into halves or quarters, or any fractions at all. A person isn’t more one thing than the other, nor does she have many different identities. Rather, identity is the collection of all our characteristics combined together.

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