In the Name of Identity
Violence and the Need to Belong

Amin Maalouf

published 1996, translated 2000

Amin Maalouf

Amin Maalouf is a well known novelist and winner of France's most prestigious literary award, the Goncourt Prize. He grew up in Lebanon and moved to France in 1976, at the age of 27. He sees himself as both Lebanese and French. He celebrates our ability to maintain numerous identities. He does not like the singular, tribal identity of fanatics who are "easily transformed into butchers." About fanatics he writes that any doctrine with which they identify can be perverted and murderous, including liberalism, nationalism, religion, atheism and communism.

Maalouf describes no religion as completely void of intolerance. He writes that he does not want merely to be tolerated, he wants to be treated as "a fully-fledged citizen" whatever his beliefs -- Christian or Jew where the majority is Muslim, or Muslim where the majority is Christian or Jew.

He writes that traditions deserve respect only insofar as they "respect the fundamental rights of men and women." Of Islam he writes:

For me, history as a whole demonstrates that Islam has immense potentialities for coexistence and fruitful interaction with other cultures. But recent history shows that regression is possible too, and that potentialities could remain no more than potentials for a long while.

Maalouf's university study in France was sociology. He writes that Christianity today is "what European societies have made of it."

Maalouf says that identity does not become an issue until it is threatened – for example French speakers in an English speaking society (Canada perhaps). Calming identity conflicts, he writes, "will mean making people, especially minorities, feel included."

A personal note regarding identity and the negativism creating it: I recall a third-generation Japanese at U.C. Berkeley who was my companion back in the sixties. It would have been better, I believe, if she had thought of herself as just an American. A few bad experiences in the years before I met her led her to embrace more firmly her identity as Japanese.

Wikipedia describes Maalouf's novels as "marked by his experiences of civil war and migration. Their characters are itinerant voyagers between lands, languages, and religions."

Copyright © 2010 Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.