This extraordinarily wise book, On Identity (London, Harvill, 2000), is more relevant today than ever.
Sometimes, when I have finished explaining in detail why I fully claim all of my elements, someone comes up to me and whispers in a friendly way: “You were right to say all this, but deep inside of yourself, what do you really feel you are?”
This question made me smile for a long time. Today, it no longer does. It reveals to me a dangerous and common attitude men have. When I am asked who I am “deep inside of myself,” it means there is, deep inside each one of us, one “belonging” that matters, our profound truth, in a way, our “essence” that is determined once and for all at our birth and never changes. As for the rest, all of the rest — the path of a free man, the beliefs he acquires, his preferences, his own sensitivity, his affinities, his life — all these things do not count. And when we push our contemporaries to state their identity, which we do very often these days, we are asking them to search deep inside of themselves for this so-called fundamental belonging, that is often religious, nationalistic, racial or ethnic and to boast it, even to a point of provocation.
Whoever claims a more complex identity becomes marginalized. A young man born in France of Algerian parents is obviously part of two cultures and should be able to assume both. I said both to be clear, but the components of his personality are numerous. The language, the beliefs, the lifestyle, the relation with the family, the artistic and culinary taste, the influences — French, European, Occidental — blend in him with other influences — Arabic, Berber, African, Muslim. This could be an enriching and fertile experience if the young man feels free to live it fully, if he is encouraged to take upon himself his diversity; on the other side, his route can be traumatic if each time he claims he is French, some look at him as a traitor or a renegade, and also if each time he emphasizes his links with Algeria, its history, its culture, he feels a lack of understanding, mistrust or hostility…
…people who belong to different components of society that are violently opposing one another today; people at the border in a way, crossed by lines of ethnic, religious or other fractures. Because of this situation, that I do not dare call “privileged,” these people have a special role to play: building bonds, resolving misunderstandings, reasoning with some, moderating others, smoothing and mending conflicts. Their inherent vocation is to be links, bridges, mediators between different communities and different cultures. This is why their dilemma is full of significance. If these people cannot live their multiple belongings, if they constantly have to choose between one side or the other, if they are ordered to get back to their tribe, we have the right to be worried about the basic way the world functions.
“Have to choose,” “ordered to get back,” I was saying. By whom? Not only by fanatics and xenophobes of all sides, but by you and me, each one of us. Precisely, because these habits of thinking are deeply rooted in all of us, because of this narrow, exclusive, bigoted, simplified conception that reduces the whole identity to a single belonging declared with rage.
I feel like screaming aloud: This is how you “manufacture” slaughterers! I admit it is an abrupt affirmation but I will be explaining it in this book.
The tragedy of fools — and he is a fool — like Abdul Nacer Benbrika and the fools who regard such a person as anything other than a deranged bigot, is this total inability, it would appear, to live with “multiple belongings.” But let us not feel too superior: as Maalouf says, “…these habits of thinking are deeply rooted in all of us, because of this narrow, exclusive, bigoted, simplified conception that reduces the whole identity to a single belonging declared with rage.” The Sydney Daily Telegraph does just this too in its own way, sacrificing our own guarantee of some sort of just system in the process: these people have been arrested and charged, and that is the end of the story for the time being. We really should not comment on what they may or may not have been up to until it is tested in the proper forum, which is not the Daily Telegraph, talk-back radio, or this or any other blog.
At the same time, any of us belonging to one of the three major religions that believe, or once believed, that God has been in the habit of leaving infallible bits of writing lying around for fallible humans to screw up on, think again. Realise how dangerous this ahistorical, uncritical delusion about pure texts actually has been and still is.
NOTE: Now you can read chunks of Amin Maalouf — enough to get his drift — on Google Books: In the Name of Identity: Violence and the Need to Belong.