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In the Name of Identity: Violence and the Need to Belong [Paperback]

Amin Maalouf
4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)

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Book Description

April 2003
A thoughtful inquiry into our concept of identity and its impact on society. The author considers how we define ourselves, how identity is understood in the world's different cultures, and how recognizing identity is key to survival in the new millennium. Identity--what makes each of us unique--has been a fundamental question of philosophers from Socrates to Freud. Identity is the crucible out of which we come: our background, our race, our gender, our tribal affiliations, our religion (or lack thereof), all go into making up who we are. All too often, however, the notion of identity--personal, religious, ethnic, or national--has given rise to heated passions and even massive crimes. ""I want to try and understand why so many people commit crimes in the name of identity,"" writes Amin Maalouf. Moving across the world's history, faiths, and politics, he argues against an oversimplified and hostile concept of identity. Cogently and persuasively, he examines identity in the context of the modern world, where it can be viewed as both glory and poison. He demonstrates, too, the dangers of using identity as a protective--and therefore aggressive--mechanism, which frequently leads to the repression or extermination of minorities, heretics, or class enemies. Maalouf contends that many of us would reject our inherited conceptions of identity, to which we cling through habit, if only we examined them more closely. The future of society depends on accepting all identities, while recognizing our uniqueness.
--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product details

  • Paperback: 176 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books; Reprint edition (April 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0142002577
  • ISBN-13: 978-0142002575
  • Product Dimensions: 20 x 12.8 x 1.3 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 491,871 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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First Sentence
How MANY TIMES, since I left Lebanon in 1976 to live in France, have people asked me, with the best intentions in the world, whether I felt "more French" or "more Lebanese"? Read the first page
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Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
27 of 31 people found the following review helpful
This book says more about the events of Sept. 11th than any newspaper article, book or worthy journal I have read. By rising above murderously devisive concepts of identity, we can prevent the creation of a world dominated by fear of terrorism. Maalouf's deep humanity and love of diversity provides a vision we all need - the basis for a new global identity and respect for all cultures.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Buyers Warning!!!! 30 Dec 2009
This is a really important book. You should buy it and read it if you have any interest in the troubled state of the world at present. But DON'T buy it as well as 'On Identity' which Amazon unhelpfully suggest you buy in addition, because it's the SAME BOOK only with a different title!!!! Buy something else by Maalouf - 'The Crusades through Arab eyes' is excellent.
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19 of 24 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A unique and essential research 23 May 2002
By A Customer
Eye opening. One may question Maalouf's conclusions and recommendations; however, his research and analysis are absolute.
This book is a must to anyone who wishes to gain a better understanding of what lies beneath the rise of radical groups and such events as that of September 11.
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5.0 out of 5 stars A classic 23 Mar 2011
By Hoss
One of the small number of books that change the way you think....lives on the book shelf next to 1984, animal farm, darkness at noon
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.2 out of 5 stars  33 reviews
36 of 37 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Eschewing the Simplism 27 Feb 2002
By Robert Rouillard - Published on
Amin Maalouf begins this series of essays tautologically. At first, Maalouf is telling me that I am special and so is everyone else. I almost put away "The Nature of Identity." His theme, then, took on complexity and subtlety. So do wade through the preliminaries, you will be repaid for your patience.
Of course, we are all singular. Of course, we all have shifting identities, depending on our context; answering the question, "Who needs an education about what I represent today?"
We are introduced to the fact that Mr. Maalouf is a Lebanese Christian who speaks Arabic, and now lives in France. Then Mr. Maalouf begins bringing things home.
In this age we are very concerned about the nature of Islam, and how we should regard its prospects in the world. Maalouf establishes that Islam is not, by nature, a religion for radicals. Islam tolerated alternative views of the world in a way unknown to medieval and renaissance Christianity (which butchered its dissidents). Islam was the midwife of modernism for chrissakes. Through Islam we of Western European Christian descent received the cannon of greek philosophy, the foundation of our philosophical world view.
What then is the force radicalizing Islam, Maalouf asks. What is the force leading to radicalization in almost every other form of identity, environmentalism, Christianity, Maalouf asks. Globalization, he answers.
Consistently Maalouf reminds us that people are changed by and change their religion, their identity, their allegiances. We are constantly interacting with our social context. Radicalism is on the rise because all groups, from Timothy McVeigh to Osama bin Laden, feel overwhelmed by the rising tide of what appears an unstoppable globalization. We all, in some sense, feel helpless before this tide. Maalouf views this sense of threat as legitimate. Yet, Maalouf argues, it need not be so. We are in charge of our destiny, we are so much more alike than we are different in this world today. We can all be represented in this globalization tide, although the path is unfamiliar and unsure.
This is a collection of essays in which the tensions and solutions rise together to a very satisfying crescendo. There is no pedantry, nor a trace of condescension in this short powerful book. To my mind, we have received in this volume a very workable program for diffusing the radicalism that so besets our world. At the same time, we receive a program for more comfortably realizing each one of us is a plural and singular entity.
This book finds its origin in anger against those who demand that each person must assert ONE identity, ONE allegiance. Maalouf skillfully establishes that we are plural in identity and allegiance. And if this is realized by most, we have the prospect of a future more of peace than war.
13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Identity: a weakness, a strength. 7 April 2004
By "ask500" - Published on
When I first moved to study in Canada I was fascinated by its diversity and multiculturalism. Being a culture enthusiast, I loved asking people about their identity and experience living in Canada. One common question I used to ask was: "Do you feel more Canadian or Indian/Arab/Latino/Russian/or whatever their ethnicity was)?" The length and depth of their answers would vary. But they all had one thing in common and that was some sort of an identity dilemma. I rarely got any definite answers, I heard a lot of "umm's" and it seemed to me that many people either did not know the answer or were unable to articulate it. Or, as I found out from reading the book, my question was possibly fundamentally flawed. Amin Maalouf begins his book by expressing his concern over the political correctness or rather incorrectness of the question that I have been asking many people. He says: "How many times, since I left Lebanon in 1967 to live in France, have people asked me, with the best intentions in the world, whether I felt "more French" or "more Lebanese." Questions like that bothered him because they require a choice to be made while he firmly believes that identity CANNOT be compartmentalized. "You can't divide it up into halves or thirds or any other separate segments. I haven't got several identities: I've got just one, made up of many components in a mixture that is unique just to me, just as other people's identity is unique to them as individuals." Amin Maalouf is Arab, French, Lebanese, Catholic, and a mixture of other "components" and he rejects to slice and dice himself up into multiple identities or to be put in situations that would require him to choose an either/or. Why do people always feel obliged to project one component of their identity over the other(s)? Why do they have difficulty acknowledging all the different factors that make up their identity? Why do many people commit crimes in the name of religious, ethnic, national or some other kind of identity? What is IDENTITY and how did the NEED TO BELONG to an identity shape our world? The author attempts to answer those questions throughout the book and he does an excellent job in doing so. His message is clear: people have to stop self-hating and start to fully accept their diversity because those who do are like mortar strengthening the societies in which the live and those who don't, end up being, many of the times, individuals who are prepared to kill for the sake of identity.
12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Looking Beyond the Narrow Wall of Our Identities 29 May 2002
By Jannie M. Dresser - Published on
Maalouf's message is that as long as individuals identify with only one element of a more complex and various ethnic and national heritage, we are going to face "gang-wars" on a national and international scale.
How many of us are truly "pure bred"? In America, I don't think many are. To identify with only one part of one's cultural background is dishonest and keeps many people hooked in to an identity of victimization; according to Maalouf, people tend to align themselves with the heritage that has been oppressed rather than the heritage that was built by the conqueror and oppressor.
I praise Maalouf for taking the hard task of accepting himself as "mixed." When we see we are all "mixed" to one degree or another, we are more likely to find commonality. Beginning with what we have in common, whether bloodlines or interests, languages or personal experiences, we are far more likely to move past the narrow wall of singular racial or ethnic identities.
Mr. Maalouf spends much of the second half of the book in explication of the current crisis in Arab identity that resulted with the rise of European dominance in the 19th and 20th centuries. It's fascinating when you realize how much Arabic cultures contributed to the cultures and accomplishments of the West. While the West fails to acknowledge and extol its Middle Eastern teachers, those in Arabic and Near Eastern cultures all too often fail to see what it is they might learn from the Western world. There is a lot more mixing between the two worlds than we will fess up to.
This tunnel vision on the part of individuals who claim one identity over others; and, on the part of nations that assert "one race, one creed" (echoes of Hitler and more recent acts of "ethnic cleansing) denies the facts of human migration, assimilation, intermarriage, and rich cultural exchange and diversity. It leads us away from constructive dialogue and shared vision.
The book is an excellent primer on these issues, a quick read, and passionately expressed.My main criticism is that the ideas contained here are larger than the short length of the book can fully develop.What is lost in making the book accessible to a broader audience would be welcome material for further exploration in a second book.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Thoughtful, insightful, nonacademic look at the major political problem of our day 13 Jan 2006
By Paul Vitols - Published on
This brief, articulate book provides insights into the politics of identity--by one who has seen quite a bit of it up close--and some suggestions for easing the friction of conflicting groups.

Maalouf's book is not intended to be definitive or exhaustive. Rather, he offers insights into the nature of identity--what is it? how does it manifest itself?--based on his own observations, using a few telling examples. His central point is that the individual identity of each of us is exactly the sum of all the group identities that we possess, this sum being unique for each individual. I'm an adult male British Columbian of (partly) Latvian descent, an English-speaker, a chess-player, and so on. Each of those characteristics I share with others. The sum of them all I hold alone.

Maalouf makes the point that identity is not really an issue until we feel it is threatened. If the French-speakers in an English-speaking society feel that they are being discriminated against due to their language, suddenly that language becomes the most important thing about them, and voila the politics of identity is born. Calming identity conflicts will mean making people, especially minorities, feel included.

Maalouf's book is conversational rather than rigorous--the type of thing you could hear from an intelligent, well-spoken friend opening up on a topic he has given considerable thought. There is no bibliography, no footnotes; but there are little asides and direct addresses to the reader.

Maalouf offers no panaceas. His most important suggestion is that each of us learn to accept our own diversity, and not give in to the temptation or pressure to identify with only one aspect of our identity.

On the social and political level, Maalouf's suggestions seemed a bit weaker to me. His suggestion that we, the world, should exert ourselves to preserve every single living culture and language from extinction, in the same way we would exert ourselves to preserve animal species, while understandable, struck me as being quixotic and even a bit paternalistic. The world becomes a living museum of quaint cultures and languages.

All of Maalouf's thoughts, though, are carefully considered, mature, nonpolemical, and respectful of his fellow human beings, wheresoever they are. In that way, he is an exemplary citizen of planet earth. Put another way: if everyone thought and felt as Amin Maalouf thinks and feels, there would be no terrorism, no genocide, and no racism. He is setting out the attitudes we will all need to adopt in order to put an end to those things.

If you want to listen to the considered thoughts of a sane neighbor on an important topic, read this book.
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Sadly, it is front page news! 29 May 2004
By Cipriano - Published on
"All the massacres that have taken place in recent years, like most of the bloody wars, have been linked to complex and long-standing 'cases' of identity." (p.33).
The need to belong.
The need to identify with a certain group, be it ethnical, linguistic, racial, political, or religious.
The main reason that I give this book five stars is because I feel that it accomplishes exactly what it sets out to do... which is not so much to change the world, as to set out prerequisites for change, and to theoretically elucidate and practically illustrate why the world is in the shape that is in today.
"What shape is that?" you may justifiably ask.
"Misshapen" Maalouf might answer. "Distorted."
Not what it ought to be. And more importantly, not what is COULD be. This is not a book about despair, or about resignation to fate. It is not a backward look at problems, but a forward glance, a look into the author's sense that "the future will be what we make it." (p.98). It speaks to the responsibility inherent in all of us, no matter who we are, no matter where we live, to begin to identify with a concept of planetary solidarity, as opposed to regional and ideological exclusion.
I think it would be safe to say that Maalouf argues that such a radical paradigmatic shift is not only essential to the maintenance of "humanity" it is also the only thing that can ensure our very survival.
I challenge anyone who does not agree with Maalouf's emphasis upon the importance of identity, to read any one chapter of this book, and then pick up any major newspaper of our day and age. Sad to say, but this book is front page news... every damn day! In its PRE-9/11-ness, (written in 1996) this book is a prophetic scroll unearthed. Hence, in its POST-9/11-ness, it is impossible to exaggerate its importance.
For me, a great benefit of reading the thing, was to see the history of Christianity and Islam in a way that I had never considered before. Wow!
Also, while not being in any way a condemnation of democracy, Maalouf outlines several reasons why the West's unquestioned veneration of democracy ought to be tempered with a realization that there are vantage points other than (and higher than) Mount McKinley's, from which Western ideals are looked upon, by other people of this earth.
One of the most crucial questions this book forces the reader to ask themself is this: "To what extent is the global culture, as it develops daily, essentially Western or even specifically American?" (p.114).
This is a short book. Easily readable. You will enjoy it, trust me... you will wish he wrote more, not less!
You owe it to yourself, if you are a thinking person, to think about reading this book. And then, after thinking about it, do it.
"Life is a creator of differences." (p.20).
"I dream not of a world where religion no longer has any place but of one where the need for spirituality will no longer be associated with the need to belong." (p.96).
I can't dream of a worthier dream being dreamed by any dreamer.
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