Book Review – In The Name Of Identity

Sometimes we forget that the strongest of tools to shape minds is not an analytical paper with credible empirical data. Amin Maalouf, with his empathy towards the struggle of diverse identities and the infamous wars between them, tells us a story through his rather short yet powerful book – In The Name Of Identity. We, too, should not forget to credit Barbara Bray for connecting us to the original piece by her high-appraised translation.

Globalization is regarded as “good” by some, and “bad” by others, depending on what frame the scholar himself is using. One of the most common narratives, and also the one that Maalouf is scrutinizing in this book, is the fact that the constantly becoming interconnected world creates the strong need for a sense of identity among people. I would borrow my favorite metaphor by Maalouf in the attempt to summarize the essence of the book: while each skein is unique in its components, any two skeins can connect by just one or two threads.

In the first chapter of his book, Maalouf touches upon the definition of identity and its allegiances. As can be seen in the rest of the book, in the entropy of vague definitions which require a huge amount of background in history and philosophy, the author skillfully provides the readers with simplified images that assist tremendously in the process of reading. One is made up by multiple affiliations, and these affiliations are arranged in a hierarchy and the top layer, the one that shapes the answer to the question “Who are you?”, is temporary. The line between “Us” and “the others”, hence, remains artificial as the hierarchy is never stable.

Chapter 2 brings up a rather controversial topic: Islamism. The chapter can easily be seen as to be defending the religion itself and it does, yet in the very way that motivates the readers to dig further into the dustbin of history. The argument can be further separated into two parts: the comparison with Christianity and the flawed perception of religions in general. Maalouf opens the book of history and points out that both Christianity and Islamism have never stopped changing. Whether positively or negatively, the image of the two religions we see today is rather a phase than the essence itself, and any shallow judgment would be insufficient. Why Christianity was able to develop itself regardless of its problematic past and why Islamism has slowly eroded from its prime time, however, remains a complicated issue which the author partially answers by a theory in the second part of the argument. Religions are not singularities and surely are not the ultimate defiers of other values. Religions and regions maintain a reciprocal relationship, continuingly affecting each other. While Christianity has been strongly stressed in the West, the dreamland of prosperity, Islamism exists in the regions of and indigent.

Maalouf emphasizes again in Chapter 3 that the fact that one affiliates himself the most to religion is only “in fashion”, or in other words, temporary. The most valuable point within the chapter, however, is the assumption from the author himself that the whole process of development of humanity until now can be divided to three general eras. Although he did not provide any clear timeline division, most of us can agree as the features mentioned in each era are relatively clear and unique to itself. The first phase is the era where knowledge pops up slowly and the process of proliferating, although remains slowly, has its time to reach everyone. The second phase marks the rapid appearance of new knowledge from every corner of the world yet the tools were yet to be capable of spreading them towards everyone and as a result, create invisible walls between regions and countries. The third phase, arguably the phase of rapid globalization, allows knowledge to jump over borders and to reach even the most remote areas. A valid point in here is that globalization, or the deconstruction of the invisible walls, has become an inevitable process by the recently invented tools of intensifying information. Maalouf, once again, makes our jobs easier by carving down another powerful image regarding this phenomenon: globalization as the wind and humanity as the sailormen controlling the boat.

Taming the “panther”, the pseudo subtitle of the book, ends the book in style. Maalouf talks about affiliations, allegiances and identities throughout the book, which will naturally invoke the question regarding the arguably most important thread in the skein: lingual identity. Language, although can be argued by some as synonymous to nationality within this sphere, holds a very important role in the aspiration of the author himself: it is the tool to bridging people. Maalouf, again, emphasizes the bless/burden that “mixed identity” people carry: to be the bridge between communities, especially those who are in war.

 

In The Name Of Identity forces one to look deeper into himself and touches upon one of the most complex questions of existence. The topic proves itself to be related as well as it includes the fight between religions, most noticeably between Islamism and Christianity, as a direct case study. Powerful images as the skein and the threads or the wind and the sailormen were skillfully put in between concepts and concepts to drag the readers back into the book. However, the book leaves the readers, or at least myself, unsatisfied with the fact that although the author argues for multiple allegiances to one’s identity, the arguments and examples are relatively stuck in nationalities, which is the already popular top layer within the hierarchy. What remain are the people who are either “mixed identity” who usually throw themselves into the zone of mediocrity.

To end this book review, I would like to borrow an idea from Maalouf himself: we are more similar to “the others” live around us currently than who are considered “us” in the past. We sometimes are swept away by what society naturally imposes on us and forget to observe carefully what is actually progressing around us. I, too, do hope that by the time the author’s grandchild pick up the book, we will have already been living the world where the wind of globalization had already been maneuvered to control the boat and the skeins will live harmoniously among each other with their similar threads no matter how few they are.