“In the Name of Identity” by Amin Maalouf
When someone asks “Who are you?” what would you say? Who you are is more than the name you are given, or the place you are born, or the organisation you belong in. Who you are is a very complex matter, one that may take a lifetime to figure out as you evolve as a person.
To belong….is something that we are all looking for. When we belong to something, a group, a club, a family, an idea – we feel good about ourselves. As humans, we are built to rely to one another. We all belong in certain types of groups when we start to identify what these labels are. Some seek these notion of belonging more than others. When we see why individuals join terrorist organisations, they do so not out of malice, but to simply fit into a group that gives them purpose. When we are suddenly thrown into the fringes of society, this desire to fit in and belong intensifies.
To help us explore the idea of identity, we recommend the book “In the Name of Identity: Violence and the Need to Belong” by Amin Maalouf to support Chapter 4 “Know Thyself” of the Diplomatic Planner. In Chapter 4, we get you to think about your very own identity to help you relate to others. Explaining your own identity can be very difficult. It is a loaded word and it requires some guidance. Maalouf’s book is a great introduction that will take you on a tour around the world, looking into various cultures and religions influences the way we feel about ourselves, for better or for worse.
What comes to your mind when you think of ‘identity’? Religion? Gender? Sexual orientation? Race? Nationality? The truth is, identity is formed of various affiliations that makes us unique but our allegiances to each aspect of identity is never fixed. As we change over years, so does our identity and our affiliation to certain groups and viewpoints. That is why in the earlier chapters of the Diplomatic Planner, we get you to map out your life’s priorities over the course of ten years so that you can track your personal development and habits.
Let’s use the author as an example of how his identity has changed over the years. Amin Maalouf is a Lebanese-born French novelist, who immigrated to France after the Lebanese civil war in 1975. The idea of leaving his home country was unthinkable as the very move would morph is cultural identity. He had the choice to move to Australia, Cuba, Egypt and America like many of his family, but he decided on France and went to Paris as a refugee. Although he has Islamic roots, Maalouf identities as Christian and writes predominantly in French, even though his first language is Arabic. The author points out that many people become curious about his identity, asking questions about whether he is genuinely more Lebanese or French.
Such questions are misguided because a person’s identity isn’t divisible where you are half Lebanese and half French. Identity is made up of more than just where someone is from and mathematical equations such as this simplifies a person in an unjust manner. Rather, identity if a collection of all of our characteristics which is why questions like “Where are you REALLY from?” is often interpreted as offensive to many with complex national identities.
Identity is a construction that we put together to help us see others. We all have the power to influence other people’s identities by putting them into superficial categories. We must learn to break out of this habit if we want to become good diplomats. But we have all fallen into the trap of putting people in groups and treat them as one block. For example, we know that Australians are different from the British, and each British person is different from every other Brit. Yet, we sometimes fall into the trap of putting everyone in one box for the sake of simplification. Such generalisation such as saying “The Arabs have terrorised” or the “The Americans have invaded” has serious consequences on people’s identities.
A narrow dimension of identity can negatively affect how one sees themselves. In his book, Maalouf uses an example of how a gay Italian man in Fascist Italy was one a nationalist until the Fascists came to power and persecuted people of his sexual persuasion. By forcing him to defend his sexuality, his nationalism identity faded into the background and his homosexuality became the crux of his identity. Something similar happens when a part of our identity is threatened such as one’s race or religious affiliation. Over simplification creates dangerous stereotypes that affect us all. The modern day perception of Islam is a good example of this.
As one of the most racially diverse religion, Islam has a long history of openness and tolerance with a remarkable capacity to coexist with others. The original texts of Islam, Judaism and Christianity stays the same but the way we look at them changes depending on the time we live in. In modern-day Iran, its leader Ayatollah Khomeini uses the religious language as propaganda to refer to the West as the “Great Satan” to rally support in the name of the Islamic Republic for its destruction. But this contradicts the long tradition of the Muslim world that doesn’t advocate an extremist Islamic revolution. Such violent rhetoric are recent developments of culture clash invented by its leaders. When radicalised Muslims attack the West, the author says it is primarily because they feel helpful, economically weak, culturally humiliated and exploited with so much of our influence coming from the Western way of life. Marginalisation has a curious, yet sometimes violent impact on us. Radicalisation is not the immediate response, but the last resort.
A good strategy to keep in mind when dealing with the issue of identity is to give everyone an equal voice by fostering universality, rather than conformity. In many parts of the world, uniformity is viewed as a lack of diversity from Western culture. With the proliferation of globalisation, it’s only natural for people to feel worried that their beliefs will be drowned out by the thoughts and opinions of others. In France, the proliferation of American fast food and brands like Disney, Apple and McDonald’s left people anxious into thinking that their own cultural influence will be lost.
The author suggests that we try to balance globalisation with local cultural diversity, where the universal rights of humanity is respected without conforming to one culture. This universality is based on the existence of fundamental human rights that shouldn’t be denied to anyone. If we can move toward universality by emphasising commonalities while maintain our unique distinctiveness, we can strengthen human rights for all.
A good example of this the use of language. Diplomats are encouraged to learn languages to operate effectively on the ground. However, rather than emphasising the importance of learning English, it should be encouraged that learning to speak at least three languages – such as one’s mother tongue, English and one other language we choose, should help forge connections, eliminate misunderstandings and encourage compromise in global interactions.
In short, identity is multifaceted and fluid that is significantly affected by external forces which can sometimes degrade our cultural and personal identities. Oversimplifying our identities can lead to toxic feelings, increase our anger and feelings of insecurity, and push us dangerously to the fringes of society as outsiders that do not belong. As diplomats operating in a multi-faceted and multicultural environment, we must remain vigilant and sensitive to various identities that make us unique and avoid the pitfalls of stereotyping people based on their nationality and ethnicity.
“In the Name of Identity” is recommended for the purposes of the Diplomatic Planner. The Diplomatic Planner is a 12-month career development for diplomacy and internationals for professionals looking to explore or grow their expertise in the field. Both books are available for purchase via Amazon. For further recommendations, insights, case studies and practicable worksheets, please join the Grassroot Diplomat Online Academy via: www.grassrootdiplomat.org/register