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Nation, religion, language: Amin Maalouf on identity

Originally posted 17 July 2007 to JVoices.com, a blog that is going offline.

“What makes me myself rather than anyone else is the very fact that I am poised between two countries, two or three languages and several cultural traditions. It is precisely this that defines my identity. Would I exist more authentically if I cut off a part of myself?”
— Amin Maalouf, In the Name of Identity: Violence and the Need to Belong, 1996

Maalouf observes the ironic fact that, the more connected one is to other people, the more specific is one’s place in the world, and this unique identity becomes a sort of isolation. “Every one of my allegiances links me to a large number of people. But the more ties I have,” he writes, as an Arabic-speaking Christian in Paris, “the rarer and more particular my own identity becomes.” He explains how we often arrange the separate elements of our identities in a hierarchy of importance but that hierarchy can change over time.

In considering the most popular identities worldwide today, Maalouf suggests that globalization is making nationalism obsolete, because, in a globalized age, we desire identities that are not tied down to a particular geographic area. So, where we humans once were nationalists, we are instead phasing in religious community. This partly accounts for the rise in religious fundamentalism today.

But Maalouf speculates that, religion, too, may one day be replaced by something that becomes more relevant, such as language. Language is a top competitor for the cornerstone of identity because one can specialize in multiple languages and because one must have the language of the dominant culture if one does not wish to be cut off. Religion, by contrast, is more exclusivist (one can generally only specialize in one religion) and arguably less fundamental to the larger culture than is language.

Maalouf regards the rise of English as a lingua franca as a positive influence if it can bring people together who otherwise could not have spoken at all, and a negative influence only in cases where it replaces a common language with a richer history. Today, he concedes, everyone needs three languages: English, for global business; then, a language he identifies with; and finally, a language he loves. He believes that freedom of speech should include the right to speak the language of one’s choice.

Book

Amin Maalouf. In the Name of Identity: Violence and the Need to Belong. (1996) Translated by Barbara Bray. New York: Penguin Books, 2003. See pages 1, 13, 18, 94, 131-140.

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