Will the prediction by the famous Lebanese-French Novelist Amin Maalouf – that we are embarking upon an era of wars between “killer identities” – turn out to be true?
“Killer Identities” is the title of a well-known book by Maalouf, a writer and intellectual who focusses on the religious, historical and social intricacies of the East.
Maalouf’s life itself embodies such intricacies. In a recent interview conducted by “Middle East online” with him in Dubai, on the sidelines of the Silver Jubilee of Al Owais Cultural Foundation, Maalouf explained how the multi-layered and complex climate he lived in has had a huge impact on him. Maalouf was born in Beirut; his mother was born in the Egyptian city of Tanta while his maternal grandmother was born in Adana, Turkey. Maalouf was mainly raised in Beirut but spent some of his childhood in Egypt. His mother’s family moved from Tanta to Cairo to live in the Heliopolis district, and up until the age of three, Maalouf spend most of his time residing in Heliopolis. Then he moved to Lebanon where he lived until 1975. He studied in Lebanon and upon graduating he worked in the field of journalism, contributing to the Lebanese daily newspaper “Al-Nahar”. At the start of the Lebanese Civil War in 1975, he moved to France and continued his journalistic pursuits, working for “Economia” magazine and serving as editor-in-chief of “Jeune Afrique”.
During his university days, he adopted a left-wing ideology. However his father, Ruchdi Maalouf, often held right-wing inclinations. His family has always been actively interested in the culture, diversity and languages of Lebanon.
Maalouf wrote “Leo the African”, “Ports of Call” and “The Crusades Through Arab Eyes”, among a host of research and narrative works revolving around manifestations of identity. Indeed, I still remember the details of his delectable and charming novel “Ports of Call”.
He is also a member of the French Academy (L’Académie française), an illustrious francophone institution.
In the aforementioned interview, Maalouf outlined his vision for the Arab Spring and the future of coming conflicts in the region. In his writing, we can detect a strong inclination towards promoting our shared humanistic aspects, as regular readers of his work will have observed.
In response to a question about the purpose of his book, Maalouf said: “What happened in Lebanon is an example of the message inherent in the book “Killer Identities”. Identities become a “killer” element when your affiliation turns into a weapon that you brandish towards others. As I told you, I once lived in a period where people had various identities. Nevertheless, those identities did not prevent them from living together and coexisting within the same districts, cities and universities. Such identities did not keep them from being friends and from discussing matters with honesty and affection. Of course, this is not always the case with identities; there are affiliations that can lead to killings. We saw that in the Lebanese Civil War, in former Yugoslavia, and in Rwanda among many other places around the world. I believe we are live in the age of ‘killer identities’; an age where allegiances transform into weapons brandished by some towards others. Unfortunately, this might the prevailing characteristic over the coming decades.”
The most frightening part of Maalouf recent statement is his prediction that we could be witnessing decades of these “killer identities”, even as the Arab Spring thrives, or maybe this is the reason that it thrives!
In order not to do an injustice to the Arab Spring, we must admit that the identity issue erupted well before 2011. In reality, it was more severe and insidious back then. Yet before the Arab Spring, some could ascribe tensions over identity to the absence of political participation and the lack of power transfers. But what can we ascribe this to now, as “identity expert” Amin Maalouf says, especially if this identity issue stays with us for decades to come?
As a reminder, in 2010 we went through several “killer” incidents relating to identity:
We all remember the crisis that arose following the statements made by Anba Bishoy against the Holy Quran. However, the Coptic clergyman soon retracted his comments and denied what had been interpreted as an insult to Islam and Muslims, especially after the former head of the Coptic Church, the late Pope Shenouda III, personally appeared on Egyptian television and spoke with kind words towards Egyptian Muslims and Muslims in general. The Pope conveyed his “regret” for hurting the feelings of Muslims on account of Anba Bishoy’s statements. In an interview with state-owned Egyptian television, the Pope said: “I am sorry if our Muslim brother’s feelings were hurt.” He also expressed his readiness to “console them by any means” and added that “religious dialogue must be conducted in accordance with common points and on common grounds.” Pope Shenouda also underlined that “debating religious beliefs are a red line, a deep red line.”
Meanwhile, the statements issued by the Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar, Ahmed al-Tayeb, in which he rejected the comments attributed to Anba Bishoy, carried a high degree of responsibility away from any sense of provocation, representing a firm and strict response from the primary Islamic religious establishment in Egypt.
Shortly before these events, American Pastor Terry Jones created an international crisis with his threats to burn the Holy Koran.
During the same time period, the Gulf media was ablaze over statements issued by a young Shiite man, wearing a turban, who attacked Sunni beliefs. This prompted the Kuwaiti government to issue an order banning public rallies [fearing sectarian incitement], along with its decision to revoke Kuwaiti nationality from the deranged, turbaned young Shiite known as Yasser Al-Habeeb.
Prior to this, sedition had already flared up because a satellite television station, keen to screen Sunni-Shiite disputes under the title of “dialogue”, had quoted the highest-ranking Twelver Shiite Marja in Iraq, Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ali al-Sistani, as denouncing Sunnis as unbelievers. This prompted the office of the renowned Marja to make an explicit statement denying such a claim, stressing that the Sunnis were part of the body of Islam.
Before this we saw statements released by a prominent Saudi orator and preacher, who religiously criticized al-Sistani. That caused political turmoil in Iraq as well as in other countries, especially as this attack coincided with a sectarian-dominated electoral season. The Saudi preacher received criticism from a number of wise Sunni clerics, and support from a small group of followers. This was merely another event in the long chain of sectarian accusations within the framework of Islam.
We all remember the major religious crisis sparked off by Pope Benedict XVI during a lecture at a German university in September 2006. The Pope quoted an insulting remark about Islam dating back to the Middle Ages, which provoked Muslims for its attack on the history of their religion. The Pope then rushed to try and explain and ultimately withdraw his statements, saying that he did not quote the excerpt out of his own belief. Pope Benedict XVI was criticized by key religious and political symbols across the Muslim World. The then Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar, Mohammed Sayyid Tantawi, leveled bitter criticism towards the Pope. Reuters reported that Tantawi, in a meeting with a representative of the Catholic Church in Cairo, had protested that the Pope had remained silent for ages, only to eventually utter offence. The Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Ali Khamenei, also did not pass up the opportunity to criticize the Catholic Pope over his lecture.
Over the past three years, we have been living in a climate of congested religious animosity.
Has the prediction made by former British Prime Minister Tony Blair turned out to be true? In mid-2008, he observed that the past century was a century of politics and that the present one would be a century of religions. This is why Blair decided to devote the rest of his life to serving the cause of religion and religious dialogue. He sought to utilize the power of religion to spread peace, encourage economic development and combat poverty. Blair declared his intention to achieve such a goal whilst inaugurating his charitable foundation in New York.
During the past century, conflicts were categorized under the labels of politics, patriotism and class struggle. Shortly before and just after the September 11th attacks, we witnessed a clash among different identities and between different camps of faith. For a while after that, albeit temporarily, the slogans of freedom and human rights re-emerged. Then came the tide of religious zeal and the clash of identities became even more intense, following explicit religious manifestations in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and later on in Yemen, and prior to all this in Iraq, the sister of Syria and Lebanon in terms of sectarian complexity.
Are we dealing with killer identities, or are they in fact conducive to life? This question will remain unanswered for some time to come. Let us hope we shall live long enough to witness the answer.