“Deadly identities” is the literal translation of the title of Amin Maalouf’s nonfiction Les identités meurtrières (1998), which examines the issues and problems surrounding individuals having multiple social identities. Maalouf (b. 1949) is a Lebanese-born Catholic Arab novelist who has lived in Paris since 1977, writes in French, and is the 1993 winner of the Goncourt Prize, France’s most prestigious literary award. For Maalouf, the term identity is a “false friend.” “It starts by reflecting a perfectly permissible aspiration, then before we know where we are it has become an instrument of war” (Maalouf  2000, p. 32). The meaning of identity here is that of social identity, which results from our identification with others in social groups according to shared religion, ethnicity, nationality, gender, age, occupation, place of residence, and so forth. Social identities generate violence when social groups are in conflict, and their respective members behave antagonistically toward each other, though they may have no animosity toward one another as individuals. Such conflicts have become more common in the age of globalization, Maalouf believes, because of an everaccelerating intermingling between peoples. For many, then, the dilemma this often creates is a choice between a complete loss or a vigorous assertion of traditional identities—between the disintegration of identity and fundamentalism.
But Maalouf argues that this choice is an illusion, because people do not have just one social identity, which is then their individual identity; rather, they have many social identities, the specific combination of which gives each person a unique individual identity. This is the concept of complex identity, and it is not unchanging, but changes over a person’s lifetime, as do a person’s associations and experiences. Maalouf offers several interpretations of complex identity. One is the idea of a limiting concept: the “more ties” one has, the “rarer and more particular” one’s identity becomes (Maalouf 1998 , p. 18). Alternatively, an individual’s complex identity develops continuously over a lifetime as new characteristics are acquired “step by step” (p. 25). The meaning, however, that most directly targets the problem of violence is complex identity as that which individuals assemble and arrange for themselves out of their different social identities (p. 16), since this presupposes a capacity for reflection about one’s social identities, which Maalouf sees as the best protection against the insanity of murder and butchery in the name of some “tribal” identity.
In this respect, Maalouf is close in his thinking to that of the 1998 Nobel laureate in economics, Amartya Sen (2006), who has also argued that individuals can appraise their identities rather than be captives of them. Both writers, then, closely associate individual identity with this reflective capacity. Their understanding of what it means to be an individual contrasts with the view in much of social science that takes individuals to be unconsciously responsive to a variety of motives, drives, and desires.
SEE ALSO Ethnic Fractionalization ; Ethnicity ; Identity ; Identity Matrix ; Politics, Identity ; Religion ; Sen, Amartya Kumar ; Tribalism ; Violence
Maalouf, Amin. 1998. Les identités meurtrières. Paris: Grasset. Translated into English by Barbara Bray. 2000. In the Name of Identity: Violence and the Need to Belong. London: Harvill.
Sen, Amartya. 2006. Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny. New York: Norton.
John B. Davis