We’re Still Tribesmen

We’re Still Tribesmen March 14, 2014

Novelist Amin Malouf was born in Lebanon, and now lives in Paris. He’s a Melchite Christian. As he points out at the beginning of In the Name of Identity, those few markers only begin to spell out his complex of allegiances and loyalties.

Malouf is not claiming to be unique. On the contrary: One of the themes of his book is that many have a similarly complex heritage and identity, and we fail to see this only because we are still locked into a simplistic “tribal” version of identity. We still talk about what “the Serbs” or “the English” or “the Jews” have done or do. For all our globalization, a suspicious little savage lurks within. Modernity doesn’t dissolve these identities because it has emerged as the “Other” to many outside the West.

Caricature in talk is innocuous, but Malouf thinks that tribal notions of identity lurk behind much of the violence of our age. There’s a butcher in all of us, but normal people act as butchers because they have divvied up the world into us’s and thems. 

Malouf’s solution is to exhort individuals and nations to embrace their multiple identities. We’re all mongrels, and we need to shed our tribal instincts. He thinks that detaching religion from identity is also crucial to curbing violence. He’s not anti-religious, but he argues that when it becomes a badge of identity religion easily becomes an excuse for attacking the unfamiliar. To heal estrangement from one another and from the modern age, he proposes replacing religious identifications with a dual allegiance to one’s heritage and to the age in which we live. 

Malouf’s recognition of the dual movements of tribalism and globalization seems right, but it’s not clear to me how his proposal is anything more than an exhortation to make sure that liberal order is more liberal. But the crisis he’s describing is precisely a crisis of liberal order, so more of the same doesn’t seem like a very potent solution.

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