The Multiple Identities of the Middle East
Bernard Lewis, January 2001, 978-0805211184
There are few subjects that are so absorbing as names and identity, and these are basic tools for the historian though they are complex and controversial. Now in his 84th year, the eminent scholar Bernard Lewis has spent his life dealing with history, religion, culture, language and terminology, in a region where all these are as fraught as anywhere. He has published more than 30 books, has received many academic honors and has held posts at numerous universities, though his two long professorial stints were 25 years at the University of London and another 12 years at Princeton University.
The writer has divided up the book into nine main parts: definitions, religion, race and language, country, nation, the state, symbols, aliens and infidels, and aspirations. Bernard Lewis has stated in his introduction that the title is borrowed from the language of psychology and his aim in doing this is to convey the constant change and evolution of identity in the Middle East. He also gives another example of multiple identities in the Western world. Since the foundation of the UK, people have had at least three identities: by nationality, as a British subject, later as a UK citizen, and as a member of one or more of the four components of that nationality, the English, Scots, Welsh, and Irish; and by religion. However, any of the other cases of multiple identities is not as complex as the Middle East case.
Within every society there are multiple identities, each with variations and with sometimes conflicting subdivisions. These identities may be social and economic- by status, class, occupation, and profession. Generation and gender provide two major demarcations of identity. In the Middle East as elsewhere, historical and literary records show that it was not by social or economic , nor yet by generational and gender differences, that people saw the basic definition of their own identity, the dividing line between self and other. The primary identities are those acquired at birth. These are of three kinds. The first is by blood, which is in ascending order, the family, the clan, the tribe, developing into the ethnic nation. The second is by place. This may mean the village or neighborhood, province or city, developing in modern times into the country. The third is the religious community, which may be subdivided into sects. The second broad category of identity is that of allegiance to a ruler. This identity is normally acquired by birth. It may be changed by annexation, by transfer of power, or by migration. In most of the world, and for the history of the Middle East, these two identities — the involuntary identity of birth and the compulsory identity of the state — were the only ones that existed. In modern times, under the influence of the West, a new kind is evolving between the two, the freely chosen cohesion and loyalty of voluntary associations, combining to form what is nowadays known as the civil society. He says that only three countries in the region (Turkey, Arabia and Iran) conform to what he calls the European convergence of nation, country and language. But to call this European is misleading. Such a convergence may be the Platonic ideal of modern nationalism, but in reality Portugal is unique in Europe as a country whose boundaries haven’t changed for several centuries, whose population is completely uniform in religion and whose political territory exactly coincides with language.
The world today has been shaped by Europe, or the West, whether the world likes it or not. As Lewis says, the scientific study of the history, religions and languages of his chosen region was in the first place entirely the work of European and then American scholars. The very fact that ”this parochial term,” the Middle East, has come to be used around the world is, as he points out, striking testimony to the way that European influence persists after the age of imperial rule. He is also correct in saying that two ideas, both of European origin, dominated political thought and action in the Middle East for most of the 20th century, socialism and nationalism, and that ”by now both have been outdated, the one by its failure, the other by its success.” He has stated that nationalism has succeeded needs to be qualified. The colonial yoke was thrown off more because the colonial powers got bored and went home than because of indigenous efforts at insurrection, and Arab nationalism is factitious almost by definition. Then again, the most remarkable and extreme case of nationalism in the region has been Jewish nationalism, or Zionism. This is a movement purely European in origin, and a fascinating example of ”invented tradition,” not to say of the misunderstood identity. Maybe Bernard Lewis, so learned in examining the confused and misleading identities of Islam and Arabism, could turn more of his attention to that extraordinary phenomenon. As a whole, the book was successful in examining the definitions and giving sufficient information on the subject. As his other books, The Multiple Identities in the Middle East has taken its place among the prominent studies of the Middle East.
As a conclusion, it can be said that Lewis traces the rapid evolution of the identities of the Middle Eastern peoples, by examining religion, race and language, country, nation and state from the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1918 to today’s clash of old and new allegiances. He shows in his book how imported Western ideas such as liberalism, fascism, socialism, patriotism and nationalism transformed Middle Easterns’ notions of community and their aspirations.