Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny Amartya Sen

Allen Lane, pp.215, 14.99

There are few pleasures more reassuring than that of disagreement with some of the contents of a book that is closely argued, extremely well-written and clearly the work of a highly civilised, cultivated and decent man. Such a pleasure is reassuring because, in a hate-filled world, it reminds us that identity of opinion, which makes for dullness, is not necessary for the establishment of high regard.

In this short and bracing book, Professor Sen inquires into the question of human identity, and the practical consequences of the various answers that may be given to it. The question is of the greatest possible urgency in the modern world for obvious reasons, and Professor Sen’s view is informed by, if not the outright consequence of, an unforgettable childhood experience: during the violence that preceded partition in Bengal, he witnessed a fatally injured Muslim seek refuge in his parents’ garden. The man’s attackers viewed him as a Muslim and nothing else, and since Muslims were their enemy, they felt entitled, perhaps even duty-bound, to do him to death.

The author insists that our identity is not monolithic: we all of us have many identities that are not mutually exclusive. For example, I am British, a doctor and a writer, among other things, and at various times, depending on circumstances, each of these non-contradictory identities, or aspects of my identity, is more important than the others to me. No one should think of himself or anyone else as having a single important aspect of his identity, for to do so is to risk treating others, and being treated oneself, in the way in which Muslims and Hindus treated one another in the run-up to Partition.

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There is much wisdom in this (I have myself quite often experienced, for example, a much greater sense of identification with foreign doctors than with many of my own compatriots abroad) and yet there is something evasive about it too; the result perhaps of having too long frequented people who live by reason and discussion to an unusual degree.

It would be a first-rate thing if people ceased to perceive each other as having one single identity that outweighs all others, but unfortunately it is sometimes necessary. No doubt a Nazi could also be a father, a lover of Schubert lieder and even a philosopher; but at a certain period in history it was identity as a Nazi that counted.

No doubt Professor Sen would reply that this was because the Nazi had himself adopted the one-dimensional notion of identity, both of himself and, most grievously, of others. But it seems to be a fact about the world that hostility based upon binary identification — them and us — is not to be quite so easily wished away. I don’t think, for example, that his argument would cut much ice with an Islamist.

This is not the place to argue whether or not there is something intrinsic to Islam that makes it inimical to modern notions of equal rights and genuine religious and cultural plurality. Suffice it to say that I personally think Professor Sen is too sanguine on this matter. Appeals to the memory of the Mughal Emperor Akbar, who was open-minded to the point of tolerating outright atheists, but who was not universally acclaimed by his fellow-Muslims, does not quite answer the case: I don’t think he would survive long nowadays.

All the same, the author is quite right when he argues that Mr Blair’s attempt to counter the spread of Islamism by finding and promoting moderate Muslim clerics is thoroughly misconceived and reinforces the idea that the only thing that matters about Muslims is that they are Muslim. This, of course, is precisely what the Islamists want.

Identity and Violence is a book both rich in ideas and easy to read, a model of its kind. I would love to send it to Osama bin Laden and have his reply to it.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated