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Sensible, sensitive, and always richly informed and appreciative of world history, Amartya Sen’s writing is a joy to read. In his eminently readable book Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny, he makes the case that many undesirable consequences can result from certain ways in which people may be encouraged to see themselves. Most importantly, a “solitarist” approach to human identity, in which any human being can be seen as a member of only one particular group, usually defined by civilizational or religious divisions (e.g. Muslim, Hindu, Western, or non-Western), is particularly insidious.

Under a solitarist view of identity, rather than being appreciated for all that they are, human beings are crammed into little boxes that are usually not of their own choosing. Thus, while in actuality a person may have several important identities – for instance, as a woman, a mother, a teacher, a vegetarian, a person of African descent, a heterosexual, a supporter of gay and lesbian rights, a Muslim, an avid reader, and so on – the solitarist would claim that only one of those identities is of any importance in understanding that individual. Usually, it would be the fact that she was a Muslim, or that she was racially of African descent that would be used as a basis of a singular, all-encompassing identity.

Using mutually exclusive racial or religious categories as the only basis of understanding human beings is an inherently divisive view and, as Sen puts it, it is “a good way of misunderstanding nearly everyone in the world”. By ignoring the many shared identities that cut across the sharp dividing lines of religious or civilizational categorizations, a solitarist view of identity makes it much easier for groups of people to see each other as opponents or enemies, rather than fellow human beings.

Sen gives the example of the Hindu-Muslim riots of the last days of the British Raj, which he witnessed as a child. He points out that while, on one view (the solitarist view), the riots were between Hindus and Muslims, on another, they were between people who were practically indistinguishable. Most of the people who were doing the killing – and being killed – were members of the urban poor; they were day-laborers, they lived in similar neighbourhoods, spoke the same language, and so on. If they had been properly aware of the plural nature of their identities – that each of them was so much more than just a Muslim or a Hindu – and the fact that they had so much in common with one another, it probably would have been impossible to get them to commit such horrific acts.

However, the solitarist view is sometimes extremely hard to resist. And once people fall into its trap, it can lead to disastrous consequences. An acceptance of the idea that the only important defining characteristic of a person is his religion easily gives rise to the view that everyone from a different religious background has to be “the enemy”. It is not hard to see that nearly all of the terrorism in the world today is the result of people being encouraged to see themselves in this way. The 9/11 terrorist attacks are a good example of a solitarist approach being put to use – but not in a Muslim-vs- non-Muslim form, because many of the people killed at the World Trade Centers were, in fact, Muslims. Rather, this was an example of a “West-vs-anti-West” understanding of identity – one that is becoming increasingly popular today.

Apart from the divisiveness between mutually exclusive groups that it encourages, a solitarist view of identity also ignores the wide variation that exists within common categorizations such as “the Muslim world”, or “the Western world”. To claim that a person’s being Muslim is the only important attribute needed to understand him/her in a social context is to ignore the fact that Muslims vary considerably in their ideas, practices and beliefs.

Indeed, one of the most compelling arguments that Sen makes in the book is that the Western response to the rise of militant Islamic fundamentalism is thoroughly misguided. This is because it reinforces the solitarist view that the fomenters of terrorism advocate, rather than going against it. In Sen’s own words:

“…In disputing the gross and nasty generalization that members of the Islamic civilization have a belligerent culture, it is common enough to argue that they actually share a culture of peace and goodwill. But this simply replaces one stereotype with another, and furthermore, it involves accepting an implicit presumption that people who happen to be Muslim by religion would basically be similar in other ways as well… The arguments on both sides suffer, in this case from a shared faith in the presumption that seeing people exclusively, or primarily in terms of the religion-based civilizations that they are taken to belong is a good way of understanding human beings.”

The book goes on to explore how views of identity relate to issues such as global democracy and multiculturalism is societies with many different racial and religious minorities. Relating to the latter, Sen makes several more striking points about how Western governments seem to be doing things the wrong way. For instance, in Britain, rather than engaging with people from minority religious communities as citizens of the same country, many efforts are being made to engage with them through their religious representatives. Thus, rather than emphasizing common citizenship, these dialogues focus upon on a particular difference between people living in the same country, and take that difference to be of supreme importance.

The book ends by emphasizing the role that reason has to play in allowing people to choose whether they wish to associate themselves with any particular identity, and to assigning relative importance to their many different identities in different situations.


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