A brilliant short book called (in English translation) In the Name of Identity: Violence and the Need to Belong was published in English translation on Sept. 14, 2001. I fell upon this book as a revelation. It was, and remains, a vivid and piercing account of the dynamics of the bristling tribalism that converts airplanes into guided missiles and suicide into massacre. Over the following 15 years of catch-up reading, I have not come across a finer account of the Islamist hatred that aims to remake the world through slaughter.
The author of this book was a Lebanese-French novelist and essayist named Amin Maalouf—in 2001, a new name to me. In the fine translation by Barbara Bray, Maalouf wrote that the romance of identity begins by “reflecting a perfectly permissible aspiration” but becomes a “false friend.” It offers false relief for actual pain. It dissolves humanity into a paste of simplification. It sacrifices the roundedness of life for brutal joy.
In the midst of any community that has been wounded … agitators naturally arise. Whether they are hot-heads or cool schemers, their intransigent speeches act as balm to their audience’s wounds. They promise victory or vengeance; they inflame minds. Whatever happens “the others” will have deserved it. “We” can remember quite clearly “all that they have made us suffer” since time immemorial: all the crimes, all the extortion, all the humiliations and fears, complete with names and dates and statistics. … The transition from one meaning to the other is imperceptible. We are denouncing an injustice, we are defending the rights of a suffering people—then the next day we find ourselves accomplices in a massacre.
Maalouf now finds himself in the cross-hairs of the BDS movement in Lebanon. His crime? Giving an interview to an Israeli television channel, i24. There, Maalouf speaks of culture as a means of normalizing relations between Israel and the Arab world. A no-brainer, one might have thought. Culture is, after all, normal and liquid. The liquid is always in transit. The life of culture is insulted by borders. It acknowledges them only to overflow them.
But in BDS’s jaundiced eyes “anti-normalization” is mandatory. In their official statement of purpose, “anti-normalization” includes:
opposition to … events, projects, publications, films, or exhibitions that are designed to bring together Palestinians/Arabs and Israelis so they can present their respective narratives or perspectives, or to work toward reconciliation, “overcoming barriers,” etc., without addressing the root causes of injustice and the requirements of justice.
On some American campuses, “anti-normalization” is the reason anti-Zionist groups give for refusing to debate people with whom they disagree.
From BDS’s jaundiced viewpoint, normalization is a “colonization of the mind, whereby the oppressed subject comes to believe that the oppressor’s reality is the only ‘normal’ reality that must be subscribed to.” Contact with the Other is violation. In sheer projection, a totalitarian mindset roars in full voice. Conversations with bad guys are tantamount to surrender. BDS is the all-knowing monopolist of expertise on justice.
For his recent communication crime, Maalouf has been denounced by BDS’s affiliate the Campaign for the Boycott of Israel Supporters in Lebanon. “By giving his consent to give an interview to this channel,” they wrote, “Maalouf whitewashes the role that this station, with the rest of the Israeli media, performs in supporting the atrocious Israeli policy.” These crusaders for mental purification declare that Maalouf’s crime is not only a thought-crime and a speech-crime but a crime against the state:
We further call on the enforcement of Lebanese anti-normalization laws with Israel, and thus for the prosecution of individuals and institutions in Lebanon that violate those laws and conduct collaborations, associations or investments in Israel or with Israelis.
It’s easy enough to point out the foul hypocrisy of the charge. Ministers and ambassadors talk with Israelis all the time. Al Jazeera talks with Israelis. But the BDS Campaign singles out Maalouf because he has “used his celebrity … to give an immoral legitimacy to Israeli media, important instruments of the occupation of Palestinian territories.” Le Monde notes that two Lebanese newspapers that published the denunciation “are the standard bearers of Arab nationalism, a current that joins the left and Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militia that is deployed in Syria alongside the troops of Bashar al-Assad, who is said to embody ‘resistance’ to the United States and Israel.” Al-Hayat, a Saudi-owned pan-Arab daily, notes that these papers are lenient toward Vladimir Putin but protect the Assad regime. The Lebanese writer Bissan Sheikh deplores “the same mentality that keeps us from reading books published by Israelis on us. … It revels in ignorance.” And ignorance, as the man said, is bliss.
Maalouf was educated in Arabic. His maternal grandfather was a Maronite Christian who married a Turk. Their daughter, his mother, was a devout Catholic born in Egypt. His Lebanese father was a Greek Catholic, a member of the community who claim to be the first Christians, recruited from among Greeks, Greco-Macedonians, Romans, Syrians, and Jews. Perhaps this hybrid identity makes him a target of suspicion. In other words, Amin Maalouf is, as Barack Obama once said of himself, a mutt, but in a less parochial time would be known as a man of the world—a cosmopolitan, or as Stalin liked to say of Jewish intellectuals in the 1940s, a rootless cosmopolitan.
One can see how such a man might be allergic to holy wars. In 1976, after the Lebanese civil war, Maalouf, then a Beirut journalist, decamped to Paris, where he has lived ever since, writing in French. His first book was a popular history called The Crusades Through Arab Eyes, said to have been inspired, in part, by Edward Said’s Orientalism. In 2011, he was named to the Académie Française, France’s august 40-member body of “immortals” who constitute official custodians of the French language. No wonder the man is suspect. He is a living refutation of the either-or theory of humanity.
It would seem that Maalouf’s very existence courts suspicion. In 2012, in Chicago, a passenger was ordered off a plane preparing for takeoff. The cabin crew was unnerved by the sight of the book this man was reading: Maalouf’s The Crusades Through Arab Eyes. The passenger turned out to be an Arab-American Secret Service agent—a Christian, as a matter of fact—en route to Crawford, Texas, to take up his duty on a detail protecting President George W. Bush. The pilot described the man as “nervous and anxious,” and the flight attendant was alarmed because he had in his seat books she said were “written in what she assessed was Arabic-style print.” The copy of Crusades that the man was reading was in English.
In a weak mind, purity must avoid taint. This is the classic dynamic memorably identified by the anthropologist Mary Douglas in Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. Perhaps when American anthropologists have put an end, once and for all, with some of their members’ attempts to boycott Israeli academia, they might return attention to this remarkable book on the human panic over contagion, dirt, and defilement.*
*In this week of the Orlando massacre, a remarkable case of multiple biographical rhyme cries out to be noted. “Douglas” was the anthropologist’s married name. Her husband, James, was distantly related to the notorious defilee Alfred (Bosie) Douglas—yes, that one: Oscar Wilde’s lover. Bosie Douglas came to believe that Winston Churchill, as party to an international conspiracy of Jewish financiers, had arranged for the murder of Lord Kitchener. Churchill sued him for libel, successfully, whereupon Douglas spent six months in jail, or gaol. A biographer counts as Bosie’s finest poem one that begins with these lines: “The leprous spawn of scattered Israel/ Spreads its corruption in your English blood;/ Teeming corruption rises like a flood/ Whose fountain swelters in the womb of hell.”
Todd Gitlin (1943-2022), was a professor of journalism and sociology and chair of the Ph.D. program in Communications at Columbia University, and the author of among other books The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage; Occupy Nation: The Roots, the Spirit, and the Promise of Occupy Wall Street; and, with Liel Leibovitz, The Chosen Peoples: America, Israel, and the Ordeals of Divine Election.