Book review: “Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny” by Amartya Sen



Book review: Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny. By Amartya Sen. 240 pages, W.W. Norton & Company, 2007 (U$ 11.14, kindle,

In addition to Joseph Nye's Soft Power, Francis Fukuyama's The End of History and John Mearsheimer's Tragedy of Great Power Politics, Samuel Huntington's Clash of Civilizations is perhaps the most influential idea in international politics of the past decades. Particularly since September 11th 2001 and the global War on Terror that followed, Huntington's claim gained widespread support both among the public and the policy world, even though most academics considered the idea to be worryingly simplistic and based on shaky evidence. As Richard Betts writes, "even practical policymakers who shun ivory-tower theories" are influenced by Huntington's ideas.

In Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny, published a few years ago, Amartya Sen goes further and says Huntington's idea is dangerous and must be roundly rejected: "A major source of potential conflict in the contemporary world is the presumption that people can be uniquely categorized based on religion or culture." The insistence, if only implicit, of choiceless singularity of human identity not only diminishes us all, Sen says, it also makes the world more flammable.

It is no coincidence that at a time of heightened sectarian tensions in India, Huntington is frequently quoted by leaders of the right-wing movement Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), for he crudely defines India as a "Hindu civilization", even though the country is home to almost 150 million Muslims, more than nearly every country in Huntington's definition of the "Muslim World".

As the New York Times wondered last week about India's energetic Prime Minister Narendra Modi,

Is he a Twitter-savvy technocrat obsessed with boosting development for all India by slashing red tape, wooing foreign investors and building a modern digital economy? Or is he a canny ideologue intent on imposing a strict Hindu code of values on a nation that prides itself on tolerance, diversity and pluralism?

Sen's book is both a rejection of Huntington's civilizational argument and a celebration of the complexity of human identity: "The same person can be, without any contradiction, a US-American citizen, of Caribbean origin, with African ancestry, a Christian, a liberal, a woman, a vegetarian, a long-distance runner, a historian, a schoolteacher, a novelist, a feminist, a heterosexual, a believer in gay and lesbian rights, a theater lover, an environmental activist, a tennis fan, a jazz musician, and a believer in intelligent forms of life in outer space." One's civilizational identity is not one's destiny, Sen observes, and civilizational "partitioning" -- seeing the planet culture by culture -- does not capture the vast complexities and competing identities that shape us.

Sen thus contests the so-called "solitarist" approach to human identity, which sees human beings as members of exactly one group. It can thus be read not only as a rejection of the Clash of Civilizations thesis, but also as a criticism of those who enhance ideological polarization in more general terms. Those who foment global confrontations or local sectarian violence impose such a prechosen and divisive identity on people who are to be recruited as "foot soldiers" of political brutality, slaves of an illusory force. Indeed, ideological polarization among the general population tends to be more profound than among political elites, which tend to be more pragmatic. This became obvious in several countries around the world when Nelson Mandela died in 2013: While, among others, both Presidents Barack Obama and Dilma Rousseff invited their respective predecessors to join them on the presidential airplane to fly to the memorial service, many citizens in the United States and Brazil found such symbolic outreach ("embracing the enemy") reprehensible, as it undermined their ideological convictions.

Yet the author argues that even those who, with the best intentions, call for "building bridges between civilizations" or those who say that "true Muslims are peaceful” are guilty, for those arguments, too, see the human being as a one-dimensional being that cannot escape his or her civilizational category.

Sen's analysis is a wonderful treatise on the use and abuse of human identity and an admirable call to stop asking people to confine their thoughts to only one identity, may it be "Western" or "non-Western", "Muslim", "Hindu" or "Christian". "I can imagine another universe, not beyond our reach, in which (...) I can jointly affirm our many common identities, even as the warring singularists howl at the gate." And yet, Identity and Violence strikes the reader as somewhat aloof and perhaps a bit naive. Commenting on sectarian violence in Iraq, Sen seems to suggest that the human conflict there is a result of an intellectual error. But as John Gray observes, "Shia, Sunni and Kurdish communities are not at one another's throats because they have a mistaken view of human identity. Trapped by the brutal logic of anarchy, they are locked in a battle for survival that could go on for generations."

Still, as sectarian violence and the expectation of clashing civilizations become popular (particularly when thinking of the rise of China), Identity and Violence is more important than ever. This year, the Indian government forced Amartya Sen to leave his post as chancellor of Nalanda University, one of the oldest educational institutions in the world. With academic freedom increasingly under attack in India, Sen writes that academics must resist "the unilateral extremism that characterizes many of the academic interventions by the Modi government." Education, he says, "must be free of authoritarian and sectarian pressures."

Read also:

Book review: “Sinicization and the Rise of China: Civilizational Processes Beyond East and West” by Peter Katzenstein (ed.)

Book review: “World Out of Balance” by Stephen Brooks and William Wohlforth

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