Identity and Violence by Amartya Sen: A review

My review of Sen’s Identity and Violence appears in the new edition of the magazine Montreal Serai. The theme of this issue is racism, and the magazine includes a fascinating article on Italophobia in Canada as well as a review of Kunal Basu’s Racists, amongst other pieces. Here’s an excerpt of my review:  

amartya.jpgIdentity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny
Author: Sen, Amartya

The notion of a “clash of civilizations,” first made famous in Samuel Huntington’s 1996 work “The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order” has gained increasing currency today. In essence, the theory presumes religious/cultural identity to be the keystone upon which cultures are differentiated; the world is accordingly categorized into “Islamic civilization,” “Hindu civilization,” “Buddhist civilization,” and so on, which clash with each other.

Amartya Sen embarks upon a passionate debunking of such classifications of identity in his 2006 work “Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny”. Viewing a person’s identity through the lens of religion alone is fundamentally flawed, he explains, for it ignores the many other equally strong identities that a person might bear. Most people have plural identities; we define ourselves not just by religion, but also by gender, nationality, class, profession, and much more.

Sen himself is perhaps the best illustration of his argument. Born a Hindu, in a part of India that is now Bangladesh (a predominantly Muslim country), he was educated at Cambridge, England, and is currently a professor at Harvard. Sen describes himself as “at the same time, an Asian, an Indian, a Bengali with Bangladeshi ancestry, an American or British resident, and economist, a dabbler in philosophy, an author, a Sanskritist, a strong believer in secularism and democracy, a man, a feminist, a heterosexual, a defender of gay and lesbian rights, with a non-religious lifestyle, from a Hindu background, a non-Brahmin, and a non-believer in the afterlife…” [pg 19] According to Huntington’s theory, Sen is primarily to be viewed as Hindu; that he won the Nobel Prize for Economics in 1998 is mere trivia.

Of particular topical interest is Sen’s deconstruction of the idea that a clash between the “Islamic civilization” and “western civilization” is inevitable. Sen begins by unraveling the notion that tolerance, scientific thinking and democracy are uniquely Western ideas that Islam intrinsically opposes. He cites historical examples from Africa and Asia spanning the past three millennia to illustrate the same, such as the case of Maimonides, the Jewish philosopher who, “forced to emigrate from an intolerant Europe in the twelfth century”,  found refuge with King Saladin (yes, that Saladin of the Crusades fame) in the Arab world.

Sen makes the critical point  that resistance to “Westernization” often takes on the form of resisting ideas seen as “Western”—even though such ideas have flourished in many non-Western societies for centuries. To acknowledge the intellectual achievements of the Occident, of the traditions of secularism and tolerance that flourished in many “Islamic civilizations” intuitively seems the smart thing to do, for to emphasize a schism between Islam and the West is to champion the view of Islamic fundamentalists, who would indeed favor suppressing “all other identities of Muslims in favor of being only Islamic.” There’s a common sense appeal to Sen’s thesis that makes the book, for all its erudition, easy reading.

The full text of the review can be found here.

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