'In the Name of Identity'

Religious fundamentalist groups and the terrorist acts they commit are on the rise around the globe. Contrary to popular belief in the United States, such religious extremism is not limited to Islamic terrorism in the Middle East but has also been found right here in the US in the form of a Christian Identity movement and its affiliates. Amin Maalouf argues in his work ‘In the Name of Identity’ that the origins of such extremism spring from a form of identity crisis and that faith provides a common bond which disenfranchised members can rally around. While Maalouf’s focus remains largely on the Middle Eastern world and Islamism, his argument provides a possible thesis that can be applied to all radical and ideological terrorist movements. He challenges us to analyze our own concept of identity and how it can be used to isolate others within our communities and ultimately incite hatred and intolerance.

Maalouf suggests that economic and political circumstances serve as the main catalyst for youth turning to religious extremism, as is found in groups such as the Islamic Brotherhood, Islamic Jihad, al-Jamaa Islamiya and al Qaeda. This is certainly reflected in the number of terrorists originating from struggling countries like Algeria, Afghanistan, Palestine and Pakistan. However, coming from a low socioeconomic background alone is not a prerequisite for terrorism and many of the leading members of these Islamic groups are either from upper middle-class or wealthy families. Mohammed Atta, the Egyptian involved in the September 11 attacks, was college educated and came from a privileged background. The two leading members of al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri are both from wealthy families and bin Laden was a millionaire originally from Saudi Arabia.

The main argument of Maalouf is that an identity crisis causes these terrorists to be influenced by religious extremism. As the world has become more globalized and interconnected, certain components of our identity have been broken down and discarded. For some, nationality is the main identifying factor of their being and for others it might be their religion. However, for a young second generation Pakistani born Muslim in Britain, exactly what their identity is becomes unclear. Mainstream Britain generally will not recognize this man as British, but neither will the Pakistani community accept him as Pakistani. Neglected by both communities, it seems the only alternative is to turn to his faith for guidance and direction. This man is no longer British, nor is he a Pakistani, he now identifies himself as Muslim and becomes a target for religious extremists.

The other issue we face is the inability to adjust to the quickening pace of modernization and all its implications. Along with the benefits of modernization, such as technology and scientific advancement, come dramatic changes that some find difficult to adjust to. As society becomes more multicultural and modernized, moral and ethical standards must be revised to respect all facets of society. For some, this process happens far too quickly and so they feel isolated and unable to identify with a society that has left them behind. Religious conservatism then becomes an attractive alternative because it provides these people with a social dogma that advocates continuity and stability. Unfortunately, some take their commitment level to the extreme and become involved in terrorist organizations, pledging to restore a conservative order.

This appears to be what is occurring in the American religious right who feel that the law has become too liberal and no longer reflects the Christian morality to which they adhere. The Christian Identity movement has been linked to the anti-abortion group Army of God, the Ku Klux Klan, many hate based groups and most notoriously Timothy McVeigh who orchestrated the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. The estimated number of right-wing adherents in America varies from the thousands to tens of thousands in militia and Christian Identity related groups. Generally they believe in individual freedom and less government intervention when it comes to issues like access to firearms, but are disgusted by an increasing acceptance of issues like abortion and gay rights. While the various groups focus on differing issues, the two common bonds between these groups is their overwhelming patriotism and commitment to the Christian faith. It appears that an attack on their ‘American Anglo-Saxon’ identity is aggravating many Christian fundamentalists who feel that terrorism is the only way to reaffirm and protect their identity within America.

It is interesting that globalization has had such extreme positive and negative effects on the world and its citizens. While Muslim and Christian fundamentalists reject each others religions, they have more in common than they would ever admit. Both follow a strict conservative doctrine with strong elements of anti-Semitism and feel threatened by a world that as Maalouf describes is turning to ‘universality’ at the expense of individual identity. Samuel Huntington described this anomaly as a ‘Clash of Civilizations’ in his famous thesis, predicting that future global conflict would be along ‘cultural’ lines. In essence these two men have the same argument and it all boils down to a ‘clash’ of identities. As the world moves closer together and we ‘globalize’, we are forced to integrate and accept other identities into our communities. This is very difficult for some people who may take it personally and feel that their very identity is being undervalued and attacked. In order to avoid the escalation of these feelings into violence, emphasis must be placed on educating people on tolerance. People will always have moral and ethical disagreements that make up part of t