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by Bernard Lewis

Pub Date: Sept. 20th, 1999
ISBN: 0-8052-4172-8
Publisher: Schocken

An enlightening, if occasionally repetitive, study of the uniquely complex notion of identity in the Middle East. Lewis, professor emeritus of Near Eastern studies at Princeton University (Cultures in Conflict: Christians, Muslims, and Jews In the Age of Discovery, 1994, etc.), proposes that religion, rather than nationality or citizenship, has been the main determinant of identity in the Middle East. Westerners, maintains Lewis, have great difficulty understanding this concept and mistakenly view the current struggles among Serbians and Muslims in the former Yugoslavia as primarily national and ethnic. Because contemporary Western observers do not consider religion significant to identity and because they philosophically and psychologically separate church and state, they “will tend to see—or seek—a non-religious explanation for ostensibly religious conflicts.” Though there have always been both ethnic nations and political states in the Middle East, the prominent Orientalist feels that neither had been exclusive factors in determining identity or directing loyalty. Patriotism and nationalism, argues Lewis, are recent 20th-century Western imports to the Middle East. In fact, when nationalist ideas first surfaced in this region, they were denounced by many as “divisive and irreligious.” It was even argued that nationalism was introduced to the Islamic world by “arrogant infidels,” particularly Jews, in an attempt to cause disunity among the Arabs. Also, Lewis sees a constant flux of various identities affecting those in the Middle East. In Egypt, for example, a Cairene Muslim may perceive of himself as an Egyptian, as an Arab, and as a Muslim. His ties to his Muslim brothers in Bangladesh are likely to be greater than those to his Coptic next-door neighbors. Lewis perceives the present Arab world as a “mosaic” of separate nation-states, still evolving, where one’s primary identification does lie with the state, however recent or artificial its creation by the colonial powers. A provocative exploration into the Middle Eastern psyche with both cultural and political significance.