Amartya Sen on 'Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny'

Amartya Sen
Author, Economist and Nobel Laureate
Monday, June 12, 2006; 12:00 PM

Amartya Sen, winner of the 1998 Nobel prize for economics and Lamont University Professor of Economics at Harvard, will be online Monday, June 12 at noon to discuss his latest book, "Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny."

From Book World:

"Over this discursive little book lies the shadow of Sen's formidable Harvard colleague, the political scientist Samuel P. Huntington, with his celebrated theory of the "clash of civilizations." Sen has assigned himself the role of the anti-Huntington: Sen sees Huntington's thesis of cultural conflict yielding a one-dimensional approach to human identity -- and leading to the "civilizational and religious partitioning of the world," which can only occasion greater global disorder.

Here, in contrast, is Sen celebrating the complexity of human identity: "The same person can be, without any contradiction, an 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," etc. One's civilizational identity is not one's destiny, Sen observes, and civilizational "partitioning" -- seeing the planet culture by culture -- does not capture the messiness of the world. This Earth of ours, he says, is made more "flammable" by warring definitions of human identity, rather than an embrace of the many different facets that make us human."

Amartya Sen is Lamont University Professor Emeritus at Harvard University and was, until recently, Master of Trinity College, Cambridge. He has served as President of the Econometric Society, the Indian Economic Association, the American Economic Association and the International Economic Association. He is also Honorary President of OXFAM.

An Indian citizen, Dr. Sen was the Drummond Professor of Political Economy at Oxford University in England and a Fellow of All Souls College at Oxford from 1980 and Professor of Economics at Oxford in the 1977-80 period. Between 1971 and 1977, he was Professor of Economics at the London School of Economics. Prior to that he was Professor of Economics at Delhi University.

Professor Sen has published a number of books as well as articles in various journals of economics, philosophy, politics and decision theory. His books have been translated into many languages and include Collective Choice (1970), On Economic Inequality (1973, 1977), On Ethics and Economics (1987), Choice, Welfare and the Measurement (1982), Resources, Values and Development (1984), The Standard of Living (1987), Inequality Reexamined (1992), and Development as Freedom (1999), among others.

Dr. Sen was awarded the Nobel Prize for Economics in 1998 for his work on famine, human development theory, welfare economics, the underlying mechanisms of poverty, and political liberalism.

A transcript follows.


Amartya Sen: This is Amartya Sen. Many thanks for the interesting questions that are coming in. I hope to respond to as many as I can within the time limit given to me, but forgive me if I do not get the chance to get back to every one of the questions. I am very grateful to get the opportunity of seeing what questions are in the mind of the correspondents, and I do promise to think about each of them whether or not I manage to answer all the questions that have come in. Regards, Amartya


Oxford, U.K.: Fouad Ajami, in his review of your book in this newspaper, wrote that "Inspirational history can go only so far; it will not bend to Sen's good cheer." How would you respond?

Amartya Sen: Ajami is quite right to think that inspirational history cannot take use very far, and I wish he had taken note of this general point in subjecting his own prejudices about the Arab world to more scrutiny (inspiration can be negative as well as positive kind!). In my book I tried to give as mucy coverage as possible to the existing historical evidence to construct a balanced picture, but if someone is so immersed in inspired prejudice that there is no room left for examining other evidence, then there is problem in communicating to him.

Consider The fuss that Fujami makes of the fact that the intolerant regime in Spain from which Maimonides escaped was a Muslim regime. What he overlookes are two things. First, Spain had very liberal Muslim regimes earlier - I discussed what was achieved in Muslim ruled Spain already by the 9th century - and when an intolerant Muslim regime came in in Spain, all of Europe was bacially intolerant of Jewish people (joined most recently by Spain, then). What I had said is that maimonides escaped "an intolerant Europe" (Spain was still in Europe!). Second, my focus was not on what Maimonides was escapting - to wit an intolerant Europe (though that was in fact the case, as I mentioned in passing), but on where he went. He went to Cairo and had an honored position in the court of the Muslim emperor Saladin - the same Saladin who had fought Richard the Lionneart and others in the Crusades. He did not go to Italy or France or Germany or Richard's England. Indeed, the extensive contact and mutual tolerance between the Muslim scholars and Jewish scholars had made that relation a two-way one. Negative inspiriational history cannot rub away an understanding of the nature of the world in the twelfth century.

There is a lot of intolerance in all relgious communities today, and what we look from history is the presence of positive signs that people can live together (which are often ignored by hate-mongers). Western seekers of peace and tolerance do not look to the Inquisitions or to the history of Nazism, but to more positive things. So can Muslim thinkers today. If that is inspiration, well, it has its importance too.


Stockton, Calif.: How does your perspective differ from the "Clash of Civilizations" theory by Dr. Huntington?

Amartya Sen: There are several major differences. First, we cannot understand relations between human beings in different countries or cultures in unidimensional terms in terms of religion-based civilizational definitions. People interact with each other in many different ways - through business, through literature, through science and maths, and many others.

Second, each civilization has a lot of internal diversity. India may be described as "a Hindu civilization" in Huntington's classification, and yet it has had sizeable Christian and Jewish communities for nearly two thousand years, it had been mainly Buddhist for nearly a thousand years in its history, it has Sikhs and Parsees and Jains, and it has more Muslims (145 million people) than nearly every country in Huntigton's list of coutries in "the Muslim world."

Third, clashes can take many different forms. The twentieth century was dominated by world wars, in which Germans fought the British twice, the Japanese were in alliance with the Germans against the British and Americans and other members of the Western civilization. The Catholic-Protestant violence in Ireland is not between Western civilization and some other civilization.

These are some of the ways that the oversimplification of our past and the present go wrong in the understanding of the world in terms of "clash of civilizations." Alas, there are more detailed problems as well in terms of facts of history.


New York, N.Y.: Professor Sen:

How would you propose we start moving away from the polarizing identities -- nationalistic or ideological--that seem to end in bloodshed?

Amartya Sen: This too - like most of the others - is a very fine question. Any classification according to a singular identity polarizes people in a particular way, but if we take note of the fact that we havc many different identities - related not just to religion but also to language, occupation and business, politics, class and poverty, and many others - we can see that the polarization of one can be resisted by a fuller picture. So knowledge and understanding are extremely important to fight against singular polarization.

I remember being struck as a child in undividied India during the Hindu-Muslim riots of the 1940s (which I witnessed in Bengal) that the victims very often shared a class identity - the killed people were typically the Muslim poor and the Hindu poor. They also shared a non-religious cultural identity - particularly the Bengali language. Not surprisingly, therefore, as language and culture became more important in Bagladesh (its separation from Pakistan was not linked with religion but with language, literature and politics) and as the Indian part of Bengal pursued politics in which class and poverty became the dominant concerns, the Hindu-Muslim divide became far less sharp (there has been no recurrence of such violence in either part of Bengal over the last half a century). Similarly, a shared business concern does a lot to reduce the force of religion-based divisions in, say, Singapore or Malaysia, despite fomentation by religious ideologues.

I tend to think that understanding the nature and causes of a problem is half way towards a solution. We have to go beyond that through active cultivation of peace, but understanding is the critically important first step.

Thanks for your question. To other too, whose questions I did not get to address. I promise to think about each of them!

_______________________ We would like to thank Dr. Sen again for joining us today and taking the time to read and respond to questions. He wishes to thank you for your inquiries and promises to review them carefully. Thank you.


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