In This Review

The Multiple Identities of the Middle East
The Multiple Identities of the Middle East
By Bernard Lewis
Schocken, 1999, 176 pp

Those who know Lewis' earlier works will find familiar themes here deftly organized around the many identities that Middle Easterners have of themselves and others, including religion, race, language, country, nation, state, and aliens and infidels. To Lewis, religion is the principal locus of identification, in both the past and the present; race is less important than in the West. Identification with territory (patriotism) is not so much a factor as identification with the group (nationalism), because until modern times, most Middle Easterners have been loosely linked to empires, not states. Relying often on vocabulary used over the centuries to make his points, Lewis offers a philological feast that, in Francis Bacon's terms, is best not just tasted but "chewed and digested." Multiple Identities is consistent with his earlier works, and those who have criticized his vision of the Middle East will likely raise the usual objections: he overstates the impact of religion on politics, underrates the factors making for unity by concentrating on variety, exaggerates Middle Eastern continuities while minimizing change, and slights political economy. His argument, however, is much more nuanced than these objections suggest. With so much information so engagingly presented, one should gratefully chew and digest.