The spiritual leader of al Qaeda's declaration that "we will win because the West loves life and we love death," however horrifying and contemptible, offers an insight into the power of identity. He was saying that identity is so precious that it gives him and his al Qaeda followers something worth dying for. This evil man is correct about one thing: Identity is such a powerful force because it opens a world of meaning larger than physical and material life. It asserts that all of life is not merely immediate and that there are things for which life itself is worth sacrificing. By repudiating his words, the free world underestimates the power of its message at great peril.
To the fundamentalists, the West seems shorn of any clear identity, atomized, with each individual living for the day, in pursuit of purely egoistic, materialistic goals. The fundamentalists see a society unwilling to make sacrifices for a cause bigger than the self and view this as a glaring weakness that can be exploited. What makes matters more ominous is that many in the West seem blithely unaware of the dangers such a lack of identity poses to the values they most deeply cherish.
Brotherhood. In "Imagine," his ode to such a utopia, John Lennon conceives of a world without heaven and hell, religion, or nation-states, where there will be "nothing to kill or die for, a brotherhood of man." But a brotherhood without actual brothers, with no one committed to anyone else or to a way of life, is nothing but empty air. It is precisely this vapidness that encourages al Qaeda and its ilk to believe that western values will be swept away in the face of a community willing to both kill and die for its beliefs. Without a similar strength of purpose and identity, the free world will not long be able to repel the assault against it.
Making the case for identity is much harder than making the case for democracy. No one seriously questions the benefits of a free society. In contrast, a fiery debate rages in the modern world about the influence of national, religious, and other identities on global peace and stability. This is not merely an esoteric debate among the democratic world's intellectuals, who are themselves preoccupied by post-nationalism, postmodernism, and other post-identity theories. Most people in the West turn on their televisions and see a world seething with hatred based on identity, with daily scenes of terrorism and barbarism that pit national, ethnic, and religious groups against one another. Given this carnage, who could blame anyone for viewing identity as a kind of poison that endangers our world?
Yet while identity can be used destructively, it is a crucial force for good. Strong identities are as valuable to a well-functioning society as they are to secure and committed well-functioning individuals. After liberating Iraq from Saddam Hussein's tyrannical regime, the U.S.-led coalition failed to realize the fragility of national Iraqi identity. The United States was right to try to establish democracy in Iraq, but the effort was undermined when the power of identity was ignored. Extremist fundamentalism, whether Sunni al Qaeda or Shiite insurgents from Iran, filled the vacuum.
But if democracy without identity invites war, identity without democracy guarantees it. Saudi Arabia and Iran are threats to peace not because their subjects have strong identities but rather because their regimes permit no democracy. In contrast, the strong identity of the Japanese people endangers no one because of a robust Japanese democracy. What is true of external peace is true of internal peace. An authoritarian Chinese regime that sees the smallest expression of identity as a threat to its rule brutally represses Tibetans, Uighurs, and others. On the other hand, a democratic India feels no need to repress the scores of vibrant identities within India.
The lesson should be clear: Democracy and identity have no problem coexisting when both are strong. We need not choose between them. Only when one or both are weak is there a threat to peace. The ideal of a world without difference is a false one, because the vision it champions is in fact a nightmare.
From Defending Identity by Natan Sharansky with Shira Wolosky Weiss. Reprinted by arrangement with Public Affairs (Perseus Books Group). Copyright © 2008.