As part of a seminar series launched by Qatar’s Ministry of Culture in partnership with the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies and Qatar University, seeking to enrich dialogue on contemporary cultural and intellectual issues, Dr Azmi Bishara, General Director of the Arab Center, gave a lecture titled “On the issue of identity” on Wednesday 20 March 2022. The lecture was held in the presence of His Excellency Sheikh Abdulrahman bin Hamad Al Thani, the Qatari Minister of Culture and the President of Qatar University, Dr Hassan Rashid Al-Derham, as well as a number of prominent cultural figures.
Bishara began his lecture by noting that the lecture coincided with Palestinian Land Day, the day the Palestinians inside the 1948 occupied territories declared a general strike in 1976, relating somewhat to the topic of the lecture. It served to reassert the comprehensive Palestinian identity after a period of isolation of the 1948 Arabs from the rest of the Palestinian people.
Bishara initially emphasised the need to clarify some terms when talking about identity, due to the popularity of the term in daily life, the media, literature and social sciences. This has led to ambiguity and confusion, whether in the media or research. In this context, he touched upon three mistakes that an academic investigation of the term may fall into: The first is the excessive expansion of the scope of identity as a term, obscuring the complex economic, social and political sources of the question of identity. Instead of leading to a correct application of the necessary tools to approach the issue of Identity, this only leads to further ambiguity. The second error is the belief of some that since identities are historical and not innate, that is, because they are invented and complex, they are mere illusions that do not deserve all this attention. The third mistake is the obfuscation between the issue of identity and the so-called civilized personality of a people, a nation, or even a continent, as is claimed when talking about a European, Jewish-Christian, Islamic, Arab-Islamic, Buddhist, or other civilized personality.
Bishara noted that the term identity emerged in the field of philosophy, before entering daily use in the modern era, and in the social sciences. In Arabic, the origin of the term identity goes back to the attempts of Arabs in the third century AH to find a translation of Greek philosophical terms related to the existence of beings, especially in the texts of Plato, which they erroneously attributed to Aristotle. Hence, the term is an Arabic translation of a Greek term related to beings in their own existence. Identity here corresponds to otherness. In logic and mathematics, identity means complete equality, which is possible only in abstract ideas, as in mathematics.
Bishara argued that the issue of the individual's self and social identity is a modern issue, which arose with the emergence of the individual who is able to think of their continuous "self", despite the transformations and changes in the course of their life. The essence of their existence meets with a continuous and transient self, and with their identity as a rational individual, not just their position in an organic group in which they were born. This self is also able to think about their belonging to more than one group such as a profession, a neighbourhood or community, a religious denomination, and any group social to which they belong. The question of identity arises from thinking about the relationship between the self and the group, thus giving rise to the possibility of a collective self, besides the individual self.
At the end of the lecture, Bishara touched on some points that had been raised by the seminar series, explaining: First, people of a civilized personality, with rich components, open to development and change and confident in their roots in the collective identity of individuals are not afraid of interaction with other cultures and civilizations. In contrast, the impoverished civilized personality, struggles to take root in the collective identity of individuals without the continuous negation of the other as a means of demarcating identity boundaries. Secondly, Arabs possess an Arab self-identity through language and culture, which is the basis of belonging to the Arab collective identity, with shared perceptions of their common history and even a common fate and experience effected by current affairs in the Arab region. The combined language and literature of both classical and spoken Arabic constitute not only a means of communication, but also one of the most important components of culture, personality and conscience. Third, the Arab identity is one of the most effective tools to combat sectarianism of all kinds, a key competitor in the arena of identity and belonging. Fourth, just as there is no contradiction between the pan-Arab and Islamic components in the Arab-Islamic civilization, there is also no contradiction between pan-Arabism and citizenship. The Arab identity is the identity of the majority in Arab countries, and this does not prevent Arab citizens from combining a non-Arab national identity and an equal citizenship to a state, with respect for the national and cultural identities of non-Arabs.
The lecture was followed by a rich discussion, in which the Minister of Culture Sheikh Abdulrahman bin Hamad Al Thani contributed, in addition to a number of Qatari cultural figures, Arab Center researchers and Doha Institute professors and students.