Al-Liqa Center

Identity: Meaning, Components and Dimensions

By Father Rafiq Khoury



Descriptive approach to identity

Components of identity

Features and dimensions of identity

Closed v. open identity

Isolated v. relational identity

Colliding v. dialoging identity

Static v. dynamic identity

Unilateral v. multi-lateral identity

Civil v. religious identity

Local v. international identity

Identity v. ‘you-entity’ v. ‘we-entity’



The subject of identity is not purely academic; it is rather an existential matter that encompasses the individual’s essence of existence. The individual is constantly seeking to crystallize his identity, that is, who ‘I am’ within the wider space of ‘we are’ and ‘they are’. The question of identity is a major topic in today’s world. On the one hand, globalization seems to restrain national and cultural identity and drift it into a sea of compromises; on the other hand, the feeling of identity among groups, cultures and peoples is constantly growing.


The question of identity is an endangered species in the Arab world due to the foreign projects that aim at melting the Arab identity and driving it out of contemporary history. These projects go under different names such as the new or bigger Middle East.


However, in the Palestinian context, the question of identity becomes increasingly complex but significant due to the unique experience of expulsion, dispossession, homelessness and Diaspora that the Palestinians have gone through. In addition, the Palestinian identity is torn and sliced because of the current situation that the Palestinians are living in: cantons and closure that split identity and almost invalidate it. As a result, Palestinians see themselves standing before scattered identities: Nablusite, Bethlehemite, Hebronite, Jerusalemite, Gazan, etc.).


For Palestinian Christians, identity in particular is a serious issue because it is affected by several factors that complicate rather than elucidate it. More puzzling still is the concept of the ego or the ‘I’ since it is influenced by an enormous amount of clashing factors. However, it is imperative to address the question of identity because it is a question of existence and presence and belonging. The search for identity is a search for the self, and without it the individual cannot identify his real space, role and mission in society and life.


This lecture offers a brief journey into the world of identity and attempts to explore and collect its scattered ingredients hoping this will help us declare who we are in this wide world.


I will present the subject under three headings:

1. descriptive approach to identity;

2. components of identity;

3. features and dimensions of identity. 


Descriptive approach to identity

Instead of giving an academic definition of identity, I would rather describe it as it is found in reality.


In Arabic, the term ‘identity’ [hawiyyah] is derived from the pronoun ‘he’ [huwa]: Who is he? It could change to refer to the addressee in the singular form and become ‘Who are you’? or to the addressee in the plural form, ‘Who are we’? When we meet a stranger the question that comes to mind is ‘Who are you’? The answer starts with a name. ‘I am Joseph’. In the East, it is known that names are not neutral but they reveal a human trait that our parents hope to see in us and which may stay with us all our life.[1]


This primary and personal definition is not enough and it entails many other questions. In the Eastern tradition, we use four names starting with the first name followed by the father’s name (not the mother’s even though some personal status laws ask for the mother’s name, at least for intelligence purposes). The use of multiple proper names adds another element to identity, namely, relations with family members and properties. The third name highlights our biological relation with our grandparents some of whom might have lived during the Ottoman Period, the British Mandate or under the Israeli occupation. Finally, we come to the fourth and last name, which is the family name that either relates us to a geographical location [e.g. Anabtawi from Anabta], or clerical dynasty [e.g. Khoury, meaning cleric in Arabic], or a profession [Haddad, meaning blacksmith in Arabic]. Related to these names are tales and memories that are stored in our mind and which make the unique conscious individual that ‘I am.’


But this ‘I am’ does not exist in an isolated island. ‘I am’ not quite ‘I am’, but it is also ‘we are’. Your neighbor might lean in the bus and ask you, “Are you a Christian?” I am therefore either a Christian or a Moslem. If I were a Christian, then I am either Greek Orthodox, Catholic, Syriac, or Armenian. Likewise, an audacious taxi driver in Amman, Jordan, may ask you, “Are you a Palestinian?” If he turned out to be a Palestinian too, then there is chance to talk about common experiences that constitute a common foundational component of your Palestinian identity. Even the term Palestinian cannot be taken in isolation of a larger environment, that is, the Arab entity, and then I am an Arab Palestinian or the “Greek side of my mind” as the Demis Roussos says in one of his songs. Finally, your realize while wandering in the streets of Rome or Paris or Larnaca that you are not on your own but a part of a more spacious world inhabited by people of different nationalities with whom you  interact. Then you see yourself as a citizen of the globe and a friend to many.


What remains is to put all these scattered ingredients together in order to form a unified and harmonious body, otherwise you will always remain a cluster of disorderly parts that has no head or tail, as the French say, or a creature with ten heads with each thinking for its own, or a group of taverns hidden behind the wall and are in constant struggle with themselves opening at times and closing at other times depending on the weather and occasions. At any rate, if you remain like that, you will not be able to find your place in life and identify your natural space in which you breathe and move and act. Those who have no identity have no life, no future, no past or present. They are a burden on themselves and on their society.


Components of identity

What are the main components of identity? Some underscore the element of race like, for instance, the Aryan race in the Nazi ideology. This is a illusionary component since there is no ‘pure’ race, to use a Nazi term, especially in the East where there is an amalgam of races. Others stress religion as a component of identity or denomination or sect. As a matter of fact, this is what is happening now in the world, including the Arab world, resulting in religious extremism and intolerance. Others emphasize language and history and ideology as components of identity. All these components are legitimate but they all leave room for suspicion or controversy or criticism.


I believe that national identity is an emotional matter and a powerful passion in the consciousness of a group of people who see in it a platform for meeting and uniting together. Emotions are a reality and they are part and parcel of the inner self of people. Emotions are related to feelings, and we can say that feelings are fleeting and are therefore inappropriate to form a collective element for a group people or for a nation. This is partly true but there are several objective factors that turn emotions and feelings into a fixed, effective and collective reality. What are these objective factors?


To answer this question I would like to quote from the Palestinian Declaration of Independence for I think it helps us find an answer to the question:


In the land of heavenly revelation to mankind, the Palestinian people were born, grew and achieved progress. Their national and human existence created a clear and uninterrupted organic relation between the Palestinian people and the land and history. Through legendary and epic-like steadfastness in time and place, the Palestinian people wove their national identity and elevated themselves to the level of a “miracle.” In spite of the conflicts the charming and vital geographical local of this ancient land had caused between forces and civilizations, it almost deprived its people from attaining political independence. But the perpetuity of Palestinian adherence to the land gave it its identity and breathed into its people the spirit of the nation, bolstered by dynasties of civilization, pluralism of cultures. Inspired by their temporal and spiritual heritage, the Palestinian people continued throughout history to develop themselves and achieve full unity between man and land. In the steps of prophets on this blessed land, minarets and church belfries raised their prayers of grace to God, singing songs of mercy and peace.


This passage shows that the components of identity include land, people and history and the experience resulting from their interaction. These components do not exist in isolation from each other; rather they interact and interrelate in time [history] and place [geography][2]generating a successive range of experiences through which the Palestinian people have formed their national identity. In addition, the passage describes the components or constituents of these experiences that are inspired by the special properties of the land: the spiritual element [heavenly messages] and the meanings it carries [tolerance, coexistence, inter-religious dialog],and the cultural element [civilization, cultural pluralism] and the meaning it carries [pluralism], the temporal element [historical experience] and its meaning [the land was given an identity and it breathed in its people the spirit of the nation], the spatial element [limits of confrontation between civilizations and forces] and what it means [organic relation between people and land and history]. The passage expatiates on the accumulative historical experiences that resulted from the integration between the land, the people and history, shaping the character of the Palestinian people and their communication with the Arab world [regional dimension] and the world [global and human dimension].[3]


We conclude from all this that identity is a result of all these factors put together: land, people, history, and the multitude of experiences that brought them together, and which in the end form the collective emotional entity.


Features and dimensions of identity

The concept of identity consists of binary oppositions that help us understand the features of identity and its dimensions. We will now talk briefly about each binary opposition.


Closed v. open identity

Identity has two concepts: closed and open. Closed identity refers to groups of people who are self-sufficient, isolated and put themselves in a state of animosity and contradiction with the other. As a result, they become sectarian or factional, with all the negative repercussions that this might entail.[4] This is what the Lebanese writer Amin Maalouf calls “killing identities.”[5] We have seen examples of such identity in the Balkans and all the tragedies that occurred there. It seems that such examples are being followed in the East as well (like what is happening now in Iraq, for example).


On the other hand, open identity communicates with all the components of the local and international society and interacts with it to form together a common identity. Open identity develops itself through communication with groups of people on the basis that identity cannot be developed in isolation from other individuals or groups. In this case, the other is no longer a threat but an enrichment. Closeness is rigidity and a slow death; openness is receiving and sending and thus it is a renewed life and a constantly developing identity.


Isolated v. relational identity

In its essence, identity is a relation because it is linked with otherness.[6] Identity connects ‘I’ with ‘you’ with ‘he’ and with ‘we’ in creative interaction.[7] The individual cannot develop his identity except in relation to the other, and this urges us to shun what we consider destructive logic, namely, ‘either me or him’, and arrive at a more rational and positive logic of ‘you’ and ‘I.’[8] Such logic is based on a number of human and spiritual values: the values of complementation instead of competition, cooperation instead of collision, inclusiveness instead of exclusiveness, and enrichment instead of impoverishment. In an atmosphere like this we move from conflicting and warring identities to interconnected and complete identities.


This relational identity surpasses mere coexistence toward “one existence.”[9] In coexistence people live near each other without actual communion and individuals may live in a state of alienation from each other. In contrast, “one existence” refers to cohabitation, which means that individuals communicate with each other in depth sharing each other’s life. In cohabitation we open our inner scope to each other and participate in the richness that is innate in us. Cohabitation is the march of the individual n the other and the march of individuals for each other. This may also go as far as making a joint testimony and call for noble and sublime meanings of identity, in a world that is eager for such unified existence.


Colliding v. dialoging identity

Samuel Huntington’s book Clashes of Civilizations is well known to all.[10] The book divides the world into closed cultural areas which inevitable leads to war, clashes, and conflict. In fact, this has become the strategy of some countries in the world today, in al the continents, civilizations and religions. But this destructive trend has its counterpart, namely, the dialoging trend which is based on the fact that all civilizations are interactive, taking from and giving each other. Such dialog between civilizations generates creative and rich repercussions.


We should say that we cannot develop our identity except through dialog with the other. Dialog is a human and social state by which individuals and groups transcend themselves and enter in a negotiating relation with the other, searching for a common identity that allows for “one existence.” This means “moving from exclusion to inclusion, from rejection to acceptance, from stereotyping to understanding, from distortion to respect, from condemnation to mercy, from enmity to friendship, from competition to complementation, from rivalry to brotherhood,”[11] and from belligerence to dialog. In fact, dialog is an adventurous and arduous task whose consequences are unpredictable, but it is primarily a human process. This is the strategy adopted by the Eastern Catholic Patriarchs.[12]


Static v. dynamic identity

Identity is not rigid; it is rather dynamic and vital like any other human condition. Dynamism does not here mean self-denial. Dealing with identity requires deep-rooted originality that is aware of the developments that challenge identity. It roots deepen as it responds to the challenges and calls and developments that take place in our Arab world environment. Returning to origin is imperative and urgent, but if originality becomes rigid, it turns into fundamentalism that does not address history, but it addresses only itself. Thus ideologies represent a threat to dynamic identity because they have rigid meanings that epitomize reality and thrust it in narrow frames, disabling it to keep abreast of life developments.[13]


The Palestinian declaration of Independence we referred to above uses dynamic verbs like ‘was born’, ‘developed’, ‘created’, ‘inspired’, ‘continued’, etc. All these verbs are action verbs that indicate vital communication and negotiation with history and constant enrichment of the meaning of identity, keeping it in a state of creativity and development both ion the individual and collective levels. Identity remains an incomplete state urging us to look for the missing components and responding to its demands. Thus identity is continuous birth.


Unilateral v. multi-lateral identity

“I am plural,” says Edward said.[14] Every society is culturally, religiously and socially pluralistic. Pluralism is a characteristic of human societies and it is “God’s sign in man and the universe.”[15] It is a characteristic of Arab societies and the Palestinian society in particular, which was a passage and a center for successive human waves that left behind pluralistic and varied groups of people.


In the past, traditional societies lived in isolation behind insulating walls and were therefore unable to interact with their components on both the local and international level. But nowadays the situation is different because of the changes that took place in human societies (means communication, emigration in all directions, and travel for the purpose of studying, etc.). This resulted in unprecedented interaction among human societies and changed the rules of pluralism and the way of dealing with it. Dealing with pluralism and administering it have become unavoidable when we talk about the living the identity and whatever social and political regulations that derive from it. One of the common slogans that became popular is ‘unity in multiplicity’ which governs modern societies of the world.


The first choice is to eliminate what is plural and it is a choice based on the interest of the one at the expense of the many that tries to absorb the pluralism into a unilateral social concept. Pluralism in this sense is regarded as a threat that should be done away with.


The second choice is the elimination of the one to preserve the many. It is a choice hat focuses on the many at the expense of the one, and it may generate a desire to create social and political entities for all the groups of the many. The one is regarded here as a threat to the many. It is a choice that leads to division.[16]


The third choice, however, is the choice of the one and the many at the same time. It is the choice that seeks to manage the many in a uniform manner whereby there is harmony and not contradiction. It is a choice that preserves both the one and the many. It calls for acceptance of pluralism and managing the many without causing division. This is one of the main issues in the modern world and especially on the Arab world. It is an urgent mater because events take place at a speedy rate and the gates of hell are opened before us (Iraq, Lebanon, Sudan, Palestine, and so on).


All this reflects on our understanding of identity and how we deal with it. We cannot longer perceive of a unilateral identity. All parties are assimilated in it and become part of its make-up.


Civil v. religious identity

The latest developments in the international arena led to the emergence of religion as a decisive element in forming national identity. Religion has a significant role in determining the flow of events including conflicts, massacres, and ethnic cleansing. This poses a serious question about the role of religion in the formation of identity.[17]


Religion, especially in the East, plays an important role in shaping national identity because religious fervor is deeply rooted in the Eastern character. The Palestinian declaration of independence refers to religion when it mentions the “the land of heavenly revelation,” “steps of prophets,” “spiritual heritage,” and “religions.”


In this respect we have to return to the binary oppositions we mentioned earlier. When we talk about religion we ask, “Which religion are we talking about?” The question refers to all religions. There are closed and open religions in Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, and other religions. In each religious group we find contradictory religious models with some calling for closeness and others to openness, some calling for elimination and others for absorption, some encouraging communication while others for isolation. In the heritage of each religion we find calls for this action or that. The divisive limit between the closed and open strategy does not pass through religions but through the heart of each of us no matter what our religion is. Thus the urgent question today is, “What religion for what humanity today? What God to what humanity?” The question that I would like to pose before every believer, “What God do you believe in? Who is your God? Is He the God of elimination or absorption, the God of mercy or condemnation?”[18] The problem is not in religion itself but in its followers. There are some who use religion for political purposes, and when religion and politics mix both become corrupt because politics corrupts religion and religion corrupts politics. This it is important to distinguish between religion and politics. Distinction does not mean separation and combination doe not mean mixture either. The matter is sensitive and we realize it is a bone of contention in the Arab world. In fact, it calls for dialog between religious people and laymen for there is a lot they can learn from each [19]other.


Local v. international identity

Fyodor Dostoevsky was the most Russian author and most widely known internationally. He was international as much as he was Russian, combining the local and the universal in rare harmony in the world of literature. Similarly, there is the issue of local or national identity and the international or human identity because we belong at one time to a people and to humanity at large.


This is an existential matter in today’s world in light of globalization that seeks to attain one common model for identity. Globalization constitutes a real challenge that we cannot avoid or be indifferent to. It requires thoughtful action to rescue national identity and preserve its human and international character, taking into regard that no people can live in isolation from other peoples.


Here we should distinguish between universality and globalization hoping that we can come out of the crisis that globalization has created for us. Globalization has taken for itself an ideological meaning that has its own features, symbol and projects. It is western globalization in general and American globalization in particular that wants to dominate the whole world. This model of globalization is met with much resistance not only in the Arab world but also in the whole world including Europe. On the other hand, universality has turned our world a “small village” in which all peoples interact resulting in a state of support for all that no one can ignore. This is the kind of universality that national identity cannot disregard thus calling for negotiations between the national and the universal in a manner that maintains the characteristics of the national in each identity while at the same time keeping national identity open and in a state of dialog with all the world. In this respect, the national becomes our road to universality and universality the road to national identity, both existing in ideal harmony and perfect dialog. Locality protects from melting and universality from isolation, chauvinism and national bigotry. In such case of multi-lateral communication my Christianity becomes my gate to my Palestinian nationality, my nationality my gate to my Arab identity, and my Arab identity a gate to the world, in a dialectic manner that is not void of positive and creative tension.


Identity v. ‘you-entity’ v. ‘we-entity’

I resort to these terms coined by father Peter DuBrul in one of his lectures delivered in one of the conferences on “Theology and Local Church in the Holy Land,”[20] because I believe these terms could shed more light on the topic of identity.


It is known that the word ‘identity’, in Arabic hawiyyeh, is a compound word from the third personal singular pronoun ‘he’ [huwa], an unknown unidentifiable person,[21] while ‘you’ [anta] refers to a clear and identifiable person with whom I establish personal and dynamic relations that he becomes clear to me and I clear to him. The disparity between  a person I call ‘he’ and another I call ‘you’ is huge, and this is what father DuBrul calls ‘you-entity’. ‘You-entity’ open the door for a larger space of mutual relations while the ‘he-entity’ imposes limits and conditions on these relations. This can be summed up in the term “face culture” which the messages of the Eastern Catholic Patriarchs and the Pastoral Plan of the catholic Churches in the Holy Land refer to[22] in the field of Christian-Moslem relations. The ‘you-entity’ also opens the door before the ‘we-entity’, which turns into a human and personal relation that makes easier the existence of identity. The ‘you-entity’ and the ‘we-entity’ give identity a human quality thus eliminating all fear in regard to human relations and transforms identity from a threatened  reality to a reality full of joy, and thus the importance of creating space that allows different groups of people to meet and develop human relations.


The Holy Trinity icon makes clear the relation between the three hypostases; it is a relation in the pronoun ‘you’. In Christian understanding, God is a partnership and a personal relationship that becomes a true emotional communion, as the details of the icon indicate.


[1] See the Palestinian intellectual Edward Said who relates the conflict he had inside him between his western name ‘Edward’ and Arabic name ‘Said.’ See his book Out of Place: Memoirs

[2] For this reason the Israeli occupation forces strive to split these components from each other by distorting history and changing the geographical features of the land in order to eliminate their vital and organic relations.

[3] We must note here that the Diaspora experience that the Palestinian people live constitutes an important part of their national experience. The lost land has been turned into a symbolic internal situation every Palestinian emigrant [key, title deeds, etc.] carries with him in order not to lose that organic relation with the place. We can say that the late Edward Said (in his book Out of Place) and the poet Mahmoud Darwish in his poetry (see for example Mahmoud Darwish, Why I Left the Horse Alone, Riyad Al-Rayes Publications, 1995, in particular his poems “Cactus for Ever” and “How Many Times will we Be Done For?” pp. 32-39). From this also emerges the significance of the Palestinian memory as it appears in the novel of Elias Khoury The Door of the Sun, published by Dar Al-Addab in 1998. In an interview with Abbas Baidoun published in Masharef Magazine, number 3, October 1995, pp. 69-111, Mahmoud Darwish writes, “Whoever writes his narrative will inherit the land of the narrative.”

[4] See Father Rafiq Khoury, “Sectarian trend and the Future of the Palestinian People,” in Openings of a Time to Come, Al-Liqa’ Publications, 1996, pp. 37-51.

[5] See Amin Maalouf, Les Identités Meurtrières, Grasset, 1998. Maalouf is a novelist and his novels talk about a pluralistic environment (Gardens of Light, Lyon the African, Samarqand, First Century after Beatrice). This book, written in French, stands as a summation of his novels. In it, Maalouf discusses identity and all the traps, exploitation and deviations it involves. He calls for a human vision that rejects the superficiality that globalization calls for, and isolation that results in tribal societies. This rescues the human meaning of identity.

[6] See father Rafiq Khoury, “Terms of Entry to Another World,” in The Incarnation of Eastern Churches in the Arab Tent: A Palestinian Approach, Al-Liqa’ Publications, 1998, pp. 293-305.

[7] Edward said says in his book After the Last Sky, “when I started writing this book, I found myself moving from one pronoun to another, from ‘we’ to ‘you’ to ‘they’ in order to be able to determine the identity of the Palestinians.” Quoted in Fakhri Salih, “Edward Said and the Image of the Palestinians,” in Masharef Magazine, number 8 (April 1996) p. 43.

[8] Eastern catholic Patriarchs, Pastoral Message “Christian Presence in the East: A Witness and a Message” (Easter 1992) number 8.

[9] The term “one existence” appears in the document about Christian-Moslem dialog issued by a Arab team for Christian-Moslem dialog. The complete text can be found in Al-Liqa’ Journal number 4/2001, pp. 75-84, under the title The Arab Team for Christian-Moslem Dialog, “Dialog and One Existence: Toward an Arab Christian-Moslem Charter.

[10] For a criticism of this book see Edward Said “The Clashes of Ignorance,” in Israel, Iraq and the UN, Dar Al-Addab, Beirut, 2004, pp. 106-112.

[11] SeeChristian Presence in the East,” number 47.

[12] Especially in the two Pastorals Messages “Christian Presence in the Holy Land” mentioned above (see numbers 45-47) and “Together Before God for Man and Society: Christian-Moslem Coexistence in the Arab World” (Christmas 1994. See also the charter on “Dialog and One Existence” mentioned above.

[13] Here also we can distinguish between closed and open ideologies. I would rather keep an intellectual distance from any ideology, even Christianity, to preserve my inner freedom of thought, especially when some turn Christianity into an ideology.

[14] Mahmoud Darwish echoes this statement in a poem about Edward Said called “Synonyms and Identity” in which he says, “In defense of the self/Identity is the child of birth but/In the end it is the creation of its owner not/An inheritance from the past./I am the plural…” He then adds, “identity is open for pluralism/It is not a citadel or a tunnel.” Al-Carmel Magazine, number 81 (Fall 2004) pp. 71-72.


[15] “Dialog and One Existence,” number 8.

[16] See Joseph Yacoub, Au Nom de Dieu: Les Guerres de Religion d’Aujourdhui et de Demain, JC Lattès, 2002.

[17] Ibid. pp. 11-86.

[18] See father Rafiq Khoury, “Believer, Who Is Your God?’ Al-Liqa’ Magazine, number 2/1999, pp. 9-19.

[19] See father Rafiq Khoury, “Religious and Laymen: Parallels that Do Not Meet,” Al-Liqa’ Magazine, number 2/1997, pp. 4-13.

[20] See Fr. Peter DuBrul, S.J. “The Holy Trinity: Obstacle or Path to Inter-religious Dialog with a commentary on John Milbank’s Theology and Social Theory: Beyond Secular Reason,” Al-Liqa’ Journal, vol. 14/15 (June/December 2000), pp. 203-219.

[21] The same can be said about foreign languages. ‘Identity’ is derived from ‘id’ in Latin which means ‘that’ and all the obscurity it involves.

[22] See “Together before God,” number 24; “General Pastoral Plan,” Jerusalem, 2000, p. 155.