Identity & Conflicts


The Problem of Identity

at the foundation of any conflict

The history of humanity rarely records harmonious cooperation between groups of people.  It rather reports conflicts and wars, at which foundation is the problem of differing identities.  Even if a given conflict is motivated by the drive for economical domination – the two sides in the conflict maintain their differences in identity and belonging.

Cooperation is based on seeking a shared benefit, and this uniting factor blocks the opportunity for disputes between two sides.  Emphasizing, however, what divides must be on account of ignoring what unites.  The category that unites two group represents the “general”, while that which divides represents the “specific”. 

The easiest way to explain this is the statement that All Chinese are Asians, where Asian is the general category, while Chinese is the specific.  There is no conflict or contradiction in this statement.  But confusing the general with the specific produces the statement: All Asians are Chinese, a source of problematic inconsistency - if used or applied to reality.  

The General and the Specific

Clarity between the two categories of the “general” and the “specific” - is essential for understanding identity.  The set of all people, or humanity {H} is the general, and any of the subsets of religious or racial categories {Rx} represents the specific element within it. 

This is not just a theoretical view.  The way we think drives us to behave. In terms of the principle of Cause and Effect, correct thinking would lead to desirable results, while mistaken thinking would lead to conflicts, and to disasters.  

A cause emerging from a mind which ignores or refuses to discern between the categories of the general and specific, is a cause based on ignorance, and ignorance leads to consequences, disastrous in many cases.  

Ignorance leading to disasters

The dominating view in Nazi Germany or that of Imperial Japan during the II W W - was an obvious expression of failure of the mind of their ruling authorities to distinguish between the position of the specific (being the particular race) and the general (the set of humanity), foolishly empowering the specific race with the value and position of being superior to the general, the set of humanity.

A mistaken perspective of the mind can start for example from denying the objective truth in a certain situation.  But this mistaken way of thinking is not just a theoretical matter, as actions made in the reality of life reflect the quality of thinking.  Confusing the proportions or the values of components that share in a certain situation – this confusion can lead to regrettable outcome.

This was the observation of a 13 century Mahayana Buddhist reformer, Nichiren, 

as he was clarifying that the cause of people’s sufferings starts from ignorance, or from inner illusions about the “identity of the self”:

“If you confuse the general with the specific even in the slightest, you will never be able to attain [Enlightenment], and will wander in sufferings”. (*)   

When a specific group disregards its own origin, Humanity, which is shared with other groups, then this specific group leads its individuals to act driven by a confused mind.  The reality of life (or the matrix of logic that weaves phenomena) becomes violated by the effects of the incorrect views.  And this violation displays itself through clashes of confused people about their true identity as human being - in the first place.

What comes first: Humanity or Religion?

In a globalised world, the question of “What comes first, Humanity or Religion?” has an important meaning for all societies.  It is a question, which answer is dividing the world.

In essence, self-identity is based on beliefs and convictions. The quality of people’s behaviour is conditioned by their “reference of belonging”.  An exaggerated sense of belonging to a specific category, will reflect itself in form of conflict, as philosopher Daisaku Ikeda observes:

“When people are excessively attached to a narrow sense of identity, cultural differences can become a source of friction or even conflict”  (**)

This observation suggests that if the nature of the accepted reference for self-identity is narrowminded or exclusive (such as based on fanatic focus on religion or ethnicity) - then problems will inevitably arise.  But it also means that if the accepted reference for self-identity features a wider capacity and flexibility - then this would be the most stable and consistent reference of individual’s and social’s identity.

The problems of the Middle East are expressions of conflict of identities.  In general, identities of individuals in all societies of the Middle East are based on exclusive reference related to a specific religious or ethnic beliefs - and this leads to the situation that ethnicity and religion (as the specific aspect of identity) become superior or more important than the general aspect of people’s basic identity - that of humanity.  

The essence of social relationships in the Middle East is based on discrimination.

Identity in the Middle East - as a concept - regards the specific reference (of religion or ethnicity) as the highest or the ultimate - and this carries the seeds of conflicts with other’s systems of identification, which equally claim their reference to be the highest and the superior or the closer to God.

The common belief of Abrahamic religions in God and the Judgement Day – can be a unifying start for an agreement by moderate and willing to find a solution people.  It is the acceptance of believers of God himself, and that the evaluation of consequences of past wars can be left to God at the Judgement Day, while the principle of “live and let live” can be maintained. 

Nonetheless, it is sound education about the correct truth of identity (as essentially a human being) is most needed to make a shift towards replacing the obsession with differences by what brings a unifying benefit and true wisdom and prosperity. 

Humanism has the capacity to engulf all. 



(*)  The Essential of Attaining Buddhahood, The Writing of Nichiren Daishonin, p. 746, Published by The Soka Gakkai, 1999

(**)  Interview with Daisaku Ikeda, Ezmin magazine