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Is identity fixed?

One of the interesting factors in the immigration debates that take place around Europe is how common it is that we end up making identity seem like something that is set in stone. 

Whoever you ask what it means to be Muslim, or what it means to be Swedish, they will usually describe something that in their view is fairly concrete. Let me illustrate this with two examples.

A Swede is someone who was born in Sweden, loves eating herring and crayfish, would raise arms to defend her country, respects the royal family, celebrates St. Lucia, Ascension Day, and All Hallows Eve. Swedes are tolerant and socially liberal.

A Muslim is someone who is devoted to God, who prays five times per day, who doesn’t eat pork or drink alcohol, who sees himself as part of a community before he is an individual, who fasts during Ramadan and gives money to the poor. Muslims go out of their way to help others and never get involved with crime.

But there’s a problem with these definitions. While there are those who align with them, there are also many who consider themselves Swedish, or Muslim, who do not. That’s because the language we use and the definitions we have for our categories are dynamic – they are used differently at different times and in different places.

Some years ago , I attended a dinner at Princeton University where I witnessed a revealing exchange between an eminent European philosopher who was visiting from Cambridge, and a Muslim scholar who was seated next to him. The Muslim colleague was indulging in a glass of wine. Evidently troubled by this, the distinguished don eventually asked his dining companion if he might be so bold as to venture a personal question. “Do you consider yourself a Muslim?” “Yes,” came the reply. “How come, then, you are drinking wine?” The Muslim colleague smiled gently. “My family have been Muslims for a thousand years,” he said, “during which time we have always been drinking wine.” An expression of distress appeared on the learned logician’s pale countenance, prompting the further clarification: “You see, we are Muslim wine-drinkers.” The questioner looked bewildered. “I don’t understand,” he said. “Yes, I know,” replied his native informant, “but I do.”

Shahab Ahmed, What is Islam? pg. 3

The same is true of identity. I’m not the same person I was five or ten years ago. I have grown, changed, experienced new things, made friends with new people who have given me insights on life that I previously did not have. As I interact with the world, I am constantly renegotiating what it means to be me.

Although this process happens in everyone, it is particularly noticeable for those going through big changes like migration. It is common for those who move from one society to another to discard ideas and practices from their homeland, especially when those ideas and practices have been tainted by war or persecution. A person who went to church every week might stop going. A person who has always considered herself part of a particular social group might begin to distance themselves from that group. They might even begin to associate with another group altogether.


Kathryn Kraft interviewed Syrian refugees who came into contact with churches in Lebanon. Most of these refugees were from a Muslim-background. Even though they first came into contact with the churches through their relief efforts, many of these Syrians began attending other activities organised by the churches.

In her interviews, Kraft found that while only a minority choose to change their identity from Muslim to Christian, all began re-evaluating their beliefs about God and changing some of their views and practices. In other words, being exposed to a group of people with very different views didn’t make them less Muslim, but it did change how they looked at their beliefs and practices.


When someone moves to a new society, it is also necessary for them to acquire skills or dispositions that enable them to thrive in their new host society. They might learn the language, or begin making friends with locals. Each culture has its own rules and things that are seen as more important than others and newcomers are often forced to acquire some level of competency in the things which are valued by their new society.

This process is also instrumental in a person’s identity. In acquiring a new language, or adapting to a new worldview, they are forced to see themselves differently. They are forced to reflect on what they once took for granted. Sometimes this period of reflection will lead to them being more determined in their views they had before leaving their homelands. Other times, they decide to align with a new way of seeing things or seek some kind of middle path between the two.


So the next time you hear someone say something like “Muslims think _______,” or “men are ________,” I challenge you to remember that there are always exceptions and that assuming that the identity of a person or a group of people is fixed does not reflect reality.

The one who got sent back

In my last post I mentioned the young men I spoke to who had converted to Christianity within the Church of Sweden. What I failed to mention was one young man, Amir*, who converted to Christianity, was then deported, but returned to Sweden a second time in order to seek asylum.

Amir had lived in Iran since the age of three but was deported to Afghanistan. He was terrified of admitting that he had become a Christian. He found a place to live with some other young men, all of whom were Muslim. All of whom prayed together five times each day. Amir participated, but was torn up inside because he knew he was no longer Muslim.

I lived in Afghanistan for four months and I was afraid the whole time, every second. I woke with nightmares, when I had slept at night…I was scared for my life.

Amir

He feared being found out, but also felt conflicted.

When he would take trips to other towns, the buses stopped at  prayer times in order that all the passengers could pray.

One day he decided he had had enough of faking it. He told one of his house mates who he believed he could trust. This house mate became angry; he went outside and began telling the neighbours that they had had a Christian living among them. The neighbours became angry.

Amir fled the neighbourhood and found a friend who he really could trust. He told this friend what had happened and asked him to go and check on how things were going at the house. When the friend returned he told him, “you have to flee immediately. You can’t return. They will kill you.” So Amir left immediately.


After making his way back to Sweden, Amir was told that he had to wait a full four years after his denial before he could apply for asylum again. He went into hiding, biding his time before he could officially enter the system again.

Hearing this story, looking this man in the eye as he told me of his simple desire to live in peace and security, really put flesh on the harm that ill informed migration officers can do.

*not his real name

Why are our migration officers “religiously illiterate”?

A recent op-ed by a theologian in one of Sweden’s largest newspapers describes the “religious illiteracy” with which the migration office here addresses the cases of asylum seekers who have changed religion since arriving in Sweden.

He argues that as a country which has religious freedom enshrined in its laws, and a high value for human rights, those who act as judges over the legitimacy of asylum applications should at least have basic competencies in understanding religion and religious journeys.

Unfortunately, it is usually the opposite, with migration officers having little more understanding of conversion processes than your average non-religious Swede.


At the end of 2017 and the beginning of 2018 I carried out fieldwork among unaccompanied refugee minors who had converted to Christianity in the Church of Sweden.

In the lead up to this project, I had conversations with many friends and acquaintances on the research I would be doing and I noticed a surprising trend. Almost everyone I spoke to said the same thing:

“Aren’t they converting so that they can stay in Sweden?”

It didn’t matter where the person came from or what their level of academic expertise, the question seemed to come up in every conversation.

Over time, I began to feel outraged at this default assumption, since conversion journeys have been shown to be much more complex than this in both academic literature and my own experience.

The young men I interviewed and spent time with for my study struck me as more genuine than most young people of their age I had met from Europe. They were devoted members of their churches and had often been part of the churches for several years before they were able to be baptised and be considered officially part of the congregation. By the time they were baptised, many had already received their residency.

Some had been shunned by their families and friends because they had decided to convert. Some had faced persecution from people from their homelands within Sweden. And yet they stood by their decision.


Priests described how these young men had revitalised their ailing congregations. They were extremely committed and very serious about learning the Bible and putting it into practice.

One priest told me that working with these young men had given him a love for his job that he didn’t have before, that he now got to do the things that the church are meant to be doing.


All of this brings me back to an important point. We need to learn to listen to those we judge. To really listen.

And when we don’t understand what we hear, to spend time developing the competency we need to make sense of it.

Because in this situation lives depend on it. We can’t let illiteracy and incompetence lead to the pointless deaths of those who have embraced European life to the full, who have begun to believe that they can decide how they self identify.

I hope that the Swedish migration office heeds this advice and reconsiders how it judges cases of religious conversion.  

The agency of refugees

I wrote previously about two narratives that undermine the way in which we look at refugees: that they deserve help because they might be the next Steve Jobs, and that they should be viewed primarily as victims.

In this post I will point out why recognising and celebrating the agency of refugees could be beneficial to our societies, even when looked at from the political right.


Our European nation states are, by and large, organised according to Neo-liberal ideology, which sees the market as right, the state as better when smaller, and democracy as a worthy norm.

And when we talk about democracy from a Neo-liberal perspective, we’re not just talking about one-person-one-vote and the chance to elect any kind of government the masses desire, we’re talking about a very specific type of government.

It has to be a government that promotes the free market, eschews radical ideology and pushes forward ideals such as gender equality and human rights.

Typically, the further right you are economically, the more you trust the market. In fact, the market itself becomes more than just an economic matter as its rules are applied to everything – people, projects, etc.

Neo-liberalism sees the world as a competition. People compete for resources, the strongest win. It’s like political Darwinism. Those who acquire vast resources do so because they deserve them, because they have worked hard and earned them.

This worldview isn’t really compatible with the victim narrative because, deep down, those who view the world as a competition don’t necessarily believe that they have a duty to help those who are losing the game. When it’s a matter of she who plays best wins, the loser is losing because they’re not trying hard enough to win.


Right now I’m not going to get into the systemic violence which works against many who play the  game. Instead I want to suggest a refugee narrative that might work in a Neo-liberal context.

I want to suggest that we start looking at those who arrive at our borders seeking refuge not as victims, but as winners.

These are individuals who, in spite of having all the odds stacked against them, have made it to a more stable place. They have risked their lives. They have navigated unknown territories. They have been brave enough to leave behind everything they once knew.

They have just competed in one of the most grueling journeys that it is possible to take, and survived. 


If we learn to see these newcomers as intelligent, capable individuals who have already proven their ability to face challenges, we might just reduce the stigma of being labelled a refugee.

It might be easier for us to recognise that while there are ways in which they need help, there are also many ways in which they can help us, and many things which we can learn from them.