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Change Writer

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.  

Are you a ________ or merely a consumer of ________ artifacts?

In his wonderful book, You Are What You Love, James K. A. Smith encourages us to reflect on the religious nature of the shopping experience by describing the shopping mall as a place of worship:

The layout of this temple has architectural echoes that harken back to medieval cathedrals – mammoth religious spaces designed to absorb all kinds of religious activities […] As we pause to reflect on some of the icons on the outside of one of the chapels, we are thereby invited to consider what’s happening within – invited to enter into the act of worship more properly, invited to taste and see. We are greeted by a welcoming acolyte who offers to shepherd us through the experience, but also has the wisdom to allow us to explore on our own terms if we so choose. Sometimes we will enter cautiously, curiously, tentatively making our way through the labyrinth within the labyrinth, having a vague sense of need but unsure how it will be fulfilled, and so open to surprise, to that moment where the spirit leads us to an experience we couldn’t have anticipated […] And this is a religion of transaction, of exchange and communion. We are invited to worship here, we are not only invited to give; we are invited to take. We don’t leave this transformative experience with just good feeling or pious generalities, but rather with something concrete and tangible – with newly minted relics, as it were, which are themselves the means to the good life embodied in the icons who invited us into this participatory moment in the first place.

You Are What You Love, p43-45

He argues that the liturgies, or practices, of consumerism are religious activities which shape us in ways that we don’t easily recognise. And they don’t only inform how we relate to things, but how we build relationships and how we approach our spiritual lives.

The pervasive nature of consumerism is challenging because it exists on a level that we are barely aware of. Let’s take an example outside of traditional religious institutions. Let’s say that one day I decide to be a minimalist. The idea of reducing my belongings and the good that would do to my mental disposition and the environment far outweighs the comfort of buying more stuff. So what do I do? I find some blogs which talk about minimalism. I go and buy a book about it. I start choosing which furniture I will buy in my new style of apartment (Muji, maybe?) You see, although I am now a minimalist, I am a minimalist through the overarching system of consumerism – I only really know how to do minimalism as a consumer.

Another example. I decide that I want to be a Christian; that’s my new tribe. so what do I do? I go out and buy books about it. I buy myself a Bible, and an introduction to reading it. I find a book about prayer. I start going to church. In fact, I realise it’s not that simple: I need to find a church that suits my tastes. Does it have music I like? How about the teaching? Does it align with my view on scripture?

Do you see what I’m getting at? Because I am a consumer without even being aware of it, it is the disposition with which I approach all of life.

There are products made to cater to this disposition in every type of consumer imaginable.

Salafists who want to be like the original followers of Muhammad can listen to halal music, or put their money in Islamic bank accounts even though neither of these were present during the Golden Age of Islam.

Vegetarians like myself can buy books about not eating meat, or t-shirts supporting the cause.

None of these things actually make a person more authentically Muslim, or a more serious vegetarian. Having seven Bibles and all the latest Christian pop music doesn’t make me a better follower of Jesus.

But all these things can give a person trained to be a consumer the feeling of authenticity. And the alternatives to consuming our way to the identities we want can be demanding. Being a devout Muslim takes discipline and perseverance. Being a vegetarian means giving up meat. Being a minimalist means letting go of distractions and clutter, not replacing them with (appropriately branded) new distractions and clutter.

So how do we move away from consumerism? Smith suggests that we do it by developing practices (liturgies) that train us to approach the world differently.

If consumerism trains us to see ourselves and our personal gratification as the most important thing, we take on practices that train us otherwise.

The challenge is recognising the formative practices that we already participate in and beginning to imagine counter-practices.