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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.

Language Hack 6: Uncomfortable Situations

One way that you can really stretch yourself linguistically is to put yourself in situations that are uncomfortable.

In comfortable situations you usually use vocabulary you know well. Only spending time with friends can leave you relying on their familiarity with with your style of speaking, rather than on your accuracy.

It’s also easy to treat speaking your target language as a performance that you’ve prepared in advance: you’ve chosen the subject, memorised the relevant words, and now you’re demonstrating that knowledge to someone who you feel relaxed in front of.

Making yourself understood by strangers, in higher pressure situations, is a whole different ballgame. Your choice of words and style of communication become really important because the listener doesn’t have relational history to lean into as they try to follow what you’re saying.

Go get rattled

Although I’d practiced this while living in Jordan, I hadn’t really reflected on it’s benefits until I read Nathan Field’s blog post, 20 strategies for becoming a fluent Arabic speaker, a really useful post that he’s currently converting into an ebook. In his post Field says:

the key to really getting good at spoken is making sure a huge portion of your 250 hours take place outside of your comfort zone. You want: To be in situations where you are nervous [and] To be in situations where you are “rattled,” if not embarrassed.

He describes two situations in which car trouble (a blowout and a collision) forced him to speak, and where adrenaline and the ‘muscle memory’ of his studies “took over”:

The Arabic words just came out.  I didn’t think.  I reacted and spoke effectively

Taking up the challenge

Yesterday I put this principle to the test using the other language that I’m learning: Swedish. I’ve recently returned to Sweden, and decided to visit Arbetsförmedlingen, the official body that assists job seekers.

I had an appointment, and decided to use only Swedish during it, even though I knew the person I was meeting probably spoke pretty good English.

Beforehand I was much more nervous than I would have been going into an English-language meeting, but the decision payed off. The two staff members I met with were happy to stick to Swedish, and I understood almost everything they said. There were two moments when I reverted to English because I didn’t know the right word, but we returned to Swedish afterwards.

I left the interview excited and invigorated at what I’d just achieved, and exhausted from the amount of focussing I’d had to do!

Tips for getting uncomfortable

Here are a few of the ideas that Field gives for getting out of comfort zone language practice:

  1.  Take 5 minutes to research terms related to vacuum cleaners or some other device that you need to buy. Then Go into a department store and ask for the pros and cons of the vacuum cleaners they have on stock. Only in Arabic. Preferably with a queue behind you.
  2. Intentionally “get lost” in a neighborhood in the Arabic city you are studying.  Then ask for directions in Arabic back to the spot you know and find your way back home.  If anyone tries to help you in English,  say you are from a country where no one would know the language: Mongolia.
  3. Phone calling – so much of communication is conveyed by body language, seeing each other and that is often a crutch for Arabic students: just call a restaurant to order; call the department store to ask about stuff etc.

Read Nathan Field’s blog here.