Identity carries many different meanings

Identity carries many different meanings


The term identity carries many different meanings in the literature. Some scholars use the term self (Holstein & Gubrium, 2000), others use the term identity (Schachter, 2005; Schwartz, 2005), and a third group of scholars use the term self-identity (Bautista & Boone, 2005; Yihong, Ying, Yuan, & Yan, 2005). Additionally, the definition of what constitutes an identity varies among scholars. For example, Hoare (1991) claimed that identity is one's interconnectedness and understanding with one's own self and its authenticity. Schachter (2005) saw identity as a construction influenced by socio-cultural factors. Whereas, Gubrium and Holstein (1995) proposed an idea of the self in the process of continuously being shaped by everyday's practice in the local culture through the shared resources, languages and institutions. Both Miskovic (2007) and Kosmitzki (1996) believed that every person has certain attributes that make him or her unique individual in addition to shared characteristics with others as a result of the same ancestry and history. Additionally, they believe identity will constantly change and become remade as people make meaning of themselves and the world around them.

According to Gee's (2001) definition, people have multiple identities not connected to who they are from within, but connected to their performances in society: “When any human being acts and interacts in a given context, others recognize that person as acting and interacting as a certain 'kind of person' or even as several different 'kinds' at once” (p.2). Thus, a person's identity is defined by others. To him, identity is bounded by place and time “the kind of person one is recognized as being at a given time and place can change from moment to moment in the interaction, can change from context to context, and, of course, can be ambiguous or unstable”(p.2). In this sense of the term, all people have multiple identities connected not to their "internal states", but to their performances in society; therefore, identity is socially constructed. However, Gee (2001) does not deny that each person has a "core identity" that is consistent in all contexts. Since individual identity changes according to the context and time, then it is influenced by the socio-cultural environment in which it exists. Miskovic (2007) echoed Gee by saying that “Individual identities are inseparable from their socio-cultural environment, as each individual's subjectivity is shaped by the searching for meaning in that environment” (p. 514). Therefore, identity is shaped by the meanings that people make out of their experience in a particular culture that either constrains or enhances this experience.

Additionally, people make meaning through interaction with one another in society by using language. Therefore language is vital in helping individuals make meanings among themselves and others because “the meaning of one's identity derives from the interdependence between the personal and societal” (Miskovic, 2007, p.514). In addition, history is a great force that shapes people's identity. According to Baldwin (1965),

“The great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all what we do. It could scarcely be otherwise, since it is to history that we owe our frames of reference, our identities, and our aspirations” (p.321)

Therefore, a person's history, whether it is of the person's ancestry or whether it is the history of the person's original homeland, or the historical conditions in the host society, people carry it within them and their identities are influenced by this history. That is why; Moghissi (2009) argued that it is essential to treat diaspora not as a definition but to critically connect the term to the experience of the forces that have historically negatively pushed populations out of their homeland across borders. Forces such as: colonialism, neo-colonialism, hegemonic nationalist ideologies, imperialism, regionalization and globalization. Diaspora is socially constructed. The experience of diaspora is based on living in a place away from one's group therefore feeling that one is exiled, being a psychological outsider and feeling that one does not belong to the host society. In addition, racialization and denial of access to political and economic power are the major components of a diaspora experience. In that case, diaspora is a term that reflects power relations and inequalities towards a certain population through a set of social relations and practices that are normalized and homogenized to make these groups feel alienated, unaccepted and exiled. These negative feelings influence the individual's identity.

Nevertheless, in the postmodernism and new-capitalism era, identities are not rooted any more in a specific context; they transcend borderlands and are constructed through the transnational connections with which the individuals are engaged dialectically (Zine, 2007). Discursive identities are formed and negotiated for social, economic, and political ends (Gee, 2000).

Zine (2007) critiques the notions of identity in a postmodern perspective for being abstract, alternating and hard to pin down. She wrote:

“Post-modernism, thrives on such shifting uncertainties. Abstract metaphors reduce identities to ethereal notions of “spaces” and borderlands” so that we do not become trapped in fixed relationships which threaten to erase our agency. Yet we should be careful not to confuse metaphor (symbol) with reality. Identities are more than metaphorical symbolic constructs; they are grounded in actual states of being” (p.111).

Zine (2007) argues that identities are not limited to people's performance in society, but also embedded within specific ideologies, beliefs and reflected in patterns of behaviors and actions. Therefore, religion and spirituality play a vital role when discussing any religious identity.

According to Nelson (1991), identity is understood as a complicated interaction between one's sense of self and others sense of who one is. Thus, when deconstructing Islamic identity, we must take in consideration the multiple discursive constructions that exist as a result of interconnection between religious and spiritual belief and practice that shape the identity from within (Zine, 2007) our “internal states” (Gee, 2000). In addition, the ways in which identity is “acted upon” (Zine, 2007) through the external re-ordering of identity through social discursive interactions.

Stonebanks (2008) points out that Muslim ways of knowing are complex and diverse and deeply connected to and guided by Islam. He connects Muslim ways of knowing to Indigenous ways of knowing through the shared relationship and collective experience of colonialism and imperialism. He points out that the oppressed groups should confront the master narratives by developing their own counter narratives. Therefore, as a Muslim activist and an educator, in this paper, I attempt to deconstruct the multiple layers of Islamic identity by first introducing what I call “R-identity” to deconstruct the religious and spiritual aspect of the Islamic identity. Then I will use Gee's perspectives on N, I, D and A-identity (Natural, Institutional, Discursive and Affinity-Identities) to deconstruct the ethnic, social and political aspects of the Muslim identity.

Key Terms

Islam: a religion operating with the ideology of tawhid (the monotheism of Allah (God)).

Muslims: adherents to the Islamic faith (people who are submissive to Allah).

Islamic identity versus Muslim identity: I use the term Islamic identity only when I discuss the religious and spiritual aspects of the individual Muslim identity. On the other hand, I use the term Muslim identity to discuss the other discursive identifications of the individual Muslims: the ethnic, social and political.

Islamophobia: a form of socio- political discursive oppression as a result of externally perceived and defined Islamic I-Identity ascribed around extremism and violence rather than in accordance with the lived realities of Muslims from the ideological mainstream (Zine, 2007).


According to feminist scholars like Cannella & Manuelito (2008), human beings do not have the ability to define, know, and judge the minds of other cultures or their ways of being. They believe the purpose of research is to challenge unjust social systems, discourses and institutions and to privilege marginalized knowledge while avoiding the objectification of this knowledge. Therefore, in understanding the complexity of Islamic identity, it is important to consider religious identities as part of the multiple discursive constructions of the social and political identities that individuals hold along with their race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality and national identity (Zine, 2007). Nevertheless, most of the literatures about Islamic identities fail to recognize religious identities as part of Muslims' multiple discursive identities.

We can locate the basis for an Islamic identity within the spiritual beliefs and practices. However, there are diverse ways by which Islam is applied and practiced. Therefore, it is impossible to view Muslims as monolithic (Zine, 2007).

Many Muslims in the past and currently define their Islamic identities away from the religious model embedded within the Holy Quran and the way of life of Prophet Muhammad. Nevertheless, from a religious perspective, being a Muslim is not simply a label; the religion of Islam has to be embodied through the adherents' practices (Zine, 2007). Therefore, the markers of the Islamic identity are determined by the extent to which Islam defines the nature of cultural behavior among individuals and societies. However, using Gee's (2001) theory of identity construction through re-arranging certain combinations of identity state that:

“At a given time and place, a person engages in what I will call a "combination". A combination is some specific way of combining the following things: a) speaking (or writing) in a certain way; b) acting and interacting in a certain way; c) using one's face and body in a certain way; c) dressing in a certain way; d) feeling, believing, and valuing in a certain way, and e) using objects, tools, ortechnologies (i.e. "things") in a certain way” (p.20).

In the case of Islamic identity, these combinations of identity can be re-arranged only when secular or cultural notions are privileged over spiritual ones (Zine, 2007). There are certain guidelines and models for behavior embedded in the Quran and in the well-documented actions and behaviors of Prophet Muhammad, who is considered by all Muslims as a living example of how the Quran should be lived. Key spiritual beliefs relating to peace, social justice, equity, unity and love, which are all important foundations for building Islamic identification and social and political praxis (Freire, 2000).

Abdel Rauf (1983) believes that Islam is a religion and at the same time, a culture. As a religion, it covers doctrine, spiritual and practices. As a culture, it is a way of life that provides individuals with framework this is not limited to time or context. Its flexibility allows people to redefine the non-fundamental aspects of it to suit the change of time (historical period) and the socio-political context to tackle new challenges. Zine (2007) explains that for many Muslims, Islam offers a comprehensive way of life that governs the “social, economic, and political behavior of its followers as well as other aspects of life such as: values, etiquette, social relations, and styles of dress, hygiene and diet. In this way Islam can be seen as constructing a distinctive culture or style of life” (p.114).

Indeed, the Quran defines certain guidelines and markers on how Islamic identity should ideally be lived. There are numerous Quranic verses that address the attributes and behaviors of the believers (Al Muminoon). There are spiritually-based principals such as faith (iman), worship (ibadat), and social etiquette and manners (adhab) with both Muslims and Non-Muslims. In addition, there are guidelines for what lawful (halal) is and what not lawful (haram) is. However, as mentioned before that Islam's flexibility allow people to model it to match their historical period and the socio-political context. Since, Muslim societies differ in these aspects therefore, “the degree to which these behaviors are adopted and practiced is determined by various individual, cultural, and sectarian interpretations of Islam” (Zine, 2007, p. 114). Rahnema, (2006) and Moghissi, (2009) echoed that by saying that Islam is not a monolithic religion, it has different sects. The major sects are Sunni and Shia'a and even among these two main sects there are several other sects. For instance, in Sunni there are four main schools of thought: Hanbali, Shafiei, Malik and Hanfi. While, in Shiaa there are over 200 sects who have their own interpretations of the religion (Merry, 2007).

Ahmad Yousif (1993) conducted a study to examine Islamic identity among Muslim youth in Canada. He assumed that the degree of his participants' adherence to the five pillars of Islam is an indication of the level of Islamic identity. While, the degree of his participants' adherence to un-Islamic practices such as drinking alcohol, pre-marital sex, eating pork and bank interest indicated the degree of Islamic identity loss. He found that “the preservation of religious belief by means of ritual observance and strong religious commitment is central to the maintenance of Islamic identity in a non-Islamic society” (p.27).

As a social construct, Muslim identity carries many different meanings. As mentioned earlier that Muslims are not monolithic, there are ethnic variations that determine how Islam should be lived in different societies. To determine how ethnicity and religion are intertwined, Lewins (1978) studied how the collective interest of the society in Australia allowed the enhancement of both religious and ethnic identities which vary according to different contexts and the collective interests. Nevertheless, Jacobson (1998) views the difference between ethnic and religious boundaries, is that ethnic identities are fluid and are constantly redefined based on the change in time, technology and fashion (Gee, 2001). Gee (2001) mentioned that identity is tied to the workings of historical, institutional and socio-cultural forces. Some identities are in fashion at a certain historical period while others become old fashion in another context. For instance, Gee (2001) mentioned that in 19 century Europe in which institutional identities where very fashionable where as in current postmodern era the discursive identities are in fashion. On the other hand, religious boundaries are fixed because they are rooted in scriptural texts. Therefore, as a social identification, being a Muslim is like an umbrella absorbing multiple meanings influenced by secular, cultural or ethnic orientations. While, in a religious conception, Islamic identity is more firmly fixed in the Quran and modeled through the Prophet's behaviors and practices.

Therefore, the stronger the Islamic identity is the more it will define the Muslim's style of life and other aspects of the Muslim's identity including the social, the cultural and the political. Thus it will also influence the perception of oneself, others and the world. For example, Zine (2006) summarized how religious and spiritual Islamic beliefs shape other discursive identities of a practicing Muslim. First, the Muslim learns the religious knowledge based on epistemology from three sources: revealed sacred knowledge locate in the Quran, the historical narratives and life of the Prophet and hermeneutic knowledge based on interpretive reasoning. Second, the knowledge is circulated through religious sermons at the mosque, religious circles (halaqas), conferences and religious texts. Third, this informs discourse, gendered socialization, expectations and Islamic behavior. Fourth, this knowledge then frames every day's practices and helps establish rules, laws, gendered space, and ritual practices. Finally, these practices and laws inform subjectivity, ontology and how Muslims give meanings to themselves, how they see other humans and the world around them. Since the key foundations of Islam are peace, social and environmental justice, unity and love, therefore the stronger the Islamic identity is the more these foundations will define the Muslim's every day's life and behaviors. However, identity is fluid and changeable therefore in order to maintain Islamic identity, the Muslims need to maintain the practice.

Therefore, in the Islamic religion there is a clear connection between identity and religious practice. Thus, when using Gee's frame to deconstruct Islamic identity, it is important to consider the R-identity that is grounded in religious ideology and spirituality as part of the complex building blocks of Muslims' social identity construction.

Gee's theory of N, I, D and A-Identities

In a postmodern perspective, identity is a social construction, therefore being a Muslim is defined according to the recognition of others. Gee (2000) described four ways to view identity, that is, “what it means to be a "certain kind of person" (p.3). The first perspective to view identity is through the biological make up of the person. Gee calls it ‘N-Identity' (Nature identity) like being a certain gender; male or female, being a certain race; an Arab, or having a certain skin color like black or white. N-Identities have to be recognized by the institutions, discourse and dialogue, or affinity groups within the environment in which they exist. When institutions focus on them as natural or biological identities on their own, it is to shift the focus away from the institutional and socio-cultural workings that create and sustain them as identities. The second perspective on identity is through the institutional authorities; Gee calls it ‘I-Identity' (Institutional identity) that is endorsed by authorities within institutions such as being a professor, a teacher, a doctor and others. This identity is controlled by authorization through rules, laws and norms that allow the authorities to grant this position and in terms the I-identity. In some cases the N-identity and I-identity support and sustain each other like being a man may help achieve a certain institutional position like becoming a president of a country. While, on the other hand being a woman might restrict I-identity by forcing women into certain gender roles in society. I-identity could be a profession or an imposition such as being a terrorist, a extremist, a prisoner or other imposed I-identities. The third perspective on identity is the D-Identity (Discourse Identity); an individual attribute recognized by other individuals through interaction with this person in discourse or dialogue. Thus, the source of this power is rational individuals who interact with this person by choice for the reasons of appreciation of the person. D-identities can sometimes be ascribed or achieved; female students with hijab (head scarf) might be ascribed negative assumptions because of this dress code like being unintelligent, uneducated or uninterested in education. The fourth perspective on identity is through the affiliation with a certain affinity group, Gee calls it ‘A-Identity' (Affinity identities) in which the members of the affinity group share, have access to and participate in specific practices that give each of its members the vital experiences. A-identities focus on social practices and maintain devotion to the practice and with the people of the affinity groups through dialogue and discourse. Affinity groups include members who might be dispersed on a large area across countries and surpass states borders. The members of the affinity groups are usually members by choice. In addition, the process through which this power works is participation and sharing.

Any identity trait can be understood in terms of any of these perspectives. For example a label as Muslim American can be understood as N-Identity in terms of racial and biological characteristics linked to this religious identity, such as the false assumption that all Muslims are Arabs. In terms of I-Identity, Muslim Americans have been accused of adhering to a religion that supports terrorism and therefore are assumed to be terrorists and are expected to act according to their disposition in the society. In terms of D-identity it is viewed in the way people talk about what it means to be a Muslim American in a non-Muslim society in post 9/11 through discourse and dialogue between rational individuals. Finally, a Muslim American can be viewed as an A-Identity through the person's adherence to the shared practices and activities with other Muslim Americans and other Muslims around the globe.

Gee (2001) emphasized that Discourse can be embedded, one inside another forming layers of identity. One Discourse can blend or mix two others like being a Muslim American, African American, and Mexican American and so on. However, these Discourses can be related to each other in alignment or tension. According to Rahnema (2006), Muslims in the diaspora have at least triple identities. Besides their religion and sectarian identities, they differ in their ethnic identities (Arabs, Palestinian, Pakistani….) and many of them may identify themselves with the national identity before the religious one. In addition to their religious and ethnic identities, they carry the national identity of the host society. Sometimes, there are tensions between the overlapping identities of Muslims. Therefore Muslim American identity is a work in progress and in a constant state of being and becoming (Moll, 2009).

Gee (2001) claims that people can accept, contest, and negotiate identities in terms of whether they will be seen primarily as R, D, N, I, or A-Identities. “What is at issue, though, is always how and by whom a particular identity is to be recognized. If an attribute is not recognized as defining someone as a particular "kind of person", then, of course, it cannot serve as an identity of any sort” (p.20). Therefore, in the following section, I will deconstruct Muslim identities as a social construct in the host society. In other words, I will deconstruct how Muslims are viewed and analyzed in post 9/11 western context by using Gee's frame of D, N, I and A-identities.


As said earlier that Islam is a religion but at the same time a culture. Therefore, one of the factors that influence the construction of Islamic identity is the relationship between the text, the reader, the context in which this reading process exist and the meanings driven from such relationship (Said, 2002, Zine, 2007).

This explains why there are different interpretations and applications of the Islamic doctrine in different contexts. For example, Abou El Fadl (2002) has argued that extremist groups such as Al Qaeda and the Taliban have taken up radicalism and religious extremism as a result of literal readings of Islamic Holly texts. On the other hand, there are liberal, secular, traditional and modernist interpretations of the holly texts as a result of reading and interpreting Islamic doctrine in different context resulting in the construction of different forms of Islamic identities (Merry, 2007). These subjectivities are also discursively constructed through other social, cultural and political negotiations as part of the individual's lived realities.

Nevertheless, Zine (2007) argues that the construction of extremist and fundamentalist forms of Islamic identities is as a result of the historical context that we currently live in.

“In an era of increasing globalization, the persistent attempts of Western cultures to colonize Muslim societies have been regarded as a force that threatens to de-Islamize these societies by subverting and supplanting core values and practices. The rise of Islamic fundamentalism is a by-product of globalization and increasing Western culture imperialism. “This retreat from the homogenizing forces of globalization represents how the resulting tensions and feelings of loss associated with rapid global and cultural change often lead to greater policing and regulation of social categories” (p.120)

On the other hand, Muslims D-identities have been deconstructed by the West through the lenses of either Orientalism in pre 9/11 or fundamentalism post 9/11 (Zine, 2007). Pre-9/11, there are historical dynamics that governed the relationship between Muslims and America. For instance, Marr (2006) explained that at the time when America had no direct contact with the Muslim world, it adopted the stereotypic images of Muslims based on Orientalism from Europe then it developed new images of American Islamicism within the specific matrix of their own cultural imaginations. Historically, American Islamicism served as a symbolic ethnicity for defining the international outline of cultural positions constructed as American. The cultural images of Islam circulating during the colonial period stood in opposition to American moral legitimacy as an emerging civilization.

Currently, the Islamopobic constructions of Muslim identity after 9/11 serve political and economic interests similar to those that American Islamicism has historically served. These negative images serve to gather sympathy for imperialist adventures overseas (Haddad, Smith, and Moore, 2006). In addition, the patriot act after 9/11 distanced Muslims from the boundaries of nationalism and defined their citizenship rights in the West (Genieve, 2006).

Negative ascribed D-identities of Muslims as terrorists, barbaric, uncivilized and oppressive to women became scripted in the American social imagination through symbolic interactions. Wray (2006) explains how this process works through what he calls “the boundary theory”. This theory states that people start to group others into categories; same categories mean they have characteristics in common and different categories mean that they have nothing in common. The boundaries that enable social organizations are of two kinds: symbolic and social. Symbolic boundaries of race, ethnicity, gender and sexuality have been used to divide people based on biological lines and distinctions of phenotype, nationality and ethnicity. These symbolic boundaries then start to be popular, establish social distinctions and start justifying inequalities. These symbolic boundaries gain power and then transform into laws and all of a sudden, the symbolic boundary becomes a social boundary.

The media and other tools of communication play a big role in transforming symbolic boundaries into social boundaries. For instance, the western media distort the nature of Islam, the political realities of Muslim world and its diverse relations with the west (Haddad, Smith and More, 2006; Genieve, 2006; Zine, 2007). It uses stereotypes and images of Arabs and Muslims that have been circulating since Orientalism as nomads or oil shaykhs with multiple wives in the harems, portraying them as emotional, aggressive and irrational people (Haddad, Smith and More, 2006; Genieve, 2006; Zine, 2007). In addition, misconceptions often equate Islam with holy war since the crusades, intolerance of other religions and the oppression of women (Haddad, Smith and More, 2006; Genieve, 2006; Zine, 2007). According to Gee (2001), the different institutions work together to maintain a certain identity. “Foucault (e.g., 1973, 1977, 1980) stressed the ways in which historical working of texts, institutions, and social practices, aligned in certain ways, set limits to what can be meant or how things and people can be recognized as meaningful at given times and places” (p30).

Nevertheless, social boundaries vary from culture to culture and across time. For example sexism, can exist in different societies with different forms and various degrees of social practices, the same with racism and religious discrimination. For instance, the hijab (head cover) of Muslim females has been a controversial issue in the West especially after 9/11. However, some western societies like France and Turkey have banned the hijab while the United States did not ban the hijab respecting the freedom of Muslim women to express their religiosity. In that case, social boundaries represent our practices, activities and institutions that give the symbolic boundary its legitimacy and make social practices as racism, sexism and religious discrimination natural and unremarkable.

The boundary theory explains how some groups get stereotyped in the society like Muslim being ascribed D-Identities as backward or terrorists. According to Gee (2001), often times, the elites fashion their D-Identities in opposition with the non-elites and they ascribe negative properties of D-identities to the non-elites that make them seem inferior. The non-elites are encouraged through the works of hegemony to accept these ascribed D-identities as if they were achieved. As a result, non-elites are encouraged to see the superior identities of the elites as achieved D-identities rooted in their efforts within a fair system of competition.

By this process, non-elites accept the perspectives of the elites internalize them and use them to judge themselves in negative ways. Thus Muslims especially post 9/11 have been ascribed inferior identities by the elites such as barbaric, uncivilized, ignorant and terrorists (Moghissi, 2009; Zine, 2006). One of the ways that symbolic boundary works is through words and concepts. These words are then repeated, circulated, and if they are powerful enough, they leave impact and become institutionalized in language and speech. People also make group boundaries based on social differentiation which becomes rooted in our individual and collective consciousness. These group boundaries include stereotyping about a certain group such as blacks are lazy, Native Americans are savages in-civilized, and Muslims are terrorists …and so on. The social boundaries give power to symbolic boundaries through the daily practices and activities of the norms and values of social control in the form of institutions and communities which are translated into social capital. Social capital creates human capital. Human capital use social capital in the form of social relationships to promote D-identities of certain individuals for the collective interests of the elites.

As I mentioned before, understanding how the boundary theory works helps us understand how groups get ascribed negative D-identity that becomes fixed in the society. For example: Wray talks about the term “White Trash”. If we divide the term “White trash” and try to analyze it we will find a race and class social boundary there; “white” race and “trash” for poor class. The two words together help distinguish between a trash of race which is different from a trash of another race; Black trash, Indian trash, and so on… “White trash” is a stereotype given to poor whites because they refused to respect the dominant moral boundaries regarding property, work, gender, and color lines. They communicated with black slaves and with Native Americans which according to the dominant elites caused them to have “bad blood”; they were suffering from hereditary defects - so the elites didn't find them a place to fit in the new republic as they were looked down upon because of their manners, morals and bad reputation. According to Allen (2008) poor whites are stereotyped this way to serve a political purpose. The poor whites and the non-poor whites within the white group serve as a hegemonic alliance against the people of color. They act as the deflection of non-poor whites to point fingers onto them instead of non- poor whites while addressing issues of racism against people of color. Similarly, Muslims are stereotyped as terrorists and barbaric to serve a political and economic interest of the elites of the society.

Combining understanding of the boundary theory with Coleman's (1988) understanding of social capital about trust and closure helps build the bridge between the two theories to understand how such stereotype influence the disposition of the stereotyped groups in the society and limits their access to political and economic powers. According to Coleman, social capital is about creating a bond of trust; a social network that creates obligation and expectations among a group. They share a bond that motivates them to do things to benefit themselves and the group and serving everybody's interests will help maintain the structure of the group. The social capital of the elites acts as an information channel about trust. People only trust the information that they get from their group. Based on that, the elites use this trust to deliver false information about the stereotyped groups knowing that the members will trust the information based on the closure theory of trust. The elites also make the lie seem interesting to the audience. If people check the basic belief of Islam they will find out that its basic key foundations are about peace, social and environmental justice and unity not terrorism, barbarism and oppression. As a result, Muslims are ascribed negative D-Identities in the society based on the persistent lenses of Orientalism and Fundamentalism that consequently influence Muslims' identities negatively resulting in religious discrimination and less job opportunities. In both lenses, N-identity is salient.


It could be argues that Muslim identity is viewed by Western societies as an N-Identity. Before September 11, Islam was known to be the religion of the slaves (Smith, 2000). Since a large number of slaves who were brought from Africa to America during the colonial and post-colonial era were Muslims, then Islamic identification was linked to the black race. After slavery Islam continued to define African American populations due to the emergence of several African American organizations affiliated with Islam or some elements of it. For example, The Nation of Islam (NOI) is an African American movement that emerged in 1930's. Its aim was to achieve political and social recognition and to give the African Americans an identity away from the Whites, to give them a sense of belonging and to achieve freedom through economic power (Smith, 2000, Haddad, Smith and Moore, 2006).

After 9/11, Muslims N-identities shifted from being associated with the African race to becoming associated with Arabs. African American Muslims are aware of this shift and as a result, they try to separate themselves from the Arabs by claiming indigenous space that differs from immigrant Muslims who claim diasporic space.

In her study, McCloud (1995) examines the Islamic identifications of the African America communities in different historical periods and socio-political contexts. She mentioned that African American community life could be defined that of assabiya and ummah. McCloud states that the first half of the twentieth century, African American communities were concerned with assabiyah; which is to establish kinship relations based on tribal bondingsthen, latter they started to prioritize the ummahand being part of pan-Islamisim and the global community of the believers. Which is a significant shift from the sectarian Nation of Islam under Eljah Muhammad to the mainstream traditional Islam under Warith Deen Muhammad son of Eljah Muhammad the founder of NOI.

The reason behind Eljah Muhammad's philosophy to establish the NOI based on a sectarian philosophy away from the actual Islamic traditional philosophy is described by his son, Warith Deen Muhammed to be essential for the organic development of self actualization among African Americans at that time. McCloud states that:

Imam Muhamed described African Americans as creatures who indeed have souls, but whose legacy of slavery has wiped out all of their self knowledge. African Americans were and are available to have their beings written upon by anyone, in particular by their “former” masters. The position of the Nation was that sense of self had to be restored first. What also comes to light the discussion is that Islam seats itself in already formed cultures acting to re-interpret or re-direct, and sometimes eliminate traditional values and virtues, but never to form humans. This is why Eljah Muhammad could not give the “true” Islam to his community, as presented by immigrant Muslims. Islam did not and could not take hold a generation after the legal end of slavery. It could make no sense to “empty vessels” (African Americans) who were unable to understand themselves as actors in the world. As a direct consequence, sense of self had to be re-introduced and nourished prior to any reception of the full teachings of Islam as presented by Imam Muhammad (original emphasis) (p.74).

McCloud explained that a tension exists between immigrant Muslims and indigenous Muslims as these communities struggle from divisive ethno-politics (Genieve, 2006; Haddad, Smith and Moore, 2006; Smith, 2000).

Therefore, both indigenous and immigrant Muslims in America suffer from ethno-political internal conflicts in addition to other divisive lines. Additionally, Muslim Americans come from diverse ethnicities. Therefore, they differ in their internal social relations of class, race, gender, sectarian affiliations, the degree of religiosity, and cultural practices (Moghissi, 2009). Furthermore, they differ in social, cultural and integration polices of the United States (Gee, 2000). This differentiation depends on how they are racialized and perceived based on the influence of specific social structures and historical/political relationship each group has within the power structure of the United States (Collins, 2000). For example African American Muslims are racialized and perceived differently than Arab American Muslims because each group has unique socio-political histories. Despite the fact that Muslims in America are comprised of diverse communities, post 9/11 they are assumed to be a monolithic group of an ascribed N-Identity as Arabs.

Moghissi (2009) argues that this assumption is based on the idea that when people migrate from one country to another, their identities merge within the specific social relations of race, class and gender that exist in the new society. For groups that are particularly visible in the society because of a notable difference in terms of skin color, dress code, religious practices or different way of life, their new identities are influenced by these factors and formed accordingly, creating an unbridgeable gap between the migrants and the host society. This results in challenges of racial and religious discrimination.

While, Zine (2007) believes that the assumption of a monolithic N-Identity is part of a European imperialist project to dominate and de-Islamize the Muslim societies. For example, the practice of hijab has been interpreted by the West as an overt symbol of oppression of women in the Arab societies. With such claims, they justify colonization of these societies (Haddad & Smith & Moore, 2006). However, the different ideological debates regarding this controversy will make imperialist colonization to Arab lands a difficult task. For instance, western feminist scholars like bell hooks (2000) pointed out that one of the tools that would liberate women from male dominancy is for women to change their dress codes. Therefore from a feminist perspective the hijab could be seen as a tool of liberation of women from patriarchal dominancy. While, from the majority of Muslim women stand point (Cannella & Manuelito, 2008), the hijab represents an important identification as Muslims and an expression of the faith.

Therefore, pre-9/11 the hijab in Western imagination is confused to be representative of Arab women instead of Muslim women who are not necessarily Arabs to justify occupation of these societies. Similarly, in post 9/11, extremist groups such as Taliban and Al Qaeda are also mistakenly ascribed N-Identity as Arabs even though they come from different ethnic, cultural and racial backgrounds.

Stressing on N-Identity as a social marker leads to the construction of other discursive social meanings such as I-Identities that are tied to projects of economic and political domination.


The current socio-political context has witnessed the emergence of Al Qaeda and Taliban as institutional identities. As a result of the attacks of 19 hijackers in 9/11, one billion Muslims are treated as one homogenous group, ascribed fixed negative I-identities as terrorists and exposed to scrutiny and Islamphobia (Zine, 2007).

The media plays a role in the Islamophobic representation of Islamic identity portraying Muslims as terrorists who pose a threat to the democratic order, freedom and liberal values. These negative images serve to portray Islam as the post 9/11 enemy of Western world in addition, to the distorted reality of Islam and Muslims and its diverse relations with the west. This Islamophobic construction of Muslim I-identity is similar to earlier colonial representations of Muslims that served a similar political purpose of gaining public consent and justifications for imperial, socio-cultural and economic domination of Muslim societies (Said, 1979).

Therefore Muslims face dialing challenges trying to change these negative notions. It is especially difficult for individuals who experience racial profiling, harassments and hate crimes. Thus, Muslim Americans deal with these challenges by using different strategies. Some use the “cover” strategy; which is to conceal their Islamic identities by hiding any religious symbol; even women who wear hijab were encouraged by Muslim scholars after 9/11 to wear hats instead and turtleneck pullovers. Others change their names to Western names for example Mohamed became Mike, Mo or Smith and Joma'ah became Friday. Some put American flags in front of their houses. Interestingly this fear based form of assimilation uncovers the concealed notions of civil rights and freedom that the United States holds in the constitutions (Haddad & Smith & Moore, 2006).

On the other hand, some Muslims completely assimilate to the American society's values because they were raised in non-practicing families (Zine, 2004). On this issue, Haddad (2009) argues that the Americanization of Arab and Muslims in the United States is not talked about at all. Therefore, she referred in her book “Not Quite American” to a study by Abdo El Kholy (1950) on two Arab-Muslim communities in the United States; Detroit community and Toledo community to assess their assimilation to the American society after the communities' lived in isolation for almost a quarter century. The first factor he found influencing their assimilation was their occupation. Detroit community lived in a ghetto like environment totally isolated from non- Muslims while the Toledo community had higher incomes. They worked in the liquor industry and the ownership of 30% of the city bars. Islam forbids alcohol therefore, they did not consume alcohol themselves but they sold it. The second factor was the neglect and ignorance of Islamic teachings. El Kholy observed that even though they attended the mosque services, young members of Toledo community were ignorant of important Islamic prescriptions. They did not know that they should perform the proper ablutions before each prayer. In addition, they used the mosque for Friday worship and for social activities like dating and dancing. Therefore in that case, Muslim youth totally shed their Muslim identities for total assimilation. The third factor was language acquisition and preference for white middle class neighborhoods for residence. Furthermore, adopting the dominant cultures values and customs helped some Arab Muslims shed their national Identities and construct new ones within the American culture, especially customs related to choosing a partner for marriage, women's participation in the public life, the style of the American family and gender roles and relations. Therefore, the type of occupation, language acquisition, place of residence, and neglecting Islamic practices and adopting mainstream customs influence Muslims assimilation to the American mainstream society.

Nevertheless, Muslims who do not choose to either assimilate or conceal their Islamic identity, use other survival strategies to maintain their religious identity like isolating themselves from the American society by choosing not to interact at all. Their lives revolve around their homes, their work and the mosques. Muslims are not the only religious group who use this strategy. Jewish groups used this strategy as well to maintain their religious and cultural traditions in a heterogeneous environment. According to Shaffir (1979):

The central organizing feature of any religious community is its own distinctive identity, the cultivation of which is crucial for its effectively separates insiders (members) from outsiders. In addition, the inculcation of such an identity in the young helps ensure that the community will continue (p.49).

Some of the strategies suggested by Shaffir (1979) are, “to channel their members' lives so that they conform to certain standards or sets of expectations intended to regulate their contact with outsiders” (p.49). Therefore, specific dress code, specific language and a shared history are some of the identifying features that can be used to mark group distinctive characteristics.

Some Muslims try to take a middle ground between assimilation and isolation by constructing a new Islamic identity through forming A-identity and establishing affinity groups within an American context. Some are simply lost between two cultures not knowing what to do. While, others suffer from having multiple identities and living between two worlds (Moll, 2009).

Therefore, current Islamopobic constructions of Muslim identity are widespread after 9/11 and had a intense impact on the identities of Muslims and their disposition in the society. These negative constructions after 9/11 caused Muslims' marginalization in the west and their sense of not belonging (Moghissi, 2009) which directed many Muslims to invest in the formation of new A-identities or become part of the global Muslim ummah.


Gee (2001) argues that we currently live in a postmodern society that is integral in a new capitalism. This new form of capitalism requires the formation of sanctioned A-Identities. These identities are formed through networking, activities, virtual communication, shared consumption, internet, and shared experiences. This focus on A-identities is based on economic and political ends.

“Profit today is primarily made by "creating" new needs and sustaining relationships with customers in which these needs are continuously transformed into ever newer needs. Businesses today create new needs by helping or encouraging people to take on new identities in terms of which those needs arise. Products and services are created for and offered to "certain kinds of people"…. Businesses either seek to relate to affinity groups already formed or to create new affinity groups, that is, they focus on sanctioned and non-sanctioned A- Identities” (p.31).

For Muslims, the Islamophobic climate of post 9/11 directs them to invest in A-Identities that connect them to other Muslims in their community and around the globe forming new forms of collective Islamic A-Identity. On this issue, Maruoka-Ng (2005) conducted an ethnographic study to examine the process of identity construction and group formation among the second-generation Muslim female college students with wearing the hijab. Maruoka-Ng found that marginalization in the larger society and expectation to belong to a certain social group was the factors influencing Islamization among these second-generations female students. By visualizing their minority status, these Muslim women constructed by choice A-identity among the hijab wearers creating a collective identity despite their differences in ethnicity and nationality. The study also shows that the “intra-group dynamics centering on this religious tradition leads the youth to collectively reproduce new alternative forms of cultural practice” (p.2), which Maruoka-Ng calls “amalgamation religiosity” meaning merging the two cultures, the Islamic and the American to form a new culture that is a mixture of the two.

Genieve (2006) conducted a similar study in which she recorded the narratives and voices of diverse American Muslims who are trying to establish an Islamic identity and live a dignified life in the United States after 9/11. She argues that for Muslims moving from being a majority in their Muslim societies to being in a state of minority, this creates a conflict that leads to awareness of Islam and rediscovery of the Islamic identity.

Metcalf (1996) examined the phenomenon of “Islamization of space” in the Islamic diasporas of Europe and North America, as a way of marking boundaries. For example Muslims in these societies invest in the architectural design of mosques, homes, placing the beds and the prayer mats towards the direction of Mekka and investing in the alarm clock for prayer times. She found that Muslims define specific spaces that have Islamic markers as Islamization of space used for empowerment and resistance to imperialist dominations.

Merry (2007) conducted an empirical study to examine the construction of religious identity among Muslim students in Canada. He discovered that the Muslim students' exposure to contradiction in the society's values and the un clear definitions of a supreme being or universal truth, in addition to the varying degrees of contradictions over their identity as a result of their social status as a minority helped anchor their sense of religious identity.

Whether or not any society can agree on a shared ideology and get over their ethnic differences to form one cohesive unit can seem idealistic and utopian, yet it could happen. As Gee (2001) explained how businesses try to make use of existing A-identities or construct new ones based on shared practices and experience, Zine (2007) argues that in order to achieve a common starting point for Pan-Islamic identification, Muslims should return to implementing foundational Islamic principals such as peace, social justice and equity. They should resist tribalism and socio-political divisions. For Muslims in the diaspora, being detached from their original homeland allows them to re-explore Islam and entangle it from their cultural misconceptions (Smith, 2000; Geneive, 2006). Freire (2000) echoes that by saying that if the oppressed groups get over their difference and form groups solidarity, they can liberate themselves and their oppressors through the power of love.


In understanding the complexity of Islamic identity, it is important to consider religious identities as part of the discursive constructions of the Muslim identity together with the social and political identities that individuals inhabit along with their race, ethnicity, class, gender, sexuality and national identity. As a religious conception, there is an Islamic identity outlined in the Quran and modeled through the well documented practices of Prophet Muhammad. While this gives an essence to the construct of Islamic identity informed by religious doctrine, the degree to which these behaviors are adopted and practiced is determined by various individual, cultural, and sectarian interpretations of Islam. Therefore it is impossible to see Muslims as monolithic. For Islamic identity to be seen as an R-identity grounded in spiritual and religious belief requires an interpretive system that recognizes it. In a non-Muslim society, Islamic identity is not recognized as a spiritual or religious identity, it is viewed as a social construct only. As a social identity, Muslim identity could be influenced by sectarian ideals, cultural and ethnic orientations. Therefore as a social identity, it could be deconstructed through the other lenses that Gee described; D,N,I, and A (Discourse, Natural, Institutional and Affinity-Identities).

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