GUC: Identity constricted by secular social constructs

Opinions Column: Macro to Micro


Often times I am asked, “What do Muslims believe in?” Now, my lips could automate back an answer like a drill, but I am usually inclined to respond instead with another question: What do you mean by “Muslim?” In the current political climate, there is hardly a day that passes by without a headline displaying a disparaging comment made about Islam or to the adherents of the faith. But who exactly is being criticized, called out and facing such gross statements?

Titles like “Muslim,” “Christian, “Jewish, “Buddhist” and so forth are socially constructed identities created to pinpoint and squeeze an individual under a certain secular umbrella or category. A big bland sticker is slapped over the nuances of one’s belief system so as to coerce millions of individuals into a monolithic shape. While such titles are convenient as social markers, the complexities of one's belief is reduced to the ticking off of a square — the normative state of identification.

However, the secularization of religious identification is merely a byproduct of the subtly shifting framework in which religion is viewed. The term, “religion” is a means of compressing one’s identity too. A belief that encompasses one’s absolute world view, actions and stream of thought is generously offered a slice of the pie, when in reality, it is the flour, the principal substance and makeup of the pie. It does not deserve a portion of something that is indeed entirely built upon itself.

Additionally, more often than not, religious identity becomes aligned with ethnic identity. If one is born into a family that associates with a certain religion and has neither confirmed nor denied the associated religion, should that individual also be labeled as thus? The obvious answer does not appear affirmative. However, phrases like, “I was born Muslim ... Christian ... Hindu,” are commonly accepted and prevalent. Perhaps the implied idea is that one was raised with a certain set of ideas, yet this still does not depict any process of independent thinking. Belief is not something that can be inherited nor is it a heritage that can be passed on like a torch. That would be culture — not belief. One’s belief is one’s conclusion — the decision that has been reached after research, investigation and introspection. It is not static nor is it stagnant. True freedom rests in the ability to come upon a new conclusion every arising day. Just as identity is fluid and dynamic, so is belief.

Yet titles are donned on like a hat. It is not even a matter of accepting or denying the belief system one is culturally exposed to — rather, it is about being conscious of how the aspect of identity one usually claims is contrived and imposed rather than internally deliberated and embraced. This is not a generalization and exceptions always exist, but this is a pervasive occurrence.

For example, one can declare, “I am a doctor” on the basis that one’s entire family is comprised of doctors, but the statement’s validity rests upon prior medical education and current actions like diagnosing the sick, writing prescriptions, etc. Wearing a white lab coat and holding membership in a group like “The Association of Doctors” would hardly qualify or make one a doctor. Perhaps at best one would be an “aspiring” doctor. The latter statement is more truthful and connotes a sense of awareness. Otherwise the former statement would imply an external identity without much use or substance. A mere marker of desired inclusion.

This is not at all an invocation of elitism in who has the right to identify as what. Rather I feel some scrutiny is necessary in how certain tags are attached to ourselves by others, and sometimes by our own oblivious selves. I am told I am a Muslim. Yet, does that capital "M" hold any value besides offering me a place in society, perhaps a warm feeling of community, a sense of belonging driven by my human need for security and acceptance? It denotes an adjective that hardly scratches the surface of the self. More interesting for me is learning how to become muslim with a lowercase “m.” The lowercased word, I would argue, is a form of action, a perspective that can be internalized and exhibited through breathing behavior and speech. The two are not mutually exclusive and in an ideal situation, are complementary to one another, yet the latter is oft ignored and overlooked.

During such times of hate and ignorance surrounding Islam, Muslim-identifying individuals are driven to unite and find comfort in their community. Unity is of course desirable, yet such unity should exist with a conscious idea of under what principle the unification is taking place. I urge all to turn a critical eye, and question why and how they have become associated with a certain identity. Superficial labels externally pinned onto the chest by circumstances like birth do not determine one's position and outlook – actions and thoughts do.

Aysenur Guc is a School of Arts and Sciences first-year student majoring in philosophy. Her column, "Macro to Micro," runs monthly on Wednesdays.


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