Who Are You? Issues of Identity with Islam in the West

Identity is one of the central issues of our existence. Who are we? Why are we here? Do we belong in this “here”? What does belonging mean? The questions are endless and the answers are varied. One thing is certain, issues of identity are irrefutably intertwined in anti-immigration sentiment. “They” are too different than “us” and thus we don’t like them, as the story goes.

Consider this quote from Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card:

Perhaps it’s impossible to wear an identity without becoming what you pretend to be.

If so, then one begins to play the role of a prescribed identity so much they themselves become that identity. This idea could easily be applied to people migrating from their home country for one reason or another—as they enter the role of immigrant, of refugee, they adopt this identity. The longer one wears this identity, the harder it becomes to shed it. Regardless of whether they were “pretending” as Card’s quote suggests, issues of identity arise and core problems present themselves.

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“Of course I’m tired. But more than that, I’m lonely. Lonely and desperate.”

I have witnessed firsthand this assuming of identities during my year of living in Florence, Italy in 2016-2017 and once again during a month-long visit to Rome in June of 2018. In Florence, I got to know the human side of the refugee crisis unfolding, talking to and establishing relationships with those who had fled their homes to make a living in Italy.

Hearing their stories, I began to notice common themes—these displaced people seemed understandably lost, torn between the world they had left behind and a world that wouldn’t give them a chance to join. Their identities became so wrapped up in this in between that many struggled to see a future apart from struggle.

At the time, I could do little more than listen and record their stories. I knew their narratives were important, their words valuable, but I didn’t understand the wider social and political context within which everything was unfolding.

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A series of cardboard boxes with products zip-tied on to allow for easy grabbing and transporting

My second time living in Italy presented a unique opportunity for me to take a class called Islam in the West. Rome provided a somewhat more impersonal, more objective landscape for me to dive in and learn more about the challenges facing so many people in the world. With a focus on identity through a political science lens, I began to understand the nuances of the growing immigration debate in the EU and beyond. I learned about the importance of religion in the greater argument and actually studied and began to understand Islam.

With this, before discussing issues and challenges involved in Islam in the West, it is important to address misconceptions prevalent in Western media by establishing a basic working vocabulary. Islam is an Abrahamic monotheistic religion that emerged in the 700s with the birth of the prophet, Muhammad. This means Islam shares much of the same foundation as other Abrahamic religions like Christianity and Judaism, such as the belief of only one supreme god. Muslims are followers of the Islamic religion. Islamic Extremists, or Islamists, are fundamentalist Muslims that desire to have an Islamic militant state and to apply Shari’a (Islamic law) to the world. Islamists make up a controversial estimate of 10-15% of the Muslim population. Of the Islamists, terrorists make up less than 1%, and they carry out extreme acts of terrorism in the name of Shari’a law. So whenever I refer to Muslims, please think of this term without xenophobia, and instead as the whole of people practicing Islam.

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How does one begin to carve a personal identity in a land with such a strong sense of identity? One’s self becomes unfocused against the external world

Italy is positioned very uniquely in the European immigration plight. Whereas European countries that formerly colonized Muslim-majority states now see an influx of immigrants from those countries (e.g. Indians and Bangladeshis in the UK, Indonesians in the Netherlands, Northern and Western Africans in France, etc.), Italy never colonized. Because of this lack of colonization and its strategic position as a peninsula near North Africa, Italy’s immigration population comes from many countries. This lack of national identity for Muslim immigrants in Italy makes assimilation even more difficult than it is for those who share a language with each other and many citizens of their host countries/new homes.

On the other hand, to claim an Italian identity in itself is problematic. Italy, as a united country, has only existed since the 1870s. Prior to unification, only 10% of the population spoke Italian—everyone else spoke regional languages. Even today, despite sharing a common language (with incredible diversity in dialect), Italians would never use that word to describe their identity. No one is Italian—they are Roman, Sicilian, Milanese, etc. Florentines and Pisans have a long-running feud and seem to share more differences than commonalities despite being within 100 km (60 mi) of one another. While the 1920s saw a rise in Nationalism thanks to Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, the Italian identifier is not strongly used.

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It’s hard to catch a break when the only profession available for many immigrants pending legal status is selling items on the streets

These regional identifiers make it even more difficult for immigrants to become a part of the community. A Senegalese man could never hope to become Neapolitan, just as an American will never be a Venetian. Perhaps there is hope in creating new identities as Muslims in Europe? Though, with rising extremist politics across Italy, Europe, and the world, it seems divides are growing more pronounced.

Recently in Italy, two extremist parties have received over 50% of the combined popular vote (in a system with hundreds of political parties, this scenario is impressive) and now run the Italian government: Cinque Stelle  (Five Star) and Lega Nord (The Northern League, or more recently, simply the League). Both parties are distinctly anti-establishment and Euroskeptic. Withdrawing from the EU as these parties desire would no doubt disrupt the global economy, as Italy is the fourth-largest economy in Europe. Among their main party goals, both groups seem to deal extensively with issues of identity, group dynamics, and individual.

Of particular interest and threat, the League is overtly anti-immigration. League leader and Italy’s new interior minister Matteo Salvini’s campaign for election promised to expel half a million illegal immigrants from Italy. He has described Islam as “incompatible” with Italian values. Last February, one of the League’s former candidates in local elections shot six people of African origin in a racially motivated attack. More recently, Salvini posted a video on Facebook of a man of seemingly African-origin plucking the feathers of a pigeon with the caption, “Go home!!!”

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One thing is certain – the fight is never over and we have a lot to do as a united people

This video presents an interesting parallel with my previous work on the refugee crisis in Italy, “We Are the Pigeons”. Symbolism of pigeons has been of increasing interest to me in my own experience through life. Starting with a refugee named Stefan I got to know on Ponte Santa Trinita in Florence telling me he felt like a pigeon, a vermin bird closely related to doves, to an older woman I encountered in Piazza del Popolo in Rome who fed pigeons daily explaining to me that she is the “mother of pigeons who everyone ignores or hates” – it is hard to dismiss some recurring themes.

Pigeons are but a physical representation for an identity these people wear—overlooked and marginalized.

The question becomes, what can we do to help these people in a society that is increasingly polarized?

Should Islam be assimilated into the West or should both identities maintain their own distinctness? As it stands, the West is not currently accessible to Muslim life, and challenges are becoming more prevalent every day. Should public schools be bilingual, or should children of immigrants learn the native tongue of the land? Does giving “special allowances” for daily prayers and religious holidays further alienate Muslims or encourage assimilation? Likewise for clothing, as some regions in France have gone so far as to ban people from wearing religious garb in public, including Muslim hijabs and Christian crosses—is secularism the answer to assimilation?

Perhaps an evolving form of Western Islam is the answer, as immigrants become a part of local communities and values naturally evolve over time. Needless to say, there is no easy or right answer and the stakes are high.

All of this is in hopes of using my privilege to be a good ally to the marginalized communities currently afflicted by anti-immigration sentiment in Italy, Europe, and the West at large. We must have open dialogue and discussions about our differences, for it is through communication that understanding arrives.

[all photos in this post were shot on Fujifilm color positive 35mm film that was digitally scanned to further acknowledge the difficulties immigrants face in Europe, how there is no simple, perfect, or easy solution]

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