Exploring the layers of Muslim identity


Our identities are always changing with our experiences. Eren Cervantes-Altamirano questions and critically analyses hers.

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Photo: Photol

The past few months have been full of soul searching for me. Some time ago, someone asked me how could I identify as a Latin American Indigenous person and be Muslim at the same time. Such a question did not sit well with me. It pitted the layers of my identity against each other, as if one’s identity is always congruent, simple and rational; and as if we have to explain those layers to the world.

Nonetheless, I must admit that it was a thought-provoking question that led me to wonder: Am I betraying one of my identities by being the other one? This question required some answers.

Identifying as an Indigenous person often means recognising an experience of colonialism. No matter how far this past is said to be and no matter how much our countries claim to be independent, what colonialism has done to Indigenous peoples continues to be reproduced in today’s policies. This is evident by the fact that on average, Indigenous peoples tend to be poorer than their non-Indigenous counterparts and that Indigenous women around the world experience more violence than non-Indigenous women.[i]

The apparent problem with identifying as an Indigenous woman is that Muslims were also a colonising force in the Middle Ages. In Latin America, we are quite conscious about this fact because expelling the Muslim “invaders” was one of (what is now) Spain’s goals at the time America was discovered. Nonetheless, Muslim rule was further reaching than just Spain – extending towards today’s Central Asia – and many others had very different experiences under Muslim rule. Spain eventually went off to become a large colonising force that exterminated the Indigenous people of the Caribbean, enslaved others in Latin America and engaged in slave trade.

So, how is it that one can identify as Indigenous and Muslim? It is a complex intersection, but one that is quite common. My family, who are Indigenous people, are Catholic. How do we make sense of people adopting the religion of the coloniser? Well, that’s tough… and I am not sure that it makes sense. On the one hand, we may question people’s choice to follow a certain religion. But on the other hand, how do we question someone’s spiritual connection, which makes sense to them? And who are we to question, anyway?

As for me, my relationship with Islam, fellow Muslims and Muslim histories is complex. I cannot claim that I understand the colonial experience of those who were invaded by Muslims, but as an Indigenous person I am in solidarity with them. Yet, as a convert to Islam I try to see beyond the actions of Muslim colonisers, many of which were later colonised by European powers.

I became a Muslim because the Islamic message made sense to me. However, being able to see beyond Muslim colonisation of other countries does not mean negating the cultural destruction and decimation that happened. Similarly, it does not mean forgetting colonisation. On the contrary, being a convert to Islam and identifying as an Indigenous woman entails critically questioning violence, genocide and cultural imposition.

Perhaps such a rationalisation of identity does not align with the common conception of identity as a consistent and monolithic concept. Identities change and are transformed with experiences, but the important thing is to never stop questioning and critically analysing those layers.

These layers are not necessarily congruent, but they make us whole.

[i] For example, see statistics here and a United Nations conference report here

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