Islam and Identity

Hello Readers! When given the opportunity to research any topic for #IslamModUVM, I wanted to pick a current topic centered around living, breathing, everyday Muslim folks. I wanted to get a better understanding of what it may be like to embody an identity that suffers from negative stereotypes and external forces and how humans are navigating throughout them. So, I posed the question: How do young Muslim’s navigate throughout their journey of self-discovery living in a world with anti-Muslim sentiments and how does this affect their ever-changing identities? 

First, Muslims make up about a fifth of the world population (~1.5 billion people) spreading across various continents, cultures, ages, and languages. Despite being a truly diverse population, there are existing stereotypes that do real work in the world and portray Muslims as a unified and homogenous group, or what Cemil Aydin calls ‘The Muslim World’. In Aydin’s book The Idea of the Muslim World, he argues that the emergence of this unified identity “.. lies in the accumulated impact of contingent policies, conflicts, and ideologies of empires from the 1820’s to the 1870’s” (Aydin 2017, 40). ‘The Muslim World’ emerged as a way to contest inferiority as diversity was seen as a source of weakness when up against the unified British. And thus, emerged the idea of a unified Muslim population where the actions of one Muslim may represent all Muslims. This idea became especially prevalent after the attacks on 9/11, performed by a group of twenty or so individuals claiming to be of the Muslim faith. 

In an interview with various college students in NYC after the attacks, there was a range of feelings and reactions but mostly, fear.  A student at Hunter College said “We were victims of what happened. We had loved ones stuck in the World Trade Center. We couldn’t get in contact with our loved ones. And on top of that, we were accused. So we were double traumatized. When they say, ‘America Unites’, they did not mean us. They did not mean Muslims.” (Peek 2003, 282). In fact, there was a 1600 percent increase in anti-Muslim hate crimes in 2001,  (Mir 2014, 7) as well as the omnipresence of surveillance on Muslim neighborhoods and college students. Some students did not go to school for many weeks or even open the blinds to their homes for fear of being targeted. The event of 9/11 set the stage for continuous racialization and violence towards Muslim individuals. 

So how are these folks dealing with their identities? Well, Generation M and the Mipsterz are examples of folks who loudly present their identities. Whereas some of the women interviewed in the book Muslim American Women on Campus by Shabana Mir, are more quiet with their identities, let’s begin there. 

Some of the women Mir interviewed for her novel expressed that the stereotype’s attached with being a Muslim felt unavoidable and because of this it was hard to “blend in”. They felt the American pluralism was not flexible, and that the only way to be “normal” was to conceal their religiosity, as a way to avoid discrimination.  Being an outsider in the periphery of their universities was a common feeling among the women. Yasmin for example, does not include Muslim referees on her internship applications as a way to soften her religious affiliation as a Muslim. She said “Can you really change things from outside the system? So I think it’s much more likely you can change the system from the inside.” (Mir 2014, 174). Presenting the idea of a ‘system’ where one may either be inside or outside of, based on who you are.

The women that Mir worked with felt as though their identities were multiple and flexible, and were experiencing finding a comfortable balance between being a college student, an American, and Muslim, among other identities. An example of the navigation process can be seen through the social party scene and drinking. Some women choose not to engage in it, while others may go and drink, while some go to the party, but do not drink. This example presents the ways in which the different women engaged with their values. Amina, one of the interviewee’s expressed that she feels that there needs to be some level of assimilation or else there is the potential to become “cushioned” to being around people who are just like you, something she believes is bad (Mir 2014, 176). It can be observed that there are decisions Muslim folks  make based on social pressures and their values, which are ways they may be forming their identities. 

Additionally, we can see another way that youth are interacting with their identities by looking at the Mipsterz. The Mipsterz began when Layla Shaikley, a young woman living in London decided she was sufficiently exhausted with meeting the reactions of Islamaphobes and people who she described as terrorists who “had equally hijacked the popular narrative about Muslims” (Janmohamed 2016, 28). Her and her friends decided to make a video of themselves hanging out, riding motorcycles, and skateboarding. The video and the Mipsterz movement is a way for Layla, her friends, and other Muslims alike to take control of their identities themselves and mix both their personal values and passions with their faith. Layla got all types of reactions to the video of people saying they related so much, and others who criticized her saying that they didn’t relate at all. To this, Layla responded saying, “Tell your own story and don’t rely on others to do it for you.” (Janmohamed 2016, 29). A message that is presented in Shelina Janmohamed’s work Generation M: Young Muslims Changing the World, the movement where Muslim youth are deciding to combat the negative stereotypes through education to teach people about who they are and what they believe. Thus, these Muslim youth are loudly projecting how they want to be understood, as a way to combat the negative stereotypes and define their identities themselves.

All in all, the answer to my question is not one that has a definitive answer, rather, an open ended one offering endless examples of the different ways in which Muslims are understanding their identities–as most people are (I know I sure am). Perhaps a good message to us all is what my Mormon friend once told me, “Don’t judge me because of my religion, just see me, for me”. 


Aydin, Cemil. The Idea of the Muslim World: A Global Intellectual History. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2017. 

“Cartoons about City Life, Country Life and Society, from Punch | PUNCH Magazine Cartoon Archive.” Accessed October 18, 2019. 

Janmohamed, Shelina. Generation M: Young Muslims Changing the World. London. New York: I.B. Tauris & Co.Ltd, 2016. 

Mir, Shabana. Muslim American Women on Campus: Undergraduate Social Life and Identity. The University of North Carolina Press: Chapel Hill, 2014. 

Peek, Lori A. “Reactions and Response: Muslim Students’ Experiences on New York City Campuses Post 9/11”. Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs, Vol 23, No. 2 (October, 2003). Accessed October 6th, 2019.

Wilson, Jason F. “Modernity,” Encyclopedia of Religion. Ed. Lindsay Jones. 2nd ed. Vol. 9. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2005. 6108-6112. Gale Virtual Reference Library. 

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