By Rose Khouri
Western academia is filled with research on the effects of a colonialist, imperialistic Christianity and its intersection with modern identities. As my colleague Jesse Wheeler alluded to last week, from the native peoples of the modern day United States to the descendants of Africans taken from their homes as slaves and shipped to the “New World”, there are millions of Christians – practicing or culturally – today whose ancestors did not choose to follow Christ willingly. Their struggle with identity is well-documented, particularly the African American “revert” movement during the 1950s and 1960s, a phase and a result of the broader ongoing Civil Rights Movement.
The core belief of the revert movement was that a significant number of the Africans taken to the New World were Muslims who were forcibly converted to Christianity, hence the idea of “re-converting” or reverting to Islam (a number that most researchers today do not consider to be sizeable). Another core element of the reversion movement is that Islam teaches the equality of races in the eyes of God, a teaching practiced today with mixed results around the Muslim world. But in 1950s America, it would have indeed stood out to those surrounded by “Christian” neighbors active in their dehumanization.
This reversion also encompassed a quest for personal identity, by African Americans whose original identities had been taken away by white masters. In a revert’s own words:
“The Afro-American people have Islam in their hearts […] We have it on our tongues as we struggle to pronounce the Arabic which we have forgotten, but with which perhaps we came as slaves. This was the culture that was stripped from us, along with the language and religion. Most critically, the religion of Islam was taken from us through slavery.”
Identity is often overlooked by those involved in ministry; rarely is its importance in religious life and practice of faith fully understood, especially by those who practice the faith of their family and community. While identity crisis may spark conversion, or at least open doors to a new conversation about faith, it can also develop a spiritual crisis as a new convert struggles to understand who they are and how they fit back into their society.
To observe the different ways identity intersects with faith, I pulled stories from two different ethnic minorities in the Arab Muslim world: the Kurds and the Algerian Amazigh (historically known as the Berbers), both communities currently witnessing the rapid spread of the Gospel.
Both the Kurds (found mostly in modern-day Syria, Turkey, Iraq, and Iran) and the Algerian Amazigh (the Amazigh are found all over West North Africa) are ethnic minorities in the Arab Muslim world that can trace their identity back centuries before the invasion of the Arab Muslims from the East. But the Algerian Amazigh are undergoing a much stronger period of ethnic nationalism compared to their neighbors. I would argue that what pushed them to develop a stronger ethnic, rather than nationalistic, identity is the poor treatment and second-class status they received under an all-Arab government that historically oppressed them. The Amazigh trace their origins back nearly 2000 years before Christ and the Kurds consider themselves the modern day descendants of the Medes who are documented in the Old Testament. Despite their vast geographic differences, both the Amazigh and the Kurds share surprisingly similar views of the Arab Muslims. I believe this is playing a strong role in fostering the emergence of the Church among both people groups.
I spoke with a young Amazigh woman about how her people perceive Arabs and she told me that the Amazigh perceive Arabs as colonizers. The Amazigh are the original ethnic people of the land and have their own culture, language, and even calendars (she informed me that we are actually in year 2965). The Arabs pushed into Algeria through Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, and gradually forced Islam and Arabization upon the people. The Amazigh, then ruled by Queen Kahina, initially accepted Islam and the Arabs. However according to their traditions, Queen Kahina told her two sons not to enter into the Islamic religion, and so the local Arab Emir or governor, ordered her killed.
Today the Amazigh live under Arab rule in Algeria. They are not considered equal to their Arab neighbors in the eyes of the government. A movement started in the 1980s to reclaim the Amazigh identity, headed by the famous Algerian Amazigh writer Mouloud Mammeri who taught and wrote books in the Amazigh language despite government pressure. Christianity took hold and began to spread again in Algeria, as large movements of “revert” Amazigh moved to reclaim their own identities. As my friend told me,
“Amazigh means ‘free man’ in our language. We want to preserve our language. We want to reclaim our identity; we are not part of this Arabization. We are reclaiming our identities from these conquerors.”
The Kurds likewise are experiencing a new period of ethnic nationalism and greater freedom to pursue an alternate course to the religious and cultural values which they feel were once forced upon them. The world’s largest group of stateless people is spread out around the Levant and Central Asia, particularly in Iraq, Turkey, and Syria – experiencing different levels of oppression and integration. Gassed by the thousands in Iraq, forcibly resettled and assimilated in Turkey, and abandoned by their government in Syria, the Kurds have taken advantage of the dissolving states around them to pursue greater independence and have been building stronger ethno-nationalistic ties. Along with these new opportunities for ethno-nationalism has come the startling spread of the Gospel, particularly among Syrian Kurds.
When I asked a young man of Syrian Kurd ethnicity here in Lebanon the same question I asked my Amazigh friend, he replied,
“Kurds feel that Arabs forced Islam on them. That’s their major issue. They feel that they’ve lost their identity because of the Arabs. Of course, by Arabs they also mean Islam. Some of them actually use ‘Arab’ as a curse word. I think it’s a matter of identity; they don’t want to identify themselves with Arabs. I’ve been feeling like their openness to the Gospel is a way to get rid of the Islamic identity. A Kurdish friend of mine explained that when he meets with his people, he opens the Bible and shows them the passages that refers to the Kurds. He tells them, ‘You have an identity in the Bible, do you have one in the Qur’an?’”
Identity is still an under-explored area. Not only is identity clearly playing a role in how people interact with, adopt, and even reject religion. The question of identity remains in contention even after a person moves from one religion to another. For those of non-Christian backgrounds living in the Middle East and North Africa, how they develop new identities after rejecting or lifting their previous identity – or even if this is possible, or necessary – is an emerging field that deserves greater study.
I conclude, therefore, with the words of IMES Director Martin Accad, from a personal conversation:
“It strikes me that some traditional approaches to evangelism are doing the same as Arab Islam did. Muslims are often pulled out of context, so that they lose (yet again) their identity and culture. They are stripped of their core identity as culture and traditions are confused for religion. A new culture is imposed along with the new religion of Christianity that is proposed to them. It is hard to miss that this approach will prevent the Gospel from taking root effectively.
“Ultimately, this has important implications for discipleship: as Amazigh, Kurds and others embrace Christ’s life and teaching, the top priority of those journeying with them should be to help these women and men sort through their identity issues and learn to love and embrace who they are, as they reinterpret it in the light of the crucified and resurrected Christ.”
Editor’s Note: IMES will be exploring such issues of identity during the Middle East Consultation 2015 – Discipleship Today: Identity and Belonging in the Middle East and North Africa, 15 – 19 June. For additional information about MEC 2015, or to attend, please follow the appropriate links.
 Jane I. Smith, Islam in America. 2nd ed. New York: Columbia UP, 2009.
This is a great article. Thanks so much. I wish I could be with you at your conference on identity in June. I hope that there will be a way some of us can share in what you learn there.