A recent Pew Research Religion & Public Life Project study on Jewish life in America got the cogs turning in my head from conversations I had during NewGround. While Pew has done a few of these, the most recent one dealt with the intertwining issues of identity and spirituality today in the Jewish community.
The Pew Study statistically reinforced what I heard during NewGround. I found the figure that 93% of Jews in the aging Greatest Generation identify as Jewish on the basis of religion; just 7% describe themselves as having no religion (which I think, for Muslims, is probably how my generation would view themselves today). By contrast, among Jews in the youngest generation of U.S. adults – the Millennials – 68% identify as Jews by religion, while 32% describe themselves as having no religion and identify as Jewish on the basis of ancestry, ethnicity or culture.
In light of the PewResearch on Jewish identity, I think that if the Jewish community is grappling with too much flexibility in identity, the Muslim community is grappling with too little.
Pew suggests that the shift in Jewish self-identification reflected a broader change in American society, which as a whole is abandoning religious affiliation. And as Muslims grow in population and experience, I wonder if this is the trend that awaits us.
In conversations with Jewish fellows, I couldn’t understand the idea of young Jews having a connection to the “culture” but not to the “Jewish religion.” As a young Muslim, in a post-9/11 environment, I had worked hard to define my identity around my American and spiritual experience. In that personal context I couldn’t quite understand the dichotomy in Jewish identity amongst my peers. The American Muslim experience has been quite the opposite; it’s been about reining in the identity into a very solid entity, sometimes constricting the diversity of experiences.
The last Pew Research study on American Muslims brought to light the strong desire of Muslims to acculturate and engage in politics, but it didn’t touch on the idea of how American Muslims define their identity. But it did suggest that in spite of the extremely diverse ethnic and cultural make-up of Islam, Muslims overwhelmingly defined themselves by religion.
The idea of creating a spiritual identity is exacerbated by the fact that spirituality is something that is in flux and a person’s faith can take on different manifestations based on their experiences. An interesting example of the struggle to reconcile faith and sense of identity was this post I stumbled upon on Reddit: Confessions of a (former) Hafiz, by Muslimun.
Muslimun writes about being 31 years old and struggling to pray regularly, not having a spiritual connection for several years. Having memorized the Quran by 15, he explains that he is not spiritually connected to God or ritual. In Muslimun’s story there is a lesson about how the struggle with spirituality, its constant nature of flux, makes defining an identity based on it difficult. But it also highlights the communal nature of identity and spirituality in Islam, because Muslimun turns to the Muslim Reddit community for help.
I can relate to his experience, in that I find that I struggle to connect with the community on many levels, or specifically to a particular mosque. I can’t claim that I am affiliated to a particular mosque or a particular current of theological thought found in “American Islam.” These “movements” are working hard, at times against each other, to define an “American Muslim” identity.
And Islam is a communal religion- from communal prayers to sermons, or the emphasis placed on visiting those who are sick and helping the poor and needy or those oppressed. I find my spirituality is forced at times out of the desire to keep myself engaged with these practices in order to be a better Muslim. Through this forced engagement I participate in the process of identity formation. But there are many that are left out of this communal process, either through self-marginalization or through imposed exclusion.
There are groups that aren’t part of this conversation, or an after thought. The question for Muslim leadership, and activists alike, is whether there is a broader inclusive definition of Muslim identity or will it be narrowly defined to exclude.
Framed in that perspective, I found Noah Feldman’s piece in Bloomberg about Pew’s report, very enlightening. He states that each “generation of Jews has in common is the conviction that it will be the last” but “[w]hat matters for the continuity of Jewish life is quality, not quantity.”
American Muslims have a history of a wave of Muslims arriving either through slavery in the early part of American history, or later on in the late 19th century, having established and then lost their Muslim identity. This reality is a palpable fear. It motivates some of the strong responses that make adhering to a certain interpretation of Islam as the only way to preserve a Muslim identity in America attractive. This guardianship over identity, however, has to be negotiated if Muslims are to create a vibrant dynamic identity.