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How do Muslim Americans see their identity? In the melting pot of the Western world, no one person can truly say they have just one identity. Each and every individual attributes more than one identity to their own, be it religious, ethnic, cultural, or even chosen attributions based on interests and aspirations. The link between understanding who we are and our mental health lies in two key factors- identity centrality and belonging.
So how do Muslim Americans experience their identity in the West, and just how confident are they as Muslims? Dr. Hanan Hashem, researcher and community educator at the Family Youth Institue and Teaching Fellow at William James College, recently shared her groundbreaking research titled “Identity, Discrimination, and Belonging: The Arab American Muslim Experience” on the Muslim Superdad & Wondermom podcast. She also explores the impact of such experiences on mental health outcomes and overall wellness. Listen to the interview below:
What is Identity Centrality?
At the heart of Dr. Hashem’s research is the idea of identity centrality, or, recognizing the parts of a person that are most central to an understanding of who they are. This essentially asks: What part of one’s identity does a person use to define their day-to-day experiences?
For instance, Arab American Muslim have three major identities: being an Arab, an American, and a Muslim. The one among these three that a person can most recognize as describing who they are is the central identity.
According to Dr. Hanan’s research, having a stronger Arab identity centrality, for instance, has no relationship to mental health outcomes. Meanwhile, her most significant finding was in regards to Muslim identity centrality.
“Individuals who had a stronger sense of Muslim identity, a stronger identity centrality for their Muslim identity, had better mental health outcomes than those who had less Muslim identity centrality”
- Dr. Hanan Hashem
In other words, those who identified most strongly with being Muslim had better mental health outcomes than those who did not. While the underlying reason is unclear, it is quite possible that the nature of the Muslim identity encourages better mental health.
When a person is actively engaging with and thinking about their identity as a Muslim, they are constantly reminded of Allah (SWT), the nature of this world, and the hereafter. Reflecting on the fact that this world is temporary, that Allah is the most Merciful, and that the true destination is the akhirah, afterlife, then it can become easier to face daily life and overcome struggles.
You can find out your identity centrality through self reflection. Ask yourself, “Who am I? What identities do I have? Which identity do I most strongly relate to and reflect upon in my day-to-day experiences?”
What is Belonging?
Belonging is the key that explains the entire relationship between identity centrality and mental health outcomes. In her research, Dr. Hashem found that belonging is the missing piece of the puzzle, meaning, when an individual with Muslim identity centrality strongly feels that they belong, they have the highest chances of positive mental health outcomes.
Belonging can mean many things. A person can belong to their family, their community, their school, their masjid, or even a greater social context. In short, a person belongs when they feel comfortable in a space or that they are a part of a particular group. This group then reinforces their identity and builds their confidence in the identity that they have placed at the center.
Identity also serves as a protective factor against stressful situations. When a person feels they strongly belong to their identity, they are more likely to have better mental health outcomes, physical health outcomes, and overall wellness. This is because when a person feels they belong to a certain group of people, they are more confident in who they are and better able to express themselves and work their best. A person works best when they feel safe and secure. What, then, is a truer way to feel safe than to feel that one truly belongs?
The Muslim American Experience
Muslim Americans come in all shapes and sizes. Most of us come from ethnic and cultural backgrounds unrelated to our Muslim and American identities. While this makes our experiences of who we are more complex and flexible, it also requires that we make choices on which identity with which we choose to affiliate ourselves.
One of the biggest predictors of identity development in children is whether or not the adults in their lives talk about the identity in question and the repercussions and benefits of embracing it. The role that parents play in religious socialization is critical. However, parents first must understand who they are themselves and be confident in their own identities to be able to model this behavior for their children.
In the interview, Dr. Hashem explored the different ways we can think about belonging, how we form religious identity, and what parents can do to assist and nurture the process. To learn that and more about the relationship between identity centrality, belonging, and the role belonging plays in the identity formation of Muslim Americans, listen to the Muslim Superdad & Wondermom podcast now on Google, Apple, Spotify, or wherever else you get your podcasts!
What are your thoughts on this episode? Share your reflections below!
- Dr. Hanan Hashem’s dissertation: “Identity, discrimination, and belonging: the Arab American Muslim Experience.”
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