Cultural Identity – Tasneem Hema

Cultural Identity: My Autobiography
According to Collier, people of diverse upbringings and situations can come together and create a cultural system in which the symbols they use are assigned meanings along with a set of what is considered appropriate and that which is inappropriate. When such groups of people develop a history together and start passing down symbols and norms they created to new members and generations, they can be said to have taken on cultural identity. The character of the communication system within the group is what is termed cultural identity as per Collier (Collier, n.d.). In line with this definition of cultural identity according to Collier, my two most prominent cultural identities that I am always conscious of daily are my Islamic religion and Libyan nationality. For Islam, the religion originated in ancient Mecca, with a set of norms that govern the Islamic religion having been passed down over time to my current generation. Libyans on the other hand have over time set a way of life and created a set of norms that define them. This includes communal living characterised by collective efforts towards social projects and mobilisation of help for each other. The history shared in the Islamic religion along with Libyan nationality and the norms passed down through the generations are what define my cultural identity.

The avowal and ascription processes are properties of cultural identity according to Collier. The two define the processes through which cultural identities are enacted in interpersonal contexts. On the one hand, avowal refers to the individual. It involves what an individual portrays of themselves. What do they think of themselves? Who do they think they are? What defines them? Avowal is exclusive of other people’s thoughts about an individual. Ascription on the other hand regards what others think of a person. Who are they and what defines them? It is the process through which others give attributes to an individual. The communicated views of other people about an individual help to shape one’s identity.

In regards to my Islamic religion, I think of myself as being a reflection of what God and the Prophet Muhammad desire in human beings, which is the core of the Islamic religion. I believe in only one God. In addition to that, I am gracious and merciful to others as Prophet Muhammad would desire, while also being forgiving and loving to everyone, including my enemies. Being welcoming and serving those who are less privileged is part of the Muslim heart and defines who I am as a Muslim. While this is what I think of myself in terms of my religion, there are views held by others about me in regards to the same. Not everyone around me subscribes to the Islamic religion and others think that such faith is misplaced. Others, however, share the belief that we should be kind and loving to one another at all times. In regards to my Libyan nationality, I think of myself as serving the community at a greater level beyond my desires as an individual. My community comes first and the wellness of everyone around me ensures that I will also be well. In contrast, I believe it is impossible to be well when the people around you are suffering. Living in a cosmopolitan setting, others have different views of my ethnicity and race. For some, the concept of communal living is skewed and what should matter is the affairs of an individual as opposed to the greater communal good.

The salient property of identity refers to the changing components of cultural identity change over time, with others retaining their key features and remaining central to the identity of a group. The components of cultural identity that change over time do so because of changing economic, social, psychological, contextual, and political factors in society. In respect to Islam, the previous ages were strict on the Islamic laws as provided in the Holy Kuran. Some of the laws included the laws which were strict in terms of social life, marriage, and food. However, due to changing social, economic, and political contexts, these laws have evolved. However, the doctrines of prayer, pilgrimage, and fasting, along with love, grace, and forgiveness are central to Islam and will not change even in the future. In respect to Libyan national culture, various aspects of the culture have changed over time. This includes social norms such as the separation of roles and duties according to gender. Other aspects such as dressing have also changed with these changes necessitated by the changing social context. However, the aspect of community life remains important to the way of life.

Another property of cultural identity as provided by Collier is the modes of expression such as core symbols, labels, and norms. Core symbols point to central ideas and concepts and the key behaviours that characterise membership of our cultural groups (Collier, pg 41). Labels on the other hand are a category of symbols and may vary in interpretation. Norms are the aspects considered appropriate or inappropriate within a culture and are based on core symbols. Core symbols can be summarised into a set of fundamental beliefs or phrases that captures the essence of cultural identity. In respect to the Islamic religion, some of the core symbols that define it include being caring and loving. For Libyans, expressiveness and the quest for greater social good are core symbols. Labels of Islam depend on the sect, school, or branch you belong to. For national identity, Libyan culture entails being drawn to family and kinship. Islamic norms include the fact that marriage is central to society. Libyan norms on the other hand include hospitality and respect for the elders in society.

According to Collier, cultural identities also possess individual, relational and communal properties. In terms of individualism, everyone has their definition of a certain culture and its key aspects. From a relational point of view, cultural identities are looked at in terms of the relationship between groups of people, which then helps to identify themes in their relationship. The communal aspect of cultural identities is best analysed by observing public communication contexts and activities within the society that establish cultural identity (Collier, pg 42). In terms of individual property, I believe that being a Muslim entails being a good person at all times and doing to others what I would want to be done to me. In terms of being Libyan, I believe that it entails always fighting for the oppressed in society and trying to achieve equality for all. Communal aspects of the Islamic religion include the celebration of Islamic holidays such as Eid ul-Fitr which fosters unity. On the other hand, a communal aspect of the Libyan way of life includes the rite of passage of circumcision for male children.

The final property of cultural identities as described by Collier is the element of content and relationship levels of interpretation. This refers to communication between people which leads to the conveying of information about various aspects such as how close they are to each other, who is in control, how the people in communication should trust each other and so on. People may use such communication within a group to exclude others who are not of similar cultural identity. In other instances, people communicate in a language that appeals to others who are not within their cultural identity. In respect to the Islamic religion, in mosques, the language of communication we use appeals to Muslims specifically. In other instances, such as social gatherings with members of diverse religious backgrounds, the language used is that which appeals to the different religious views. For Libyans, we mostly use Arabic while communicating to reinforce our identification and strengthen our bond. However, in social contexts such as at school and work, we use English to allow non-Arabic speakers to feel part of the group.

Tasneem Hema