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 recently, 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 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, according to Jane I. Smith, author of “Islam in America.”
In a revert’s own words, quoted by Smith, “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 (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 2,000 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.
Rose Khouri has been working at the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary in the development and partner relations office since 2014. Lebanese-American, she grew up in California until moving to Lebanon to complete her master’s degree in Middle Eastern studies with a focus on anthropology and religious studies. A version of this article first appeared on the IMES blog and is used with permission.
Editor’s Note: This is the first of a two-part series. Part two is available here. 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, to be held from June 15-19.