Change the only constant when it comes to identity

Change the only constant when it comes to identity

Change the only constant when it comes to identity
Immigrants being sworn in as United States citizens in El Paso, Texas. (AFP)
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The UAE last year announced a series of laws and policies that liberalized its citizenship and residency laws. The decisions included granting golden visas to thousands of residents and foreigners in order to retain and attract talent. The UAE government also approved amendments to the Executive Regulation of the Citizenship and Passports Law, allowing specific categories of foreigners, their spouses and children to acquire Emirati nationality, or “special passports.”
What ensued was a series of debates regarding the long-term impact of the decision on the country’s demographics, its resources and, most importantly, its “identity.”
The issue of identity penetrates deep into the existential core of human associations and representation. It is incredibly personal to one’s self and any external influence may be perceived as a threat. It can be socially prescribed, such as your family relationships and membership in a community, or biological, including your nationality, ethnicity and religion.
Within every generation, all the shared characteristics that define a group become a reflection of their identity. You are a Muslim, Arab, tolerant, conservative, etc. But as certain as time is, our identities change. And to assume that our identity is static or one-dimensional is wrong and problematic.
The concept of identity is inherently fluid. It is continuously morphing. That is a fact. The conundrum, however, lies within the individual or the collective and how they choose to perceive their identity today and accept it for the future.
This can be looked at in two different streams. The first is that our changing environment will morph our identity. For example, by 2050, the US population will be majority non-white, significantly impacting social and political values, as well as religious, racial and ethnic identities. An Asian American whose great-grandfather migrated from Lebanon will find it very difficult to maintain the customs and traditions of his family against the backdrop of new-age American society.
The second stream depends on how we as individuals decide to identify ourselves and how this relates to our own sense of self in everyday life.
Over the next few decades, people’s identities will be significantly affected by various important drivers of change, particularly increasing hyperconnectivity, the use of social media and the rise of online virtual communities. Our identity is often defined through our religion, nationality, language and occupation, as previously stated. Today, however, that is changing. Thanks to hyperconnectivity and exposure, we find ourselves relating more to individuals living thousands of miles away because we share the same personal values or experiences. The way we describe and identify ourselves has begun shifting too. We are now vegans, feminists, gamers and climate change activists, for example.
Other factors include changes in demographics, population growth, modernization and increasing social plurality. The emergence of Generation Z — people born between the mid-to-late 1990s and early 2010s — has signaled several of these transitions, including delayed marriage, having fewer children and increasing adoption of the English language. Secularization within the upcoming generations is also on the rise globally. According to a poll conducted by the Pew Research Center last year, only 63 percent of Americans self-identify as Christian, a marked drop from 75 percent 10 years ago.

To assume that our identity is static or one-dimensional is wrong and problematic.

Asma I. Abdulmalik

Population growth and ethnic diversity also changes the fabric of society in the long run. This is evident in countries with a high level of immigration, as well as unbalanced national-to-expatriate populations, like those in the Gulf states. We will have to wait and see how social integration will impact the identities of such populations in the coming decades.
This reminds me of the great writer Amin Maalouf, who left Lebanon for France in 1976. In his book, “In the Name of Identity,” Maalouf wrote: “I have been asked many times, with the best intentions in the world, if I felt more French or more Lebanese. I always give the same answer: Both.”
In his attempt to capture the complexity of our identity, he explains that much of the world’s violence stems from tensions about belonging and identity, and to prevent that violence we need to find a new way to think about such issues.
As such, we understand that our identities are complex and that they allow for multiple affiliations. Our language, beliefs, lifestyle, relationships, artistic expressions, values, politics and influences are all a melting pot in the way we define ourselves. “This could be an enriching and fertile experience if the young man feels free to live it fully,” as Maalouf wrote.
Societies change, that is for certain. They are becoming more pluralized. And while the pace of change varies, it nonetheless is very likely to occur. It is thus imperative for us as individuals and as a society to understand and accept that people have many overlapping identities and that they express them in different ways. Many of us will choose to adopt an identity that could be different from our immediate affiliations. Always remember, however, that change is the only constant.

  • Asma I. Abdulmalik is an Emirati civil servant and a writer interested in gender and development issues. Twitter: @Asmaimalik
Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News' point of view