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Perspectives on Identity and Religion
Jul 1, 2014

What is identity? What is its relationship to religion and culture? How does it relate to modernization? What role does religious identity play in explaining conflicting versus cooperative acts around us?

The purpose of this article is to shed light on such questions from an academic perspective by focusing especially on religious identity. It is especially crucial to understand identity as it is a widely used concept in social scientific academic disciplines in explaining the causes of many prominent social and cultural phenomena that take place in the world.

Identity is derived from group membership. In this respect, Hofstede, Hofstede, and Minkov (2010) equate identity to one's belonging to a group. Further, Hofstede et al. (2010) state that identity is visible, it is commonly rooted in language (such as Latin American identity deriving from Spanish) or religious affiliation (such as Muslim identity deriving from Islam), and can be differentiated by shared symbols, heroes, and rituals that are part of observable practices but not necessarily the values of a nation. Identity is not a core part of national cultures; it is explicit, and it can change.

An individual can have multiple identities. For example, one can identify herself as a woman, Jewish, and American. Multiple identities are dependent on culture, especially on the individualist - collectivist cultural dimension. Individualistic environments allow multiple identities and permit identity shifts. On the other hand, in collectivistic cultures, one's group identity is mainly based on one group, which may be ethnic, religious, community-based, or national (Hofstede et al. 2010).

People who share similar ethnic and cultural backgrounds may have different group identities and fight with each other, such as Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland (Hofstede et al. 2010). In this respect, Pruitt and Kim (2004) posit that groups with strong group identity are the ones whose members are highly identified with the group and they are more likely to be involved in conflict. Accordingly, members of such groups feel the suffering of the fellow group members deeply. Group identity is especially strong among people who have historical ethnic or religious ties and perceive that they are being illegitimately deprived of their basic needs (Pruitt and Kim 2004). For example, Muslims in different areas of the world, including places as distant as the United States and Indonesia, can protest at the same time when they perceive injustice against Egyptian Muslims.

From another perspective, in explaining the changes taking place in the world after the Cold War, Huntington (2007) states that social, cultural, and economic modernization processes have disrupted people's identity sources in the second half of the twentieth century as people moved from countryside to the city. Religion has provided the meaning and purpose as the new source of identity that people seek, hence a new revival of religion and de-secularization began. For example, Orthodoxy in Slavic republics and Islam in Turkic republics of the former Soviet Union resurged, filling the gap of the communist ideology as people identified themselves more and more with their authentic religions that were suppressed by Communism (which was the main source of identity in the Soviet Union).

Similarly, in Turkey, in the 1990s, the ultra-secularist state-driven Kemalist identity was challenged with the revival of the Muslim identity. In this respect, Huntington (2007) argues that psychological, emotional and social needs of people caught in the traumas of modernization are best satisfied by a global religious revival. In the case of Muslim communities, Islam provided the answer to these needs, causing the Islamic Resurgence. According to Huntington (2007), the recent Islamic Resurgence is "the latest phase in the adjustment of Islamic civilization to the West, an effort to find the 'solution' not in Western ideologies but in Islam. It embodies acceptance of modernity, rejection of Western culture, and recommitment to Islam as the guide to life in the modern world." Similarly, Hunt and Aslandogan (2007, 96) posit that by the early twentieth century, Muslims perceived themselves as "part of intellectual, political, and social movements that sought either a restoration and renewal of the Islamic civilization of the eleventh and twelfth centuries, a return to the purity of the period of Muhammad and his immediate successors, or even a thoroughgoing 'modernization' of Islam."

The resurgence was not limited to the Islamic world. In South Korea, a traditionally Buddhist nation, where only one to three percent of the population was Christian in 1950, Christianity spread. Presbyterians and Catholics were at least 30 percent of South Korea's population in the 1980s (Huntington 2007). In the case of Latin America, "The number of Protestants in Latin America increased from roughly 7 million in 1960 to about 50 million in 1990" (Huntington 2007, 1779) which according to Huntington (2007, 1783) is "a major net increase in religious commitment and participation" rather than a replacement of one religion with another. According to Huntington, such changes in South Korea and Latin America reflect the ability of Protestantism in meeting the psychological, emotional, and social needs of people caught in the traumas of modernization more than Catholicism and Buddhism. Hence, worldwide identities became more aligned with religion due to psychological and spiritual needs satisfaction in the midst of the complexities of modernization and change, which can create confusion.

From the theories of conflict perspective, identity can be used to explain many of the conflicts in the world. According to Deutsch, Coleman and Marcus (2006), basic needs such as security, identity, recognition of identity, freedom, distributive justice, and participation are seen as the essential elements for human development. Social identity theory asserts that the group that one belongs to is part of his identity, and one tends to view the group favorably to reinforce his self-respect. Thus, one perceives an attack on his in-group as an assault on his self-worth (Pruitt and Kim 2004). Since identity groups serve as the primary vehicle through which these needs are expressed and satisfied, intergroup conflict takes place when one group's basic needs are frustrated or denied (Deutsch et al. 2006). Accordingly, intergroup conflict increases cohesiveness within the competing groups, primarily through the effects of threat. A perception of threat plays a key role by heightening in-group solidarity in addition to increasing hostility toward the threatening out-group, especially if there is a history of antagonism between the groups (Deutsch et al. 2006).

Furthermore, identity groups exist in organizations and communities. Wherever groups gather around a common social identity, if needs for recognition of that identity or for dignity, safety, or control are obstructed, conflict is highly likely. In this respect, professional groups, scientific disciplines, political parties, government departments, lobby groups, businesses, sports teams, street gangs - all carry a sense of group identity that shapes their dealings with other groups (Deutsch et al. 2006).

Based on social identity theory, since an individual's self-esteem is linked to group membership, a positive self-concept requires favorable evaluations of one's group and discriminatory comparisons with other groups (Deutsch et al. 2006). For example, ethnic groups exhibit ethnocentrism and national groups exhibit nationalism-pride and loyalty to their own nation, while defaming other nations.

According to Huntington (2007), in fault line wars, casual and multiple identities often transform and become more focused and hardened. With increased violence, communal conflicts become identity wars and the initial issues at stake tend to get redefined more exclusively as "us" against "them" as group cohesion and commitment are enhanced. With political leaders' narratives emphasizing and capitalizing on ethnic and religious loyalties, civilization consciousness strengthens with respect to other identities. An example is the war in Bosnia where the common Slavic or Yugoslav ethnic identity diminished, and Muslim, Catholic, and Orthodox identities came to the front among the three fighting groups as nationalist political leaders built their agendas on ethnocentrism and religious differences.

Nevertheless, religious identity can take a constructive form and play an important role in peace building (Deutsch et al. 2006). Accordingly, when faithfulness is a source of extending compassion, justice, tolerance, and respect to other people regardless of their faith, it can prevent violence and help build peace. In places where religious diversity is celebrated, religious identity can become the mediating factor for understanding and cooperation. Faith based diplomacy is an example where religious identity is the opening point for building trust and starting dialogue (Deutsch et al. 2006). Parties involved in interfaith - intercultural dialogue can attain a better understanding of their own religious or cultural identity and how it acts to form their perspective of the world and others. Therefore, interfaith dialogue is not only about learning about others' faith traditions, but it is also exploration of one's own identity. It also helps develop respect and understanding of various traditions as parties break down barriers of misunderstanding and build trusting relationships (Deutsch et al. 2006).

Another area where religious identities can foster bonds with others is humanitarian relief work. One can capitalize on her religious beliefs in protecting or enhancing human life regardless of ethnic or religious identity of the needy. The Kimse Yok Mu foundation in Turkey is based on such concepts that transcend identity based boundaries. Furthermore, Hunt and Aslandogan (2007) point out that education can become the vehicle through which a higher sense of identity can be developed to end divisions and frictions over artificial differences. Hence, the role of education for promoting a universal view of humanity and for the development of understanding and tolerance to secure respect for the rights of others is tremendous. One such educational endeavor is brought to life through the implementation of the annual Turkish Olympiads in Turkey, where identity based differences are minimized and universal values are emphasized around speaking a common language among students from more than 140 countries.

In conclusion, understanding the concept of identity can be especially important for international development, disaster relief, interfaith - intercultural dialogue, and education work in differentiating why and how various groups of people around the world identify themselves with various factors such as religion, ethnicity, language, and race. In the international development domain, it is vital to work with identity-based sensitivities in mind, as identity underlies many conflicts around the world. In the interfaith - intercultural dialogue domain, on the other hand, different identities provide the basis for much needed cooperation for a brighter future for all.


  • Deutsch Morton, Peter T. Coleman, and Eric C. Marcus. 2006. The Handbook of Conflict Resolution: Theory and Practice. Kindle Edition.
  • Hofstede, Geert, Gert J. Hofstede and Michael Minkov. 2010. Cultures And Organizations: Software of The Mind. 3rd ed. New York: McGraw Hill.
  • Hunt, Robert, and Yuksel Aslandogan. 2007. Muslim Citizens of the Globalized World. Kindle Edition.
  • Huntington, Samuel P. 2007. The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.
  • Pruitt, Dean G. and Sung Hee Kim. 2004. Social Conflict: Escalation, Stalemate, and Settlement. 3rd ed. New York: McGraw Hill.