One of the prominent things about me, even though I am an American citizen, is that I was born and raised in Iceland. When people learn that about me they have a thousand questions. It usually takes two or three meetings with new friends to satisfy their curiosity about Iceland and how my family got here (it’s quite a story).
Later, when I am introduced by my new friends to other people, they usually say something like, “this is my Icelandic friend,” or “this is my friend from Iceland,” or “this is Gudjon, he used to be Bad-John and he’s from Iceland.”
Why I Bought ThatGuyFromIceland.com
For a while, I was attending numerous networking meetings for work. My Icelandic identity became so prominent that I bought the domain name ‘thatguyfromiceland.com’ because it was the only thing people seemed to remember about me (note, I no longer use it because I didn’t want to be branded like that for the rest of my adult life).
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t mind being related to Iceland, but, in my mind, that’s not the most interesting thing about me. It’s unusual to meet someone from Iceland—because there are only 330 thousand people who live there—and I can understand why people make that mental connection and brand me as their Icelandic friend, but sometimes I feel like I can do without it.
My New Friends
That is why I have reservations about how I introduce my new friends. Sure, I met them through interfaith events and probably wouldn’t have made the connection if they didn’t profess to the faith of Islam, but, as I get to know them better, I see that there is much more to them than their Muslim identity.
To me, they are my friends who happen to be Muslims, not my Muslim friends. I may be nitpicking here, and it’s probably because of my experience with my Icelandic identity, but I feel like I need to make that distinction, if not for other people, then at least for me.
Each Person Is More Than That
Here is why I think this is important. People are multilayered. They may connect more strongly with one aspect of their being than with other aspects (and I must confess that religion plays a large role in the life of my new friends) but referring to people exclusively with one label, be it geographical, theological, or ideological, takes away their multifaceted nature.
Each person is more than can be conveyed with any one concept. If I truly want to be someone’s friend, my goal must be to get to know the interwoven aspects that constitute their character. That includes (but is not limited to) their personal history, their cultural lineage, their customs, their likes and dislikes, their values, their actions, their religion, their feelings, and the list can go on and on.
Broad Application of Labels
I went to a panel event about diversity in Islam the other day and heard an Arab speak about his time in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. When trains were delayed because of bomb threats, he and his friends would get irritated and blame the Catholics and Protestants but after a while, they applied their labeling more broadly and started saying, “What is wrong with these white people?”
Of course, he was telling that story (jokingly) to make a larger point. We all label, but when we apply labels too broadly, we lose nuance. Knowing one person who professes to Islam doesn’t mean I know all people who share their beliefs. Who they are and how they behave as individuals may give me indications about how the larger population behaves, but it is not a measuring stick for all Muslims.
This is obvious when you think about it. You won’t know everything you need to know about the Icelandic people by knowing me any more than I will know everything about Americans by knowing my neighbors.
But sometimes we forget to think about these nuances and lose perspective.
Happy To Know My New Friends
As happens to be the case in every budding friendship, I am still learning about my new friends. Because of our interfaith relationship, I am learning about their faith, but I am also learning about everything else.
At the end of the day, I am happy to have made new friends. Down the road, their Muslim identity will probably take a backseat to who they are as people, just like some of my friends forget that I am from Iceland from time to time.
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