“I was playing catch-up. People who come here young are playing catch-up in terms of exploring who they are . . . how they’ll bring together where they were and where they are now,” said Elzaharna, 26, now a married software developer and very observant Muslim.
In its turn toward radicalization and violence, the story of the Muslim brothers accused in the Boston bombings was an aberration. But its broad theme of immigration followed by a complex search for identity in post-Sept. 11 America echoes a process familiar to many young Muslims.
These newcomers must simultaneously navigate moving to another country, growing up and determining what Islam means in a culture in which it has become a heated topic everywhere from presidential debates to late-night talk shows. Fortunately, the attacks of 2001 also gave birth to a broad infrastructure of youth imams, sports leagues, scouting groups and other forums to assist Muslim youths in their quest for identity.
Some of these young Muslims come from homelands where Islam was more about culture and are startled to be asked to define their theological beliefs. Some feel their entire identity is being shaped by anti-Muslim rhetoric, while others struggle to make sense of the narrative that Muslims are under siege while what they see are Muslim immigrants around them thriving. Responses vary, too, from becoming more traditionally observant to helping to build a more secular Islamic scene focused on such issues as human rights advocacy.
Where will it all lead? That’s open to debate. There are experts on Muslim youths who believe America is en route to a pluralistic, accepting brand of Islam. Others point to data indicating that young Muslims — immigrant and U.S.-born — are far more likely than other age groups to see their faith as in conflict with modern life.
Muslims in Russia warned Dina Abkairova before she came to Boston, in 2004: Don’t say you’re a Muslim. But when she arrived at age 22, Abkairova found many Americans curious and friendly. She also felt judged by some fellow Muslims, who criticized her for not praying enough.
“I started questioning if I had the right to call myself a Muslim,” she said.
Then she connected with a group of more progressive Muslims. Their attitude was that “you’re Muslim if you say you’re Muslim. . . . What really matters is to be open-minded and open-minded to other people’s choices. That really helped me to take a breath and say, ‘Phew, okay, I’m normal.’ ”