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Muslim Youth Find a Bridge In a U.S. Tradition: Scouting

Natalie Niemiec, 6, lays her head on Sakina Ahmad's shoulder as their group of Daisy Girl Scouts listens to a reading at an event marking Eid al-Fitr, the feast concluding Ramadan.
Natalie Niemiec, 6, lays her head on Sakina Ahmad's shoulder as their group of Daisy Girl Scouts listens to a reading at an event marking Eid al-Fitr, the feast concluding Ramadan. (By Jonathan Ernst For The Washington Post)

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By Tara Bahrampour
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 21, 2005

Standing before 100 or so girls in green, brown and blue Girl Scouts vests, Sarah Hasan, the leader of Brownie Troop No. 503, explained the Islamic Ramadan fast.

"We're not allowed to eat or drink anything from dawn to dusk for a whole month," she said, noticing that some girls looked shocked. "It's a month to be grateful for all the things that you have."

Ramadan, which fell this year in October and November, ends with a big feast called Eid al-Fitr. Last week, five Girl Scout troops from the All Dulles Area Muslim Society in Sterling hosted an Eid party for five Herndon area troops, their mothers and troop leaders, to share a meal and help demystify Muslim cultural and religious traditions.

The annual event, in its fifth year, was one of the activities many Muslim families -- especially those with one or more immigrant parents -- say are important to help integrate their sons and daughters into the rituals of American childhood.

For many Muslim children, living in the United States means constantly balancing between being an observant Muslim and an American kid -- identities that aren't always in sync.

"Unlike where we grew up [in Muslim countries], when they walk out the door, they're seeing something different from what we teach them," Hasan said. "So you can't say, 'That's just the way it is.' It's always like, 'But why? But how?' "

Many Muslim immigrants have sought to bridge their old and new worlds since they began coming to the United States in large numbers during the 1960s. But since Sept. 11, 2001, as they have faced increasing hostility and scrutiny, parents and community leaders say, cultural integration is more vital than ever.

"How do we deal with harassment, post-9/11? That's part of our education program: letting people know who Muslims are," said Rizwan Jaka, president of the Muslim society and a Cub Scout den leader. Like anyone else, he said, Muslims "want to be sure [our children] grow up with good character and good citizenship," and they seek out activities accordingly.

In the Washington area, home to about 250,000 Muslims from several countries, those activities include scouting, basketball, football, cricket and table tennis. The Muslim society's center, which attracts Muslims from across Virginia, the District and Maryland, has hosted Muslim comedians and Muslim concerts and held interfaith exchanges with churches and an Eid festival with a moonbounce.

"This is part of the normal progression of our community," Jaka said. "They're wholesome community activities that are compatible with who we are, which is wholesome Americans."

Many on the Muslim society's board are, like Jaka, younger than 35 and born in the United States to immigrant parents.

"We've gone through the system here, so we have a better idea of what our young people are facing," he said. "As other mosques progress and more young people take over, you'll see more transformation toward that."

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