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

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."

U.S. Muslim scout troops have been increasing in the past two decades, said Donald York, director of the relationship division of the Boy Scouts of America: 112 troops with 1,948 members are chartered through an Islamic school or mosque.

"What's happening now in the Islamic community is very similar to what was happening in the 1920s and '30s in Boy Scouts . . . with the Jewish community," York said. "They used scouting to assimilate their young people into America."

York said scouting values -- which include an adherence to faith -- mesh well with Muslim ones. "Islamic families and clergies want the same thing for young people," he said. "They want them to grow up in their faith and learn their histories and cultures," he said. "Things like trustworthy, obedient, clean and helpful" -- elements of Scout Law -- "these are predominant Muslim ideas. They're very attractive to an Islamic family."

A spokeswoman for Girl Scouts of the United States of America said the organization does not ask scouts' religious affiliation but does encourage spirituality. Troops often meet in churches, synagogues, and, increasingly, mosques.

"It's a pretty common thing," said Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for the Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations. "In fact, we did an ad campaign trying to show Muslims as regular people, and that was one of the things we showed: a Muslim Girl Scout troop in California."

Most Muslim children attend public schools and absorb American culture there, Hooper said. But people whose children attend Islamic school or are home-schooled also say connections with non-Muslims are important.

"In this society, everybody has to learn to live together," said Zohra Sharief, a Pakistani living in Woodbridge who home-schools her five children and co-leads Troop No. 503. "If I isolate myself from the society, it's my loss."

It helps to have non-Muslim peers who understand the traditions, Hasan said. Still, she said, as immigrants arrive from Muslim countries and start families here, they must differentiate between what is religious and what is cultural and decide which American cultural practices to embrace and incorporate.

Many note, for example, that dress is a cultural choice. Some immigrants arrive accustomed to wearing Western attire; some hew to the sartorial traditions of their home countries; some make compromises, such as forgoing headscarves but forbidding miniskirts.

Hasan, 34, who is of Indian descent and was raised in Kuwait, said she and her three daughters do not wear head coverings except during prayers. "I tell them, 'We're in America; you can wear pants.' "

But she has a blanket rule against another American ritual: sleepovers. "It's not religious," she said of her reasoning, "but I remember my mom said it's not decent for young ladies to be sleeping in a house other than their own."

At the center last week, in a large room that serves as a prayer hall, party room and indoor gym, girls in headbands and jeans sat beside girls in headscarves and shalwar kameez -- tunics and trousers -- to make crepe-paper Eid necklaces.

Hasan told the girls about Eid rituals, such as putting henna on their hands; taught them to say " Salaam -u- aleikum ," Arabic for "Peace be upon you"; and read a story about a family celebrating Eid.

Afterward, Mona Magid, 6, a Brownie in a magenta headscarf who is the daughter of the society's imam, explained more about fasting.

"Like if you weren't eating for the entire day, the way your throat would get dry is how the poor feel," she said. "So Muslims want to try to help the poor."

Ashley d'Hedouville, 7, a second-grader at Clearview Elementary School in Herndon, said she learned that "Ramadan is when you eat at night."

Her sister Ann Marie, 8, said she knew about fasting from a classmate. "My friend does that. She goes to the library" during lunch.

Once she and her classmates learned the reason, "we wouldn't talk about food in front of her, or drinks."

While the Girl Scouts munched on halal, or religiously sanctioned, hot dogs, the center's Muslim Boy Scout troops met downstairs for pizza, and the adults had their own cultural exchange. The Muslim mothers brought dishes from their home countries (chicken curry, rice, lamb and samosas) and from the United States (pasta casserole) and a large cake wishing a happy Eid.

Gina Gallagher, a Herndon resident attending the dinner for the second consecutive year, said getting to know the Muslim mothers had been a revelation.

"A lot of people look at the women with the head scarves, and they can't relate," she said. "You look at a woman like that and you're like, 'I don't have anything in common with her.' And then you sit down, you eat, you realize you all have the same problems."

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