Young Muslims Strive to Uphold Faith, Find a Place in Dominant U.S. Culture

Young Muslims in the Washington area are part of a generation that appears markedly different from their parents in career choices, assimilation and views of their religion.
By Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 6, 2009

Many had just entered high school in the days after the Sept. 11 attacks and now, eight years later, they are leaving college and choosing their path in life. Young Muslims in the Washington area are part of a generation that appears markedly different from their parents in career choices, assimilation and views of their religion.

Their youth has often been affected by the mistrust and wariness many Americans have of Islam. They are struggling with how to live their faith, from how to dress to whom to date, in a broader American society that frequently views them with suspicion.

Pollsters and researchers are just beginning to study this group of young people, almost three-fourths of whom are first- or second-generation American. One of the group's biggest issues, Altaf Husain said, is their concern that Islam is viewed as dangerous.

"There will be a silent majority among Muslim youth who say: 'I'm just not up for that. I won't be my religion's spokesperson. I'll just be spiritual in my private life,' " said Husain, a popular activist and social worker who writes about Muslim youth and speaks on college campuses.

Still others, however, are finding new avenues of activism.

Many of their parents came to the United States to study engineering, medicine and the sciences. But many in this generation are drawn to politics, journalism and public service, researchers said. The aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks and the Bush administration's counterterrorism policies, which many Muslims opposed, have motivated many of them in their 20s to pursue newly established public-policy internships and fellowships created in government and the private sector.

"We're realizing we don't have the voice we need in American politics," said Nadia Sheikh, 22, who graduated last month from Georgetown University and hopes to go to law school. She has not forgotten, she said, how FBI agents came to her home in Portland, Ore., in 2003 to question her family after her then-8-year-old sister was observed with their Pakistan-born father photographing local landmarks for a school project.

Sufia Alnoor said she also wants a career that will allow her to live her religious values. Although her mother wanted her to be a doctor or lawyer, she wants to use her communications degree from George Mason University for environmental or international aid work. The 22-year-old from West Springfield said she is troubled by the messages young Muslim children are receiving.

"We were taught to take care of seniors, not to eat more meat than we needed, that those values were living Islamically," said Alnoor, who prefers hipster attire -- a colorful headband and Power Rangers T-shirt -- under the head covering and looser clothes she wears outside of the house or around unrelated men. Muslim children now are taught to be defensive, not to watch television, she said, to be braced for rejection from the dominant culture.

A broader understanding of Islam will come in simply doing work that helps others, she said. Action will speak louder than words.

The Pew Research Center has found that young Muslims are more religiously observant than their parents, and Gallup polling shows they are more likely than their parents to think of themselves as Muslim first and American second. In interviews, many of the generation say they are striving to define for themselves what being Muslim means.

One place this shows up is in dating trends. Researchers say young people are struggling to meld the common Muslim practice of limited dating with the mainstream American desire to get to know one's partner.

"There is no room for exploration, no way to know if it will go somewhere," said Nadia El-Hillal, 22, who graduated from the University of Maryland last month.

Alejandro Beutel, 24, a Muslim convert who is pursuing a master's degree in public policy at Maryland, said mosques and school groups need to come up with models for young people to meet one another -- a cross between the old and the new.

One trend his life embodies is the rise in interethnic, interracial dating. Recently, he said, he was out to dinner on U Street with his fiancee (whose parents are from Afghanistan) and four other Muslim couples, all mixed. He called it "trippy" to see the global Muslim population -- called "the ummah," Arabic for, "the Muslim community" -- at his dinner table.

"While it's a positive thing, it can be difficult," he said. "We are disentangling religion from culture."

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