“Where was I before God made me?” asks 4-year-old Eesa. Zaynab, 8, thinks Heaven will probably look like her Candyland game board: “The bushes will grow candy!” Eight-year-old Hamza wonders if God knows when he tells Mommy he’s too sick for school — even when he isn’t.
These are our children, reveling in the otherworldly dimensions of their daily existence — waving hello to the invisible angels sitting on their shoulders, hoping their daily tally of good deeds outweighs the bad. As parents, we pine to keep our children’s faith experience joyful and wondrous. As Muslim-American parents, that is becoming a more challenging task.
Terrorism dominates the news, anti-Muslim sentiment is rising and American Muslim kids are bullied by young people and adults alike. As parents, we wonder: How do we make our children feel safe even when we don’t? How do we make them feel safe about their faith?
This was a very specific, pointed challenge Tuesday for Youssef Chouhoud, who lives in Los Angeles, where hundreds of public schools were closed after city school board members received emailed threats of violence. Chouhoud’s two daughters (ages 5 and 6) go to a private Islamic school, which was open, but he and his wife still felt afraid. They had sent their children to school the day after the San Bernardino shooting, only to pick them up early because of their uneasiness.
Tuesday, the couple decided, the kids would stay home. But they wouldn’t know why.
The girls had been coughing for a few days, so they were told their parents wanted them to fully heal. “It was more so my wife and I who wanted to ‘feel better,’” the University of Southern California doctoral student wrote.
His bottom-line instinct was to “shield them from reality.” For them to hold onto their innocence just a little longer.
“Still, I cannot determine what their friends know and talk to them about, nor can I any longer convince myself that my eldest daughter is not processing the images she sees whenever I watch the nightly news. At some point (likely very soon), my instinct towards preservation will do more harm than good,” Chouhoud wrote. “The last thing I want is media narratives and schoolyard gossip shaping the way that my children envision their place as Muslims in America. It is hard to know when exactly to make this pivot. All I can do is pray for guidance.”
All parents across Los Angeles agonized with the question: How do I explain this to my child? For us Muslim-American parents, however, there are also fervent hopes and prayers that the threat didn’t come from a self-described Muslim.
Unlike many other facets of parenting, we struggle to find models to draw from.
In the America we grew up in, our parents did not discuss radicalism, terrorism or Islamophobia with us because they never had to; those narratives weren’t yet present. We had the chance to learn about Islam as a source of spirituality and comfort, not as a political ideology or as a subject of incessant social commentary.
When the Sept. 11 attacks happened, we were old enough and familiar enough with our faith that we knew our religion had been perverted by terrorists for their own political ends.
We want our children to have that same certainty, but we are scrambling to figure out how.
As with many of our peers, the post-9/11 conversation on Islam and global affairs forced us to react, and in turn, think more deeply about our faith. But we are concerned about broaching topics as complex as terrorism and Islamophobia at a time when our children are still learning the basics.
We are asking ourselves: What is the right age to have these discussions? Is it reasonable to put off these conversations until children bring up these subjects themselves? How do we equip our children to face questions about their religious identity? How do we explain that the perpetrators of certain horrific crimes purport to be committing them in the name of Islam?
For one of the authors of this piece, the approach is driven by geography. Uzma Mariam Ahmed is an American regulatory lawyer who moved to Dubai a few years ago for a temporary work stint. Her approach is driven by her belief that children old enough to learn about history and previous wars, and violence should be informed about current events. Therefore, she decided to discuss 9/11, the Paris attacks, the Islamic State and the resulting Syrian refugee crisis with her 8-year-old son, Hamza. She tried not present these incidents as uniquely different from other conflicts he’s learned about; not worse or better or anything he, as a Muslim, should particularly be concerned with.
Ahmed recognizes, however, that she has a different backdrop, living in a Muslim-majority country, where her kids see Muslims doing most everything — the good, the bad and everything in between. It makes it easier, she thinks, for them to distinguish faith from bad action. Hamza’s reaction reflects this reality. Upon hearing that terrorists describe themselves as Muslims, he exclaims, “How can these guys be Muslim? They must be really stupid!”
But it’s different here in the United States, where Muslims are a small minority. We parents struggle to figure out how to help our kids distinguish faith from action — especially when the news constantly conflates the two. Beyond saying, “just because the crazy, evil man on TV said he’s acting on his Muslim beliefs doesn’t mean that he’s acting Islamically,” what more can parents do?
For Samar Kaukab, a Chicago mom and researcher with three young children, avoiding media headlines has proven impossible, making it necessary for her to discuss recent attacks and Islamophobia with her daughters, aged 7 and 9. But she saw the conversation as not just a sad necessity but also an opportunity to discuss the concept of uncertainty. She explained that we sometimes don’t know why people do harmful things, but that whatever choices individuals make do not reflect on entire groups of people or an entire religion.
Kaukab and her family live in the South Side of Chicago, to many a symbol of tension between blacks and whites with a history of race riots and segregation. Kaukab has discussed the neighborhood’s history, and the concept of discrimination, with her children. They learn about it in their school as well.
She tried to draw a parallel in telling them about anti-Muslim discrimination, asking them to reflect on the best ways to handle a situation if they are harassed for being Muslim.
Her approach is similar to Aziz Poonawalla’s in Los Angeles. His daughters, 13 and 8, were home from school Tuesday and they knew why. The girls know about previous school shootings, and Poonawalla’s approach is to answer any questions they ask while emphasizing that the threat from any “bad people” comes from their choices, and not because of their race or religion. He hopes these incidents become teachable moments about morality and values rather than fear or shame.
Michael Perez teaches about Islam at the University of Washington, yet when discussing the faith with his children, who are 7 and 4, he prefers to keep conversations simple. He believes talking about violence committed by and against Muslims narrows the possibilities for thinking about an enormous life journey. His children remain focused on the basics of Islam and the importance of a Muslim identity.
As a Latino convert married to an Arab-American, getting his children to identify with mixed parents and three languages in a white racial environment is a critical goal. Perez also wants his children to understand the importance of belief, to help his children understand how to ask the right questions and discover their own answers.
For Asma Uddin, the second author of this piece, talking with her children about terrorism, especially religion-based terrorism, seems like too much too soon. Zaynab, 8, and Eesa, 4, have yet to be confronted by the headlines or face any harassment or bullying. But Uddin feels the threat lingering. Her solution has been to ground them in a deep appreciation of not just our faith but other faiths, too. She believes a positive view of religion in general will help them more easily reject perverted interpretations of what God and faith require of people.
This attitude comes naturally to her. She works as an attorney defending religious liberty, a calling that comes from her understanding of Islam. She wants her children’s faith to help nurture an appreciation in them of diverse cultures. The holiday season provides fertile ground, with them picking up the Christmas and Hanukkah excitement from their school friends, even making their own dreidels and playing spin the dreidel at night.
We are in uncharted territory as Muslim-American parents. Every day we wake up and hope that there won’t be another terrorist attack or another politician denouncing our faith and families. We know that eventually all our children will learn the full reality of the difficult times we are living in. We just hope we can give them the time to grow in their faith and identities as Muslims and Americans before they have to face adult questions about hatred and violence.
Asma T. Uddin is a religious liberties lawyer and founding editor-in-chief of altmuslimah.com. Uzma Mariam Ahmed is a Dubai-based regulatory lawyer.