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This Is Our Islam: To Be Young, Devout And Muslim In America Today

Mar 10, 2016
Originally published on March 10, 2016 9:20 am

For Muslim-Americans, there was a world before Sept. 11 and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and one after. Now, their community faces the dual threats of extremism and growing atheism.

Young Muslim-Americans are angry and frustrated, but not necessarily for the reasons you might think. While bound by their religion and their community, they have opinions as diverse as their backgrounds.

NPR's Tom Gjelten met a group of young American Muslims to discuss the challenges they see ahead for their community. Below, meet the participants; be sure to click the audio link above to hear their spirited conversation.


Adam Sbita

Born and raised in Virginia, the 26-year-old Libyan-American is a youth counselor.

On Libya after the ouster of Moammar Gadhafi and the call for solidarity among the world's Muslims

I know of people who went [to Libya] and were, like, "Yeah. What we did here in Libya, we're going to go do there in Syria and help them out, and then when we're done with Syria, we're going to go to Iraq, and when we're done with Iraq, we're going to go to Palestine, and when we're done with Palestine, you know, everything is going to be fine and dandy."

On his racial and ethnic identity

I grew up black. Look at my complexion. I look white. But white kids did not accept me. I couldn't be white. Black kids in my neighborhood, they accepted me. I was, like, all right. I guess I'm black. I'm Libyan. I'm from Africa.


Maryam Adamu

Born in North Carolina to immigrants from Nigeria, the 24-year-old research assistant at a think tank grew up in Arkansas.

On growing up in the age of Islamophobia

If you're even a little bit younger than me, you do not know an America without Islamophobia. Something that is terrifying to me is what it's like to be a [Muslim] teenager in an environment where you're always talked about as an "other" or a terrorist or somebody violent.

On how ISIS challenges American Muslims to think more critically

ISIS preys on our inability to walk and chew gum at the same time. It's making us think more critically. It's making us look critically at the way our media tells stories about how this happens. It's making us think and look critically at American foreign policy. It's making us think and look critically at the way we construct Islam in America.


Aqsa Mahmud

The 29-year-old international trade lawyer was born in Pakistan and raised in Georgia.

On why she's grateful to have grown up in the South

Only in the South could you say to your friend, "Hey, you know what? I've got to pray," and they'd be like, "Of course!" They talk about God in a very personal way. ... Their relationship with Jesus made me want to have a closer relationship with God, I'll be honest.

On how people think ISIS is a "Muslim" problem

I do not understand these people. I don't understand how anyone can become so inhumane. I feel like people are now pushing ISIS on me. It wasn't our problem until people were, like, "Oh, this is your problem, because you're a Muslim."


Irfan Nourredine

Born and raised in Chicago, the 34-year-old Indian-American is a community organizer and former prison chaplain.

On how ISIS thrives on ignorance and lack of critical thinking

ISIS is not doing these things just nilly-willy. They're very methodic. So as a Muslim if you go and you try to refute them, you're likely going to fail, because they'll be quoting scripture, sayings of the Prophet, historical events from early Islam. And most Muslims don't have that. They're not equipped with the proper knowledge, and so ISIS thrives on our own ignorance and our lack of critical thinking.

On the growth in both extremism and atheism

On one extreme, you have the yahoos, right? And they're going to go and be attracted by that rhetoric. Then on the other side you have the regular Muslims, and they're just, maybe they're not feeling it anymore. I mean, I know, personally, I get emails all the time, people doubting their faith. People who come to me now and say that they're atheist.

On how Muslims need to make religious literacy a top priority

I had somebody tell me they were basically going to walk out of Islam. I said, "Before you distance yourself, just give me a few weeks." Before we throw the baby out with the bathwater, I think we all need to kinda take a step back and rehash our own understanding.


Meraj Allahrakha

Born in Chicago and raised in California, the 33-year-old Pakistani-American is an economist and Muslim chaplain at George Washington University.

On who is attracted by ISIS' claim that it defends the global Muslim community, or ummah

They've been worshipping either Islam or they've been worshipping the ummah. They have not been worshipping God. Whenever they go to a Friday sermon, at the end of it, the person giving the sermon is, like, you know, "And let's make dua [solidarity] for our brothers and sisters in Palestine, Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bosnia." It's like, oh, my God, I learned so much geography just because of this. You grow up around this, right? And you're just, like, man, if only there was a way to unify the ummah, the ummah, the ummah. It's about this collective Muslim nation.

Yasmin Elhady

Born in Egypt and raised in Alabama, the 30-year-old Libyan-American is a human rights lawyer.


Adam Kareem

Born and raised in Washington, D.C., to parents who converted to Islam before his birth, the 29-year-old African-American is an engineering consultant.

On how it doesn't take a deep understanding of Islam to know ISIS is wrong

I don't feel like I need to be a scholar to know that ISIS is ridiculous. All I know is that they're committing heinous crimes by my understanding of Islam, and that is enough for me. I don't need a scholarly opinion to tell me that someone is ridiculous.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Muslims now form the fastest-growing religious group in the United States. Let's be clear, it's a relatively small group - about 1 percent of the population. But over the next three decades, Muslims' share of the population is expected to almost double. NPR's Tom Gjelten has been listening to the thoughts and hopes of some young Muslim Americans.

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: Growing up Muslim in America hasn't always been hard. This group of relatively devout young Muslims have some stories that are more hilarious than harrowing. Take the day Adam Sbita and his friends stopped at a gas station in rural West Virginia.

ADAM SBITA: It was time to pray and we're like, hey, you know, we're getting gas, might as well just pray. So we pulled over, got gas, went inside, bought some drinks, went out and we prayed next to our car.

GJELTEN: You prayed next to your car at a gas station in West Virginia?

SBITA: At a gas station.

GJELTEN: Prostrating themselves on the ground alongside the gas pumps.

SBITA: So we see the guy and he's like eyeing us like, who are these guys? Why are they doing yoga outside my gas station? So he comes out and he goes, are y'all from the Mohammedillians (ph)?

(LAUGHTER)

GJELTEN: The socializing this evening is in Maryam Adamu's basement apartment in Washington, D.C. Her parents are from Nigeria, but Maryam grew up in Arkansas. Not such a bad place for a Muslim girl, she says, even one who wears a headscarf or hijab.

MARYAM ADAMU: Because people were straightforward with what it was that made them uncomfortable. So, like, I get into the McDonald's line and this lady was just like, are you wearing that for your religion? - about my hijab. And I'm like, great, we can have this conversation over my coffee and I can keep going about my business. Whereas I think...

GJELTEN: Whereas here in Washington, she says, people may not acknowledge their discomfort, so Muslims don't know how they're seen. And then there's Aqsa Mahmud, born in Pakistan, raised in Georgia. Some of her closest friends there were born-again, Jesus-believing Baptists for whom religious faith is to be respected.

AQSA MAHMUD: I am so grateful to have been a Muslim growing up in the South. Only in the South could you say to your friend and be like, hey, you know what? I got to pray. And they'd be like, of course. Like, they talked about God in a very personal way. Like, their relationship with Jesus made me want to have a closer relationship with God, I'll be honest.

GJELTEN: Aqsa was in high school then. These young Muslims, now in their late '20s, early '30s, came of age in a more benevolent, hopeful time. After school, they found rewarding positions in the broader society. Aqsa is a government lawyer. They all work for progressive causes. But as Muslim Americans, their world was altered by 9/11, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, al-Qaida and ISIS. The last thing Aqsa and her friends want to deal with these days is some terrorist group that claims to be Islamic.

MAHMUD: I am so tired because there's so much work that we have to be doing in terms of inclusion in our communities whether it's LGBT issues, whether it's racism in our spaces, gender inequality - there's so much. And they just added more to my F'ing (ph) plate, OK? And what they're doing is horrendous and horrible, and it needs to be handled and tackled. But honestly, like, I'll be honest. When I pulled up, like, you know, the front page, I clicked on a Planned Parenthood article before I clicked on ISIS 'cause that's more, you know, relevant to me.

GJELTEN: But two of the males in this group warn the others that Muslims do have to take ISIS and its alleged ties to Islam seriously. Irfan Nourredine is a community organizer and former prison chaplain.

IRFAN NOURREDINE: ISIS is not doing these things just nilly-willy. They're very methodic. So as a Muslim, if you go and you try to refute them, you're likely going to fail because they'll be quoting scripture, sayings of the prophet, historical events from early Islam. And most Muslims don't have that, and they're not equipped with the proper knowledge. And so ISIS thrives on our own ignorance and our lack of critical thinking.

GJELTEN: Because some don't see how ISIS misinterprets Scripture. ISIS may also benefit from its claim to be defending Islam in the Muslim community worldwide, what Muslims call the ummah. That appeal resonates with Muslims around the world who have a more political, less spiritual understanding of their faith.

MERAJ ALLAHRAKHA: They've been worshiping either Islam or they've been worshiping the ummah. They have not been worshiping God.

GJELTEN: Meraj Allahrakha, a Muslim chaplain at George Washington University here in D.C., thinks young Muslims hear too many sermons, even in U.S. mosques, that call for solidarity, or dua, with Muslims around the world.

ALLAHRAKHA: At the end of it, the person giving the sermon is like, you know, and let's make dua for our brothers and sisters in Palestine, Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bosnia. It's like, oh, my God, I learned so much geography just because of this.

(LAUGHTER)

ALLAHRAKHA: You grow up around this, and you're just like, man, if only there was a way to unify the ummah, the ummah, the ummah. It's about this collective Muslim nation.

GJELTEN: Adam, the guy who prayed at a gas station, says he saw the strength of this appeal when he was in Libya where his family comes from.

SBITA: I know of people that were in Libya - Libyan natives - who went and were like, yeah, what we did here in Libya, we're going to go do there in Syria and help them out. And then when we're done with Syria, we're going to go to Iraq. And when we're done with Iraq, we're going to go to Palestine. And when we're done with Palestine, you know, everything is going to be fine and dandy.

ALLAHRAKHA: If ISIS was not doing these crazy, like, heinous acts, then I think people would be going over there in the thousands.

GJELTEN: Meraj again, the college chaplain.

ALLAHRAKHA: I know this for a fact. I can tell you that people would go and leave because they'd be like, this is the opportunity we've been waiting for, and now we can actually do something instead of just praying.

GJELTEN: At this, his friend Yasmin Elhady, is ready to jump out of her chair.

YASMIN ELHADY: I have a really big problem with that because...

ALLAHRAKHA: So do I.

(LAUGHTER)

ELHADY: What is that based on? What is that based on, Meraj? You can't make a statement like that, boldly, and say, I know for a fact. What fact? What does that stand upon, your own personal experiences? I'm sure you have students that are confused. They feel, OK, well, this verse, I'm kind of concerned about it. It does seem to support ISIS's position, whatever. And it shakes them. It shakes their faith.

GJELTEN: But that doesn't mean they're tempted to go off and fight, she says. Back to Irfan, the community organizer.

NOURREDINE: On one extreme, you have the yahoos - right? - and they're going to go and be attracted by that rhetoric. Then on the other side, you have the regular Muslims. And they're just like, maybe they're not feeling it anymore. I mean, I know, personally, I get emails all the time, people who come to me now and say that they're atheist.

GJELTEN: Growing extremism and growing atheism are both troublesome developments to these Muslims. They differ on how many people are drawn to ISIS, but they agree with Irfan that Muslims need to deepen their faith, not abandon it.

NOURREDINE: Now, I had someone tell me they were going to basically walk out of Islam. I said before you distance yourself, just give me a few weeks. Before we kind of, like, just throw the baby out with the bathwater, I think we all need to kind of take a step back and kind of rehash our own understanding.

GJELTEN: That's the idea that brought this group together this night and will again on nights to come. Tom Gjelten, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.