Young members of this ethnically diverse community are trying to forge their own identity in the post-9/11 world

Islam in America: young members of this ethnically diverse community are trying to forge their own identity in the post-9/11 world

Patricia Smith


Since 9/11, American Muslims have reported a rise in anti-Muslim feelings. In some cases, this has included violence directed against individuals or mosques. “Islam in America” takes a took at Muslims in the U.S., with a focus on young people who in many ways share the hopes and dreams of all young Americans.


* Are students aware of anti Muslim feelings prompted by 9/11?

* Do the memory of those attacks and ongoing security alerts continue to fuel anti Muslim feelings?

* Remind students of earlier discrimination–the internment of innocent Japanese-Americans following the Pearl Harbor attack in December 1941.

* Refer to Professor Bagby’s comment that it is easy to accept the worst stereotypes about others when we do not know them. Ask students why people stereotype others. (Fear of the unknown plays a key role in stereotyping.)


* Note the references to the distinction between religion and culture on pages 12 and 13. Do students understand the distinction between religion and culture?

* Give an example Ask: Do American Christians or Jews share religious values with their counterparts in Europe? What about their cultures? Is it the same with Muslims?


* Notice the distinction between US. and European Muslims.

* What does this suggest about social mobility in Europe and the U.S.?


* Have students write a brief essay on anything about Islam or-American Muslims they found interesting or surprising.

Like most American teenagers, 17-year-old Sana Haq enjoys hanging out with her friends and going to the movies. She just got her driver’s license, and she’s stressing over college applications. But Sana, a high school senior from Norwood, N.J., is an observant Muslim, and that makes her different from most of her friends.

She prays five times a day, as Islam requires. She wears only modest clothing–no shorts, no bathing suits, nothing too snug. Going to the mall for a pair of jeans can turn into a week-long quest because most are too tight or low-cut to meet her definition of “decent.”

Islam, she says, affects every aspect of her life. “If you ask me to describe myself in one word, that one word would be Muslim,” says Sana, who was born in the U.S. to Pakistani immigrants. “Not American, not Pakistani, not a teenager. Muslim. It’s the most important thing to me.”

Largely because of immigrant families like Sana’s, Islam is one of the fastest-growing religions in the U.S. Since the Census doesn’t track religious affiliations, the number of American Muslims is hard to pin down, but estimates range from 1.5 million to 9 million.

Whatever its size, the Muslim community in the U.S. is very diverse. According to a 2004 poll by Georgetown University and Zogby polling, South Asians (Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, etc.) are the largest group, followed by Arabs, and African-Americans. (Starting in the 1960s, a significant number of blacks in the U.S. converted to Islam.) Thirty-six percent of American Muslims were born in the U.S; the other 64 percent come from 80 different countries. (See graphs, p. 13.)

Trying to carve an American Muslin1 identity out of this diversity is one of the challenges facing young Muslims. “They are creating traditions and a culture that is particular to them and not imported from another majority-Muslim country,” says Tayyibah Taylor, editor of Azzizah, a Muslim women’s magazine published in Atlanta. “Something that blends their American way of thinking and their American way of living with Islamic guidelines.”


As a group, American Muslims have a higher median income than Americans as a whole, and they vote in higher numbers. In addition, they are increasingly contributing to American culture, forming Muslim comedy groups, rap groups, Scout troops, magazines, and other media.

Their integration into American society and culture stands in contrast to Europe’s Muslim communities, which have remained largely on the economic and political fringes. In November, Muslims rioted in many French cities.

In parts of the U.S. with large Muslim populations, Islam mingles with American traditions. At Dearborn High School in Dearborn, Mich., about one third of the students–and the football team–are Muslim. Because Ramadan (the Muslim holy month that requires dawn-to-dusk fasting) coincided with football season this year, Muslim players had to wake up at 4:30 for a predawn breakfast; go through their classes without eating or drinking; and start most Friday night games before darkness allowed them to break their fasts.

“When you start your day off fasting and you get to football at the end of the day, that’s the challenge,” says Hassan Cheaib, a 17-year-old senior. “You know you’ve worked hard. You know you’ve been faithful … After fasting all day, you feel like a warrior.”

Because some of Islam’s social tenets–modesty and chastity, for example–are so different from American norms, they can present a challenge for young Muslims. For Sana, adherence to Islam means she doesn’t date. “Dating means going out with someone and spending intimate time with them, and for me, that’s not allowed,” she explains. “But it’s not that I don’t talk to guys. I have guy friends.”


The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, were a transformative moment for Muslims in America. On the one hand, there has been an increase in anti-Muslim feeling, discrimination, and hate crimes. On the other hand, many Muslims have responded by taking more interest in their religion and reaching out more to non-Muslims.

“September 11 exposed American Muslims for the first time to a large degree of hostility,” says Ishan Bagby, a professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Kentucky. “So Muslims have come to the conclusion that isolation is a danger, because if people don’t know you it’s easy for them to accept the worst stereotypes.”

According to one 2003 poll, 63 percent of Americans say they do not have a good understanding of Islam as a religion. Indeed, many young Muslims spend a lot of time correcting common misperceptions about Islam: that it condones terrorism (it doesn’t); and that it denies women equal rights (it doesn’t, though many majority-Muslim cultures and countries do).

When Ibrahim Elshamy, 18, was growing up in Manchester, N.H., Islam was a regular part of his life. Every Friday he left school at lunch to attend services at a mosque. Now a freshman at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., his religion remains important. Two days after his arrival on campus, he contacted the Muslim student group. And five times a day, he returns to his dorm room to say his prayers.

In college, Ibrahim has found for the first time a Muslim community in which he feels at home. The mosque he and his Egyptian father attended in Manchester attracted many Arab, Asian, and African immigrants. The problem with that, he says, was that people melded their cultural traditions with their practice of Islam. As an American-born Muslim, he found that frustrating.

“Here at Dartmouth, it was extremely refreshing,” he says, “because I was finally around Muslims who were exactly like me in that respect.”

Professor Bagby says many young Muslims want to distinguish between Islam’s teachings and the cultural traditions often associated with Islam, particularly the role of women. Stressing that nothing in the Koran itself prohibits women’s full participation (in religion or in life), American women are increasingly demanding not only equal participation but leadership roles in the mosque. “It’s definitely rocking some boats,” says Tayyibah Taylor of Azzizah


Samiyyah All, 17, grew up in Altanta and describes herself as a practicing Muslim, rather than an observant one. She uses the principles of Islam to guide her, but doesn’t worry about following every last tenet. Like 20 percent of American Muslims, she is African-American. Her parents converted to Islam before she was born.

Other than her name, there’s not much about Samiyyah that would tell a stranger she is Muslim. She’s a senior at Westminster Academy, a coed private school where she’s a cheerleader, on the varsity track and field team, in the dance club, and on the school newspaper staff. And she does date.

She views the Koran as something that should not be followed literally, much like other historical documents that should be understood in context. “A lot of stuff is still applicable–honor and respect is always applicable,” says Samiyyah. “But other things that are cultural–even ideas about sex–need to be taken in context. Back then people got married when they were 14 … Maybe because my family is a convert family, we’re just not so orthodox.”

The Muslim community in America is currently undergoing a generational shift. Most American mosques were founded by first-generation immigrants, and as their American-born children take over, the norms are changing.

“Islam in America will feel a lot different in the next 40 years,” Professor Bagby says. “It’ll feel more American, that’s for sure.”

1. Islam requires the faithful to pray–times each day.

2. Briefly explain why there is no solid information on the number of Muslims in the United States.–

3. A graph in “Islam in America” shows that the most common ethnic heritage of Muslims in the United States is

a African.

b Arab.

c African-American.

d South Asian.

4. Identify what the article says are the principal differences between Muslim communities in Europe and the U.S.

5. During the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, followers are required to

a make a pilgrimage to Mecca, Islam’s holiest site.

b increase their donations to the poor.

c abstain from eating during daylight hours.

d pray twice as much as usual..

6. Which of the following statements is correct?

a Virtually all American Muslims live on or near the Atlantic coast.

b As a group, American Muslims vote more regularly than the U.S. population as a whole.

c All American Muslim girls wear Long sari-like dresses and head scarves.

d Most American Muslims speak Arabic.

7. Many American Muslims report that the enhanced scrutiny they have faced since–has prompted them spend a tot of time correcting misperceptions about Islam.


1. What do you think might account for the fact that so many African-Americans have converted to Islam? (The Black Muslim movement started as an alternative to Christianity, the religion of most slaveowners.)

2. Do you think security personnel at airports and other Locations should pay particular attention to people they assume are Muslims? Or is such scrutiny unfair?


1. five

2. The U.S. Census Bureau does not collect information on religion. (Similar wording is acceptable.)

3. [d] South Asian.

4. Europe’s Muslims are on the economic and political fringes. American Muslims are more integrated. (Similar wording is acceptable.)

5. [c] abstain from eating during daylight.

6. [b] As a group, Muslims vote more regularly than most Americans.

7. the terrorist attacks of 9/11.


* The first substantial Muslim migration to the U.S. began in 1893. mostly from Palestine and present day Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan.

* The first structure in the U.S. built specifically as a mosque opened in Cedar Rapids. Iowa, in 1935.

WEB WATCH products/pubs/muslimlife

A State Department site provides more than 20 links to additional information about Muslims in the US


With additional reporting by Samuel G. Freedman of The New York Times.

COPYRIGHT 2006 Scholastic, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2007 Gale Group