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The Next Generation: Culture and Identity

Young Muslims growing up in the U.S. face the same basic struggle that immigrant groups have always faced in America – how to blend in and find a place for yourself in this country without losing that identity that makes you unique.

"The next generation in some ways bridges those divides, those intersections of gender, of class, of race and of ethnicity,” said Amir Hussain, an associate professor of Theological Studies at Loyola Marymount University.

A major issue is the lack of heroes and role models in the Muslim community. “When I was growing up ... my great role model was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar,” Hussain said. For the youth of today, “there are lots of Muslims who are sort of there, but they aren’t out there.”

Another big issue is that Muslims are not as involved in the media, because “many of us who come from immigrant communities are taught by our parents to become successful, and successful means to become a doctor, a lawyer, an engineer or a businessman,” he said. “Where are the Muslim journalists, where are the Muslim filmmakers, where are the Muslim directors?”

Marriage brings up a lot of problems because of the differences in the Muslim communities between African-American Muslims or white American converts and those with a South Asian background where the family tradition is often that the parents have a major role in arranging marriages, Hussain said.

Hussain also discussed the images of Muslims in popular culture, talking about the common “terrorist” representations as well as Muslims with multiple wives.

“The majority of Muslim families are not polygamist families,” he said, later adding that the only form of polygamy he has experienced in the U.S. is with Mormonism. He also applauded the few positive portrayals of Muslims. “One of the films I show in class is Vertical Limit ... it’s the story of fictionalized people climbing K2, the mountain in Pakistan ... and they actually have Pakistanis as the guides.”

Karima Alavi, the program director for the Dar al Islam Madressah, also addressed issues within the Muslim youth community, discussing the Americanization of young Muslims, juggling multiple identities and issues with women in particular.

One of key issues among women in Islam is use of the veil. “I see a real cultural colonialism going on in the media and in books and its ‘oh these poor Muslim women all want to be me,’” Alavi said. One of the big stories that journalists are missing is that there are Muslim women who want to be who they are culturally and socially, she said. “Keep in mind that the use of the veil has actually increased recently amongst young, educated women, and it’s really a symbol of anti-Americanism, a symbol of nationalism and a symbol of pride.”

She added that Muslims in general feel like the politicization of the Muslim female by the American media and government is a justification for bombing other people and invading other nations. “We have ... Laura Bush on the radio doing this whole spiel of ‘let’s go save the Muslim women,’ “ Alavi said. “Frankly, I don’t like being treated like the white woman’s burden, and that’s exactly what I feel like.”

Alavi objects to American secular feminists who are butting in to give their take on the issues facing Muslim females. “Part of the problem is if you look at the Ph.D. programs in Islamic studies, it is often non-Muslims teaching about Islam,” she said. “We have to get our own kids with the Ph.D.s, and then our own kids into the positions of authority and knowledge within the universities.”

Muslim parents, as with many other immigrant groups, often fear that their children are becoming too Americanized and losing their ties with the “home country,” Alavi said. Thus, there is the impulse to cling to traditions even fiercer than they did before they immigrated, she added.

Another big story that journalists are missing concerns a “clash within the Muslim community of ‘do we send our children to a university in America for their Ph.D. where they have secular humanist Americans teaching our children about Islam?’ “ Alavi said. “How do we handle our lack of a voice in the American university system, and if we don’t have a voice, where do we go?”

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