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American Muslim Parents: New Roles, New Challenges

Muslim American families take part in a parade. As the community grows, there are greater challenges for both parents and children.
Muslim American families take part in a parade. As the community grows, there are greater challenges for both parents and children.


“Consider the figures about Muslims; 1.3 billion and growing; every fifth or sixth person on this planet a Muslim; 55 states and one of them nuclear; about 25 million living permanently in the West and making a great impact on social, political and economic life”, says Prof. Akbar Ahmed, and adds, “The 21st Century will be the century of Islam. Muslim civilization will be central to understanding where we will be moving in the future. Anyone wanting to make sense of living in the twenty-first century, will need to understand Islam”. These are pleasant words, but bold assertions. Do they really reflect the ground realities that Muslims are confronting Muslims? This is somewhat debatable.

And I fear they do not. In the words of one American columnist, “No part of the world is more hopelessly and systematically and stubbornly misunderstood by us (the West) than that complex of religion, culture and geography known as Islam”. And this is true for no fault of the West; it is so because of our own failure to explain the true teachings and spirit of Islam. In the words of Dr Muzammal Siddiqui, “People learn from what they see, and people will know the truth about Islam not from principles, but from practices of the Muslims”.

Muslims are a monologous community that talks only to its own people and keeps believing that others will know about their religion by observing them talking. Once a follower asked the Prophet, “What is religion?”. And his answer is the solution to Muslim problems, “One’s regard and conduct towards others”.

Even in the performance of rituals, the figures paint not so rosy a picture. According to Zogby International Polls, just 49% visit an Islamic center once a week; only 19% make some of the five daily prayers; a paltry 5% admit going only for Eid prayers. 10% boldly admit that they have never prayed in their life. To a question like how deeply have you been involved in the activities of an Islamic center, just 19% said they were involved, and 28% admitted they have never been involved at all. Figures speak for themselves.

Michael Wolfe who made the film, “The Legacy of the Prophet” is right when he says, “Audience is the name of the game… the more people see you, the more they will realize that we are caring people. We need to be seen and heard” everywhere. In the words of Prof. Ali Minai of Cincinnati, “If we believe that our faith is compatible with progressive humanist ideals, then we must express ourselves, not as apologists of Islam to the West, but as proponents of new possibilities for Islam. The time has come for us to do so now.”

Islam is our best moral guide and its education is our spiritual health insurance. This can happen only if we truly understand our religion and practice it in our lives. Cherry picking in Islam, i.e. choosing the easy parts and neglecting those that demand sacrifice and effort is not going to take us anywhere.

Alhamd-o-Lillah, there are more than 1209 Islamic centers and over 250 full time Muslim schools in America, though Muslims are less than 1% of the total American population. In France though being 8% to 9% of the population, they just have three Muslim schools. Muslims are ideally placed here in America, and they are high achievers too. 67% of them hold a four-year college degree, and 66% of them make over 60K per year.

One in every ten Muslim households has a doctor and 22% of them are professional engineers. Unlike the Muslims in Europe , they are not concentrated in highly visible enclaves of poverty. Be it Jackson Heights, or Dearborn, not even one is found begging on the streets or in the subways as they are found in Brussels .

They are extremely diverse as they hail from many parts of the globe; they speak numerous languages and practice several versions of Islam freely, and yet they are not as much divided as they are in the countries of their origin. There is nothing that may breed in them a sense of disaffection, or any feelings of extremism. They love America like anybody else. Their community is poverty-free; is crime-free and being educated and well-placed is highly instrumental in the economic and social growth of this country. They are not marginalized, like they are in Europe; here they do not have to fight for their daughters’ right to wear a Hijab.

In the words of Dr Muzammal Siddiqui, “Despite the rising Islomophobia, this is still the best country to do work and research in any field, including Islamic Studies”, and he is right. The negative perceptions about Islam can only be corrected through dialogue and through interfaith meetings. The best thing that Muslims can do is to make sure that people are portraying an accurate image of Islam, and not a distorted one. An effective Islamic center, and an educated, broad-minded and visionary leadership can play this role very well.

If spring brings flowers and fragrance, it also brings Pauline which makes noses itchy and eyes watery. America too like spring has its share of cultural allergy. It has its own parameters of culture and freedom. The good thing is that it does not impose them on others. We should not assume that our kids will never be affected by its cultural allergy because they have the vaccination of Islam. Islam is a religion of logic and common sense. It tells us that the youth is vulnerable.

Our children move in the company of kids like Luke Woodham who some years ago first killed his mother and then in school killed three more; our kids may be befriending a Mitchel Johnson or an Andrew Golden who in Jonesboro set off a fire alarm just to draw the school mates outside only to shoot them. Our children may be moving in the company of students like Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold who in 1999 killed 14 fellow students and one teacher because over time “they had become angry at the world”. Our children are not very special. They could have been one of them, or even one of those extremists who in the name of religion, become tools in the hands of terrorists and extremists.

All parents of the young people involved in the London blasts, or those held in the recently discovered plan to blow off planes, asserted that their children were the nicest human beings. The question asked now in case of such a tragedy would be: “Where were the parents?” Parents in Islam are held religiously responsible for raising their kids as good human beings, as men of character and conscience.

The fact of the matter is that most of our teens exist in a state of near isolation. First we ignore them, and then they ignore us. If we love them, we got to love them a little louder. The relationship now demands total transparency. We got to find time to read their school papers; we got to know the kind of music they listen, and the movies they watch; the friends they move with. When we buy them their first bike, we know the law that we got to get them the helmet too. Likewise, as parents we got to know the world our children live in. Mostly it is we who make the world they live in. Life is not a video game that you may fry eggs or cook the meals in the kitchen while your kid watches ‘The born killers’. It is our duty to know if he/she was in the library, or what research paper he/she has been working on; if he/she has been lately in great anger, depression, or somewhat withdrawn, all this must be in our knowledge.

By the time your child is through the elementary school he/she has already watched 8,000 murders, according to a study conducted in 1999. There has been 300% increase in the teen suicides since 60’s; and 1,000% increase in depression. Your child stays alone over 3.5 hours a day and watches TV 28 hours a week, which is 4 hours a day. 31% children, including yours and mine, know someone who carries a gun. So tragic things do not happen like a Tsunami. They leave a trace behind them.

Children love to reason and argue before they accept a point of view. Muslims progressed 800 years ago because of this habit. Scholars like Ibn Sina, Ibn Rushd and Ibn Khuld understood that knowledge alone could lead one to true Faith. Questioning helps us to decipher Allah’s Truth and His Signs. We should not get scared by their questioning. “An hour’s reflection is better than a year’s worship,” said our Noble Prophet. “Even better than reading the Qur’an”, asked the puzzled followers. “And, can the Qur’an be useful without knowledge”, was the Prophet’s answer.

Now, we can embroil ourselves and our children in such questions as: is the birthday celebration a bidah? Can we pray in an aeroplane or a moving car? Is it all right to read the Qur’an in English? Is it permissible for a boy or girl to socialize in the center? Is it OK to donate money earned by selling alcohol? Is Hijab a part of Islam or culture? Can a woman pray in the main hall where men pray? Are doritos and chips haram because they contain enzymes? These may be valid questions, but do they rank higher to another kind of questions that are being posed to us and our youth every day?

Does Islam promote extremism? Are Muslims envious of the wealth of the West? Do Muslims hate the West because it stands for freedom and strength? Does the Qur’an sanctify violence? Are Islamic values incompatible with Western values? Does Islam suppress freedom of speech? Muslims are hypocritical because they talk of peace and indulge in terrorism? Does Islam glorify suicidal acts? Do Muslims have four wives? Does Islam allow the beating of wives? Why Islam is against dating? Do young Muslims in Islam have a choice in the selection of their spouses? Does Islam support gender inequality? And many more. The choice is yours.

A good Islamic center will educate its members on these topics in the light of the Qur’an and Sunnah, proving that Islam is as progressive, dynamic and pragmatic as any religion, and even more because it came last of all. This Islamic center has the distinction of talking to the youth on such important issues every week of the month.

We live in a pluralistic society, so we must build friendly and healthy relations with people of other faiths. We must build bridges. We must make a schedule to visit churches, synagogues and other civic organizations with a view to improving our understanding of other religions. What really can put Islam in danger is not the presence of enzymes in doritos, and our arguing endlessly on it; but the wrong propagation of its true teachings, and the ignorance of our children about Islam and its true face. Self-criticism should not remain a taboo with us. We must be bold enough to recognize our failures. We are good at making money and performing well at schools; are we good at living Islam too?

In the words of Dr Timothy Savage of MIT, “The first time the West and Islam came in direct contact, what resulted in the West was the First Renaissance. The 2nd direct contact of Islam with the West is taking place now, and we hope it brings about the second Renaissance”, and renaissance means the revival of learning; of reason; of broad-mindedness; of tolerance; and revival of an era of co-existence in peace and love. It is my faith that the true face of Islam after a very long period will emerge, not from an Islamic country, but from the United States of America.

An effective Islamic center is thus pivotal in promoting the much needed understanding about Islam. And in the interest of justice and positive change, the West also needs to understand Islam with an open mind. Islamophobic statements and actions punish and victimize the entire global community of Muslims for the actions of a few, and hinder efforts of people like us to provide a true and moderate voice, and promote mutual understanding and peace in the world, says ISNA. In this mixed-up and messed-up world of ours, the urgent need is for dialogue, not to win an argument, but to win the hearts. Islamic centers are destined to play this role, and so they must without any further delay.–Pakistan Link

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