Finding one’s identity, in any community, and especially during adolescence, is not a linear path. But this journey is often more fraught when one is a member of a community of color or a community that is negatively perceived. In the case of Muslim youth, such stereotyping often leads to self-doubt or even outright rejection of their Islamic faith. Despite that, Muslim youth are exhibiting significant resilience, forging new paths for themselves as both Muslims and Americans.
If you were to ask Muslim youth how they identify, you would get various answers. Some Muslim youth lead with their faith identity. Some lead with their cultural identity. Others find it hard even to answer the question. This is often due to the multiple identities that Muslim youth embody. On the one hand, they are expected to exemplify the expectations of their Muslim families and communities. On the other hand, they are expected to fit into the larger fabric of American society.
Taken together, the situation leaves many Muslim youth feeling confused about which roles they should play. For example, they might want to practice and adhere to Muslim beliefs that tie them to their families. However, some of those beliefs will conflict both with the attitudes of their non-Muslim counterparts and with prominent media portrayals.
The Role of Social Media
Social media and other new forms of technology have made the world a new horizon for exploration. Many dangers — such as inappropriate content, a lack of cyber security, and online bullying — came with the invasion of social media. Still, as many others have noted, there are numerous benefits as well.
The wide-ranging consequences of these technological advances affect Muslim youth in some interesting ways. First, many Muslim youth are using social media to express themselves in ways never seen before. Like their peers, they are using technology to enhance self-expression. But, they are also carving out their own unique identities that straddle the expectations of their personal and private worlds.
The Potential for Crisis
Research conducted by Imam Omar Suleiman suggests that Muslim youth in America often suffer from an Identity Crisis.1 Importantly, his work suggests that this crisis is primarily influenced by the ongoing prevalence of Islamophobia or anti-Muslim hate.
Suleiman described several difficulties facing Muslim youth as a result of this context. They include: internalized racism, inability to construct an identity, personal experience with Islamophobia, women-centered violence, historical events, non-Muslim counseling, and the mental anguish of young Muslims. The basic premise of his analysis reflects the varying messages Muslim youth receive from their environments that lead to the duality of identity or self-hatred.
He also noted the specific and ongoing struggles of Muslim females who are easily identified by wearing their hijab (Muslim head and body coverings). Muslim females who wear hijab are easy targets for hate or harassment, leading them to worry constantly about their daily interactions with others. Muslim females also feel that wearing the hijab traps them in the unending wheel of “over explanations” about their fashion choice. These factors serve to increase stress as they try to fit their religious practices into the expectations of broader society. As Lena, age 17, explained, “Every time I put on my hijab, I feel like I have to wear it in a way that tells Americans I’m not some oppressed Saudi girl, tells the aunties in the Masjid I’m still a good Muslim, while telling other Muslim girls that I’m still prettier and cooler than the rest of you.”
Imam Suleiman concluded that what “…consistently stood out with all of my respondents was that their need to prove their ‘Americanness’ was an exhausting endeavor. Because Muslims are often cast as being predominantly Arab, or at least non-white, young Muslims are viewed with racial skepticism in ways that members of other faith communities are not. In addition to routinely feeling the need to justify their practice of faith, which is often deemed insufficient when in Muslim spaces, they must prove they’re not foreign consistently.”
Media Influence & Negative Internalization
Per the information obtained by Imam Suleiman, the Institute of Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU) released a study that analyzed 2,667,700 online and media print headlines covering Muslims over a period spanning 25 years. The key findings were not surprising but reflected the internalized anti-Muslim hatred experienced by Muslim youth. Their results showed that:
- 57% of the headlines containing Islam/Muslims were scored negatively. Only 8% of the headlines were scored positively.
- Compared to all the other benchmarked terms (Republican, Democrat, Cancer, Yankees, Christianity, and Alcohol), Islam/Muslims had the highest incidence rate of negative words.
- The most frequent terms associated with Islam/Muslims include “Rebels” and “Militant.” None of the 25 most frequently occurring words was positive.
Muslim Voices, Muslim Stories
Statistics clearly show the stark reality of being a modern Muslim citizen. There is the constant battle between American life and Islamic life. In addition, the negative stereotypes perpetuated by the media much be continuously countered.
Given all the obstacles Muslim youth face today, it is truly amazing that the post 9/11 generation remains committed and “determined to take control of their own stories.”2 The Muslim American community is one of the country’s most racially and ethnically diverse. Moreover, the Muslim American population is increasing while many other faith groups are seeing a decline.
One major contributor to these positive trends is the ability of Muslim youth to determine their own sense of what it means to be both Muslim and American. NPR interviewed many young Muslim Americans for their segment on the next generation of Muslim Americans. As Jihad Turk explained, the recent phenomenon of the rise of Muslim youth self-expression and representation was due to “…a distinctive American Islam that is emerging.”
Turk, who is the head of California-based Bayan Claremont, the only Islamic graduate school in the country, also added, “The sign of us having arrived in America is not just that we are consumers of culture but that we’re producers of culture. That we contribute to art and the aesthetic of what it means to be an American.”
Muslims are not new to the American landscape. From the first enslaved Muslim Africans who came here against their will to build this nation to the thousands of Muslim immigrants who came following the Immigration Act of 1965, Muslim Americans will constantly be molding their sense of identity. And, it will be a coming together of a life in the United States that also aligns with their religious identity. Each generation sets off on its own a path of self-identification that yields a new sense of community, country, and faith.
About the Author
Abeer Ramadan-Shinnawi is a career educator, mother, wife, sister, Muslim/Palestinian American, child of immigrants, and founder of Altair Education Consulting, LLC.
- Suleiman, O. (Spring, 2017). Internalized Islamophobia: Exploring the Faith and Identity Crisis of American Muslim Youth. Islamophobia Studies Journal 4 (1), 1-12.
- Fadel, L. (2018). America’s Next Generation of Muslims Insists on Crafting Its Own Story. Morning Edition/NPR.
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