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US Muslim Youth in Identity Quest

Published: 05/05/2013 04:18:12 PM GMT
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CAIRO - As their community is coming under scrutiny after deadly bombings in Boston, young Muslims in the United States are facing a tough struggle to understand their identity and faith.“I was playing catch-up,” Sami Elza (more)

CAIRO - As their community is coming under scrutiny after deadly bombings in Boston, young Muslims in the United States are facing a tough struggle to understand their identity and faith.

“I was playing catch-up,” Sami Elzaharna, a 26-year-old married software developer and very observant Muslim, told The Washington Post.“People who come here young are playing catch-up in terms of exploring who they are . . . how they'll bring together where they were and where they are now.”

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Elzaharna, from Saudi Arabia, was not a devout Muslim, when came to Maryland in 2005.

At that time, he just understood Islam as of a cultural heritage related to rituals and clothing.

But the stereotyping of Muslims in the post-9/11 era has prompted him, like all newcomers, to seek to better understand Islam.

A similar situation has faced Dina Abkairova, a Russian Muslim, who came to Boston in 2004.

When she first arrived in the city, Abkairova was asked by her friends to avoid telling others about her faith.

Living in a new culture, the then 22-year-old began to notice that she is getting away from her religion.

“I started questioning if I had the right to call myself a Muslim.”

Then, she connected with a group of more progressive Muslims who told her that “you're Muslim if you say you're Muslim. . . . What really matters is to be open-minded and open-minded to other people's choices”.

“That really helped me to take a breath and say, ‘Phew, okay, I'm normal.' ”

Edina Skaljic recalls her first arrival in Boston in 2000 as a 15-year-old refugee from Bosnia, running from the early 1990s genocide against Muslims.

Before 9/11, Skaljic found herself in a peaceful environment for the first time in her life.

But the day after the attacks, a “white American” appeared in front of her locker at school.

“‘Edina, are you going to kill me? Aren't you from Bosnia, and isn't that next to Afghanistan?' ” she recalled.

“I came nine months prior from a genocide, and now people were treating me like a criminal.”

Quest for Identity

Finding themselves under spotlight after 9/11, young American Muslims have become more determined to be more devout and more open to the community.

“I remember watching the twin towers fall over and over, and then the invasion of Iraq. I felt like the world was ending,” said Raza Najamuddin who immigrated from India at age 12 and did not become religious until a kind of spiritual awakening in the 2000s.

“I just had to affirm my own life and religion and get more involved in the community.

“I wanted people to know that Islam is different from what people here were saying,” the 31-year-old government patent examiner, who lives in Alexandria, said.

Ali Salar Khawaja, who moved in 1993 with his family from Pakistan to Ashburn, said the post-9/11 climate led first to more reading and questions and now to more observance, leading eventually to more conversations with non-Muslim friends on the “true Islam.”

But last month's Boston attacks were a new blow to the Muslim community.

“They're frustrated. We move two steps forward, and then we move back,” Khawaja said.

“For them, it's so unfortunate. Maybe they're feeling pressure, they're different.”

Feeling “positive cultural shock” after coming from Afghanistan in 1998, Makhdoom Zia launched a group in Northern Virginia called MakeSpace for young Muslims who may not feel connected at mosques.

“I became more open-minded. Now I see more validity in different views [about Islam]. Islam is not science or math, where things are black and white,” said Zia.

“What hurts youth especially are these conspiracy theories that tell them these weren't Muslims [involved in Boston], that the attacks didn't happen. It's a nice excuse for us not to do anything,” he said at an Alexandria Duniya restaurant last Friday.

“But we should move beyond that [to] a community that is service-oriented. That's what Islam is — it's mercy, it's compassion. We have to do more.”

The United States is home to a Muslim minority of between six to eight million.

Reproduced with permission from