America's Next Generation Of Muslims Insists On Crafting Its Own Story

Apr 11, 2018
Originally published on April 12, 2018 4:29 am

Fashion designers. Community activists. Parents. Converts. High school students facing down bullies. Podcasters creating their own space to exhale.

The newest generation of American Muslims is a mosaic, one of the most racially and ethnically diverse faith groups in the country. At a time when all religions are struggling to keep youth engaged, Islam is growing in the U.S., according to the Pew Research Center.

Many American Muslims found themselves on the defensive after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. But this generation says it is tired of being expected to apologize. Instead, young Muslims are determined to take control of their own stories. And they are creating fresh paths for the estimated 3.45 million Muslims in America.

Rather than defending themselves, they are defining themselves. In a tense political climate, they are worried less about explaining Islam to others and more about contributing to the American tapestry through their unique perspectives.

"There is a distinctive American Islam that is emerging," says Jihad Turk.

Turk is the head of California-based Bayan Claremont, the only Islamic graduate school in the country. There, he tells his students that "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."

Over the past year, NPR correspondent Leila Fadel traveled across the country — from Chicago to Los Angeles to northern California to southern Texas — to meet young Muslims expressing themselves in new ways. Below is a montage of what she found.

Her stories were reported in collaboration with National Geographic. You can read and see more in the May issue of the magazine.

Representing on the mic

Ikhlas Saleem and Makkah Ali are best friends — each from Atlanta, from black Muslim communities, and married. They say they were tired of being asked to react to Muslims doing bad things or bad things happening to Muslims. So they started their own podcast to ask the questions no one was asking them.

On Identity Politics, they talk about their experiences as black women, as Muslims and as millennials in America.

The podcast is a lot like the two 28-year-olds who run it — alternately light and serious. Saleem has a graduate degree from Harvard, and Ali a graduate degree from George Mason University.

They met as students at Wellesley College and say that when they are around each other, they don't have to "code switch" — or change how they communicate — they can just be. And that is what they want their podcast to be, too. They talk with guests about art, identity, race, the #MeToo movement, gender and religion. What they don't do, Saleem says, is "Islam 101."

At the Muslim Protagonist conference in February in New York, where Muslims discussed how to be heroes of their own stories, Ali and Saleem encouraged students to do the work.

"I want to see Muslims building their own platforms," Saleem tells the audience. "The only way you can represent is when you represent yourself."

"Complicate the narrative," another panelist tells them.

Ali and Saleem's podcast audience of about 3,000 listeners is mostly made up of young Muslims like themselves. More than half of Muslims in America came of age after the Sept. 11 attacks. And by not trying to appeal to a wider audience, they've actually attracted non-Muslim listeners, too, because the issues they discuss exist "outside of Islam and within Islam."

"We live day to day," Ali says, "we have to manage our anger and our budgets and relationships, and we're curious about various things in the world."

Radical inclusion

Mahdia Lynn believes that every Muslim "should have a right to pray without fear of violence or excommunication."

The 30-year-old is a transgender Muslim woman and executive director of Masjid al-Rabia. It's a unique space as an LGBTQ-affirming and women-centered mosque in Chicago; its founders call it a "mosque for all Muslims."

For now, the community runs Friday prayer out of the Second Unitarian Church. Each week, members put out their donated library: translated Qurans and Islamic texts mostly from Muslim feminist writers. The mosque is "radically inclusive," founders say, so that anyone who may feel marginalized in other Muslim spaces feels welcome here.

Islam, like other faith traditions, struggles with inclusion of LGBTQ people and homophobia, so Masjid al-Rabia is rare.

But inclusive spaces like it are growing; there is a Unity Mosque in Toronto, an annual LGBTQ Muslim retreat and informal prayer circles popping up in cities across America.

Blair Imani, a 24-year-old, bisexual, Muslim woman, author and activist, says Masjid al-Rabia gives LGBTQ Muslims ownership over an affirming worship space.

"It's a shift from the idea that we can't be Muslim because we're LGBT," she says. "I'm bisexual and Muslim at the same time and that still blows people's minds and it really shouldn't. I don't find the controversy within myself. It's mostly from the external."

Black Muslims reclaim their identities

In South Los Angeles, Jihad Saafir is transforming his father's storefront mosque into something much more ambitious to include a school and community center. It's called Islah LA; "islah" is the Arabic word for "reform."

"We deal with what has happened historically in the African-American community and the African community. So we make sure that the children are aware of who they are, their identity."

His generation of black Muslims and the next is reclaiming, reviving and retaining institutions their parents and grandparents built, while highlighting the diverse traditions of their communities in the U.S. About a third of U.S.-born Muslims are black Muslims, and yet many feel eclipsed by the immigrant story.

"Not only are we losing the generation before us and their leadership, but we're also being sort of erased," said Su'ad Abdul Khabeer, author of Muslim Cool: Race, Religion and Hip Hop in the United States.

She says that erasure comes in part from the focus, negative or positive, on Muslim immigrant communities and a depiction of Islam as only a foreign faith.

So black Muslims are "reclaiming their identities as opposed to defining them."

Khabeer runs Sapelo Square, a website that serves as a resource for and about black Muslims. On religious holidays, people post pictures of their celebrations on social media with the hashtag: #blackouteid. And black Muslims, Khabeer says, never went on the defensive about the faith because Islam in black communities has always been a form of "self-determination."

Worship through service

On the South Side of Chicago, the Inner-City Muslim Action Network goes by the acronym IMAN. It's the Arabic word for "faith," and faith is the action in this organization. The Muslim nonprofit sees social activism and community organizing as the way to keep Islam relevant to the next generation.

The group's founder, Rami Nashashibi, says, "We're trying to celebrate the legacy of the spirit of a transformational, empowering, inspirational Islam that is not just constantly apologizing or having to explain itself."

The work, he says, honors the tradition of Islam in urban communities where the religion was adopted as a tool of empowerment.

IMAN is a coalition of black, South Asian, Arab, Latino and other Muslims. Some from the South Side, others from the suburbs. They try to effect change on the issues that matter in the lives of residents of urban communities but are neglected. These include food access, health care at their clinics, criminal justice reform and a supportive re-entry program for people leaving prison.

"The work, in and of itself, is worship," says Sara Hamdan of IMAN, "in that there's blessing in all the service that we're doing, in all the organizing we're doing. That can be my way of worshipping."

Hamdan is in her 20s and wears a headscarf. She says putting it on was a spiritual decision, but also, she didn't want to "pass anymore." In the face of being painted as good or bad, villain or victim, she wanted to be a visible Muslim who is neither.

IMAN recently opened a branch in Atlanta. For this work, Nashashibi was awarded a MacArthur Foundation "genius grant" for "building bridges across racial, religious, and socioeconomic divides to confront the challenges of poverty and disinvestment in urban communities."

Hijabs and high fashion

From "Austere Attire" to "Haute Hijab," young Muslim fashion designers are starting their own lines to give Muslim women who want to dress modestly ways to do it with confidence and style. And the fashion industry is jumping on board.

Most recently, Macy's started selling a modest fashion line featuring maxi dresses and hijabs. Fashion designer DKNY started a Ramadan collection in 2014, Nike sells a sports hijab called the "Pro Hijab," and American Eagle debuted a denim hijab last year.

The nail polish giant Orly partnered with founder Amani Al-Khatahtbeh to create a "breathable" polish called #HalalPaint so young women can paint their nails and still pray. Typically, Muslim women don't pray with nail polish on because water doesn't penetrate the lacquer when they wash for prayer.

Khatahtbeh started the MuslimGirl website from her bedroom as a teenager, writing about issues that interest her as a Muslim American woman, from fashion to identity. The problem, she says, is that the estimated 1.8 billion Muslims in the world are constantly referenced as one entity even though Muslims are so diverse., she says, amplifies stories of women like her — as well as women who are not like her. "Because you know we, just like any women ... can't be put in a box."

Pride after hate

When the mosque in Victoria, Texas, burned in January 2017, it was the first time young people in this community saw their parents sob.

But out of the ashes came a renewed sense of pride in their faith — and support by their community

Sixteen-year-old Jenin Ajrami didn't talk about her religion at school, afraid of discrimination. Now, she Snapchats her friends from the mosque.

"I just send them a picture of me in the hijab," she says. "They don't expect it from me because I don't cover my hair at school."

Last year, more than 100 mosques were targeted with arson, threats or vandalism across the country, according to the Council on American-Islamic Relations. The FBI has tracked an increase in hate crimes against Muslims in 2015 and 2016. The incidents at mosques range from death threats to the buildings being torched like the one in Victoria.

But overwhelming support came in from Victoria's community and around the world, helping the mosque raise over a million dollars. Now, the community southeast of San Antonio is rebuilding and hopes to be praying in a new mosque by this summer.

Singing worship

Some of the young women at the Bosnian Islamic Cultural Center of Chicago say they're arguing with their parents because they want to cover their hair, but their parents won't let them out of fear they'll be attacked.

Those who don't cover their hair outside the mosque say no one thinks they're Muslim — they don't fit the stereotype with their European looks.

According to the Pew Research Center, Muslims in America hail from more than 75 countries, thus the country's more than 2,000 mosques vary widely in tradition and practice. At this Bosnian mosque, they have a girls' choir that performs in front of the congregation. They sing about God, the Muslim prophet and Islam.

Enessa Mehmedovic, 24, picked the outfits for the singers and organizes teens and young women from the center to volunteer in the larger community. She encourages them to wear their headscarves, even if they usually only wear it to pray, so people who see them know exactly who they are. Some women choose to wear the headscarf, others do not.

"Being a walking representation of Islam is, like, so beautiful to me," Mehmedovic says, "because when someone looks at me what is the first thing they notice? That I'm Muslim."

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After 9/11, many American Muslims faced this double trauma - their country attacked and people associating them with the attackers. They found themselves on the defense, questioned about their religion. But today, in a similar political climate of rising anti-Muslim hostility, a new generation of Muslims is done defending itself and is instead asserting itself. It's a generation determined to tell its own stories. Today, NPR's Leila Fadel begins a series of stories about the increasingly diverse mosaic of Muslims across this country who are controlling their own narrative. She reported this in conjunction with National Geographic and wrote a piece for the May issue. And she joins us now. Hi, Leila.


GREENE: So when we say the word Muslim, I think a lot of people think they know exactly what that means. But in this series, you're finding a lot of that turned on its head.

FADEL: That's right because Muslim doesn't mean one thing. I visited communities in Chicago, in LA, in Texas, New York, Pennsylvania. And what I can say is that Muslims are this mosaic. And outside of maybe Hajj, the Muslim pilgrimage, is the first time I saw such a diversity of practice and tradition and culture. And in these communities, really, one thing struck me. And that was that young Muslim Americans, they're done feeling like they have to apologize. And they really just want to tell their own stories. So take a listen to Usama Canon. He's a California-based preacher that I met during my reporting.

USAMA CANON: One of the great scholars said that Islam is kind of like a pure, clear water that takes the color of whatever riverbed it flows over. I'm hoping that Muslims in America can kind of color that bedrock in a beautiful way.

FADEL: And that's something young Muslims are doing now. They're running for political office, getting on school boards, creating art and being really loud and unapologetic about their identity.

GREENE: So let's just set up your first story. You're going to tell us about two 20-somethings who decided they were just sick and tired of Muslims being put in a box and defined as either villain or victim and people just never asking them about their dreams or how their day is. So they started this podcast. Let's listen.

FADEL: Makkah Ali and Ikhlas Saleem are both 28, both from Atlanta, both married, both raised in two different black Muslim communities and best friends since they met as undergrads at Wellesley College.

MAKKAH ALI: Ikhlas is actually the first friend that I've ever had where I didn't have to code switch because she was from the same town as me. She, like, was Muslim. She was black. We went to the same college together. So we were having, like, a lot of identity formation experiences together.

FADEL: That's Ali talking. When she says she didn't have to code switch, she means Saleem just gets her. She didn't have to put on some version of a perfect black American Muslim woman.

ALI: Once you're in the company of someone that lets you exhale, like, you never want to hold your breath again.

FADEL: And that's kind of how the podcast they're doing together was born, a place where they can exhale and give others permission to do the same. People like Ali and Saleem are a face of Islam that a lot of Muslims in America relate to. They're young, and so are so many Muslims in the U.S. About half of U.S. Muslims came of age after 9/11. Ali does the podcast from DC and Saleem from Atlanta. It's called "Identity Politics." And it's two girlfriends just talking.


IKHLAS SALEEM: Hey, this is Ikhlas.

ALI: And this is Makkah.

SALEEM: And you're listening to "Identity Politics," a podcast...

FADEL: About life, love, race, gender and faith plus guests, like this episode that tackled race with Margari Aziza Hill, co-founder of the Muslim Anti-Racism Collaborative.


MARGARI AZIZA HILL: There is especially a kind of curiosity towards white converts, you know? Like, it's like, why did they choose Islam? They had everything to lose.


HILL: And with us black folks, they're like, of course, you...

SALEEM: It's so true (laughter).

HILL: ...Became Muslim.

ALI: Crawling your way out of the struggle.

FADEL: The podcast is both light and serious, a lot like the two women who created it - Saleem with a Harvard graduate degree and Ali a graduate degree from George Mason University. Ali covers her hair and Saleem does not. In the podcast, they go right to the big questions.


ALI: When young, black and Muslim and immigrant and female kids look to that metaphorical podium, that stage today, like, who is validating their existence? Like, who's showing them...

FADEL: They bring on guests to talk about the stuff that young Muslims want to hear, like this conversation with Muslim poet, writer and performer Fatimah Asghar about the silence around desire.


FATIMAH ASGHAR: I just think about that that I was where I was like first feeling these things of desire and not knowing how to talk about them and just wanting to create the art that gives permission that, like, it is OK. You know, like, you are OK.

FADEL: And the two women are getting some attention. The podcast audience has grown from less than a hundred downloads per episode in 2016 to some 3,000 today. On the day I meet them, they're speaking at the Muslim Protagonist Conference at Columbia University. A fan walks up.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: I loved the episode with the husbands. I think...


SALEEM: So many people love that episode.

ALI: That is a crowd favorite.

SALEEM: It is.

FADEL: What's the episode with the husbands?

ALI: We interviewed our husbands...

SALEEM: Husbands.

ALI: ...About, like, a lot of things.

SALEEM: It's called Bae Watch (ph) - was that?

FADEL: The conference is for a bunch of Muslim literary nerds who are talking about how they can be the heroes of their own stories. And that's exactly what Saleem and Ali are trying to do with their podcast. On a panel, they take questions.

SALEEM: I want to see Muslims doing the work. I want to see Muslims building their own platforms. That's - I don't know - right? - because the only way you can represent is when you represent yourself.

FADEL: This year, the conference is focused on being authentic. And Saleem tells me that's at the heart of what their podcast is all about.

SALEEM: First and foremost, our audience are, like, young Muslims like us. And if other people listen in, great. But what we're not going to do is go, here is Islam 101, like, what you need to listen to this.

FADEL: Because the issues they take up are important to everyone.

SALEEM: When we're talking about gender, when we're talking about race, all of these things exist outside of Islam and within Islam. And so I think that's our primary goal of, like, really talking about the difficult issues.

ALI: Yeah.

SALEEM: And shaping the conversation.

ALI: We don't exist as a vulnerable population that only is in response to the climate that we're in. We live day-to-day. We, like, have to manage our anger and our budgets and, like, relationships and...

FADEL: But they couldn't find anybody talking about those daily life experiences.

ALI: A lot of the space that Muslims were given in the media was, like, can you come and react to issue X or issue Y? Not, like, what are you interested in? Like, what are you and your friends talking about?

SALEEM: Like, a question asked never.

FADEL: So they're asking the questions now and finding the answers.

GREENE: All right. That story and that reporting coming from our colleague Leila Fadel this morning. She's beginning a series. And, Leila, what else are we going to hear?

FADEL: This afternoon on All Things Considered, I'll tell you a story about Muslim community organizers on the South Side of Chicago. Tomorrow on Here And Now, a story of a community rebuilding after their mosque was burned down. And this weekend, LGBTQ Muslims creating a space where they can worship.

GREENE: All right. Look forward to hearing those. NPR's Leila Fadel. Leila, thanks.

FADEL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.