"GROWING UP A MUSLIM IN AMERICA"
I will not exaggerate and say that growing up in America is a great experience and that it allows me to see Islam alone, as opposed to an Islam riddled with cultural influence. Nor will I exaggerate and say that growing up in America is a horrible experience, that I am surrounded by the influence of evil daily, and that I abhor living in "Dar ul Kufr." Both statements are valid to a certain extent, and the point at which they compromise is the truth.
Growing up as a child of Pakistani immigrants, I was confused about my identity for quite some time. Was I Pakistani, Pakistani American, Muslim, a Muslim Pakistani, a Pakistani Muslim, Muslim American, American Muslim, or a Muslim in America? Never have I seen the arrangement of two or three words both so confusing and controversial. I considered myself Pakistani even though my attachment with the country and culture was not equal to that of a native Pakistani. I wore American clothes, spoke English most of the time, even in the home, and I had only visited Pakistan twice. My daily connection with Pakistan was through the food I ate and the Pakistani clothing I wore every so often. It was tough not having the same type of name as most of my peers. Even other children of immigrants, especially from Asian countries, had "American names" in addition to their "Chinese" or "Korean" names. I did not eat the same food as these children nor did I celebrate the same holidays. When asked the question what I received for Christmas, my face would usually turn a little red and I would try to change the subject. I realized I was not just the average American.
Yet in the same sense I was not the average Pakistani. As stated before, I did not speak much Urdu and my contact wit my culture was not great. When I visited Pakistan at the age of six, my relatives called me "Amrikan" or American. In their eyes, I was not Pakistani. I had the same type of name, ate siilar food, and looked just like them, but I was not Pakistani. Back home in America, I had a different name, complexion, and color, but I was not American. So for much of my life, I lived with the absence of a true identity. I could not define myself and that left me confused.
Things began to change once I entered adolescence. I began to lose many of my friends because I did not see the opposite sex in the same light as they did. My friends began dating and the usual talking about girls, but even though I was attracted to the opposite sex, I did not make it a public spectacle like they did. As a Muslim, my interactions with the opposite sex was to be dignified and in accordance to Islam. So I lost a lot of friends because I was not "cool" anymore, and thus I was isolated based on my character, my beliefs, because I was a Muslim.
This isolation brought me to a realization. Slowly I began to see that Islam was a priority for me. My identity as a Pakistani American or American Pakistani, whatever it was, was meaningless. Sure I ate Pakistani food, wore Pakistani clothes on holidays and sometimes listened to Pakistani music, but did it actually matter? Was it the fact that I was of Pakistani descent or that I was different? No, it was because the real component of who I was, was my Islamic identity. I still maintain my ties to Pakistan and it does compose part of my identity, but Islam is my priority.
I began to make Muslim friends in junior high school. They were not just Pakistani, they were also from countries like Afghanistan and India. Although these youth represented only a small geographical area of the Muslim ummah, I was introduced to the concept of global Islam. I in turn was on the path to separating Islam from my culture and seeing that I can be a Muslim and live in this country just like any other American.
I was only fourteen at the time, so I did not come to a complete realization of my identity. I finally moved to a very different area. My new home was in an upper class, white Jewish area, as opposed to my former middle class diverse community. Moving to this new town, Roslyn, allowed me to experience a lot of different things from before. This move coincided with my entering high school. So the experience was not only different because I moved to a totally different area, but also because I was entering high school.
Things were very different now in school. High school to most students dealt a lot with fitting in and being accepted by their peers. This meant going to clubs and parties every Friday and Saturday night where they would get drunk, smoke marijuana, and most often, engage in sexual intercourse. This type of lifestyle was accepted in my area, especially when my school began to distribute condoms to the students.
Not only was I set apart from the others in terms of my morals, but also in terms of my identity. In the first month at my new school, a student spread a rumor that I was in the Nation of Islam and that I had said an anti-Semitic statement. Both of these allegations were absolutely untrue, but for some reason most of the students believed it. Their religious-school teachers, parents, and the media fed them with stereotypes of Muslims, so it was not hard to believe that this Muslim was an anti-Semite.
This began one of the toughest times in my life. I was a new student and I did not have many friends. because I was Muslim. I had a few Asian friends, but that was it. Alhamdulillah, all that changed one weekend.
I received an e-mail from a friend about a "Muslim Youth of North America" conference in Maryland during the Thanksgiving weekend. This was the first time I had heard of such an event, and I was amazed. At that conference, I came to a full realization of who I was, a Muslim. I am not dramatizing in saying that this conference was a turning point in my life. I met Muslim youth, just like myself, from all over the East Coast of the United States, and they had the same experiences as me. Many were children of immigrants, just like myself, and were juggling their dual identities as I had. Many of the youth were also children of indigenous Americans who had reverted to Islam. I saw Islam in a scope as wide as I had ever seen it before. Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, the United States, China, Albania, Malaysia, Iran, Egypt, Syria, and Saudi Arabia among other countries were all represented at this conference. But it didn’t matter. We were all Muslim. I made many friends and to this day, I keep in contact with them. I was so motivated at the conference that I ran for a position as Director of Publicity for New York, I lost the election, but was nominated for New York Representative later on, and to this day I hold that position.
I came back to my school motivated and proud. I finally had a secure identity I could grasp and never let go of. I was sure I was not some weirdo who did not date or like girls, that I was not anti-social, and that there was nothing wrong with me. If some kids decided to believe a lie about me or prejudge me because I’m Muslim, then that was their loss.
Over the months following that conference, I changed a great deal. I was no longer a shy, reclusive person. I was vocal, confident, opinionated, and unafraid of who I was. My good friends were not only the few I had at school, but also the ones I had at the masjid and from the conference I attended. The following year things grew better for me at school as well. I accumulated many more friends who accepted me for who I was. I did not drink, I did not date, and I respected women. These new friends were interested in my religion, and did not perceive it as something strange. Alhamdulillah, I now have a good balance of Muslim and non-Muslim friends. I realized that there are some people in this country and in this world who will choose to remain ignorant. Racism and stereotyping are far too common in this nation, but that we Muslims can change this society and we Muslims can change this society and this world. In fact, it is our obligation.
My work with the Muslim Youth of North America is inspired by this obligation. I organize events for the youth in New York such as conferences, camps, and sports tournaments. My goal is to help other youth realize who they are and to be proud of it. Muslims have much to offer to this nation and America truly needs Islam. The people in this nation are looking to real answers to life’s questions and can only find those in Islam. Sadly on the same note, as stated before, many people choose to remain ignorant. For example, there was a segment on the television program, Saturday Night Live, which mocked the Muslims who died during the Hajj stampede last year. I wrote a petition for the SNL to apologize, but there was no response. That did not discourage me though. I am currently organizing a petitioning of Senator John McCain of Arizona, who stated during the bombings of Iraq on Fox News that American national security (bombing Iraq for no justifiable reason) is a priority over religious sensitivities (not bombing during Ramadan). It is obvious that other religious groups would not be treated like that. The lesson is that Muslims in this country do have the ability to attain simply an Islamic identity, and there is so much we can offer this nation and this world. But there is also a great deal of discrimination against Muslims, in addition to the abundance of immorality, and we must work towards their elimination. There are many advantages to living in this country as there are disadvantages. The difference is, our advantages enable us to overcome and eliminate our disadvantages.
Growing up a Muslim youth in America in indeed an exigent experience. But once that youth transcends and overcomes the obstacles along the way, there lies the path towards the true success and true realization, insha’Allah.