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What’s It Like to Be Young and Muslim in America?

  • VOA News

Panelists at a VOA-sponsored discussion explore the social challenges facing U.S. Muslim millennials. From left: Oya Rose Aktas, Mohamed Hussein, Morsal Mohamad and Othman Altalib.

Panelists at a VOA-sponsored discussion explore the social challenges facing U.S. Muslim millennials. From left: Oya Rose Aktas, Mohamed Hussein, Morsal Mohamad and Othman Altalib.

For Muslim immigrants, adjusting to American society, where women and children experience fewer restrictions, can be a huge challenge, said one young Muslim American who was born in Iraq but brought to the United States when he was 1 year old.

“Cultural acclimation both of parents and Muslim youth is huge,” Othman Altalib said during a panel discussion by four Muslim-Americans at the Newseum on Tuesday.

The panelists shared their views on integration, religion, concerns about widespread anti-Muslim rhetoric, and calls to ban other Muslims from entering the U.S. being discussed by political figures during an event organized by Voice of America. The event was moderated by Akmal Dawi, VOA’s Afghan Service digital managing editor.

The nation’s 3.3 million Muslims account for roughly 1 percent of the U.S. population, but, in the wake of terrorist attacks, they’ve disproportionately dominated news.

"It goes back to slapping labels on people and assuming that Islam is what is defining about someone and then assuming that is the driving force behind their actions," said Oya Rose Aktas in explaining why news of Muslim terrorists seems to dominate the news.

"Language and media is very, very important. The distinction between Islamic and Islamist is important," Aktas stressed. "So when the media isn't sensitive to that, they fall into the trap of perpetuating these misconceptions and creating really strong links between Islam and terrorism that don't exist."

On the panel were Mohamed Hussein, 26, and Mohamad, 19, both of whom were born in the United States. Aktas and Altalib, both 22, were born elsewhere but arrived in the country as children.

Watch video report from VOA's Zlatica Hoke:

Faith subjected to suspicion

Deadly mass shootings in California in December and in Orlando, Florida, on June 12 – committed by assailants claiming loyalty to Islamic State – have generated calls for identity cards or blocking Muslim refugees from entering the country. And they’ve greatly distorted the image of American Muslims, subjecting a whole faith group to suspicion.

The panelists objected to emphasizing the Muslim identity of Orlando shooter Omar Mateen, who was born in the United States to immigrants from Afghanistan. They noted that most perpetrators of crime aren’t identified as, say, Christian.

WATCH: Related video with panelist Mohamed Hussein

"I feel whenever a Muslim does something like that, it's all over the media, there's so much attention to it. But if a Westerner does the same thing, I don't think it has the same impact," said Morsal Mohamad, a student at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.

As one viewer on Facebook, Hanif Miah, said, "Muslims are not terrorists, (terrorists) are terrorists."

They also suggested the religious labeling diverted attention from an assailant’s mental health or other internal conflicts.

“A lot of these people who give a bad name to Islam don’t even come to the mosque,” complained Mohamed Hussein, executive director of the Somali American Youth Foundation in northern Virginia.

Muslim-American identity

They said they’ve all experienced suspicion because of their Muslim identities. Yet they say young Muslims often have more than one identity that defines them.

"It definitely is a struggle, not only being a Muslim, not only being a Muslim-American, being Somali, being black, being young -- there's a lot of identities that you have to reconcile,” said Hussein of the Somali American Youth Foundation in Virginia.

“It's not easy, but luckily, I was born into it and it has been a lifelong process for me, whereas if you immigrate like my parents, for example, you have to shift and learn to change from being a majority to being a minority."

The Pew Research Center has estimated that almost two-thirds of U.S. Muslims are foreign born.

Aktas’ family left her father’s homeland of Turkey when she was 9, moving to the U.S. central state of Oklahoma, where her mother came from.

The Muslim religion too often is viewed as monolithic, said Aktas, whose mother is Christian – a Methodist. “Both religious groups are very diverse.”

"I think that oftentimes people try to split it (the Muslim community) into moderate Muslims and conservative Muslims, but there is a lot of diversity past that. And I think that that's one of the nuances that gets lost in discussions about Islam in the U.S.," she said.

Panelists chafed at the politicization of Islam, including calls to suspend Muslims’ entry to the United States or perhaps requiring them to carry identity cards.

Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, initially called for a ban in December, after a couple in San Bernardino, California, claimed allegiance to the Islamic State group in committing mass murder.


Yet while 64 percent of Muslim-Americans are registered to vote, theirs is the least likely among faith groups to actually cast ballots, moderator Dawi said, citing Gallup polling data.

Panelists offered a couple of reasons.

One might be confidence in the United States’ system of checks and balances, Aktas suggested. “There is a privilege in the U.S. to feel like you can go out and not vote and things will work out.”

Another could be skepticism of electoral politics, Altalib said, adding that many foreign-born Muslims witness corruption in their homelands.

WATCH: Related video with panelist Oya Rose Aktas

He contends Islamic organizations, including mosques, “absolutely” should encourage Muslims to participate in the democratic process.

"I definitely think the message for us should be -- let's get our youth now, bring them to the mosques, bring them to Muslim events and organizations and let them interact with other people," Altalib said.

He volunteers on the board of the All Dulles Area Muslim Society (ADAMS), a northern Virginia-based Muslim organization that is one of the country’s largest. Its religious, educational and cultural activities include scouting for youngsters. It also offers social services.

Alluding to Trump, Altalib added, “It’s hard for me to believe that any sound-minded Muslim would vote for someone trying to put bans on them.”

On Facebook, Zuleqa Husain said, "We are seeing a sharp increase in hate crimes against Muslim-looking people in Britain. Is that really the direction we are headed in the U.S., with the rhetoric from Trump? And what can we as young Muslims do to stave that off?"

But Hussein emphasized that voting should be a personal decision. “It is a disservice to Muslims to say vote one way or another way. Teach them to think for themselves,” he said.

He added, “The feeling of safety and comfort is what’s at stake for Muslim voters in this election.”

Radicalization discussion

The new generation of U.S. Muslims also is frustrated by the widespread talk of Islamic radicalization, and wants more focus on encouraging young people to express their hopes and plans for the future.

Altalib said the ratio of crimes perpetrated by U.S. Muslims is low compared to other groups. He said young people are more likely to get radicalized if they spend most of their time alone before the computer

"So I definitely think the message for us should be - let's get our youth now, bring them to the mosques, bring them to Muslim events and organizations and let them interact with other people,” he said.

Muslim organizations need to give their youth a platform to air their grievances, he added.

“I also think that focusing on cyber radicalization kind of loses sight of the bigger picture,” Aktas said. “You have to focus more on community groups, you need to focus more on human interactions, you need to focus more on making sure that people are living fulfilling, satisfying lives outside of the internet.”

VOA’s Zlatica Hoke contributed to this report.

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