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Young Muslim Americans Face Many Challenges - 2003-07-17

This year's Independence Day celebration in Philadelphia was the backdrop for a gathering of ten thousand American Muslims. Each year, the Islamic Circle of North America and the Muslim American Society hold a joint convention over the Fourth of July weekend, and the organizations chose to meet this year in Philadelphia because it is the city where U.S. independence was declared back in 1776. They wanted to highlight the elements of Islamic culture that reflect the same values that are revered by all Americans since that first Independence Day: freedom, liberty and justice. The official theme of the conference was America at a Crossroads: The Struggles for Liberty and Justice. Young Muslim Americans played a key role in the proceedings, and reporter Stasia DeMarco spent some time with them.

As a crowd gathered on the lawn in front of Philadelphia's Liberty Bell Pavilion, a group of young Muslims kicked off the annual convention. Their ceremony began with a reading from the Koran, followed by a chorus of children singing the National anthem, then a recitation of the Constitution's first ten amendments.

Twenty-five-year-old Azra Awan from New Jersey says she chose to read the Bill of Rights because the document is symbolic to her.

"I am very thankful that we have the Constitution and the Bill of Rights that give me this freedom of religion, this freedom of speech you know," she said. "Here I can say I am Muslim and I am proud to be Muslim and no one can say anything about it. Freedom of religion is in the Bill of Rights you know, amendment number one. So it's right there."

But for young Muslims following the principles of Islam, exercising that freedom of religion can mean standing out at an age when conformity is important. Their choice to wear a hijab or grow a beard or not make friends of the opposite sex may seem odd to their non-Muslim friends.

Ms. Awan felt uncomfortable at first when she decided to "cover," or wear a hijab, at the age of 12.

"It was the Gulf War and I started covering the same day that the war started," she said. "It kind of worked against me in that sense because I had a lot more people teasing me, making fun of me and I remember it being very difficult. I came home the first day and cried. I didn't want to do it again. But I kept motivated and my friends and I, they continued with me, and from then on we just continued growing."

In contrast, 22-year-old New Yorker Sobia Ahmab says there was no conflict between her religious life and her secular life while she and her group of friends were in high school or college.

"We were born and raised here so we don't feel like we are from a foreign country or anything, you know," she said. "But our religion because it takes a precedent in our lives, it goes in hand in hand. Sisters, we cover, everyday going to school covering, but still keeping our identity. We're still hanging out with the girls [non-Muslim friends], doing the projects, doing everything. Lunchtime, whatever, sports, gym, I mean we take part in everything but within the boundaries of Islam - being modest and things like that. So it's not that hard if you are strong in your identity. It's really not that hard to do it."

Those religious boundaries are especially apparent when it seems like all their non-Muslim peers are trying to date. Ms. Ahab's younger brother, 20-year-old Sohab, admits that avoiding this type of social interaction is a challenge for young Muslims.

"Living here obviously it is tough, all the stuff you have to deal with which you might not have to deal with in other countries. Like pre-marital relations, you know we have to avoid those. No dating. Nothing before marriage," he said.

For many young American Muslims, even parties with non-Muslim friends are off-limits, because they feel such activities move them farther away from God. Azra Awan says when she and her Muslim girlfriends hang out, they do things like read poetry or listen to nasheeds. She describes nasheeds as an Islamic outlet for enjoyment that doubles as a form of prayer.

"Nasheeds are actually songs in terms of the religion and you know they are about Islam," she explained. "And reciting those types of songs, they are getting more actively involved in that type of sense."

Trying to be an observant Muslim in America can lead to the sort of stress and anxiety Saleem Khan sees often in his psychiatric practice. A Muslim American himself, Dr. Khan says the advice he gives American Muslim families is no different than what he'd tell any other parent.

"Irrespective of the religion or culture, the child's upbringing and keeping them on the right path and that right path could be a neutral path, not necessarily a non-religious path, because all religions teach good things," he said. "That, I cannot see happening just in schools. It has to come from within the family."

Although the attacks of September 11 brought the growing American-Muslim community into a political and sometimes negative spotlight, Sobia Ahmab says they also presented an opportunity. She and other young Muslims are committed to showing they are proud Americans, and they want to invite their non-Muslim neighbors to share in their culture in order to expand the definition of what it means to be an American.

"It can work with each other I think. It's a two-sided thing," she stressed. "You clap with both hands, so both sides have to move forward and do their work. We gotta go out and we gotta talk about Islam and invite you to our mosques and you guys are going to have to come and see what we are about too so that we clear these misconceptions."

This is the mission for these young people as they move into leadership roles in the U.S. Muslim community, and American society.