Growing Up Muslim in America
Last month, the Pew Research Center conducted the first ever, nationwide, random sample survey of Muslim Americans, and some of the findings might surprise you. Here are a few key findings from the Pew Web site:
Roughly two-thirds (65%) of adult Muslims in the U.S. were born elsewhere. A relatively large proportion of Muslim immigrants are from Arab countries, but many also come from Pakistan and other South Asian countries. Among native-born Muslims, roughly half are African American (20% of U.S. Muslims overall), many of whom are converts to Islam.
Muslim Americans reject Islamic extremism by larger margins than do Muslim minorities in Western European countries. 51% of American Muslims are very concerned with the rise of Islamic extremism in the world today.
62% of Muslim women believe that life is better for them in the United States than in Muslim countries.
But statistics never speak as loudly or clearly as first hand accounts, so we invited Eman Ahmed to speak further about her personal experience growing up as Muslim woman in America.
A native New Yorker, Eman Ahmed is an attorney specializing in employment discrimination. She received her B.A. from St. John’s University, Suma Cum Laude, and her J.D. from New York Law School, where she also served as an editor at the New York Law School Law Review.
Eman is an active member of the Network of Arab-American Professionals and is a member of the NYSBA Committee on Women in the Law. She appeared in the 2003 edition of Who’s Who Among American Law Students and currently appears in the Madison Who’s Who. Eman also blogs regularly on Arabisto.com.
It’s funny how much has changed over the last 20 years. As one of the only Muslim students in a public elementary school in Staten Island that was strictly populated by Christian and Jewish students, I was seen more as a novelty than anything else. While the other students chowed down on cheese fries and hamburgers during lunch, I sat in my Social Studies teacher’s classroom during Ramadan, isolated from their stares and name-calling. To them, I was different and weird because for a month, I couldn’t eat or drink during the day. They had no idea what Islam was, except for the one day we learned about it in while studying the Crusades (which is a very skewed view of the religion as a whole to say the least!)
Today, Islam is readily taught in schools and Muslim students are abundant in the public school system. They are even trying to make accommodations for Muslim students for testing purposes during the holy days of Eid. Although Islam and its teachings have slowly become a part of the mainstream educational system, there’s still a lot of confusion as to what exactly it entails.
To the many uninformed, it is an archaic system of beliefs, rooted in tradition and seemingly backward teachings. But to the billions who claim Islam as their religion, it is a beautifully simple way of life – one that emphasizes charity and caring/understanding of the most vulnerable members of society.
Although Islam is currently more known than it was 20 years ago, the same ignorance as to its teachings still run amuck today, especially over the last six years. Being raised in a society that is unforgiving of the unknown, it’s been quite a struggle to realize my footing among the populace. Although technically a religion, in practice, Islam is more akin to a culture. Trying to maintain a happy median between the sometimes divergent Islamic and American cultures has been a lifelong effort that stemmed from childhood. Finding pride and strength when you are known as the oddity hasn’t been easy in the past. And it isn’t any different today, when you are vilified by the media due to the actions of a few wayward souls.
Having questions of faith is relatively common to most; having those questions while being chastised by an overwhelmingly ignorant public makes it even that much more difficult. Even though society today can properly pronounce the words “hajj” and “Ramadan”, the same stares and name-calling that befell Muslims 20 years ago remains today. According to the recent report from the Pew Research Center, the majority of Muslims in America say exactly that – being Muslim in America today can be quite a harrowing experience.
And so I ask why is that? Why are we, as a society, comfortable with understanding and accepting the concept of observing the Sabbath, but see regimented prayer five times a day as ritualistic and antiquated? Why do we accept that Timothy McVeigh doesn’t represent all of Christianity, but refuse to do the same when it comes to Islam? Most importantly, why – after 20 years – is it still difficult to accept Muslims in America?
by Eman Ahmed