PBS Special Looks at Life for Young Muslims in America

April 13, 2007 at 6:20 PM EDT

JUDY WOODRUFF: The sound is distinctly American, but at this Chicago street fair, it’s purpose is not merely to entertain.

RAMI NASHASHIBI, IMAN Executive Director: A very important segment of our work in our community is our young people.

Our challenge is very distinct from what may be emerging or what has emerged on some level in Europe. And I think — I don’t think young Muslims growing up in America are going to have to grapple with sleeper cells. I don’t think they’re going to have to grapple with recruitment into terrorist camps.

I think that is, for the most part, a fiction of, you know, FOX’s “24” and other series, and doesn’t reflect the real, lived experiences of 99 percent of the young Muslims growing up in America.

JUDY WOODRUFF: A Palestinian American raised in a secular Muslim home, 33-year-old Rami Nashashibi mixes pop culture and Islam to inspire and unite young immigrant and indigenous Muslims with people of other faiths.

RAMI NASHASHIBI: Islam became something that I engaged much later in my life. And I was a very die-hard agnostic skeptic, and I spent a great deal of time reading the Koran purely to debate the Koran and debate Muslims who I found very small-minded.

JUDY WOODRUFF: While attending Chicago’s DePaul University, Rami reconnected with Islam. And expanding the Islamic values of brotherhood, service, charity and faith to include all in need, he co-founded IMAN, the inner-city Muslim action network. Its goal: to address social problems facing disenfranchised residents of Chicago’s southwest community, by forging alliances across religious and ethnic boundaries.

Along with its organizational work, IMAN provides computer training and other career development services in both Spanish and English and an opportunity for expression at its bimonthly community cafe.

AMINAH MCCLOUD, Professor of Islamic Studies, DePaul University: They bring everything Islam is about, the thing that many of us transitioned into Islam for. Everybody feels free to come in and out of here, Muslim and non, male and female.

There are Latinos in here; there are black folk in here; there are white folks in here; there are Arabs; and there are South Asians. I mean, that’s the face of Islam in America.

Muslim student associations grow

JUDY WOODRUFF: At the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, the Muslim Student Association is also reaching out to non-Muslims, developing relationships with other faith-based groups, like the Jewish community on campus.

Prior to 9/11, Muslim Student Association members largely stayed within their own community. But now, in an attempt to be ambassadors for Islam, they have held interfaith events and begun a dialogue about each others' beliefs and practices.

NURA SEDIQUE, MSA President, University of Michigan: In the post-9/11 environment, I think the MSAs understand the importance of prioritizing the need to communicate and explain what Islam is to those who are unaware of what Islam as a religion really holds.

We invite members of the non-Muslim community to come and engage with us and discuss these issues, such as the role of jihad in Islam or the role of women in Islam, certain things that they may have misconceptions of.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Such gatherings can sometimes lead to some difficult questions.

STUDENT: One of the prevailing viewpoints from a lot of people who seem to be attacking Muslims in this country is, I guess, the overall failure to sort of, quote, unquote, "Muslim moderates" to denounce terrorism.

DR. MUNIRAH CURITS, Former MSA President, University of Michigan: The truth is, Islam does not support terrorism, period. That is the truth. Now, how many more moderate Muslims do they want to say that more than once?

JUDY WOODRUFF: While today's Muslim Student Associations' present a moderate face opposed to terrorism, critics charge they were backed by Saudi Arabian money in their early years and promoted Wahhabism, a fundamentalist, dogmatic interpretation of Islam.

Hadia Mubarak was the first woman to head the Muslim Student Association's national office.

There are those who've spoken out and said MSAs are really one of the hotbeds of Muslim dissent in the United States. Is that fair, unfair?

HADIA MUBARAK, Former MSA National President: It's unfair. I mean, these right-wing bloggers that have made these allegations against Muslim Student Association and other mainstream Muslim organizations are really exploiting the fear and ignorance that exists and are trying to basically silence and marginalize the voices of moderate Muslims.

Familiarizing with other cultures

JUDY WOODRUFF: By the late 1990s, the national office of the Muslim Student Association no longer accepted funding from overseas. And today, local chapters rely on financial support from their schools and members.

Many young, urban Muslims have grown up worshipping only with those from their own culture. For them, joining an MSA is the first time they are navigating the ethnic and cultural differences facing Muslims in America.

DR. MUNIRAH CURITS: Yes, there's difference among people. No, not one is superior to the other. Please familiarize yourself with the other person's culture, and then let's also find what's common ground. And for us, it's Islam.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Muslim Student Associations are also providing an important training ground for young leaders and offering an opportunity for young men and women to meet.

NIDA JAVAID, MSA Member, University of Michigan: As Muslims in America, there's a lot of personal negotiation. And you can't kind of make a blanket statement about everyone. There are people who date in the conventional sense that, you know, you and I would understand, and then there's people who go the more, like, orthodox Islamic route. And people are just figuring it out for themselves and what works for their beliefs and their lifestyle.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Dating or hanging out with people of the opposite sex?

SARAH ALBANI: We're going to follow our religion, be true to our faith, and, when the time is right, we'll do what's right in our religion, which is marriage.

Wearing the hijab

JUDY WOODRUFF: Born and raised in Northern Virginia, Sarah and Farah Albani balance the typical daily lives of American teenagers with their faith. A year after 9/11, at the age of 11, Sarah faced one of her first decisions as a young Muslim girl: whether to begin wearing the traditional head scarf, or hijab, a symbol of modesty for women.

SARAH ALBANI: I was afraid of every one, you know, everyone's eyes, and everyone thinking, just because I wore the hijab, that I was a terrorist or some evil person, you know?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Her parents, Wafika and Deen Albani, emigrated from Syria in 1986. Though Muslim, Wafika rarely wore a headscarf in her home country or in the states.

WAFIKA ALBANI: I knew I should wear it, but I didn't have the courage. I liked the way I dressed, and I was not very well-educated about the necessity of wearing it, either.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But Sarah's decision inspired her mother to become more visibly observant. In the wake of 9/11, many young Muslims are embracing their faith with more enthusiasm, often influencing their parents and others to follow.

Grappling with who Muslims are

JUDY WOODRUFF: But the first time she went out the door, were you worried? Were you worried?

WAFIKA ALBANI: I'm going to tell you why: because I asked her, what are you going to tell your friends? She said, I'm going to tell them this is my religion, and I felt, "This is American girl. This is American freedom. This is American value." And I felt so proud of her.

SARAH ALBANI: My favorite, let's say, like say adventure, action, would be Harry Potter. My favorite books, definitely Harry Potter.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Whether it's enjoying the magic of Harry Potter or mentoring others, working on the school newspaper or working out with classmates, Farah and Sarah seemed to navigate Islam and being American teenagers with relative ease.

For Rami Nashashibi, the challenges facing young Muslims revolve around embracing who they are and how they fit into the larger fabric of America.

RAMI NASHASHIBI: I think the challenge is going to continue to be one around grappling with multiple narratives about who Muslims are, what Islam should be, and who are the authoritative voices that these young people should listen to. But for young people, sorting that out, while having to contend with the day in, day out life of just being a young person in America, that in and of itself may be a struggle that can be overwhelming.