Local Time

Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Muslim youth forge own path in America

By Barbara Brotman Tribune staff reporter Published December 23, 2004

Maheen Sheikh, a 21-year-old junior, rushed into the Loyola University
Muslim Students' Association mosque, tied a scarf around her head and
faced Mecca to pray. Just then the secular interrupted the divine, in
the form of her ringing cell phone. "No way!" she said into the phone.
"Oh, my God. . . . Guess who I talked to?" Islam, meet Verizon.
The future of Islam in America? Part of it is here.
The children of Muslim immigrants who began coming to this country in
larger numbers in the 1970s are going to college. Born in America or
brought here when they were young, they are defining what it means to be a
Muslim American. The guys with their baggy jeans and cell phones
downloaded with Biggie and Jay-Z, the girls with their head scarves tucked
into hoodies and sometimes a cell phone stuck inside making a kind of
Islamic hands-free phone, the other girls with their uncovered hair up in
ponytails--they are all making a way of Muslim life that is distinctly
theirs.
Their Islam is not necessarily their parents' Islam. Many are pursuing
what they call a "pure" Islam, separate from the cultural traditions
their parents brought with them. They are negotiating the sometimes
complex path between Muslim faith and American culture. Is it acceptable to
watch MTV? To listen to music? At what point does makeup cross the
modesty line? How much should they avoid contact between men and women?
That issue flared into an angry conflict in the fall over who would get to
use the MSA's lounge.
Is America the land of opportunity, temptation or both? These are part
of larger questions that pit the American value of freedom of choice
against the Muslim tradition of conforming to divine law and take into
account all the permutations in between.
The students are at a stage of life when American culture is most at
odds with Islam. They are at college, and not drinking. They are at
college, and not dating. They are living a faith whose name means
"submission," in a country founded on revolt. They are making their way with so
many individual variations that you can't really say what they, as a
group, are doing.

Except that it starts with Islam. Religion over culture
Shaheen Baig, 22, president of the Loyola Muslim Students' Association,
called the first meeting to order inside the mosque, or masjid, the
only one in Illinois run by students. In a little-girl voice but with
adult confidence, Shaheen, a pre-med senior majoring in biology with minors
in psychology and women's studies, ran through the coming events. There
would be the start-of-the-year picnic, inshallah. After that would be
Islam Awareness Week.
"Do y'all have a big fundraiser?" asked a young woman from Houston,
establishing the reach of Islam throughout the U.S. with a single word.
For some students, college has brought their first encounters with
substantial numbers of other Muslims. "I didn't know many Muslims in high
school. When I started college, it was kind of culture shock," said
Shaheen, of Park Ridge. At Maine South High School, she was the only student
who wore hijab, the term for modest Muslim dress that has come to refer
to the head scarf. "I felt really special. Then I came here, and there
were so many people like me."
Loyola's Muslim student population, which numbers about 350, is not
monolithic. The MSA, which has 300 members, has a core of active students;
about 75 consistently attend Friday prayer. For others, the Muslim
group is not a regular part of their college life. College MSAs tend to
attract students who are more religious. There are many young Muslims
following less traditional paths. "It's very difficult to talk about a
single type," said Shabana Mir, an Indiana University doctoral candidate in
education policy who has researched Muslim students at several
colleges."I came across people who identified very strongly as religious and at
the same time might have had girlfriends and boyfriends, consumed
alcohol and attended nightclubs. At the other spectrum, there were those who
didn't go near a nightclub, didn't drink a drop of alcohol and observed
very strict forms of religiosity. "And in between, there is a whole
range now being termed as moderate Muslims," she said.
The Loyola MSA students are children of immigrants from India, Pakistan
and the Middle East. They are among the estimated 6 million to 8
million Muslims in the U.S., about a third of whom are African-Americans. By
the year 2020, according to one estimate, there will be more than 13
million American Muslims. In their Muslim homelands, the students'
parents absorbed Islam in the air around them. They prayed the way everyone
around them prayed without asking why.
Their children are asking why.

They are American, Shaheen pointed out: "Here, in school, kids are
taught to ask questions." They want to pray. But they want explanations.
What is the purpose of prayer? Why do Muslims begin prayer by raising
their hands to their shoulders, palms up, then swooping them down to right
in front of their bellies?
They respect their elders to a degree non-Muslim parents can only
imagine. But many say they want to shed their parents' cultural baggage and
follow what they consider pure Islam, unadulterated by ethnic
traditions. Culture is man-made and thus can have bad aspects, they say, like a
denigration of women that female MSA members say is found nowhere in
Islam.
Buoyed by Muslim pride and free of their parents' needs to survive in
an unfamiliar country, they proclaim their Muslim identity with Muslim
Gear skirts and green wristbands declaring Muslim unity. "Our parents
want to embrace American culture; they don't want to give offense," said
Nuha Hasan, 21, of Justice, a senior majoring in psychology. "But now
we want to embrace our religion."
Most of their parents have reacted to their piety with pride. But for
Mohammed Shaazuddin's mother, pride is mixed with concern. "She's afraid
I'm going to start going extremist," said Mohammed, 18, an intense-eyed
freshman psychology major whom everyone calls Shaaz. At their Morton
Grove home, his mother, Dr. Sameena Zieuddin, a physician at Oak Forest
Hospital, said she is impressed by her son's generation's Islamic
learning. "For some reason, the children are more religious here," she said.
"I think it's good. We were just blindly following. . . . They have
more knowledge." She just wants to be sure her son has enough time to
study secular subjects. And she doesn't think young Muslims should "take it
too far and become completely separate. They have to tolerate other
religions."
For Hassan Ali, 19, Islamic study has led to tension between him and
his father. His father prays with a group that believes there are Islamic
saints. But Hassan says Islam rejects the idea of intermediaries
between people and Allah, and he will not pray with that group. "I follow the
Koran strictly," said Hassan, of Romeoville, a sophomore majoring in
political science. "I'm pretty harsh. He does get bugged out, but then he
says, `All right, whatever you want.' At the end of the day, we're
still father and son."
Marcia Hermansen, a professor of Islamic studies at Loyola who has been
the MSA's faculty adviser since 1998, is wary of young Muslims' pursuit
of "pure Islam." "It can be a little harsh, rigid, defensive," she
said.
The idea of an Islam that floats above culture is attractive because
the students don't have their parents' foreign cultural identities and
yet don't feel entirely accepted in America, she said. But there is no
such thing as culture-free Islam, Hermansen said; everywhere Islam took
root, it was influenced by the local culture.
Embracing a strong Muslim identity is a way students can assert their
dignity, she said, the way young African-Americans did in the black
power movement. It is also a form of classic American youth rebellion. "It
gives them a chance to trump their parents: `I know Islam better,
you're practicing cultural Islam,'" she said.
A few years ago, Hermansen, who is Muslim, saw the pursuit of "identity
Islam" ushering in a trend toward narrow-mindedness on college
campuses. "Quite a number of Muslim youth in America are becoming rigidly
conservative and condemnatory of their peers (Muslim and non-Muslim), their
parents, and all who are not within a narrow ideological band,"
Hermansen wrote in a 2002 paper. But Hermansen, who is on sabbatical but in
Chicago this year, thinks that trend has eased at Loyola. And she has
changed too; she is now impressed with the positive aspects of students'
focus on their Islamic identity. "It's not a shallow identity marker;
it's a much deeper dimension for a person's humanity," she said.
Question of open-mindedness
The students have plenty of non-Muslim activities. Arwa Hammad, 20, of
Alsip, is active in the MSA, but also in Habitat for Humanity, Unite
for Sight, Colleges Against Cancer and the Minority Association of
Pre-Health Students. When they aren't praying, the MSA members are often
talking about friends, clothes and tests.
Sukaina Hussain, 19, a sophomore from Skokie, gets miffed when people
expect her to be living in some kind of segregated Muslim world. "People
are surprised how Western I can be," she said. "I watch `Friends' on
TV. I watch `The Apprentice.'" "I watch `Gilmore Girls.' I watch MTV,"
added Mehnaaz Ahmed, 19, of Skokie, a sophomore who works at an Express
store on weekends. "I watch TRL." Sukaina hesitated about MTV's "Total
Request Live," however, which features music videos and celebrity
interviews. "That's getting into a non-Muslim area," she said. "That's not
appropriate." She turned to Mehnaaz. "I'm not saying you're bad," she
said hastily.
But Farah Khan, 19, a sophomore from Lincolnwood majoring in biology,
thinks many members of the Loyola MSA are quick to condemn others.
"People here have a lot of judgment," she said. "The way you dress, the way
you talk, what you talk about." She wears hijab and considers herself
profoundly devoted to Islam. But she finds the atmosphere at the Loyola
MSA so harsh that she is thinking of transferring to another school
where she might find a more open-minded Muslim group. "One of my friends
at UIC wears hijab and also has an eyebrow piercing. And she likes punk
music. If she were to come in here, people would really freak out," she
said.
Since leaving high school, she has met Muslims she never knew existed.
Some have strayed into alcohol; others have tried drugs. "I realized
that Muslims are normal. They make mistakes," she said. "I'm willing to
forgive people's pasts if they're nice people. Since I started college,
I guess I've become more open-minded." She doesn't think the Loyola
MSA is open-minded. Last year, Farah made a friend who was in three of
her classes. They talked, which seemed only natural. Except the friend
was male. MSA tongues started wagging. "People were like, `Well, I heard
that this, this and this.' I would say, `How could you get that out of
just me talking to him?'"
The issue of separating men and women to prevent temptation became part
of a dispute this fall involving the MSA lounge. The Loyola MSA has a
men's prayer area, a women's prayer area with a small sofa and a lounge
with two larger sofas, a coffee table and a work table. Muslim men and
women pray separately to minimize distractions and promote modesty. But
the lounge is not a prayer area, so it fell into a gray zone. It was
usually occupied by men.
One day in the fall, Farah and about 10 other female members of the
Islam Awareness Week dinner decorating committee sat in the lounge to use
the coffee table while painting the centerpieces. Some of the guys
asked them to move. "They said, `You can sit here this time, but next time,
don't,'" Farah said. "I just found it very rude. I said, `You can't
tell us when to sit here.'" "I was, like, is this kindergarten? Are we
going to talk about cooties?"
E-mails flew as word spread. "This is war," one woman declared. There
were skirmishes. Women suspected men of stretching out to sleep just to
keep them out. Some women sat in the lounge deliberately to anger the
men. To some of the women, called sisters in Islam, it was a line in the
sand. "Some girls were like, `If we're stepped on now, they're going to
step on us more,'" said Noor Ali, 20, of Bloomingdale, a senior with
wide, calm eyes who serves as the sisters' representative.
To other women, it was more important to keep men and women separate
inside a mosque. "In the house of Allah, there is supposed to be no
intermingling," said Arwa Hammad, a junior majoring in psychology. To the
men, it was a matter of maintaining separation in a limited space, said
Umair Jabbar, 21, a junior majoring in sociology who lives on the
Northwest Side.
"At any time of day, there are more brothers here than sisters," he
said. It wasn't fair for large numbers of men to have to retreat to the
men's prayer area so a couple of women could sit in the lounge, he said.
To Noor, a psychology major, the conflict illustrated the problem with
culture. "Culture always conflicts with religion," she said. "You tell
the guys, `Islam treats the sexes equally.' And they say, `Yeah, but
it's always been this way.'"
The MSA board, which includes men and women, called an open meeting.
They listened to a tape of a Muslim scholar speaking about modesty. At
the end, the group decided that women should not sit in the lounge unless
there was a special meeting or event. The women were given a small
table so they wouldn't have to do their homework on the floor. The men
promised to speak more quietly to avoid disturbing women praying. And in
response to women who said they felt the men were staring at them as they
walked past the lounge, the men turned the sofas to face the other way.
Farah, who said she didn't know about the meeting, was dismayed at the
whole conflict. "The issue isn't where we sit, but respect," she said.
"Our religion says to respect each other. Everyone is being
hypocritical now. I mean, inside the masjid, this is going on--how ironic is
that?" Shaheen said the board is considering a solution that may satisfy
everyone--remodeling the mosque to expand the women's prayer area and
eliminate the lounge. Fliers announcing the new rules were posted on the
walls. Below the request that students respect board members, someone had
written in green marker, "Respect all members."
Prayer is joy
Behind the curtain of the women's area, freshman Tayyaba Ahmad, 18, of
Morton Grove, who has an infectious grin and a tendency to call people
"dude," stood. She swept her hands up, then down. (The reason for that
movement, she has been taught, is that the worshiper is first pushing
the world away, then pulling the awareness of God directly to her
center.) Then she spent five minutes in prayer, silently reciting Arabic
praises of God and requests for God's guidance, following a precisely
choreographed performance of bows and prostrations.
The Loyola students pray unselfconsciously, moving seamlessly from talk
about midterms to prayer and back to the Chips Ahoy cookies on the
table. Prayer is a five-times-daily encounter with God, Tayyaba said, a way
of staying aware of God at all times: "You're always thinking, `I've
got to pray soon.' If you're in class, you think, `I've got to make sure
I wash up for prayer.'" And the body movements, she said, meld the
physical and inner worlds. By putting their heads lower than their hearts,
Muslims are lowering their pride and elevating their hearts to God.
Maheen Sheikh sometimes prays in the car, which is something of a feat.
"I'll just bend down a little," she explained.
There are Muslims who don't pray, although it is one of the five
pillars of the religion. But for those who do, it is a powerful habit. "You
know what's weird? Once you start, you can't stop," said Maheen, who
lives off-campus. "You feel so guilty. The nighttime prayer--if I don't
pray and I go to bed, I will have a bad dream."
Prayer is both obligation and reward. "When you pray, you feel happy,"
said Hassan Khan, 19, a brawny sophomore biology major who lives on the
Northwest Side. "There is nothing more pleasurable than prayer." Prayer
is Tayyaba's greatest joy. "Every time I come here, when I'm standing,
when I'm in prayer, I thank God," she said. "I get my time with my Lord
in peace; no one bothers me. I'm so happy."
Even less religious students can find themselves drawn to it. Shaheena
Khan, 20, a chemistry major from the Northwest Side, grew up with
little religion. But when she started visiting the Loyola MSA this year, she
was captivated. "I love Friday prayer," she said. "It's a meditative
state. It really works for curbing your desires, so you're not angry and
vengeful. It's kind of like Buddhism."
Surrounded by temptation
An American college campus is home to the classic extracurricular
interests of young men and women--music, dating, parties and beer. Islam
questions or prohibits all of them. Never will Muslims feel more different
than at college, said Loyola's Marcia Hermansen. "Once you're married
and settled down, the differences aren't as extreme. Married people are
married people. . . . You're probably not going out to bars much," she
said.
Samer Obid, 20, a sophomore business major who has the cool grin and
fluid moves of the rap world he loves, sees temptation all around.
Non-Muslim students invite him to go out drinking, to go to parties, to
dances. Early in the school year, he accepted an invitation to hear a band
play, only to find that young men and women were dancing together. He
stood on the side. Samer, who was born in Syria and lives in an
off-campus apartment, considers the MSA his safeguard. "I've been, like,
pressured lots of times," he said. "That's why I stay with all the brothers.
These are my road dogs."
Lena Ismail, 20, a junior and an economics major from Orland Park,
encountered drinking for the first time in her life at a Loyola dorm during
her freshman year. She had graduated from the all-girls Al-Aqsa School
in Bridgeview. "I didn't know what a drunk person looked like," she
said. "I was, like, why are they acting like that? But after a while, I
caught on. "My floor was wild, but they were really nice," she said. "It
was so fun. I miss it so much."
The Muslim prohibition on drinking is clear. Music, however, is another
story. There is no decisive prohibition on music, leaving Muslims to
interpret the Islamic attitude in various ways. Saim Jabbar, 18, of the
Northwest Side, a freshman majoring in biology and Umair's younger
brother, takes the strictest view. "If you listen to music, it's going to be
stuck in your head when it comes time to pray," he said. "You'll be
thinking about music, not facing God."
Hassan Ali not only listens to music but produces hip-hop, which some
Muslims find more acceptable, along with rap, because they often don't
use wind or string instruments. Hassan makes no such distinctions. He
figures that since the prophet never forbade it, any music is fine.
Tayyaba can see both sides. She considers music a universal human art but
believes there is "nothing too beneficial in it." So it is an art she no
longer experiences."After learning that it's not the greatest thing, .
. . I don't listen any more to music," she said. Mohammed Shaazuddin is
struggling with the question. "I'm going to be honest; I listen to
music," he confessed. "Soft rock, alternative, Linkin Park. . . . I really
see the reason music is prohibited, but I'm sort of in transition as
far as making up my mind."
As for dating, the Loyola MSA members agree that it is forbidden
because it can lead to premarital sex. Shaaz considers dating dangerous. "I
just feel if I started doing things like that, I'll fall into a lot of
bad things, things like alcohol and drugs," he said. The proper Islamic
protocol, students say, is for a young man to ask his parents to
contact a young woman's parents and arrange an introduction.
Not rebelling but exploring
Senior Rumaisa Ansari loves Descartes. The 23-year-old business
management major from Evanston got so excited talking about the French
philosopher, about whom she wrote a seven-page paper, that she rocked forward
on her toes as if she were about to take off running. "He was saying,
`Who created me? Where did I come from?' He was doubting his own
creation," she said. The doubt fascinated her. "In Islam, my parents taught
me, you cannot question God," she said. "Descartes, he was questioning."
As a Muslim, she will not question the Koran or God. But that leaves
pretty much everything else. "I want to see other perspectives, how other
people take it," she said. "I like to debate, to argue. "What I study,
philosophy, history, sociology, all the liberal arts--it makes you
think. . . . I'm not rebelling; I'm exploring." Unlike most MSA members,
Rumaisa was not raised in America. She came to this country with her
family from Pakistan five years ago. And since then, she said, she has
changed. She leaned forward, grinning, practically dancing. "Now I'm
thinking, as they say, outside of the box."
`Just you and God'
How to explain the beauty of Ramadan, the holy month of daytime fasting
that arrived about the same time as midterms? Sitting in the mosque,
Noor Ali talked about people who change their lives during Ramadan. They
stop listening to music. They avoid worldly things. Even if they don't
usually pray, they pray. She couldn't wait.
Noor thought about putting on hijab for years. She tried it when she
was 16 and three months later took it off, to her mother's dismay. Noor
told her she couldn't understand why the prophet would ask women to do
something so hard. While attending Rockford College two years ago, she
thought about it again. She wondered what her non-Muslim friends would
think. Plus she had a wedding coming up and wanted to do something
special with her long hair. Then one day during Friday prayers, something
happened. "For one second--one second--I forgot everything," Noor said.
The doubts disappeared. She couldn't even remember what they had been.
She kept her veil on after prayers. She kept it on that afternoon, which
she spent home alone pacing in front of a mirror. She has kept it on in
public ever since. She feels touched by God. "Before it happened, I was
thinking, `Oh, is that ever going to happen to me?' It's like when you
fall in love." Noor's friends watched as she became more religious and
they were inspired. "I said, `I want to do that," Arwa Hammad said.
"It's almost like you feel jealous," agreed Asma Mustafa, 20, a
pre-pharmacy junior from Oak Lawn.
Pious Muslims "talk about how great they feel, this sense of goodness,
this sense of peace and purity you can't get anywhere else," Arwa said.
"It's just you and God. You say, `I can do that. I want to feel that.'"
Some of the MSA women feel no need to cover their hair. But the
question of putting on hijab weighs on others. "I think about it all the
time," Lena Ismail said. Women who cover describe hijab as both an
expression and a practice of devotion. It changes them, enveloping them in a
constant reminder of their Muslim identity and their relationship with
God.
In a college application essay, Farah Khan explained hijab in terms of
the movie "The Matrix." Just as there were two realities in the
movie--a happy but fake world and a real but horrific one--Muslim women who
wear hijab experience a different reality than those who do not. "Hijab
creates a world of its own, with its own rules and regulations, as well
as a certain mindset that comes with wearing it," she wrote. "Not only
does having it on change how one looks and how others think of them,
but it changes the way one thinks of oneself."
One afternoon during Ramadan, Noor sat on the MSA mosque floor. "I
think I'm going through something," she said. "I can't sleep. Sometimes you
feel like you're nothing and you haven't done anything good for God. If
I die tonight, what am I going to say to God?"
Perfect place for Islam
This is my country
And I love it to death
I guess that's why you can say
I'm always breathin down its neck
--Samer Obid, rap lyrics
America may not be perfect. Women get tired of explaining why they do,
or don't, wear hijab. Many of the MSA members don't agree with U.S.
policy in the Middle East and the Muslim world. And the prevalence of sex
in entertainment can make it hard to choose a movie. "The only thing I
don't like about America is that they use the female body to sell
things," said Hassan Khan. But America, say the students, is just about the
perfect place for Islam.
"America is the coolest place," Tayyaba said. "You have Muslims from
all over the world. But in America, you're Muslim. That's what unites
you." In America, Islam is free from the deadly battles Muslims are
fighting among themselves in other countries, said Hassan Ali, who ended up
free to pray differently than his father. "Sunni versus Shia--it's
insane," he said in disgust. "And what's the fight over? Something that
happened . . . years ago."
In America, he said, Muslims undertake serious study of the Koran's
content instead of just memorizing the words. He considers rote
memorization "an insult to the Koran." And in America, he added, he is free to
say so. "If I were in Pakistan, I wouldn't mention that opinion," he
said.

In America, inside the Loyola MSA mosque, Tayyaba checked the time on
her cell phone. She smiled. "I have to pray now," she said.

Copyright © 2004, Chicago Tribune

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