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Sunday, January 04, 2009

Young Muslim Americans speak out

American born, they're more devout and assertive
When Sofia Latif sees news reports portraying Muslims as terrorists, she sometimes sends e-mails to journalists deploring coverage she views as one-sided and urges them to publicize good works done in the name of Islam.

Latif, 21, of Dearborn Heights is the co-owner of a marketing company, active in her mosque and part of a new generation of Muslims in America that is just coming of age, and arriving more religious than their parents and more willing to speak out on controversial issues regarding their faith, according to a recent survey and interviews with dozens of Muslims in Metro Detroit.

"I think it is more the case that the older generation had more of a push to convince others that they are Americans, whereas we are born here," Latif said. "For us, being American comes along with being Muslim, and many of my generation feel a responsibility to change the mistaken impressions about Islam and to take the responsibility to challenge some Muslims when they do things wrong." Her father, Victor Ghalib Begg, a local Muslim leader, agrees his daughter's generation is more assertive and perhaps more devout.

"These young people are the product of a free society, and they have grown up believing in that freedom," said Begg of Bloomfield Hills. "As far as speaking up, they are not shy. These are American kids."

In interviews with The Detroit News, dozens of Muslims ages 18-29 said they are more forceful in their political views and more confident that Islamic extremism will fade -- in part because fanaticism itself defies the tenets of Islam. Younger adults say it is confidence in their religious and secular lives that led to responses in a recent poll by the Pew Research Center that revealed some evidence that they are more extreme in their political views than their elders.

Resources, talks fuel faith

According to Pew, 42 percent of Muslims ages 19-30 are "very concerned" about Islamic extremism compared with 51 percent of all Muslims. And 26 percent of the younger group believes suicide bombing is "ever justified" compared with 9 percent of those 30 and older.

Most of the Muslims interviewed said they deplore suicide bombing, that it defies the teachings of Islam and that terrorists cloak themselves in religion to excuse their evil acts. But they also stress that they understand the enormous frustration over conditions in the world that give rise to extremism.

"As Muslims, we need to have our piece of the pie and to press our points," said Sayed Aatif Ali Bokhari, 27, of Dearborn, who says he started his own newspaper, Islamic Insights, to present news and information from a Muslim perspective.

"I saw that the immigrant generation that came over here were very knowledgeable about the secular," Bokhari said. "They are good at engineering, good at medicine. But what they are really lacking is overall knowledge of Islam. When we speak out, people can feel threatened. But it is better that we have this dialogue openly and that we are very clear about these issues."

Much of the Muslim world is represented in Metro Detroit. While there is no official count, a recent study of attendance at mosques determined that there are anywhere from 125,000 to 200,000 Muslims in the area. They have roots in South Asia, the Middle East, Eastern Europe and Africa, and there are African-American and American converts from other ethnicities, too.

As Islam takes firmer root in America, Muslims now in their 20s say they will guide the course.

"People my age are much more involved in Islam, and practicing it," said Nadia Bazzy, 22, of Canton, a graduate student. "Plus, there are just much greater resources than my mom had," she said, citing the Internet, Islamic youth groups, organizations on campuses and Qur'an study groups.

Her mother, Najah, a nurse and Muslim leader, lectured on the generational differences last weekend at a mosque in Maryland.

"I really think it is an issue of comfort in America, of American identity," said Najah Bazzy, 44. "It is the difference between being in one's home and a guest in someone else's home. I think it is why the younger generation is in mosques more and more willing to assert that identity of staking a claim in America."

'Same views as all Americans'

As part of their assertiveness, younger Muslims sought to explain some of the findings in the Pew poll, which found that 25 percent of Muslims ages 18-29 view themselves as Muslims first, before identifying themselves as Americans. It is not unusual, Muslims said, for many people to identify themselves by their faith. They cited a finding in a previous Pew poll that 42 percent of all Christians and 62 percent of evangelical Protestants say they are Christian first.

As for the finding about suicide bombing, many asserted that the Prophet Muhammad expressly prohibited even collateral damage in war, let alone intentional assaults on civilians. They also point to a poll published in February by the Christian Science Monitor revealing that 24 percent of Americans say that "bombing and other attacks intentionally aimed at civilians are often or sometimes justified."

"I constantly feel that we are on the defensive," said Shahad Atiya, 19, of Bloomfield Hills. "Personally, I am sick and tired of that. I want to ask people, 'Why do you single me out?' "

The younger Muslims say they must actively teach their fellow Americans about Islam.

"As young Americans and Muslims, it is our social responsibility to have these discussions, to have social organizations, to get the word out about whom we really are and what we are about," said Ali Fawaz, 28, who works at a local marketing firm. "We have the same views as all Americans. Just because we are Muslims does not mean we are something less."

You can reach Gregg Krupa at gkrupa@detnews.com.


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