When the youth group at southern California's Mission Viejo Masjid met recently, the scene looked like a public-service announcement for racial tolerance. The Sudanese imam sat next to a Palestinian-American student, who sat next to a female Anglo convert, who sat next to a son of Pakistani immigrants, who... well, you get the idea.
But this isn't a clever ad; it's mosque life on any given weekend in Orange County and cities across America. "You are finding a new kind of climate in a lot of Muslim communities," says Naim Shah Jr., a Los Angeles Muslim raised in the Nation of Islam who's now an orthodox Sunni. He is assistant to the imam at the mostly African-American Masjid Ibaadillah in the city's Crenshaw district. "I just got a call from a largely immigrant [Muslim] group who wanted to organize a camp together on Labor Day weekend," Shah says. "We never got those calls five years ago. I attribute a lot of that to the young people; they are knocking down old and unnecessary boundaries."
Children of immigrants are the fastest-growing group among the nation's estimated7 million Muslims, and they're changing the face of Islam in this country by combining their faith with the American tradition of diversity. In Orange County, youth-group members have similar stories: their strong ties with Islam really started in college, when they bonded with a mixed group of Muslims. This scenario was unthinkable even 15 years ago for immigrants who stuck with their own for support and for African-American Muslims who were still working through the racial exclusivity of the Nation of Islam. Those divisions mean little to the twentysomethings in Orange County. "It's all about Muslim identity now," says Haider Javed, 25, the center's youth coordinator. He wears jeans and a skullcap and seems to know everyone in the giant building. "You're searching for yourself," Javed says. "I'm not an American kid who goes out and drinks. I'm not entirely Pakistani either. But I am thoroughly Muslim. I feel comfortable at the Islamic center, like this is where I actually belong."
During a discussion between prayers, Javed's peers agree that stripping away cultural baggage from their parents' home countries (such as customs limiting women's rights and racial dictates) is the only way to practice a purer Islam. Amber Atwat, 28, is one of many converts who showed up at the Islamic center that day with her husband and 15-month-old son. Raised Southern Baptist in Tennessee, she found peace in Islam three years ago after a hard life that included an abusive husband and the death of her infant daughter. "In our church, I saw all whites," she recalls. "Then there was the black Baptist church down the road. Even though they taught the same thing, we did not mix. But in the mosque, there is no one identity. I love that."
These young Muslims are aware that divisions still exist: power struggles, arguments about who should represent Islam in the media and dueling politics (during the 2000 campaign, the immigrant Muslim community endorsed Bush while the African-American community did not). But this generation faces these challenges together. "I'm looking at one Pakistani, one white guy, one Palestinian, one African-American guy," says Javed, observing the people around him. "They're just standing around, talking. That alone makes me believe America is the perfect place for Islam." Then he hears the call of the muezzin and joins them for the last prayer of the day.