Muslims in the United States find that hope lies not in assimilating or shedding their identities but in winning over the hearts and minds of their fellow Americans.
Mubarakah Ibrahim is an American woman living in the town of New Haven, Connecticut, where she works as a fitness instructor and personal trainer. Having appeared on Oprah Winfrey’s TV show, she is also something of a celebrity.
She is also a second-generation Muslim. Of African-American descent, her parents both converted to Islam when they were very young – her father when he was 16, and her mother at the age 25.
Her family are all practising orthodox Sunni Muslims. Her husband is in the New Haven police, and her children attend the local schools.
I met Mubarakah last week when I joined her and two other speakers in a panel discussion entitled Muslim Identity: the Personal vs the Political jointly organised by the New Haven International Festival of Arts and Ideas and the Yale World Fellows Program.
I was particularly intrigued by Mubarakah’s stories as they provided an interesting insight into the everyday situation of American Muslims.
As a woman who wears the hijab, and carries out her work as a fitness trainer – including running on the shore – clad in such modest attire, she certainly stands out in the local community.
But her exercise regimes and her writing on weight-loss and fitness have found clients and readers across all faiths.
As she said, “No matter where women worship, they all have the same question: ‘How do I get rid of cellulite?’”
There are non-Muslim women who appreciate her conservative attire: “I find I have a lot of Orthodox Jewish women clients, and conservative Christians, because they too share similar ideas of modesty.”
These traditional communities are also more comfortable with the idea of an all-female exercise class.
Nonetheless, she sometimes encounters a sort of polite bewilderment that she could be an American and a Muslim at the same time, as though Islam were the religion of foreigners, or recent immigrants at best.
“People will ask me, ‘Where are you from?’ and I’ll say, ‘I’m from here’, and they’ll say, ‘Where are you really from? Where are your grandparents from?’
“Well, I tell them my grandfather was in the Army in the Second World War, and he fought on the beaches of Normandy.”
She spoke of how Muslims in the United States refer to the generation of children who were 10 or 11 years old at the time of the September 2001 terrorist attacks as the “9/11 generation”.
In the seven years since the attacks, those children have had to come of age in an environment where their identity as Muslims is very much in focus. The mood in schools changed.
“Before 9/11, you were the strange Muslim kid, sitting in the corner, all covered up. After 9/11, you were the strange Muslim kid, sitting in the corner, all covered up, who might blow you up.” (MORE)