YOUNG AMERICAN MUSLIMS SEEK IDENTITY IN ISLAM
Twenty-year-old Ahlam Shalabi could be the poster girl for young American Muslims. Shalabi is a college student three days a week at San Diego State University, an officer in her school's Muslim Student Union (MSA), a volunteer youth leader at a local mosque, and a full-time devout Muslim. She represents a new consciousness emerging among young American Muslims nationwide, one fueled by pride in Islam.
"I started wearing hijab [headscarf] about one year ago," said Shalabi, whose parents are Palestinians. "I grew up in a very typical Arabic household where culture outweighed religion as far as an emphasis on its traditions are concerned. Therefore I had very little knowledge about my religion."
Shalabi's decision to wear the hijab "and never take it off" came after spending two years studying her faith in greater depth and attending Islamic lectures. She said her decision was made easier by the fact that her college had a sizable number of Muslims in attendance who provided her with constant support.
"In all honesty my parents weren't thrilled about my decision and were very concerned that I was perhaps not ready to make such a big commitment," Shalabi said. "However they reassured me that it is my decision and that they would support me whether or not I wore the hijab then or planned to wear it when I felt a little more secure."
Shalabi's experience is not uncommon. Occasional objection may arise from parents who see their daughters suddenly don the hijab or sons grow a beard and wear Islamic clothing. In some instances, the younger generation may even surpass their own parents in knowledge and ritual practice of their faith.
"I think this depends on the family," explained Professor Amir Hussain from the Department of Theological Studies at Loyola Marymount University. "In some cases, parents are more religious, in other cases, it is the children. For many children, who have no doubt about their American identity, the move to Islamic practice is a way to define their identity."
Professor Hussain said that for many young Muslims their absolute pride in their Islamic faith is a reaction to the anti-Muslim rhetoric and stereotypes they come across in their daily lives. "This is their way of saying publicly that they are Muslim," said Professor Hussain.
AbdulAziz Al-Salim, 21, is a student at the University of Minnesota and a budding Muslim entrepreneur on the side. He and his friends started an Islamic t-shirt company called MuslimTees.com. The store carries contemporary screen-printed shirts, similar to those carried at popular clothing stores, but with a Muslim cultural twist. Al-Salim feels that his generation is in general more creative, less fearful of taking risks, and eager to shine light on a faith that has been muddied.
"I think that this generation has almost been forced to reclaim their Islamic identity," said Al-Salim.