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Second-Generation Muslim Immigrants Feel Strong Islamic Identity

Author, professor and other experts raise money to give Muslims a voice

By Elizabeth Kelleher | Staff Writer | 15 December 2006
Saher Isa

Students head to class at the Islamic Al Noor School in Brooklyn, New York, where classes are separated by gender. (© AP Images)

Washington -- As the children of generations of immigrants to the United States have grown up, they often have drifted away from the cultures of their parents’ home countries. But some experts believe children of Muslim immigrants are different.

The younger generation of Muslims in America is forming a “new Islamic identity,” said Geneive Abdo, author of Mecca and Main Street: Muslim Life in America After 9/11. She cites an increase in Muslim student associations on college campuses, a push by young parents to build new Islamic schools, and a trend among younger women to don head scarves even if many of their older, female relatives do not wear them. “Young Muslims are becoming more religious than their parents,” she said.

Abdo believes that 9/11 partly caused this surge of Islamic pride among young American Muslims; the terrorist attacks forced Muslims to “defend the faith, explain the faith and turn inward to some extent to form a more cohesive community,” she said. Muslims are not turning away from all things American, she said, but “picking and choosing what they will adopt from American society.”

Abdo said a growing Islamic identity does not mean American Muslims are becoming “radicalized.” That will not happen, she said, in large part because, unlike in some European countries, Muslims here are “educated professionals … who enjoy social and economic mobility.” A 2003 report titled Muslims in the United States and published by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington said 58 percent of American Muslims have graduated from college, more than double the national rate.

Abdo cites a statistics from Georgetown University’s Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding that shows Muslims’ average-household income is $10,000 higher than average American household income.


Abdo said she believes Muslims need a voice in the United States, which is why she joined other experts on Muslim life in America at a fundraiser December 9 held in Philadelphia’s National Liberty Museum. The event raised money to help the Center for the Study of Islam & Democracy initiate programs to educate Americans about Islam.

Radwan Masmoudi, who founded the center in 1999, told America.gov of the importance of the organization’s outreach projects. He said that, since September 11, 2001, Americans who watch television have seen violence and terrorism committed by extremists. “They don’t hear from the silent majority,” he said. “They lump Islam with extremists. It is important to tell Christians, Jews and those of other faiths that Islam is against violence and terrorism.”

Asma Afsaruddin, a professor a the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, who joined Abdo at the fundraiser, said American Muslims’ experiences vary depending on “whether they are fully observant or not, whether they live in a big city, a small town or a rural area.” She said that in cities with large Muslim populations -- Detroit, New York, Chicago, Washington -- personal connections between Muslims and non-Muslims exist, making it easier to erase stereotypes.

But in the United States, Islam is a “newcomer,” not quite understood by many Americans, Afsaruddin said. The Wilson Center report estimated there were 6 million Muslims in the United States and that almost 70 percent of them were born in other countries. Muslim Americans on the whole are younger than the general U.S. population.

“Most people in the United States wouldn’t think twice about a [Catholic] nun’s habit or a Jew’s yarmulke,” Afsaruddin said. But because Muslims are part of a newer wave of immigrants, Afsaruddin said, a woman who wears a hijab at a shopping mall gets noticed.

Masmoudi characterized the amount raised in Philadelphia as “below expectations.” The center has ambitious goals to host university seminars, visit churches and synagogues, hire a media liaison, do a documentary about women leaders in Muslim societies, increase contact with Congress, publish newsletters, and expand its annual conference held in April in Washington.

Afsaruddin tries to reach out to non-Muslims when she is on sabbatical from teaching at Notre Dame. She recently spoke at a seminar at Amarillo College in Texas, about the complexities of Islam. She said that sometimes, at such meetings, “you get questions that express a fundamental hostility.” But at the end of the Amarillo seminar, many of the women hugged her and told her they had learned a lot. One woman told Afsaruddin she had driven 145 kilometers to attend the lecture.

“People will go to great lengths to have access to reliable information,” Afsaruddin said. “It is time-consuming, but so rewarding.”

For additional information on life in the United States, see Diversity.

Students in the hall at school

Saher Isa participates in a rally protesting terrorism at the state capital in Hartford, Connecticut. (© AP Images)

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