By Abdul Malik Mujahid – © Sound Vision
In a Gallup survey last year, 26 percent of Muslim youth in the United States reported feeling angry as compared to 14 percent of Protestant youth and 18 percent of the general American population. They are angrier than their parents. This survey had 10 questions on mental health and almost all results when it came to young Muslims revealed that they were the least happy and the most angry.
It is important to note that this March 2009 report, entitled, “Muslim Americans: A National Portrait,” is not just any poll or survey. It is highly reliable since it compiles results of almost 500 Gallup surveys. The Gallup surveys America every day and for this report, they picked a year and a half worth of surveys and cross-tabulated the results among different faith groups between Muslims, Protestants, Catholics, Jews, Mormons and the general American population.
It is critical that all community leaders, Muslims and non-profit foundations, as well as our government, pay more attention to this demographic group and find effective ways to address its challenges.
My reaction: So stunned I had to meet with Gallup's pollsters
Only 40 percent of Muslim youth surveyed by Gallup considered themselves to be “thriving” as compared to 61 percent of Protestants and 53 percent of the general U.S. population. That is the lowest level among all youth groups surveyed.
After reading the whole report, I was so concerned about the findings revealing the anger and frustration of our youth that I interviewed one of the report's senior analysts for Radio Islam and met the other two in person to discuss these statistics.
I asked them what they thought would be the three major reasons for American Muslim youth's lower level of happiness and higher level of anger. Unfortunately, Gallup did not ask those questions in their survey. But I found in their study and in other ones, some other information which might provide insight into this.
What young Muslims are facing in America
Islamophobia clearly seems to be playing a role in shaping the attitudes of young Muslims. According to one Zogby international poll, 75 percent of young Muslims said they or someone they know has been discriminated against. A Columbia University survey of Muslim students in New York public schools found that 28 percent had been stopped by police as a result of racial profiling and seven percent of them said they had been physically assaulted because of who they are.
This may explain why young Muslims are also the least likely to feel safe at night in their communities. According to the Gallup survey, only 59 percent of young Muslims responded yes to the question “do you feel safe walking alone at night in the city or the area in which you live” as compared to 70 percent of youth in the general U.S. population.
The Gallup survey found that young Muslims are also less likely to be employed. Sixty-seven percent as opposed to 79 percent of young Protestants who have jobs. Muslim youth were also the least likely youth group to report being satisfied with their jobs.
The human face of this pressure from Islamophobia can be found in cases like that of a Muslim girl featured on the NPR program “This American Life” in December 2006. The show detailed how she went from being a well-adjusted student to a pariah mocked by both fellow students and teachers for her faith. This was at a school in an unnamed small town in the state of New York. As a result, she wanted to leave Islam. The crisis also resulted in her parents splitting up.
Harassment and discrimination are hardly news to older American Muslims, who have become accustomed to hearing or even experiencing it on a regular basis. The FBI has conducted more than 500,000 interviews of Muslims in America; American Muslim leaders, advocates and activists are routinely harassed when traveling, especially when returning home; mosques in America have been checked for nuclear bombs; a majority of Americans think very negatively of Islam and Muslims and 22 percent don't even want a Muslim as their neighbor.
In addition, America's wars in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq, its heavy military presence in all but 19 of the world's 195 countries and the deadly acts of terrorists have led to deep-seated animosity towards Islam and Muslims.
What had not been known on a quantitative level until the Gallup survey was how deeply this has all affected Muslim youth. It's obvious that there has been a serious trickle down effect.
For instance, Muslim wages post-9/11 have gone down by 10 percent and scholars, counselors and community activists have reported that there are a higher number of mental health issues Muslims are grappling with. All of these factors affect youth in our community as well, who are not immune to their environment.
How young Muslims are responding to these pressures
Young Muslims are responding differently to these pressures. Forty-seven percent of college-going young Muslims drink alcohol, while 16 percent engage in binge drinking; 29 percent of Muslim students in New York public schools sometimes use a non-Muslim name to get by. Some have changed their names to Christian names. A small number have joined urban gangs. Some have left Islam and some have become more religious.
These pressures and the resulting anger may explain why Muslim youth are the most disengaged among all the youth groups surveyed by Gallup when it comes to voting. Young Muslim Americans are the lowest percentage of any youth group registered to vote.
This marginalization of the community and alienation of its youth constitutes a breeding ground for extremism, while proper engagement has only benefits for both Muslims and the United States in general.
The risk of rising extremism among young Muslims
When a Pew survey in May 2006 asked “can suicide bombings of civilian targets to defend Islam be justified?” 69 percent of American Muslims, aged 18 to 29, said never; 26 percent said yes; 15 percent said often; 11 percent said rarely and 5 percent said they didn't know.
These 31 percent who did not choose the “never” option are a real concern for this author, considering that in Islamic law, taking a civilian's life is never justified. Period. To figure out who this particular subset of young Muslims are, we need to ask the following questions:
Are these Muslims driven by any ideology?
Have they accepted extremist interpretations?
Why have they come to this conclusion?
Were the Pew's questions clear enough?
Were they thinking of a battlefield while answering these questions or of their neighborhoods?
No matter how we look at the data, these are serious numbers which require serious deliberation in our society, our Muslim communities, as well as for people concerned with peace and justice, our governments as well as those responsible for keeping our neighborhoods safe and healthy.
Muslim Americans are concerned about youth radicalism
It seems as if a good number of Muslims are concerned about this issue of youth and radicalism as well. A Pew survey question asked respondents “how concerned are you about the rise of Islamic extremism in the U.S.” Thirty-six percent said “very concerned” and 25 percent reported being “somewhat concerned.”
While this author has never been worried about Osama bin Laden having any appeal to Muslim Americans, I am not so sure about Anwar al-Awlaki. The latter is a U.S.-born citizen who has served as an imām in three masjids in America, and has reportedly been considered a balanced source of Islamic education through his audio CDs for a number of years. His audio lectures have sold far more widely than the most popular American Muslim preacher, Hamza Yusuf. The fact that Al-Awlaki has reportedly condoned violence is the most authoritative challenge to date for the Muslim community in North America, despite the fact that he currently lives in Yemen.
The challenge of engagement: start with the schools and colleges
Almost 99 percent of Muslim children attend public schools. Only one percent attend an Islamic day school. About four percent attend some form of additional Islamic education like weekend schools which are mostly limited to 40 hours of instruction per year. Therefore, the place where almost all Muslim youth are found are in American schools, colleges, and universities.
Our schools, our foundations, and people in the field of youth development must urgently develop programs and devise strategies which focus on engaging Muslim youth positively.
The mainstream media must equate Islamophobia with racism
Considering that most young people spend over 50 hours a week consuming media, it is important that responsible media discuss the challenges of Islamophobia and demonization of Muslims in American society. We cannot have healthy children unless we improve the environment we are raising our children in.
Although many Muslim organizations are trying to reach out to the media, their efforts seem to have had little impact on Islamophobia in society. The vilification of Muslims and Islam has become relentless. Muslims are consistently portrayed as “the other,” not part of the United States, and unworthy of tolerance. Millions of dollars are being spent on a focused program that emphasizes that Muslims are inherently violent, holding them responsible for WWI and WWII, along with recent conflicts.
Even organizations like The ADL (Anti-Defamation League), which was established to fight hate, suggested that Islam's declaration of faith, the Shahada, is an “expression of hate” that is “closely identified” with terrorism. They later apologized.
FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting) has done an excellent job of documenting how Islamophobia is becoming mainstream.
Public policy must engage Muslims
While President Barack Obama has been reaching out to the Muslim world since he took office, it is critical that he engage Muslims at home first. America needs its Muslims, even the only Muslim serving in the White House who helped the President with his speeches, is no longer working there.
The last presidential administration treated American Muslims as virtual enemies of the state, discouraged our civic involvement and suppressed our voices. We were isolated and essentially shunned. In this new era of change, however, it is vital to U.S. interests to engage American Muslims as partners in building relationships with the Muslim world. This is not only a matter of respect, but one of common interests.
American Muslims are a global village made up of diverse communities of African-Americans and immigrants from many nations. Among Muslims, they is one of the largest groups of highly educated professionals in the world.
Tens of thousands are physicians and surgeons. Others serve in higher education. Many proudly serve in the U.S. military. I personally know of at least six Muslims in Chicago who played critical roles in key Muslim governments. Many are directly connected with the ruling elites of the countries of their birth.
Part of the change that American Muslims hope for is to be valued as an asset by their country rather than viewed as suspects.
Muslims are not looking for handouts. We're simply striving for equal opportunity and inclusiveness. That will give a far better message to the Muslim world than speeches. This will send a far stronger message to Muslim youth in America than anything else.
The Muslim community must reallocate its resources for youth development
The Muslim community in the United States is a strong and self-reliant community. It is pouring in hundreds of millions of dollars every year in Islamic education. However, most of these funds are going into Islamic schools. This author is personally committed to Muslim schools. However, these institutions educate less than one percent of Muslim students. The above described challenge requires our community to reallocate a substantial amount of its resources to reaching out to our youth in public schools and campuses for supplemental education, moral support and counseling.
Just looking at five campuses in Chicago, I noticed that Hillel chapters, which represent Jewish students, have more than 30 full-time staff including rabbis. However, there is not a single full-time or part-time staff member at Muslim organizations on campus, much less an Islamic scholar. We can learn a great deal from the Jewish community in the U.S. in their struggle to keep young Jews connected to their Jewish heritage and community.
Sound Vision intends to develop a great amount of content this year focused on topics like Islam in a pluralistic context and discussing objections to Islam. However, we and others who have been concerned about the challenges and frustrations of Muslim youth in America are unable to do much because of the absence of resources.
Donate to the cause at Sound Vision Foundation. Reproduced with permission.