With global migration, Muslims from Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and Africa are on the move, with many emigrating to America. Yet for all their cultural diversity, many Americans think Muslim means Arab. For first generation Muslim Americans, it means their identity is in a constant state of flux.
On Oct. 17, the Center for Religion and Culture played host to a panel that focused on the Muslim Millennials’ experience.
Imam Khalid Latif, chaplain of New York University, joined author Reza Aslan, Ph.D., screenwriter and director Musa Syeed, and Nadia Roumani, director of the L.A.-based American Muslim Civic Leadership Institute. Linda Sarsour, director of the Arab American Association of New York, moderated.
Aslan explained that technology differentiates the Muslim millennials’ generation and identity from their parents. He said that an online Internet community fostered by the millennials has helped unite a global Muslim community that was fractured under colonialism.
“The Muslim community was once defined by geography, now the virtual Ummah exists online,” he said, referring to the Arabic term to describe a borderless Islamic state.
Roumani said that millennials share the experience of having spent their youth in the wake of 9/11.
“They don’t have a memory of not being scrutinized or a time when they didn’t have to define who they were or explain their identity,” she said.
Identity is even more difficult for first-generation Muslim Americans, explained Imam Latif. He relayed his own experience of going to Pakistan, where the traditional dress contrasted with his Timberlands, baggy jeans, and backward baseball cap.
“The place of my culture origin was not a place where I belonged,” he said. “If I didn’t fit in there, or here [in America], the only way to engage my faith was in a timid way.”
Raised in the Midwest, Syeed recalled a youth of battling the ignorance of his peers, one that was exacerbated by Hollywood’s negative depiction of Muslims.
“Whether we like it or not we’re all in conversation with American mass culture,” he said.
Initially, Syeed responded to the stereotypes by making films steeped in identity politics, but he eventually made a spiritual connection and now creates from a more personal perspective.
Roumani noted that each of the panelists represent a distinct Muslim sub-group—whether as women, South Asians, or Arabs. She said Muslims need to heal rifts inside the community, which should lead to bridging gaps with the community at large. She added that safe spaces were needed for young Muslims to meet and leave their ideological differences at the door.
Imam Latif agreed.
“The model should have multiple entry points as opposed to one that makes people have to fit into one door,” he said.