Posted on December 30, 2004

Muslim Youth Forge Own Path In America

Barbara Brotman, Chicago Tribune, Dec. 23


The future of Islam in America?

Part of it is here.

The children of Muslim immigrants who began coming to this country in larger numbers in the 1970s are going to college. Born in America or brought here when they were young, they are defining what it means to be a Muslim American.

The guys with their baggy jeans and cell phones downloaded with Biggie and Jay-Z, the girls with their head scarves tucked into hoodies and sometimes a cell phone stuck inside making a kind of Islamic hands-free phone, the other girls with their uncovered hair up in ponytails — they are all making a way of Muslim life that is distinctly theirs.

Their Islam is not necessarily their parents’ Islam. Many are pursuing what they call a “pure” Islam, separate from the cultural traditions their parents brought with them.

They are negotiating the sometimes complex path between Muslim faith and American culture. Is it acceptable to watch MTV? To listen to music? At what point does makeup cross the modesty line?

How much should they avoid contact between men and women? That issue flared into an angry conflict in the fall over who would get to use the MSA’s lounge.

Is America the land of opportunity, temptation or both?

These are part of larger questions that pit the American value of freedom of choice against the Muslim tradition of conforming to divine law and take into account all the permutations in between.


Shaheen Baig, 22, president of the Loyola Muslim Students’ Association, called the first meeting to order inside the mosque, or masjid, the only one in Illinois run by students.

In a little-girl voice but with adult confidence, Shaheen, a pre-med senior majoring in biology with minors in psychology and women’s studies, ran through the coming events.

There would be the start-of-the-year picnic, inshallah. After that would be Islam Awareness Week.

“Do y’all have a big fundraiser?” asked a young woman from Houston, establishing the reach of Islam throughout the U.S. with a single word.

For some students, college has brought their first encounters with substantial numbers of other Muslims.

“I didn’t know many Muslims in high school. When I started college, it was kind of culture shock,” said Shaheen, of Park Ridge. At Maine South High School, she was the only student who wore hijab, the term for modest Muslim dress that has come to refer to the head scarf. “I felt really special. Then I came here, and there were so many people like me.”

Loyola’s Muslim student population, which numbers about 350, is not monolithic. The MSA, which has 300 members, has a core of active students; about 75 consistently attend Friday prayer. For others, the Muslim group is not a regular part of their college life.


Buoyed by Muslim pride and free of their parents’ needs to survive in an unfamiliar country, they proclaim their Muslim identity with Muslim Gear skirts and green wristbands declaring Muslim unity.

“Our parents want to embrace American culture; they don’t want to give offense,” said Nuha Hasan, 21, of Justice, a senior majoring in psychology. “But now we want to embrace our religion.”

Most of their parents have reacted to their piety with pride. But for Mohammed Shaazuddin’s mother, pride is mixed with concern.

“She’s afraid I’m going to start going extremist,” said Mohammed, 18, an intense-eyed freshman psychology major whom everyone calls Shaaz.

At their Morton Grove home, his mother, Dr. Sameena Zieuddin, a physician at Oak Forest Hospital, said she is impressed by her son’s generation’s Islamic learning.

“For some reason, the children are more religious here,” she said. “I think it’s good. We were just blindly following. . . They have more knowledge.”

She just wants to be sure her son has enough time to study secular subjects. And she doesn’t think young Muslims should “take it too far and become completely separate. They have to tolerate other religions.”


Marcia Hermansen, a professor of Islamic studies at Loyola who has been the MSA’s faculty adviser since 1998, is wary of young Muslims’ pursuit of “pure Islam.”

“It can be a little harsh, rigid, defensive,” she said.

The idea of an Islam that floats above culture is attractive because the students don’t have their parents’ foreign cultural identities and yet don’t feel entirely accepted in America, she said.

But there is no such thing as culture-free Islam, Hermansen said; everywhere Islam took root, it was influenced by the local culture.

Embracing a strong Muslim identity is a way students can assert their dignity, she said, the way young African-Americans did in the black power movement.