Islam in America presents a growing field of research for social scientists who explore Muslim societies and the contentions that arise around them, given the current political and cultural context in the United States. Only around 10% of the new immigrants to the US are Muslims; thus a great majority of those who subscribe to Islam are already the ones who have been here for generations. African American Muslims make up the largest percentage of Muslims in America (around 40%). Whether immigrants or indigenous, younger generations of Muslim communities in the US are facing challenges of identity formation, just like any other minority group, where values at home, especially as they are understood by earlier generations, do not always go hand in hand with the constantly transforming set of values that are imposed by the dominant culture outside the doorstep and in the palms of their very hands (i.e. personal devices and the universe of social media). With its capacity to nurture personal and communal identity, religion is an important dynamic in this equation in which habits, prejudices, dress codes, entertainment and many other social components have a major role to play.

With an inaugural conference titled “Islam in America: Civic and Religious Youth Identities” on October 21-22, 2017, Respect Graduate School in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, has made an important academic contribution to this field. Respect is an institution of higher education which grants Master’s degree in Islamic Studies. Founded in 2014, Respect has slowly grown indigenous roots in the Lehigh Valley’s various communities of faith and academic and artistic institutions. The vision with which Respect enthusiastically launched its Inaugural Academic Conference, “Islam in America: Civic and Religious Youth Identities,” was two-fold.

On the one hand, Respect aims to be an integrative learning platform for Islamic Studies.  To this end the graduate school develops events and programming that serve as host sites for scholarly, professional, faith-communal, and artistic networking.  On the other hand, Respect would like to develop its own reputation for rigorous academic scholarship in Islamic Studies.  In the thirteen months of planning that preceded the curtain’s draw on Saturday morning, October 21st, Respect faculty and staff, aided by invaluable consultation from community allies, brainstormed and researched ideas of concern to American Muslims today.  Organizers discussed questions of early childhood and teacher education, diasporic Islam in relation to youth culture, mosque cultures, the history of faith communities in the Lehigh Valley, bicultural competencies, indigenous versus immigrant Muslim groups, and many more.  In the end, Respect decided on the civic and religious identities of American Muslim youth as the Inaugural Academic Conference theme.

The conference was well-attended and well-received, and the high quality of papers and the salience of the conversations provoked in each of the panels filled conference participants with a vigorous energy in learning, articulating, and addressing questions of American Muslim youth identities in their civic and religious dimensions. While a majority of panelists were from different states within the US, some of them were from the UK, and Canada. Moderators of the panels were David Grafton of Hartford Seminary, Rubie Ghazal of Moravian College, Giovanni Herran of Respect Graduate School and Temple University, Patricia Anton of University of Pennsylvania, and Sherrine Eid of the Muslim Association of the Lehigh Valley.

Dr. Ingrid Mattson, the London and Windsor Community Chair in Islamic Studies at Huron University College at the University of Western Ontario, Canada, was the first to initiate the robust conference with her Keynote Address.  She was especially struck by the emphasis on healthful youth development and civic roles in the conference call for papers.

Acknowledging that American Muslims are experiencing high anxiety and pressures, Mattson at once captured her audience and delved into a number of directions that American Muslims must hasten to explore and develop.  These included:

  1. The “need for a sanctified expression,” to make our interfaith relations, celebrations, and communal expression of our human condition more beautiful.  Several decades of “cultural genocide” on account of free literature that deems everything haraam (unlawful) has created a vacuum that American Muslims must fill with creative, productive, organic, and celebratory cultural expression.
  2. The idea of “proprietary knowledge in religious learning” should be investigated.  Early Islamic legal literature showed concern about religion becoming a commodity.
  3. Reaffirming that “charity is not a substitute for justice.”  American Muslims must be aware of inequalities and the structures and processes that enable them, and work toward their reform.  Because American Muslims’ biases can’t be willed away simply by citing the right texts and verses, we need to work toward institutional reform.  Racism and patriarchy are, after all, structural problems.
  4. We must clarify and reorient our embodiment in relation to land.  American Muslims have to turn back to nature with our whole perspectives.  Land, language, experiences, and tradition are the soil from which emerge songs and rituals.  American Muslims must generate cultural forms that give importance to music, joy, celebration, and community.  “Is there an American Muslim song?” asked Mattson.
  5. Environmental and social justice must be approached with a holistic, integrated Islamic approach.  We must bring back a brotherhood of humanity and created things.
  6. We must resist scapegoating and learn better mechanisms for relieving tension.  Our community has a “social justice warrior phenomenon” that unhealthily manifests at times by uniting to grind down a person or group.

Dr. Mattson’s insightful prescriptions found intellectually rigorous interlocutors throughout the two-day conference.  In the opening panel, “Pedagogy and Praxis: Sharing Best Practices in Spiritual Education,” conference attendees were presented with theoretical and practical problems and models for the spiritual education of American Muslim youth.  UNC Chapel Hill graduate student Feyza Teke and Dr. Nuray Yurt presented findings from Peace Islands, a youth academy.  They shared the activities that Peace Islands conducted with their youth around Martin Luther King’s legacy of leadership and service, nurturing social justice activism, women’s history month and empowerment, Earth awareness, and much more.  In this way, educators were able to instill a value for service for a god-conscious life among youth.  Long-time educator and Islamic school principal Bayyinah Muhsin gave a fruitful presentation of the ways in which the Waldorf education paradigm embodies many of the pedagogical practices of the Prophet Muhammad, may God’s peace and blessings be upon him.  In Waldorf education, the spiritual emphasis teaches children from the inside out.  Muhsin made a compelling case for further research and practice among American Muslim educators for the spiritual development of our youth.  Dr. Ozgur Koca, Assistant Professor of Islamic Studies at Bayan Claremont Islamic Graduate School/Claremont School of Theology, presented a sophisticated argument for the benefits of teaching metaphysics to American Muslim youth.  Islamic metaphysics, according to Koca, can serve as a tremendous resource for youth in confronting contemporary challenges, such as “extreme post-modern relativization of all truth claims, post-truth politics, tension between religious and scientific claims on the nature of the world, and reduction of religion into blind-faith or polarizing and violent exclusivism or excessive literalism.”  Metaphysics can also serve a common language amongst adherents of different traditions and religions.

The next panel, “Social Transformation,” addressed three vital areas of American Muslim discourse and praxis today: serving those affected by mass incarceration, intellectual honesty with regard to historicity in contemporary debates over religious authority, and the chasm between the Qur’anic vision of women’s empowerment and the real conditions of inequity in Muslim societies.  Erol Dincer, Respect student and organizer/volunteer for PA House of Hope, gave a heartfelt presentation of the service to families affected by mass incarceration provided by the organization.  Across religious affiliations, PA House of Hope reaches out to families of incarcerated persons and provides visitation trips, gifts during holidays, and mentoring and financial support.  Their guiding principle, as articulated by Said Nursi, is that ignorance, poverty, and disunity are three universal social ills that hinder society from becoming virtuous.  Relwan Onikoyi, Arabic instructor and graduate student in Religion at Temple University, presented on the extremes of “westoxification” and “reactionary apologetics” among American Muslim debates on traditional authority and textual interpretation.  Drawing on the scholarly arguments of Khaled Abou El Fadl, Scott Kugle, and Khaled El-Rouayheb, Onikoyi gave examples of various standpoints vis-à-vis historicity on apostasy and daraba (the Qur’anic verse on disciplining lewd wives).  He enjoined American Muslims to keep sight of how reasonableness was historically employed as a criterion in Islamic debates.  Dr. Parvez Ahmed of the University of North Florida presented on the inequality index rendered by the Global Gender Gap report.  He pointed out the discrepancy between the Qur’anic vision of women’s empowerment and iniquitous indicators from the international statistical finding.  Ahmed enjoined American Muslims to create positive pathways to girls’ and women’s success in our institutions and homes.

Sunday morning’s opening panel was aptly titled “Separate but Equal?  American Islam through the Fulcrum of White Supremacy.”  This diverse panel drew on various histories tangential and constitutive of the American Muslim narrative today to highlight concerns of white supremacy.  Dr. Mansa Bilal Mark King, Associate Professor of Sociology at Morehouse College, presented a detailed analysis of how the Africana Muslim narrative can resuffuse respect for Muslim youth.  American Muslims must learn the robust and rich history of Africana Muslims in America.  Even before the significant invigoration of white supremacy under Donald Trump’s presidency, hip hop, youth culture, and “rock star” ulama (scholars) have connected American Muslim youth to Africana identity in different ways.  One of the first ways to combat the tyranny of dark-skin stigma affecting both the American Muslim ummah (community) and the Global ummah is to learn of the existence of Africana Muslims, and highlight their distinctions, challenges, and victories; that is, “to move non-stigmatizing Africana Muslim stories into the center of Muslim perspectives.”  Rabbi Nancy Fuchs Kreimer, Associate Professor of Religious Studies and the founding Director of the Department of Multifaith Studies and Initiatives at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, presented on the history of American Jews as they moved through waves of racialization, persecution, acceptance, and integration.  Kreimer spoke of several critical junctures in this history in a way that is instructive for American Muslims today.  Student Heba Qureini of Missouri spoke of her experiences as a Muslim woman wearing a veil (hijab) in a rural, overwhelmingly conservative town.  Qureini spoke of her experiences as the alien other in order to speak of the broader implications of observing hijab in an increasingly normalized white supremacist public culture.

Another forceful panel was entitled “Youth Leadership on Campus and in Community Mosques.”  Muslim Chaplain and first Muslim president of the National Association of College and University Chaplains Adeel Zeb presented on the histories of the Muslim Students’ Association, Hillel, and Chabad.  Zeb provided important lessons from these parallel yet distinct histories.  Shi’i imaam and Resident Scholar for the Khoja Muslim community Nuru Mohammed joined the conference from Birmingham, UK to provide practical suggestions for cultivating leadership among Muslim youth in interfaith activity.  Given that diversity is deeply enshrined in our holy Books, fleeing diversity is fleeing nature.  Drawing on the wise words of ‘Ali, may Allah be pleased with him, when he sent Malik to Egypt, Mohammed enjoined American Muslims to encounter either our brothers/sisters in faith, or our equals in creation.  Our communities currently suffer a serious disintegration between older people and youth.  American Muslims must accept that conditions are changing.  The youth have inquisitive minds and it does not suffice to tell them that something is haraam.  There must be hewar, or dialog, between the generations.  We must seek patience through prayer and be motivated by hubbul haqiqi, or true love.  Four areas Imaam Mohammed encouraged participants to focus on in youth interfaith dialog were: lived dialog, i.e. practice; dialog of cooperation; dialog of religious experience; and theological dialog.  Assistant Dean for Religious Life at Howard University and Muslim Chaplain Nisa Muhammad presented on the experiences of African American Muslim college students in their MSA (Muslim Students Association) encounters across predominantly white institutions and historically black colleges.  She highlighted the many layers of challenges that Black Muslim students must face given the endemic and deeply engrained white supremacy that infects access to college, neighborhood policing, and intra-Muslim interactions.  Muhammad offered several concrete, researched strategies that Muslim chaplains and other professionals can utilize to allay the micro aggressions and marginalization that Black Muslim students encounter on predominantly white campuses at the hands of fellow Muslim students and faculty.  Examples of these include inviting Black guest speakers to events, having Black khateebs and imaams, and cultivating shared spaces and activities where Black and immigrant Muslim students “grow up together in Islam” and “bonding takes place.”

In Islam in America‘s final panel “Cultural Hybridity in an Identity Politics Paradigm” presenters tackled the messy realia of cultural inter-penetration as it affects American Muslim youth identities.  Dr. Liyakat Takim, the Sharjah Chair in Global Islam at McMaster University, Canada, presented a developed and thorough critique of some of the ills of Muslim communities.  Aini Firdaus and Muhammad Rahman of Old Dominion University presented a thorough analysis of the various ways Indonesian American youth maintain and reinvent “moderation, inclusiveness, and Islamic manners” alongside the values of “a modern, civil and progressive America.”  Firdaus and Muhammad gave several illustrative examples of how youth’s religious education is conducted in Indonesian American families, informal groups and formal institutions like schools and Islamic centers.  The presenters focused on three areas: engagement with a capitalist economy, secular democracy and nationalism, and the cultural articulations of modernity and tradition.  Recent Respect graduate Shahid Rahman presented on the election responses of South Asian millennials age 18-25, and provided much-needed context from the various personages in the Trump administration.

Overall, the conference was a blessed gathering where much intellectual and spiritual exchange took place. Participants benefitted from Dr. Ingrid Mattson’s thoughtful keynote address and the well-researched scholarship presented in all the panels on a myriad of subjects affecting American Muslim youth. 

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