First Generation Muslim-Americans Navigate Challenges of Faith and Country

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Basim Usmani of The Kominas answers a call to prayer. (The Taqwacores: Muslim Punk in the USA, Photographs by Kim Badawi, published by powerHouse Books)

This generation of Muslim-Americans are some of the first to grow up entirely in America.

For those making the choice to depart from their parents’ faith, the decision can be traumatic and hugely disruptive—in some cases it can even tear apart families.

How do young Muslim-Americans navigate their religion, culture, and nationality?

As part of our series on millennial attitudes toward religion, The Takeaway speaks with three young Muslim-Americans struggling to reconcile their "Muslim" and "American" identities.

Kamran, a first generation Afghan-American, is religious but sometimes pushes the boundaries of Muslim practices by participating in things like drinking and dating. Tasneem, a first generation South Asian-American, grew up deeply religious but now struggles to find her place in the Muslim community. Zahra Noorbakhsh, a first generation Iranian-American, performs a one woman show about finding her own brand of liberal, secular Islam.

Visit this Friday at 2:00 PM ET to participate in a live online chat focusing on the role of faith in America with our host John Hockenberry and Lisa Pearce, a professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina.


Kamran, Tasneem and Zarah Noorbakhsh

Produced by:

Allie Ferguson and Megan Quellhorst


T.J. Raphael

Comments [10]

@Tom LI,
Again, I think that idea of who American Muslims are, their relationship with modernity and America, is exactly what was misrepresented by the show. It is the oft-repeated, but largely inaccurate stereotype that was presented, on which Giovanna commented, and on which you based your comment directed towards me. How do Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X fit the idea of Muslims raised in an insular and isolated environment? 25% of American Muslims are US born blacks. Immigrant Muslims tend to be wealthier, much better-educated, and more politically active than average Americans. Again, how does this fit the stereotype of people raised in insular environment? Personally, the more I learn, whether in the sciences, arts, or through observation of human interactions, the stronger my faith. Islam is a religion for all places and times; it is not at odds with America or modernity.

Oct. 18 2013 12:28 AM
tom LI

to giovanna -

Don't be so naive. Ostracizing and making people feel like they come from another planet is what the youth does to each other. From kindergarten all thru college - "kids" ostracize and label - most times for no real legitimate reason - till they discover how immature it truly is once they are forced into the "adult" world. But even then many alleged adults are stuck in their School-yard stage, still seek to form cliques in the Corporate cafeteria/lunch-rooms, etc...

I still too often hear the "dumber" adults whisper their suspicions when the new, slightly different employee walks into the break room. and lately due to some hiring phenomenon in my company many of them are Muslim, or could be mistaken of being of a normally Islamic culture. Still the tittering goes on, still the labeling...

Being different (even in the smallest of ways) in the US is still a ticket to possible ostracizing by the "cool kids" group!

Oct. 17 2013 05:01 PM
tom LI

To Koorosh - true enough. But how many of those in Iran, Pakistan, etc - are or can be open and vocal about their struggles, and outright rejection of the native Religion...? In the US people can for the first time in our history (*) truly be more vocal and public (for good and bad) about their deep lack of faith in their parents/community's Religion.

* - being a more open and vocal atheist in the US is a very recent phenomenon. Sure some people got away with it prior to now, but the numbers are growing, the expression of Atheism or deep skepticism, agnosticism is more acceptable now than it ever was in the past for the avg person on the street, in the bar, in the public square.

Where children, young adults, etc, might have expressed such emotions in the past, it was usually to get a reaction from parents and teachers than it was a decided and comfortably accepted personal POV.

The times they are still changing...and this freedom for atheism, etc to come-out is a great one. Where eventually many of us hope to see the whole Religious conversation recede back into the Personal - most especially regarding Politics and holding office.

Oct. 17 2013 04:53 PM
tom LI

To ajacobs - I think the point about growing up Muslim in American is not about being the first generation, but perhaps the first to have so much more access to the larger American secular community than ever before.

Muslims in the US have been like many of such faith s and heritages trended to being very insular, if not outright isolated, by choice and often racism.

Now - as has been said by a few of the guests - the internet opened them to a whole new world. Many are still parented by "traditional" leaning parents who refrained till very recently from giving into the technological "craze" of secular America is past. No parent desirous of their children to be academically competitive can resist the ubiquitous nature of the computer, smart-phones, tablets and internet access.

These younger Americans grew up linked to the larger world that few prior generations - of any faith or culture - can comprehend. They can find more people of their demographic and Religion struggling with faith and the onslaught of American pop-culture into every nook and cranny of all our lives, than ever before...

Oct. 17 2013 04:44 PM

While NPR does usually provide insightful programming, this show, as other people have commented, is flawed in its very concept. First, Islam is not new to America, so the millennial generation is not the first "generation of Muslim-Americans grow up entirely in America." Islam as a religion is in no way at odds with being American either; at our mosque we routinely extol the benefits and virtues of American culture and how well they parallel shari'a. The choice of guests provided a very limited, uni-dimensional, view of the issue. Islam, like other commentators have said, is a religion. As such, to follow its tenets are an individual and even daily choice for people, but many Americans, young Americans, whether or not there parents were born here, do choose to follow them; a fact at odds with the assertion that American youth is turning away from religion.
The timing of the show's airing is also extremely offensive, today is Eid-al-Adha, one of the holiest days of the Islamic calendar, a day where millions of Muslims congregate to celebrate. If today's show were aired live at today's event where I was celebrating they would have seen that the majority of the faces belonged to "millennials" and the generation younger than that. They would have seen too that the majority of attendees were not only raised in the US, but that their families have been here for many generations.

Oct. 16 2013 11:57 PM

I agree with most of the commenters above. John Hockenberry spent a sizable portion of the show emphasizing the enormity of being a young Muslim in America, and of reconciling Islam with American life. His insistence on the mind-blowingness of the juggling act that young Muslims must do every day relied on the racist trope that Muslims are SO RADICALLY DIFFERENT that these young people must be heroes to keep it together.

But this is not the truth at all. Islam is a religion like all other religions, with its requirements and its flexibilities, and young Muslims children of recent immigrants juggle identities like all children of recent immigrants, especially of immigrants with a strong religious identity, whether Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Sikh, Hindu, or anything else.

"Otherizing" Islam is the last thing your show should do. It's otherized enough. Culture shock is culture shock for everyone, and the simple example of the father who reacted fairly mildly to her daughter's eating pork (and not at all to many other things he himself would not have done) is an example of how normal and like other religions Islam is.

Lastly, why use only countries that US is having trouble with? Why not choose children of Indian immigrants, Caribbean immigrants, Turkish immigrants, Indonesian immigrants, European immigrants? Plenty of religious Muslims there too.

Please be careful how you report. You must know that islamophobia is alive and well in our country and all over the world, and contributing to it is a terrible shame.

Oct. 16 2013 08:02 PM

The speakers seemed young and I empathized with some of their struggles ( as the child of a Muslim immigrant). But the premise of the discussion is incredibly weak-- I didn't hear one convincing argument or sense of introspection as to how their lifestyles are congruent with any thoughtful interpretation of their religion -- whether liberal or conservative. Even secular Americans struggle to find their own balance between hedonism/independence and socialization/sacrifice. In some ways, having a traditional religion to rebel against makes it easier to justify your behavior as a "statement" rather than recognize it a compromise like most everyone else.

Oct. 16 2013 06:07 PM
Koorosh from Iran

I completely disagree with the guests. The lifestyle they are choosing to lead is not particularly 'Western' at all, in fact the majority of young people in Iran, Pakistan, and other Muslim countries think like they do and lead lifestyles like they do. And they similarly face such issues with their parents. This is a global generational issue, it is not a result of immigration, though immigration may make it more extreme. There are plenty of practicing people of all faiths in America, who were born and raised in America, just as there are plenty of non practicing people of all faiths in Muslim countries, who were born and raised there.

Oct. 16 2013 05:11 PM
Emad from Plano, TX

Religion is not Ethnicity, if you are white regardless of what you do you will be white, religion has basic rules and requirements, if you do not follow them then you are out.

Oct. 16 2013 12:42 PM
veritat from Earth

The degree of inanity and absurdity on display not only in the exchange between the host and the guests but in the whole premise of the show, can only be achieved in comedy, religion or, of late, American politics.

"liberal, secular Islam." Really, Mr. Hockenberry, as opposed to what -conservative, religious Islam? Like therapeutic nerve gas, room temperature ice cream or desirable nuclear waste?

It would seem obvious that if you live in open and deliberate violation of the tenets of your religion then you are not religious. Labeling oneself, then, as a Muslim, Jew, Christian or any other religion is just that - a label and a meaningless one at that.

Oct. 16 2013 10:55 AM

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