WASHINGTON — In 2001, Sami Elzaharna was a 14-year-old in Saudi Arabia and not very engaged in Islam. Four years later, he moved to Maryland and was immediately hit by a wave of questions about his identity and beliefs.
After hearing so much criticism of U.S. foreign policy, what was he to make of U.S. flags flying in front of mosques? How could he balance his affection for American culture with the stereotyping of Islam he saw all over the television news? Were the rituals and clothing he grew up with actually more cultural than religious? What did he really believe, or even know, about Islam?
“I was playing catch-up. People who come here young are playing catch-up in terms of exploring who they are . . . how they’ll bring together where they were and where they are now,” said Elzaharna, 26, now a married software developer and very observant Muslim.
In its turn toward radicalization and violence, the story of the Muslim brothers accused in the Boston bombings was an aberration. But its broad theme of immigration followed by a complex search for identity in post-Sept. 11 America echoes a process familiar to many young Muslims.
These newcomers must simultaneously navigate moving to another country, growing up and determining what Islam means in a culture in which it has become a heated topic everywhere from presidential debates to late-night talk shows. Fortunately, the attacks of 2001 also gave birth to a broad infrastructure of youth imams, sports leagues, scouting groups and other forums to assist Muslim youths in their quest for identity.
Some of these young Muslims come from homelands where Islam was more about culture and are startled to be asked to define their theological beliefs. Some feel their entire identity is being shaped by anti-Muslim rhetoric, while others struggle to make sense of the narrative that Muslims are under siege while what they see are Muslim immigrants around them thriving. Responses vary, too, from becoming more traditionally observant to helping to build a more secular Islamic scene focused on such issues as human rights advocacy.
Where will it all lead? That’s open to debate. There are experts on Muslim youths who believe America is en route to a pluralistic, accepting brand of Islam. Others point to data indicating that young Muslims — immigrant and U.S.-born — are far more likely than other age groups to see their faith as in conflict with modern life.
Muslims in Russia warned Dina Abkairova before she came to Boston, in 2004: Don’t say you’re a Muslim. But when she arrived at age 22, Abkairova found many Americans curious and friendly. She also felt judged by some fellow Muslims, who criticized her for not praying enough.
“I started questioning if I had the right to call myself a Muslim,” she said.
Then she connected with a group of more progressive Muslims. Their attitude was that “you’re Muslim if you say you’re Muslim. . . . What really matters is to be open-minded and open-minded to other people’s choices. That really helped me to take a breath and say, ‘Phew, okay, I’m normal.’”
It is common to hear Muslim immigrants — and Muslim Americans generally — say that the post-Sept. 11 spotlight and being asked, or challenged, about their faith has made them more devout. There’s been a spike, for example, in women and girls wearing the hijab, or head covering. For others, the search for identity has played out in a more secular way, with the creation of soccer leagues or weekly Bollywood-watching parties.
Makhdoom Zia launched a group in Northern Virginia called MakeSpace for young Muslims who may not feel connected at mosques. Zia, 36, remembers coming from Afghanistan in 1998 and feeling “positive cultural shock” at people of all walks of life praying in public, a strong justice system and more opportunities to make money.
“I became more open-minded. Now I see more validity in different views [about Islam]. Islam is not science or math, where things are black and white,” said Zia.
Last Friday, Zia led midday worship at an Alexandria restaurant. He opened by slamming the media for exaggerating the scope of Muslim radicalization but quickly added that youths are harmed by Muslims who deny that there is any problem.
“What hurts youth especially are these conspiracy theories that tell them these weren’t Muslims [involved in Boston], that the attacks didn’t happen. It’s a nice excuse for us not to do anything,” he told the group at Duniya restaurant. “But we should move beyond that [to] a community that is service-oriented. That’s what Islam is — it’s mercy, it’s compassion. We have to do more.”
Elzaharna also works with newcomers as youth director at the Prince George’s Muslim Association, a mosque in Lanham, Md., where many members are immigrants from Africa. He tries to help them sort through the wide range of Islamic practices they now see as well as deal with the larger, secular culture.
He calls on the words of an imam who helped him begin to reconcile the different parts of his own identity.
“He said: ‘Islam comes to polish a culture, it doesn’t come to annihilate it,’ “ said Elzaharna.