Raising Muslim Children in Present-Day America: Challenges and Opportunities

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Kiran Ansari

Founder and CEO at Up A Notch
Kiran Ansari is a writer, Board Member, IQRA' International Education Foundation and Board Member, Refugee Assistance Programs (RAP). She is based in Chicago.

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New in USA

A few months ago upon returning to the States from a vacation in Pakistan, we waited in line at Chicago O’Hare airport. Our turn came quickly. The immigration officer looked at me and my family, scanned our green cards, smiled and said “Welcome Home.”

Two words, but they had a great impact on me. Was this home, or did we just return from home? Can we have two homes? What about our children who were born in America, yet visit Pakistan annually for a month or two? Lots of questions but only one answer. Yes, this is our home because everything happens by the Will of Allah (swt). However, while we are here, do we just blend in with the crowd or do we make good use of our time?

As Muslims in a post 9/11 America, we are ambassadors of Islam 24/7 whether we like it or not. Yes, the entire Ummah is a Khaleefah, but how many times have we taken our faith for granted when we are comfortably nestled between Muslims? How many times have we had to actually defend our faith?

The moment I step out of my house, my Dawah gear is on auto-pilot. I could be doing negative Dawah by being late for an appointment, being rude to a bank clerk or breaking a red light on a busy street. But I can be doing positive Dawah by smiling at my son’s teacher, holding the door open for someone at the store or sending brownies to my neighbour.

So the next time they see a woman in Hijab or a man with a beard being stereotyped, they may pause to think: “Hey, that’s not representative of the Muslims I know.”

We may not be able to change foreign policy or stop injustices across the globe, but we can change perceptions one person a time. We need to do it – not just for ourselves – but for our children.

Does that mean we just try to ‘blend in’ and not stand out as Muslims? Should Samia become Sammy and Bilal Bill?

However, if our Iman is strong, why not tell people that we are regular, law-abiding citizens who do not have bomb-making cells in their basement.

Thousands of Muslims have reported to have been victims of discrimination, harassment or attacks since 9/11. Children have seen their parents under great stress whether it is a name called on the street, or someone being laid off or even deported.

Our children are innocent spectators and unless we do something to change perceptions, they could grow up feeling insecure.

So, how can Muslims who have decided to live in the West make the best ambassadors?

And how can Muslim parents instill Islamic values in the entire generation of American children they are raising?

Preserve Muslim Identity

From a young age, we have to make our children proud of their faith. Whether it is making a big deal out of Ramadan, throwing them an Eid party or enrolling them in Sunday school, we have to make the sacrifice if we want our kids to have an identity.

A misconception that prevails in many minds is that a ‘Muslim-American’ is an oxymoron. They believe that you have to be one or the other, not both. But there are thousands of Muslim-Americans, whether by birth or naturalization who are excellent ambassadors of Islam.

Connect with the American Society

In order to be contributing members of society, Muslims should not just stay within their own community bubble. If we have decided to live here, we have to reach out to our neighbours, co-workers and yes, even the lady at the post office.

If we keep our children in the Muslim bubble, they will not know how to interact with their peers at school or in the work force. We need to enroll them in park district soccer leagues and school Girl Scout troops. If non-Muslims don’t know any Muslims, they will be forced to believe whatever the mass media feeds them.

We should not confuse our children with constant references to ‘back home’. They were born in the US, and yes, they are Americans. If you insist your son plays cricket, then you’ll have to fund an entire team, find coaches and gather support. If you overcome the cultural barriers and encourage him to play baseball, he’ll have plenty of opportunities to connect with mainstream society.

As parents, we have to choose our battles. Paratha is not more religious than pizza. Our children should respect their parents’ culture, but they should not be made to constantly choose between here and ‘back home’. They should respect their grandparents’ traditions but be allowed to make some new ones.

We may never have been out rafting, or gathering for story-time by a campfire; but these are some American traditions that do not contradict Islamic teachings. It just proves that there are Halal avenues for fun and it is up to us parents to provide them in contrast to always saying no to our kids.

Find a Mentor

Our parents are the best mentors we have. However, they did not raise children as a minority in a foreign land, and therefore it is important for us to find families who have done a good job in raising Muslim American children. Their experiences can help you formulate your parenting strategy.

Children spend so much time at school that it is imperative to know what they are being taught. Even though American public schools are not allowed to teach religion, they can teach about religion.

Parents should join the PTA (Parent Teacher Association) and volunteer in their kids’ schools. Offer to give a presentation on Ramadan, Eid or Hajj. Tailor it to your child’s age and follow protocol such as asking for permission and discussing plans with teachers.

Previous generations have laid a great foundation in the U.S. by building mosques, Islamic schools and Zabeeha meat stores. However, they did not have to face the unique circumstances we younger parents are facing in a post 9/11 America where our children are not just ‘cultural aliens’, but rather ‘enemy aliens’. We need to unite forces if we want to raise a confident generation in unconfident times.

Our objectives need to be clear – we are out there to remove misconceptions about Islam. It is up to us to provide our children with a strong identity at home and the ability to connect with mainstream America in order to become the ambassadors of excellence for today and tomorrow, Insha’Allah.

  1. Salam Nida

    Excellent article. And you won’t believe but in Pakistan too the covered mothers face similar issues, may be on a smaller scale, but yes they do. Amongst the modern class we feel and are treated like aliens and your article provides insight as to how to deal with the situation here. We have to teach our children to be proud Muslims and to build their acceptability we have to change the misconceptions about being religious in the not so religious families by such small gestures as mentioned in your article. Thanks for sharing

  2. aoa:) do u thnk it iz a gud idea to enroll ur kids in islamic schools rather than american public schools?? wats ur opinion on that..??

    • Wa alaykum as salaam Saadia, You have asked a very popula r question which doesn’t have an easy answer. I have seen first hand examples of great American Muslim well-rounded kids from public schools and Islamic schools. If you can afford it and you have a good Islamic school close by, it is a great option. But parents shouldn’t feel their job is done by enrolling the kids in an Islamic school. The environment we provide at home is the actual key. Get involved in your kids school regardless of which school you choose. Join the PTA, volunteer at bake sales, get Eid presents for the teacher etc. May Allah help you make the right decision. Aameen.

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