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

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.

Islam in Chicago

Jan 11 - Islam in Chicago

When I moved to Chicago just three weeks after I got married, I really didn’t know what to expect. Having always lived in such predominantly Muslim cities as Dubai and Karachi, I was looking forward to beginning a new chapter in my life but wasn’t quite sure how to start from scratch.

I wasn’t sure about a lot of things at first. I had never filled petrol in a car, never cleaned a bathroom and never made Khatti Daal (lentils). However, I was sure of one thing – I was not going to be just one more ingredient in a melting pot of nationalities that simmered together to become one sauce. I didn’t want to be called Karen, even though that was so much more convenient than having to spell out (sometimes twice) K-I-R-A-N. I was going to be a productive part of American society; however, instead of mixing into a melting pot, I wanted to be a part of a salad bowl of sorts – where each ingredient’s own flavour, colour and texture has its own place.

I was lucky to have arrived in a metropolitan city like Chicago, where there are Masajid and Halal meat stores in practically every town. It is not hard to find good Islamic schools and great chicken Tikkas, too. There are close to 400,000 Muslims in the greater Chicago area alone. Approximately a quarter of them are indigenous African-American Muslims. The next two of the largest ethnic groups include 20% Arab and 20% from South Asia. The remaining is a beautiful blend of Bosnian, Turkish, West African and increasingly white reverts to Islam. The result is that women may wear differently-styled Hijabs, and men may speak different languages, but when the Adhan is called, Allahu Akbar, each person sheds their ethnic differences and stands shoulder to shoulder in front of the One God.

Chicago has made a name for itself in the American Muslim landscape. The architect of the world-famous Sears Tower (now called Willis Tower) was a Muslim. Seven of the five hundred most influential Muslims in the world call Chicago home. The Chicago Muslim community is highly educated, affluent, civically engaged and socially responsible. Loosely translated, there are always at least four community events taking place every weekend. There is an array of volunteer opportunities. Youth paint Masjid classrooms, have Qiyam around a bonfire in Ramadan and pick up trash in the park. Women attend Quran circles, befriend newly-arrived refugees, attend girl scouts meetings and participate in breast cancer awareness marathons. Men volunteer to direct traffic in Masajid parking lots when they are jam-packed for Jumuah, even though they have to rush back to work. Chicago Muslims do not hesitate to let their elected representatives know how they feel about such national issues as the New York Islamic Centre or international ones as the crisis in Gaza.

There are more than two hundred places to pray Jumuah in Chicagoland. From multi-million dollar mega Masajid to small storefront prayer spaces, where people overflow on to the sidewalk due to space constraints, you can perform Salah in a different Masjid every day of the month and still not be done.

I believe I have become a stronger Muslim, since I moved to the United States. I bake cookies for my neighbours on Eid, and I read stories about Ramadan in my children’s classrooms. Like many other Muslim-Americans, I feel I am on an auto-Dawah mode. Every action of mine can be taken as representative of my Ummah. If I am rude to the cab driver, he may feel all women in Hijab are condescending. If the cashier forgets to charge me for milk, I remind her, so that she knows Muslims will not be comfortable to go home with something they haven’t paid for. Yes, it is hard work, but I feel this is one way of dispelling myths about our Deen.

My husband and I became American citizens early this year and while I know some readers may disagree, I am at peace being a Muslim and a Pakistani-American. I don’t think this tri-fold identity is at odds with one other. I can dress how I choose, pray where I please and eat what I like. I can file a lawsuit, if I believe I am discriminated against.

Looking back, I didn’t know Chicago would provide me with so many opportunities to give back to the community. I have definitely learned a lot – and I’m not just referring to the Khatti Daal.

Kiran Ansari is the editor of the “Chicago Crescent” (www.chicagocrescent.com ), a monthly Muslim newspaper.