III. Religion and the 'American Generation'
Calligraphy © Shela Qamer All rights reserved
"I want to be recognized as a Muslim. I want to hold on to that identity.... For my parents, it was different. They didn't have to prove it."
-- Tamana Pardais
"Your own religious faith is enriched when you're exposed to other thoughts. I wouldn't want to live in a society where everyone is born Muslim and dies Muslim and nothing changes, because I don't think I would understand God."
-- Bilal Asakaryar
The first time I encountered
Sadiqa Pardais, in the lobby of the motel where she works, she was wearing
a hijab, or headscarf. She had started wearing it a few months earlier, she
explained, because it was a way to practice her religion -- and a way to know
who she is. "It's important to keep the faith I was born in, and my culture
as well," she said. Sadiqa, 22, had lived in America since she was 10.
Her family left Afghanistan when she was three years old, spent seven years
in Pakistan and then came to the United States. Adopting the hijab, Sadiqa
told me, represented a choice not to be a Muslim "only in name"
but "to practice, to be a real Muslim, and find out about my faith....
I think it's important to know who you really are."
A day or so later, in the family's home on the outskirts of Rochester, New York, Sadiqa's mother, Abida, came out to the living room to greet me. Abida, a cheerful, vigorous woman of 47 with curly black hair, was not wearing a scarf, and when she introduced herself, she walked over and extended her hand for me to shake -- something most strictly observant Muslim women would never do. It was also during that visit that Sadiqa's father, Murtaza Pardais, a painter and art teacher, defined his identity in capacious, humanistic terms: "I am artist. I am Muslim, I am Christian, I am Buddhist, I am Hindu," and, for good measure, went on to list Afghanistan's ethnic communities as well: "I am Pashtun and Tajik and Hazara... the world is a house, a big house." Murtaza was laughing when he said this, and no doubt in a different context he would have identified himself more prosaically as a Muslim. Still, that expansive sense of who he is had a different tone from Sadiqa's effort to locate herself in the single religion she defines as hers by birth and heritage.
The pattern in Sadiqa's family -- with members of the "American" generation identifying more strongly as Muslim, and observing religious practices more strictly, than their immigrant parents -- is not universal but still a very noticeable one in the Pakistani and Afghan American communities. "This is definitely a very large movement," said Fariba Nawa, an Afghan American journalist. When she returned home to California after six years away reporting from post-Taliban Afghanistan, the trend was noticeable. "I saw this change, all of a sudden... the girls are wearing hijabs, and defining themselves through that, the guys are wearing [Muslim-style] hats."
Like several other people I talked to, Nawa, 40, sees an Arab influence in the religious style, particularly in the Afghan American generation just a few years younger than her own, young men and women in their 20s or early 30s. "They've renounced Afghanness and they take on Arab Islam... they get indoctrinated either in Muslim student associations in college, most colleges here have them. Or they just want to belong somehow, and this is one way. They feel that Islam is more inclusive than being Afghan." If the style is more Arabic, though, Nawa thinks the evolving beliefs and religious practice are not really the same as Arab Islam but "its own distinct American Islam, and it's very conservative."
Hena Khan, a 40-year-old communications consultant and author of children's books, doesn't cover her hair and considers herself "a pretty mainstream moderate" Muslim. When it comes to religious practice, she said, "I'd put myself smack in the middle, really. On the liberal to conservative spectrum, I'd be right in the middle." Still, Khan is an example of the trend toward stronger identification with Islamic belief and practice. Religion is significantly more important in her life now than it was in her Pakistani American family when she was growing up in a comfortable Maryland suburb outside Washington, D.C. Although her parents sent her to religious classes for long enough to learn elementary Islamic teachings, she recalls growing up without much knowledge or understanding of the true beliefs and values of her religion. The identity she absorbed from her family was national and cultural rather than religious, connected to her Pakistani roots more than to her faith. But now, Khan said, if she has to label herself, "I don't put myself as Pakistani first. I put myself as American first, Muslim second and Pakistani third."
It was only when she got to the University of Maryland and began meeting Pakistani and other Muslim students with different backgrounds from her own that Khan began seriously thinking about her faith. "I realized how little I knew and really wanted to be more Muslim than I had been," she said, adding that "a lot of people I knew went through a similar phase while they were in college. Maybe it's just part of identity formation in general and finding yourself in that period of time when you're 18 to your early 20s." In her own case, Khan said, she found herself leaning towards more conservative ideas of religious practice than the ones she had grown up with. "I started to question things, like should I wear the headscarf, all sorts of stuff." She did not adopt the hijab but did start dressing more modestly, no longer wearing shorts, for example, as she had done while playing high school sports.
In adult life, Khan has come to be somewhat less preoccupied with issues of "ritual and external appearance." But religion is a central theme in her children's books, Night of the Moon, which explains the rituals and meaning of Ramadan through the eyes of a 7-year-old Pakistani American girl, and Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns: A Muslim Book of Colors, where rich illustrations by her collaborator Mehrdokht Amini are accompanied by short verses that teach about Islam -- e.g. "Red is the rug Dad kneels on to pray/Facing toward Mecca, five times a day." Religion is also an important part of her family life -- clearly more so than in her home when she was a child. A teacher comes to the house every Sunday to teach her two children to read the Koran in Arabic, and Khan's husband, also from a Pakistani American family, meticulously performs the five daily prayers and observes all the required fasts. (Her own observance, Khan admits, is not as regular as her husband's. "I fluctuate. It's always my ambition to be more disciplined, and then I'm not.") Following his father's example, the year their older child was 10, he also kept most of the fasts, even though Khan told him he didn't have to fast because of his age. "He just loved it," she said. "He loved to do it, he loved the challenge."
For many American-born or American-educated children of Pakistani and Afghan Muslim immigrants, the turn toward a stronger religious identity among arises in large part exactly because of the divided world they live in. Aminah Mohammad-Arif, a Paris-based scholar who has studied attitudes among both Muslim and Hindu immigrant communities, has observed that a religious identity that was automatic and unexamined in the home country is often "renegotiated, reconstructed, reinterpreted in a somewhat more self-conscious way in the United States." Religion can also play "a cathartic role" for many immigrants, she added. "It may help individuals who have been socially and culturally marginalized and psychologically destabilized by the diasporic experience to exorcise their fears and frustrations and to find landmarks" in an unfamiliar world.
Many of the people I interviewed for this report echoed that reasoning. In Pakistan, your religion is "taken for granted," explained 31-year-old Wajahat Ali, a writer, activist and practicing lawyer in Fremont, California. "Everyone is a Muslim. Everyone knows the culture. You don't have to explain it, you don't have to define it, you're not interrogated every day, you don't have to prove it. It just is." But in America, it is not possible to be a Muslim without thinking about your religion, because you are reminded every day that it is different from the majority faith -- and not just different, but in the post-9/11 era, frequently under attack. For many young Muslims that becomes a reason to "cling to those identity markers or values that you believe will be under threat," Ali said. "You end up valuing it more, you end up associating with it more. And furthermore it helps you bond with like-minded individuals. It gives you more assets, resources, community, and so forth."
Others said similar things. In Afghanistan, people follow what they see around them, without actually studying it themselves, said one young Afghan American woman who asked not to have her name published. "If you're in a Muslim country, you tend to go with the majority. Here, with so many religions, you study it more, you see what the differences are," and, she added, because you hear different people saying so many different things about it, "you study it yourself" in ways that might not happen in the homeland.
Bilal Askaryar, an unusually thoughtful 27-year-old Afghan American who works for a Silicon Valley technology company, offered this metaphor: "No matter how secular an Afghan family is, there is still the seed of Islam in all of them, that seed is here, and living in America lets you water it at your own rate. I think a lot of youth here have really looked into that, because it's something they've always been curious about. And also outside pressure is making you think about it, you can't forget. Or you can forget, but there will be reminders every once in a while, right?" Askaryar agrees that his generation is more religious than their parents, but thinks being in America can make religion more meaningful for members of the first generation, too -- his mother, for example. "She said in Afghanistan we never learned about Islam in the same way, we just memorized the prayers in Arabic and we didn't even memorize the meaning. But she said here in America she's been able to attend talks and learn so much about religion that she was raised in."
I heard exactly that story from Shahla Arsala, who was in her mid-20s when she fled from Afghanistan with her husband and two small children after her father, an army general before the Communist coup, was arrested and then executed by the leftist regime. She had religious education in school, but as with Bilal Askaryar's mother, it was rote memorization rather than meaningful learning. Reading the Koran was just reading meaningless sounds, because it's in Arabic, she said. Similarly when she prayed, she didn't know what the words meant. "When I was doing prayer I'm saying it in Arabic, I didn't know, what am I saying to God." Now, in her late 50s and after more than three decades in California, she is studying the Koran again. "I'm thinking I missed it, so even if I'm old, if there is an opportunity, I want to learn." When she looks at the younger generation, though, Arsala thinks some "have gone to the extreme" in their religious views. The reason, she believes, is the same that drives other young people in the opposite direction, toward rejecting their faith and culture. The ones who tend to go to either extreme are those who "are kind of lost, caught between two different cultures, and they don't know how find a middle way, to be comfortable."
Unlike Hena Khan, Zahra Billoo grew up in a "more than usually religious family." As a child in Alhambra, California, she took Koran classes, went to the mosque every day, and began wearing a hijab at 10. In the evenings at her home, the children "didn't watch Bollywood videos or Disney cartoons," she told me. "Our bedtime stories were stories of the prophets... we fell asleep to stories of Noah and Adam." When she was 7 years old her parents took her with them on a haj, the pilgrimage to Mecca that is a religious duty for observant Muslims. In other families she knew, it was unusual for parents making a haj to take children that young. But her parents "made it a priority to make sure we had the experience of the pilgrimage," just as they made it a priority for the children to attend mosque regularly.
"I don't know that my conviction would have been so strong had I been surrounded by Muslims. I had to learn my religion, I had to learn to be proud of it, had to learn how to explain it, and that was really big part of my experience growing up."
-- Zahra Billoo
Billoo traveled to Mecca again at 21, fulfilling the requirement that the
haj should be made after puberty. As with other religious observances, she
has the impression that her peers, the generation of American Muslims who
grew up in the United States, are more inclined to make the pilgrimage than
many of their parents were. While the immigrant generation was absorbed in
finding a livelihood and establishing themselves in their new home, members
of her generation with American educational credentials have more easily achieved
the comforts of middle-class life, including the means to make the pilgrimage
-- a choice Billoo sees as "more and more common and more and more a
priority" for her contemporaries.
Billoo, whose parents met in the United States after immigrating separately from Pakistan in the 1970s, is now 30, a lawyer and executive director of the San Francisco Bay Area chapter of CAIR, the Council on Islamic American Relations. She didn't always appreciate having to study and going to the mosque when she was a child, she said, but "as an adult, I'm so grateful that I went all the time because I think it really shaped my identity." But she believes that being in a minority outside her home influenced her beliefs too. She and her brother were the only practicing Muslims in their high school, and she thinks that strengthened her faith. "I don't know that my conviction would have been so strong had I been surrounded by Muslims," she said. "I had to learn my religion, I had to learn to be proud of it, had to learn how to explain it, and that was really big part of my experience growing up."
Tamana Pardais, Sadiqa's older sister, made the same point. For her parents, growing up in a society that was 99 percent Muslim, practicing the religion was a normal part of daily life, she said, but for their children in America, "it's different. We have to go to the mosque and learn." She is studying Arabic, something her parents didn't do in Afghanistan, so she will be able to read the Koran in the original language, and decided to wear a headscarf because "I want to be recognized as a Muslim. I want to hold on to that identity.... For my parents, it was different. They didn't have to prove it."
For many young
Pakistani and Afghan Americans, as for other American Muslims, the 9/11 attacks
and the aftermath were a turning point in their religious life, as well as
for their image and identity in general. The event itself, carried out in
the name of Islam, led them to look (or look again) at their faith to find
out what it really teaches about violence or the murder of innocent people.
And the anti-Islamic response from many Americans, including political and
religious leaders, also led young Muslims to learn more about their religion
so they would have answers for the slurs -- and honest questions, too -- that
were hurled at their community.
The post-9/11 "Islamophobia machine," as Hena Khan calls it, "sort of galvanized Muslims to challenge these views, to get our voices out there, to correct misconceptions and fight fiction with fact." Waleed Mansury, whose high school in Alexandria, Virginia, was barely five miles from the Pentagon, had just graduated when 9/11 happened, and soon after began reading religious texts. His feeling, he recalled, was: "Let me learn my religion a little bit more... . Is it what CNN is telling me, or is it the Koran?" Bilal Askaryar put it this way: "Because of all that negative attention that we got, and all the attacks directed towards Islam, we naturally found ourselves defending it, no matter how superficial our relationship to the religion might have been in the past. We all found ourselves defending it, and saying oh, I'm a Muslim, I may not pray five times a day but I still believe in God and I still believe in the Prophet Mohammed and I know those things you are saying aren't right." And, he added, when you defend something to others, you come to believe it more strongly yourself.
Not everyone who looked at the Koran found reassurance. One young Afghan American woman, also of college age when the 9/11 attack took place, feels it pushed her away from, not toward, Islam or any religious faith. In her reading of the Koran, she found passages that when read literally, can be understood as justifying acts of violent terror. Her family was not strongly observant and she had never been very religious, she told me, but the attacks were "kind of the nail in the coffin" for her own belief. With the Koran, she concluded, "if you take it with a grain of salt, it's fine, you can interpret a lot of it to fit the modern day," but reading the actual words in many passages, she went on, one can "totally understand why al-Qaeda did what they did. Reading the Koran word for word, and taking everything literally, then absolutely they could justify what they've done." Exactly the same, she pointed out, can be said of the Bible, which she has also read.
A small handful of young Muslim American men who turned to religious studies after 9/11 were drawn to a violent jihadi ideology, and a far smaller number went on to become involved in planning or carrying out acts of terror. But the great majority of American Muslims reached the opposite view. Reading the Koran taught him that Islam "is not a religion of violence, not a religion of oppression," Waleed Mansury said, and the terrorists and the Taliban who practice violence in its name are "demonizing my religion."
Bilal Askaryar was a high school student in Newark, California, when the 9/11 attacks occurred. With American attention suddenly riveted on his homeland and his religion, he said, it was inevitable that he and other Afghan and Muslim Americans were drawn to think more about their faith. "It was on everyone's mind," he said. "We Muslims ourselves wanted to understand how could someone claim to be speaking for us when they do something so vile." The beliefs he had been taught were at complete odds with those that motivated the 9/11 terrorists: "The way I was raised, the most defining virtues of God are that he's merciful and gracious. The two most repeated words in the Koran, after the name of God, are mercy and grace. It's not a religion of terrorism or violence or hurting anyone" -- or, he added, intolerance toward other religions. "Every religion says that it's the truth," Askaryar said, "but one thing that I respect about Islam and the prophet Mohammed is that one of his most famous sermons was 'to you your religion and to me mine.' We have separate religions but we can still be neighbors, those are his words. To you your religion and me in mine. Islam of course teaches that that's best way to God. But it doesn't deny other religions, that there's truth in other religions, and it also says to be humble and remember that before God none of us is better and no one has monopoly on truth, and to always treat everyone else in the best way that you can."
Reassuring themselves that the Islam they believe in is a humane religion -- and not the violent, fanatical one Americans are often told it is -- does not mean that Askaryar or other young American Muslims are blind to the violence and fanaticism that clearly exist in the Islamic world. At the same time he found himself becoming more committed to his vision of his religion after 9/11, he said, "I can't deny that I was disheartened by seeing horrible things done by Muslims in the name of Islam.... It was disheartening and it was frustrating, it also made me realize how different I was from a lot of Muslims. I talked to my cousins who grew up similarly to me, and we were trying figure out what is it that makes us different from groups of Muslims that are so reactionary, so unthinking."
Even though they were sparked by the wave of intolerant anti-Islamic attitudes in post-9/11 American life, those questions led Askaryar to appreciate American values and principles more deeply, not less. Along with making him feel more strongly Muslim, his introspection after 9/11 also "made me cognizant of being American," he said. "Here in America, we were able to think about our religion for ourselves and to read Koran for ourselves and come to our understanding, seek out leaders we want. In other countries either they only have extremist leaders, or they aren't allowed to question what they're taught, or they don't even have the means -- if you're worried about feeding yourself, you don't have the luxury of trying to think about the philosophy of religion."
Askaryar's experience also led him to value American diversity and pluralism. "Societies are stronger" if they are not homogeneous, he said. "Your own religious faith is enriched when you're exposed to other thoughts. I wouldn't want to live in a society where everyone is born Muslim and dies Muslim and nothing changes, because I don't think I would understand God."
Tamana Pardais knows that it takes "some courage to identify yourself as Muslim" in America. But like Askaryar, she is thankful for the American freedoms that let her find her own way and make her own choices. "I can practice my religion freely here," she told me. "I can breathe here." Her decision to wear a headscarf was important to her, but it was also important that the decision was hers, not forced on her by religious authorities or social pressure. She is grateful that in America "we don't have police out there who are forcing me into the dress code, like in Iran." And she is also grateful for the many other choices she can make as an American that would have been far less possible in Afghanistan -- finishing her education, not being pushed by custom or family pressure to marry in her mid-teens, like the female cousins she met there and in Pakistan a few years ago who at Tamana's age, 25, "have five or six children and were never able to finish school." By contrast, in America, Tamana was able to graduate from college, majoring in women's and gender studies, and hopes to go on for a master's in counseling or perhaps Islamic studies. That sense of her right to make her own choices and chart her own course seems as much a part of her as her religion: "My American identity goes hand in hand with my Muslim identity.... I treasure the freedom I have," she said, and added firmly: "I'm American."
In my interviews
for this report, the line from the Koran that was mentioned more often than
any others was this one: "There is no compulsion in religion."
Waleed Mansury quoted that verse. So did a full-bearded young Pakistani American named Shahid Bhatti, whom I met in an inner-city mosque in Albany, NY, and who is the most devout and conservative believer of all the people I spoke with. So did Rohina Malik, the Pakistani American playwright and actress. For her, she said, the idea that religion cannot be compelled represents "what I love in Islam" and is in fact the core of true religious belief. "I feel like anytime there's compulsion in religion it makes people hate the religion and hate the rules and hate the faith." As an example, she said, her one-woman play "Unveiled," in which she portrays various women who express their faith (as Malik does) by wearing a headscarf, sometimes angers playgoers who come from more repressive Muslim societies. At times when there are Iranians in the audience, for example, she has gotten "a very negative response from them, saying well, it's OK for you to say these things about the veil, but we come from a country where we're forced. So they get very angry toward me.... I understand that the anger is coming from this whole idea of being forced, whereas for me the veil was never something that was forced on me so I have a different view of it."
Another person who cited that verse from the Koran was Sabira Qureshi. Qureshi doesn't quite count as a Pakistani American. She's a Pakistani citizen whose husband, also Pakistani, works for the World Bank in Washington, D.C. But she has lived in the United States for a long time, most of her husband's close relatives immigrated many years ago and are U.S. citizens, her children all went to college here (and the youngest attended an American high school as well), so Qureshi has many connections with the Pakistani American community and, if from a slightly different perspective, has shared much of the Pakistani American experience.
For Qureshi, the injunction that "there is no compulsion in religion" is also central to understanding the Muslim faith -- an understanding she thinks is completely missing in the common American stereotypes of Islam and what many Americans believe to be Islamic law, or Shari'a. True Shari'a is not compulsion but its opposite, Qureshi argues. The word means "a path, the right path. I don't need a law to tell me the difference between right and wrong. If I want to follow something that's written in the Koran, I'll do it. If I want to give certain proportion of my salary to charity as ordained in the Koran, I'll do it. I don't need a law to do that." And, she went on, religious rules cannot be enforced by state power. If they are, that changes the essential meaning of Shari'a -- even if religious movements in many Muslim countries do want to establish Shari'a-based legal systems.
"You don't legislate belief," Qureshi said. "You don't legislate lifestyle." Muslims have to decide for themselves how to live, she believes; if they are not allowed to do that, they cannot truly live by their beliefs. "The whole concept of my faith, the test of my faith, is my choice between right and wrong. If you take away my choice then I no longer have that right to choose, you're deciding for me."
It's impossible to know whether I would have heard as often or as much about "no compulsion in religion" if I had been asking those questions in Pakistan or Afghanistan instead of in the United States. Certainly there and in all Muslim countries there are many people who value the right to think and choose for themselves, and who would agree more with Qureshi about the nature of Shari'a and how to enforce it than with the positions taken by the Taliban or similar fundamentalist groups. Still, listening to Tamana Pardais and Rohina Malik and many others, I felt I was hearing American voices expressing an American experience of searching freely, in a land of many beliefs and many identities, for what they believe and who they are.
"Look at any icon of Mary and her hair is covered. And the world is fine with that, but a Muslim woman, she's oppressed. The girl goes, 'But nuns wear it for God.' Who do you think I wear it for, the bloody Queen of England?!"
-- "Shabana," a character in Rohina Malik's play "Unveiled"
None of this is to say that living as a believing Muslim in America is easy
or uncomplicated. It may not be hard to live in this country and say the daily
prayers or not eat pork or drink alcohol, but other issues are much less clear-cut
-- the rights and status of women, for example. For young people like Bilal
Askaryar and Tamana Pardais and their peers, defining their religious identity
also means finding the line between true religious principles and practices
that their faith requires them to follow, and national or tribal or cultural
traditions that can be adapted to fit in the American culture they are living
in. That's a distinction their immigrant parents often don't see in the same
way, if they see it at all, since in their upbringing, culture and faith were
To the extent that the second generation is more distant from traditions and practices in their ancestral homelands, they may find it easier to distinguish faith from custom. "I think that they are more able to separate the religious values from the cultural values of those countries," said Saqib Ali, a Pakistani American who belongs to that generation. "For the immigrant generation, perhaps, it isn't as easy for them to separate being Pakistani with Muslim or being Arab with Muslim or Afghan with Muslim, because their identities are fused." American Muslims like himself who grew up in America, Ali believes, "feel like they can let go of the immigrant baggage and maintain their religious identity," not just preserving their faith, he feels, but reaching a purer version of it. Still, young Muslim Americans seeking to define what their religion really is and which rules to follow have to figure it out for themselves -- and with no clear road map, either from their parents or from religious leaders who, up to now, are also likely to come from the immigrant generation.
"For me it's very important to separate my religion from my culture," said 25-year-old Sufia Alnoor. But it is also confusing. Once, she remembered, in a television program she was watching with her grandmother, there was a scene in which a man hit his wife. It made her grandmother furious, Alnoor said. "She was like, 'he's a coward, he has no pride.' I thought that was really interesting. She's an elderly Afghan woman and in her mindset, it's wrong for a man to hit a woman. But then I'm thinking, OK, all this news I hear about the Taliban hitting women, and they say it's the religion.... It's just so mixed, honestly. I feel the more and more I try to understand Afghan culture, the more and more confused I get. Really, it's so complicated."
Mizgon Shahir Darby, who was trained as a journalist but now directs the mental health program for the Afghan Coalition in Fremont, California, sees young Afghan Americans trying to find their own path, "picking and choosing what's right and what's wrong in culture and religion, and they're negotiating it." But, she went on, "there is no handbook on how to be a good Afghan girl or boy, but then everyone expects it." The result, often, is confusion and generational conflict, sometimes open, sometimes hidden, and all the more painful because it occurs in a culture that puts great value on family name and reputation. "Name, honor, image, play a huge role" in Afghan families, a young woman named Maryam Ufyani told me. "You don't hurt the honor of your family." Khalid Shekib, who came to the United States as a small child, grew up in the Virginia suburbs of Washington and now practices law there, explained: "In Afghan culture, a lot of times if a kid does something wrong, they don't really blame the kid. They always look at the family and say the family is not raising their children properly. It always goes back to family" -- so that if a daughter dresses immodestly, by traditional standards, or goes out on dates, it is not just a question of her turning away from custom and culture; to her parents, she is bringing shame not just on herself but on them as well.
Not infrequently, instead of confrontation, families respond to such situations by not speaking about them. As I was told in more than one conversation, there is a sort of conspiracy of concealment, "a culture of silence and secrecy," Mizgon Darby calls it, in which parents know that a son is drinking or a daughter is dating, and the children know their parents know, but no one ever says it out loud. That silence may avoid open conflict, but it surely does not lessen the pain.
During one of my first interviews for this report, I had an unexpected glimpse of just how sharp and hurtful the clash of cultures within a family can be. I had just spent an hour or so talking with a young woman just past college age and her mother -- I won't identify them any further -- in the living room of their modest home. We had finished our talk and I was about to walk out the front door when the younger brother appeared on the stairs, coming down from his second-floor bedroom. Behind him came his American girlfriend, who it became obvious had been sharing the room with him. I had already said goodbye to the young man's mother and did not see her reaction. But his sister, who had walked to the door with me, stepped outside and explained that her brother's issues with the family were not just about his girlfriend. He had also rebelled against the family's religion, making friends with a group of Christian students at his community college and for a time, she said, wearing a chain with a cross around his neck. (Whether the girlfriend was a cause or a consequence of that rebellion -- or unconnected to it -- I did not learn.) Not surprisingly, this caused very serious conflict in the family. But her parents in the end had to resign themselves to living with her brother's attitudes and his girlfriend's overnight visits, his sister said, for one reason: if they hadn't, they feared they would lose their son completely.
There is no way to know with certainty how common that kind of cultural and generational collision is behind the walls of Afghan or Pakistani American or other Muslim American homes. But there can be little doubt that the situation I accidentally glimpsed that morning, or something like it, must occur in many families' lives.
It's also likely that the outcome in that particular family -- and almost certainly in most others, too -- would have been quite different if the child who strayed from religion and custom had been a girl instead of a boy. The prevailing perception is that girls are in general more successful than boys at navigating between the world of their immigrant families and the American world outside. But that doesn't mean the pressures on girls are any less. As in many cultures, girls may be more dutiful, more motivated to please their parents, more conscientious and harder working in school, and less likely to use drugs or break laws. Girls tend to care more than boys about "what will people think, what is so-and-so gonna think about me," Mizgon Darby said. But, she went on, in the double life that immigrants' children often lead, girls are also "trained to lie. They love their parents so much that they don't want to break their parents' hearts by being who they are. But at same time they're in American culture. They're going to date, they're going to have relationships, they're going to do these things, and they have to hide it. It's hard."
It's symbol, not substance, but the question of wearing a hijab, or headscarf, often seems a metaphor for the complexities of growing up in America as a young Muslim woman. I cannot verify this, but I had a sense that like many other things, the hijab issue may loom larger for Muslim American women than it would in their ancestral homelands -- if for no other reason than in America, it's not imposed by law or custom or social pressure, so that every woman has to decide for herself whether to cover her hair or not. The women I spoke with had so many different ideas about the rules and so many different reasons for wearing or not wearing a hijab that in the end, the only thing that truly seemed clear was that on this subject, nothing is clear.
"I don't wear the hijab," one young woman told me, "but I hope someday I will have the courage to do it." She does not want her real name published; I will call her Darya. "It's not easy to do in this society," she said. "If you're not in an Islamic country, it's difficult. If you have the hijab on, people look at you differently. Even Afghans. They fight about the hijab," she said, and about whether the Koran clearly requires women to wear it or not. "I've seen the way people judge the person who wears the hijab," she went on. "They expect them to be angel-like. If you have on the hijab, they expect you not to make mistakes ever.... A person sees a girl wearing a hijab but with tight pants, or talking to a guy, they say she's a hypocrite. If she has it on her head, people are more critical."
For a couple of years, Darya did put on a hijab during Ramadan, but found that even other Afghan Americans criticized her. In her own mind, she said, "I do believe God's words," and she accepts that wearing the hijab "is part of Islam," so not wearing one is following "what people want me to do rather than what God wants me to do." That makes her sad. "I do constantly ask God," she said. "I hope to do it one day.... if I lived in an Islamic country, I would definitely wear the hijab, no question about it."
Darya wrestles with other issues, too -- such as how to behave while interacting with men. Under strict Islamic standards of modest conduct, a man should look down when speaking to a woman, not making eye contact, and there should be no physical contact such as a handshake. But Darya recognizes that that is simply not practical in dealing with the non-Muslim men she sees every day in her workplace. "Islam doesn't forbid interaction, it just forbids inappropriate interaction," she said, so as long as there is no disrespectful intention, she thinks it's OK to follow American custom and shake hands or look directly at a man she is talking to.
Rohina Malik would be more comfortable not shaking hands with men, but frequently feels she can't avoid it. "It's an awkward situation in this society," she said. "It can be very awkward for me to say we don't do that in my religion... so I end up shaking hands, most of the time. Sometimes I sort of place my hands on my heart, and sort of bend my head like a bow, and that sometimes is an indication people get that we don't shake. But it just depends where I am. You can't always do that." Islam, she added, teaches that actions are judged by intentions -- "you will get reward or punishment for what you intend." So, since God sees her intentions, "I think that's what makes it OK for me to do what I gotta do."
When I asked what she tells her daughters on that issue, Malik replied, "We haven't had that discussion. I would tell them to just" -- and she left the sentence uncompleted. "I don't know. I'm not sure."
Naheed Hasnat, a 40-year-old Pakistani American writer living in the San Francisco area, doesn't wear a hijab. When she looks at young women who do, she sees it as a mark of identity that is generational as much as it is religious. "The parents, like my mother's generation, weren't covering their hair, but their daughters are," Hasnat said. (Her own generation, as she sees it, "is in the middle... I would say we're more even-keeled." Her description of her own religious practice sounded that way too. She thinks of herself as a practicing Muslim, she said, but not 100 percent observant: "I don't do what I'm not supposed to do, but I don't do everything I'm supposed to do.") In the aftermath of 9/11 when young American Muslims were reexamining their connection with their faith, Hasnat agrees that many became more spiritual or religious. But she also saw a trend toward looking more like Muslims: "college students becoming more outwardly Muslim looking, more girls are covering their hair, boys are growing beards... I think it's more a reaction to the political situation than it is anything else." For Rohina Malik, though, deciding to cover her hair had to do with her inner life, not her outward identity. "I think it was just something between me and God," she said. "For me it was like an act of worship to God."
Making the headscarf issue even more complicated is the fact that for many non-Muslims, the hijab or other forms of the veil are not symbols of belief, but of oppression -- specifically, oppression of women. In Iran, or Saudi Arabia, or Taliban-controlled regions of Afghanistan or Pakistan, there is certainly good reason for that perception. But listening to Muslim women who wear the hijab in America, I heard over and over again that they are not wearing it because someone has forced them to.
"The stereotype of Muslim women is that they're forced to wear the veil," Malik said, "but for most of us, at least my friends and the people I know, it's usually the opposite, families opposing the daughter putting on the veil." One of the characters in her play, a rapper named Shabana, wears a hijab over her family's objections -- a story that is quite common but, Malik says, seldom told. "A lot of people would never even think of that kind of scenario. They would always think maybe it's the mom forcing the daughters or the dad forcing the daughters, which does happen... that's the problem with stereotypes, often they do come from a truth, it's not that they don't come from a truth, but it's not everybody's truth." Shabana, the daughter of Pakistani immigrants in London, also defies stereotypes in being a hip-hop performer who raps about her life as a Muslim woman -- including wearing the veil, and the false perception that it's not her choice. (One of her lines says: "Look at any icon of Mary and her hair is covered. And the world is fine with that, but a Muslim woman, she's oppressed. The girl goes, 'But nuns wear it for God.' Who do you think I wear it for, the bloody Queen of England?!")
Her characters are not her, but Malik has some things in common with Shabana. She was also born in England, living there until her family moved to the United States when she was 15, and like Shabana, she met some resistance from her family when she decided to wear the hijab. At the time, her mother did not cover her hair, and was uncomfortable when Malik and her sisters began to do so. But eventually, she followed her daughters' example. "She saw me, then my other sister, then my other sister put on the veil, and then something happened within her own spirituality and she put it on last."
Just as her mother did not decide for her, Malik does not intend to decide for her own three daughters. "My eldest daughter is 9, and I've had some more devout women say to me oh, she should be covered, and I would say, you know what, she's 9.... It bothers me when some parents are really really really encouraging their children to cover and wear the hijab, because I feel like that's their childhood. I understand they're trying to prepare them for life when hopefully they'll be covered, because that's what they believe, but I feel like it should be every woman's choice -- the choice of a woman, not a girl.... For us womanhood begins at puberty. When a woman gets her period, technically, that is when she is required to wear the hijab, [but] many women don't. Some women take a couple of years after that before they'll put it on, and some women will take 20 years after that, and some women will never put it on. But I've made it very clear to my daughters that this is something between you and God." She also makes it clear that they should consider their decision carefully and make it seriously. "You see some women who start wearing the hijab and they take it off, and then they're wearing it again and then they're taking it off. Rather than do that it's better give it some time, give it some thought. When you feel like you want to wear it, then wear it, and if you don't, don't."
Following are stories I heard about three young men's journeys into their faith. I only met one of them in person. Mohammad Hassan Khalid's story was told to me by his lawyer, with some details taken from news accounts. The journey of the young man I'll call Naim was described by his sister. The third story, Shahid Bhatti's, I heard directly from him.
Mohammad Hassan Khalid: The Khalid family's story in the United
States, Jeff Lindy said, could have been a chapter in a textbook on the American
dream. He might have added that it could also be in a book on the Pakistani
Lindy, a defense lawyer in Philadelphia, represented Mohammad Khalid after he was arrested and charged with conspiring to provide material support to terrorists. Before his arrest, Mohammad was an honors student at his Maryland high school and had been accepted, with a full scholarship, to Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. He was not yet 16 when he committed the acts he was charged for, and 18 when he stood in a federal courtroom in May 2012 and pleaded guilty to the charge -- a heartbreaking end to what might have been a hopeful tale of immigrant parents' hardship and sacrifice helping their child create a rewarding life in America.
When Mohammad was small, his father, Khalid Mehmood, took the family to the United Arab Emirates, a magnet for Pakistanis seeking better employment than they can find at home. They lived there until Mohammad was 11, when they returned to Pakistan. Not long afterward Mehmood emigrated again to the United States, where he worked for several years saving money to bring his wife and children to join him. As with the great majority of Pakistani immigrants, educating the children was a top priority. Mehmood searched for the best school district he could afford to live in, and settled on Maryland's Howard county, west of Baltimore. It's one of the richest counties in America (fifth in some rankings, third in others) and a high-priced housing market for a family with modest means. The Khalids' home in Ellicott City is a crowded two-bedroom townhouse apartment where, Lindy said, Mohammad and his older brother shared a mattress in one room and their two sisters sleep in a back room next to a set of floor-to-ceiling shelves jammed with miscellaneous items their father sells at a local flea market, supplementing his income from delivering pizzas.
In the classic pattern of Asian immigrant families, their parents constantly pushed the Khalid children to become star students. Mohammad, like his brother and sisters, did very well in school. But he had a much harder time than his siblings, Lindy said, in becoming comfortable in American life. "He was a fish out of water. His brother and sisters were able to adapt better; he had trouble adjusting... he had a hard time putting down roots." He kept up his studies and remained on his school's honor roll, but became increasingly moody and withdrawn, symptoms that would eventually be diagnosed as depressive disorder.
Out of that feeling of isolation, Lindy said, Mohammad "reached out for something familiar, and that was Islam." He began exploring Islamic sites on the Internet and, inevitably, found some that espoused extreme, militant doctrines. Over time he made his way into progressively more secure chat rooms focused on fighting a holy war to protect Islam against U.S. aggression and decadent, corrupt Western ideas. Using the Arabic he had learned as a child in the Emirates, Mohammed translated various documents and statements from Arabic or English into Urdu. His translations included at least one speech by Osama bin Laden, along with other videotaped material from al-Qaeda. He posted his own writings as well, highly emotional tracts proclaiming the spiritual superiority of Islam and denouncing corrupt American culture and values. They reflected, in Lindy's view, a young, emotionally troubled mind "intensely interested in ideology, intensely exploring ideology." And as he became increasingly radicalized, Lindy believes, identifying with the jihadi cause and the attention and praise he received "made him feel good and important." For a lonely, alienated teenager, that was a powerful drug.
Alongside his diatribes, Mohammad put up videotapes circulated by al-Qaeda and other groups showing attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq or Afghanistan, or other scenes sending a similar message. He also chatted with other jihad sympathizers, musing on one occasion about an apparent daydream of carrying out a mass shooting at his high school, where, he wrote, many students' parents worked for the National Security Agency and "all the security agencies of amrika." His family didn't know just what he was doing, but they grew increasingly disturbed at how much time he was spending on the Internet. At one point, right around the time of Mohammad's 16th birthday, his parents took away his laptop. His response was extreme, to the point that he was hospitalized, first in a medical facility and then in a psychiatric hospital.
In the course of his Internet explorations Mohammad had established contact with a small group including a woman from Pennsylvania named Colleen R. LaRose, who in a twist that sounds like something from a comic strip rather than from real life, identified herself on the Internet as Jihad Jane. She and several others were involved in a bumbling plot to assassinate a Swedish artist, Lars Vilks, who had outraged Muslims by drawing an image of the Prophet Mohammed with the body of a dog. The plot was never carried out, and Mohammad never met any of the other plotters in person. But after a series of messages to and from LaRose, he posted online appeals for funds that were intended for her project. Several weeks later, according to the federal indictment, LaRose sent him a package containing a stolen U.S. passport along with "other documents and material," which Mohammad was supposed to send to another co-conspirator in Europe. For some reason, Mohammad kept the passport and hid it instead of sending it. But he did send the rest of the material, including, one of Lindy's associates said, some rare coins that were presumably to be sold to raise funds for the operation against Vilks. Legally, that was the most damning act, since it clearly crossed the line from expressing support to actively assisting the planned assassination.
If helping Jihad Jane was a crucially wrong turn in Mohammad's life, there was another turn yet to come in his spiritual journey. In their alarm after the confrontation over his laptop and Mohammad's hospitalization, his family asked the imam at their mosque for help. The imam in turn began to meet with Mohammad, Jeff Lindy said, and little by little learned what the boy had been doing. And when he did, as Lindy tells it, the imam told Mohammad, in effect: "You have this wrong." In their conversations, the imam patiently explained why the jihadi ideology Mohammad had embraced does not represent true Islamic beliefs. For every Koranic quote the jihadis cite to justify their violence, Lindy said, "the imam would point out why it didn't mean death to infidels, it meant something more peaceful." And ultimately, Lindy believes, Mohammad was convinced. It was hard to give up the attention and approval he had been getting, but in the end, "this guy saved Mohammad's life. He turned him around."
Lindy thinks the Mohammad he came to know is not the terrorist he once hoped to be. "He now is a very spiritual, very knowledgeable Muslim who I don't think is a jihadist." The day of Mohammad's guilty plea, Lindy told a reporter: "This is the saddest case I've ever been involved in."
Naim: When I heard his story from his older sister in California,
Naim was in Saudi Arabia. He was studying there at the University of Medina,
in the third year of a six-year program in Islamic jurisprudence.
He comes back in the summers to California, where he was born and brought up, his sister told me. So when summer came, I wrote her and asked if he was home and if he might be willing to tell me about his life himself. She relayed my request, but he declined. "He's a far more private person compared to his sister," her e-mail said. That made me think he would probably be more comfortable if I didn't use his real name; Naim is a pseudonym. I'll call his sister Yasmin, also not her real name.
Naim and Yasmin are the children of Pakistani immigrants who settled in California in the early 1980s. Their parents are devout Muslims, active in their mosque. When Naim was five or six years old, a "recruiter" came to the mosque looking for parents who were willing to send their sons back to Pakistan for religious education. (Yasmin doesn't like the word recruiter, which she thinks can feed negative stereotypes of Muslims. But she agrees that that's what they are.) Naim's father liked the idea, as did the father of another little boy who was Naim's friend. The mothers were not so enthusiastic, Yasmin said. "The idea of sending their babies to another country where they hadn't lived in a decade was really frightening for them." But the boys were excited and wanted to go, particularly since they could go together. In the end the families sent them off, and the boys spent ten months in Pakistan attending a madrassa, or religious school, where the entire curriculum consisted of learning to recite the Koran by heart, in Arabic. During his time there, Yasmin said, Naim memorized about one-fourth of the Koran -- the words, that is, but not the meaning, since boys that young were not taught the language, just to repeat and remember the sounds of the words.
When the boys returned to their families, their parents learned that they had been regularly beaten in the madrassa -- this despite explicit promises from the recruiters that there would be no corporal punishment. Naim's parents were horrified. Physical discipline is common in South Asian homes but in her family, Yasmin said, she and Naim were never hit or spanked, so the beatings in the madrassa must have been all the more traumatic, not just physically but emotionally as well. The boys had relatives living in the same town whom they were allowed to visit every two weeks, but during those visits they never told anybody about their treatment at the school. "To have never been beaten your entire life and then... being beaten for a year" and never speaking about it left the boys in emotional turmoil for a long time -- as long as two years, Yasmin believes -- after they came home.
Naim does not excuse the madrassa teachers' abuse, but it did not turn him against the Koran or Islam. "It distanced him from a certain type of religious leader," but not his faith, Yasmin said. Her family knows other young people who fell away from Muslim practice after being mistreated by religious teachers, but it didn't happen with Naim, and Yasmin thinks that's because of what he heard from adults at home about the abuse at the madrassa. "Religious leaders in our community and our parents were very clear that this did not have anything to do with the religion, that this was wrong, and the religion was what informed their own understanding of it being wrong," she said, and that "gave him a really solid grounding in religion." Long afterward, Yasmin said, her brother remains ambivalent about the madrassa. "I think he looks at it like the darkest chapter of his life," but there is also "some level of gratefulness for that experience" -- he hates the way his teachers treated him, but at the same time he values what they taught him and is thankful to them for opening the door to religious learning.
Back in California, Naim returned to his public elementary school and also continued his Koran studies, though at a slower pace than in the madrassa (Yasmin thinks he was about 12 when he finished memorizing the entire text). Through high school, Yasmin said, Naim was observant, keeping the required fasts even when they coincided with his basketball team's schedule. But her sense is that he did not think of himself as intensely religious, just someone who had learned a lot about the religion. "He was just sort of an average American teenager" with an unusual level of religious knowledge, but not unusually spiritual. It was after he entered college, she said, that he began to be more seriously committed to the faith. After his freshman year he went to Egypt for a year, learning fluent Arabic. He returned to his California college for one more semester, then decided to enroll at the University of Medina.
Ultimately, Yasmin said, her brother and others like him will bring a new leadership for Muslims in the United States, succeeding today's religious leaders who are still largely immigrants from Islamic countries who came to minister to the immigrant generation in the American Muslim community. For younger Muslims who were born or grew up in America, those leaders may be respected but are also on the far side of a wide gap in experience, culture and consciousness. Naim, Yasmin thinks, will be "part of a generation of American religious leaders who will have a grounding in American culture, and therefore will be able to better relate to the community they serve."
As a member of the American generation, Yasmin feels she would connect better with someone like her brother as a religious leader because "he doesn't have an accent, he was born and raised in the United States, he understands basketball and various pop culture issues that someone who not from the U.S. can't understand." She would feel that way even if Naim weren't her sibling, Yasmin said, though the example she gave was from their life as sister and brother: when she wanted to go to her high school prom -- wearing a headscarf and not with a date -- her parents were against it, but Naim "stuck up for me" and in the end she was able to go. On that particular issue, Yasmin admitted wryly, Naim might not take the same position now. But he still has the experience of growing up in America and will understand that generation in ways no immigrant could.
When I asked Yasmin if Naim's choice to study in Saudi Arabia reflected alienation from American life, she shook her head. "I think it's a way of integration, actually," she said. "I think it's part of the Americanization of Muslims. He's going to be this kid who went to an American high school, who played varsity basketball.... He has this American experience but also he can balance that with a traditional understanding of Islam and then provide service to the American Muslim community in a way that maybe someone who's a recent Pakistani immigrant might not be able to."
I can't be certain that Naim would answer the same way, but for Yasmin, her brother's journey toward a religious life does not represent a rejection of American culture or his American identity. It's the reverse, she said, "a desire to see how you balance the two." And, as I realized in writing down her words, whatever the specific details in an individual life, that is the journey all Muslim Americans have to take.
Shahid Batti: As a child, Shahid Bhatti lived in several different worlds, but could never quite fit into any of them.
At times Shahid lived with his Pakistani father. At times he lived with his American grandmother in Georgia, miles from any other Muslims. (Shahid knew he was Muslim, but the only thing he knew about it was that he wasn't supposed to eat pork.) For two different periods he lived with relatives in Pakistan. In all those places, he had trouble adjusting. He wasn't mean or aggressive, didn't lose his temper or get into fights, but he was one of those kids who just couldn't sit still and couldn't follow the rules, particularly the one about attending school.
From a very early age Shahid was happier spending time with animals than with human company. As much as he could, he tried to live outdoors instead of in a classroom. In Pakistan, he told me, he would walk into his school in the morning and keep going through the building and out the back door, then spend his day wandering around after the flocks of goats that roamed the town streets. When he heard the school bell ring at the end of classes, he'd come back to the school, walk through the building from back to front, and go home. At the end of the term no report card came to his relatives' home, he said, and when his uncle went to the school to ask why, he was told that no one had seen Shahid since the day he registered. He did much the same thing in Albany, New York, where his father owned a halal grocery and then a convenience store. Instead of going to school in the morning Shahid would go straight to Washington Park and stay all day, catching crayfish and other small creatures in and around the small lake in the park's western corner.
Shahid's father came to Albany from Dalton, Georgia, where he had worked in a carpet factory and lived with Shahid's Irish-American mother, whom he met and married after entering the country illegally by walking away from the ship he had arrived on as a seaman. His mother died when Shahid was very young but he continued to have a relationship with his American grandmother, going back and forth from his father's home in Albany to live with her in Georgia from time to time.
Shahid's affinity for wild creatures continued beyond his childhood. Indeed, on the day that changed his life, the last thing he did before leaving one world for another was to collect some pet snakes he had been keeping in his Albany apartment and release them in a nearby patch of woods.
Shahid still has the notebook where he wrote about that day and some of what followed. It was in the spring of 2002, a few weeks before his 25th birthday. He was making his living as a taxi driver, struggling with a disastrous first marriage and with the beginnings of emotional swings that would later be diagnosed as bipolar disorder. His journal begins
Day 1. I came home from work and saw a car pull up with three guys with beards. They were dressed like Muslims. I went up to the car and said salamaleikum. They got out of the car and we went to my uncle’s garage. They were talking about Islam and that there was going to be a talk about it in the masjid. They asked me to go with them. At first I said I couldn’t then I thought it would be good if I did. When I got there we prayed and someone gave a short bian [the Urdu word for a speech] about Islam. Then I spoke with a guy named Hashir and told him my situation. He suggested that I go to Pakistan with him and learn about Islam. So that night we went back to my house. I got my money and some clothes. The next morning we were off to NYC. That day I got my passport, visa and plane ticket. The next day I was on a plane on my way to Pakistan.
The men in the car were from an organization called Tablighi Jamaat, a movement founded in India in the 1920s that seeks to bring "lost" Muslims back to the faith. (In accord with their founder's motto, "O Muslims! Become Muslims," they never proselytize among non-Muslims. Shahid told me he now thinks that's not exactly in accord with true Islamic teachings, because as he understands it, Muslims are supposed to bear witness for their religion to all people.)
At the time, Shahid's religious views were, by his description, unformed and deeply confused. He didn't eat pork because "God says don't eat it, that's the only thing I knew about Islam. On the other hand, I was drinking.... my cousins are eating pork rinds and I'm like no, no, give me a beer." He may not have gotten along very well with formal education, but Shahid was an intelligent, thoughtful person who was not satisfied just to be told what to do and what not to do, which had been his Muslim relatives' approach to teaching him the religion. "If I didn't understand something, I wanted to know what and why and where. Like before you eat, you say 'bismillah,' 'in the name of Allah.' Now if I don't know why I'm doing this, if I don't know what it means, I'm not doing it. That was my attitude." When someone told him to say "bismillah" before a meal he wanted them to tell him why, "instead of saying just shut up and say it.... Like with the Koran, they say memorize it, recite it, but don't understand any of what it says. Because they themselves don't know. For generation after generation all they've been doing is reciting it and memorizing it and then they don't know anything about it, don't act upon it, just recite it and memorize it. I didn't want that. If I don't understand it I didn't want to do it, that was the mentality I had."
Shahid began thinking more about practicing the religion when he married a non-Muslim American who converted to Islam. But, he said, "when I got married I had no knowledge of what Islam was. All I knew was what my family practiced. I tried to implement what my family was doing, but that was a disaster.... the things my family was doing, a lot of things are opposite of what Islam teaches." One of those, he told me in another conversation, was the idea that the husband is the ruler in the family and the wife has to obey, which he now sees as un-Islamic because it goes against the teaching that there is no compulsion in religion. Once in a while he went to the mosque, but because he had never had religious instruction he didn't know much about the rituals or their meaning. "I would just do what other people were doing, and then I would leave. So I wasn't really connected."
When he met the Tablighi Jamaat missionaries, Shahid and his wife had just separated, which also contributed to his impulsive decision to go with them to Pakistan. There, he spent part of his time with a group of several hundred Muslims from around the world receiving instruction at the Tablighi center in Raiwind, near Lahore, and part traveling with smaller groups to visit mosques and meet with people in different cities to talk about what they had been taught. Tablighi promotes a deeply conservative, fundamentalist form of Islam, holding, as Shahid put it, that the teaching of the Prophet Mohammed "was final, you can't add to it, can't take away from it." But it also tends to be nonpolitical, emphasizing personal religious commitment and observance more than conflict with nonbelievers or the less devout.
In his time with the Tablighi, Shahid said, he heard not a word from them promoting violence or terrorism. Among the students a few may have leaned toward that ideology; Shahid remembers one young man who spoke about going somewhere to buy guns. "He asked me if I wanted to go. I said no, no thanks, I don't want no part of that. I was just trying learn about Islam at that point... anything I learned, guns didn't have any part in it. So he left, and then no one heard from him again."
The program was supposed to last four months, but halfway through, Shahid's bipolar symptoms worsened -- "something flipped in my brain," he said -- so he flew back to the United States after just two months away. I wondered what happened when he came through the airport. This was less than a year after 9/11, and here was a young Muslim man coming back from two months in Pakistan, whose passport photo showed him as clean-shaven and was now wearing a full, bushy black beard, and who was acting strangely to boot. Surely, I thought, he'd have been pulled out of the passport control line to be grilled. But remarkably, he wasn't. Other passengers were stopped and searched, he told me with an amazed laugh, but "I went through like nothing. I came through, they searched my bag. I had this whole big thing of water from Mecca that my aunt had given me to bring here, so they're 'what's this?' I said that's holy water. So they let me go. See you later. Didn't check nothing. Have a nice day."
Whatever charm got Shahid through the immigration control at the airport was apparently still working a short while later when he was hospitalized for his bipolar disorder. Somewhere in the process of his admission, when he was explaining about his trip to Pakistan, a nurse or technician making notes for his file wrote "Taliban" instead of "Tablighi." A doctor noticed the word and came back to ask about it, then corrected the file when Shahid explained. Investigators from some law enforcement agency did come to talk to one of his uncles after that, but oddly, Shahid himself was never questioned.
While he was still in Pakistan, Shahid wrote in his journal that with all he had learned, "I’ll have such a strong iman [faith, or true belief] when I get back that nothing can touch me." But his life after coming home was not as straightforward as he had imagined. Along with outward upheavals -- his stint in a psychiatric hospital, continuing mental health problems, divorce from his first wife and painful conflict over their children -- his inner life was uneven too. Instead of staying strong, his belief "bounced up and down," he said, and he didn't consistently practice as strictly as he had been taught.
When Shahid married again, it was a somewhat modernized version of an arranged marriage, which is still quite common in the Pakistani American community. A Pakistani immigrant who came to work for his father had unmarried daughters in Pakistan, and agreed with Shahid's father that one of them, Sadaf, should come and marry his son. The two got engaged, long distance, and after about a year of telephone calls and internet chats, Sadaf flew to the United States and the couple were married a few days later. At the time Shahid was not practicing much, and Sadaf, when she arrived, was not particularly devout either. But somehow his marriage pulled Shahid back to a religious life. He began studying again and attending mosque regularly, and after a while, so did Sadaf. After taking some classes and reading religious texts, he said, she began covering her hair again, which she had stopped doing when she came to America, and quit her job in a bank, because receiving interest is not allowed in Islam. When I met her, the morning after my first conversation with Shahid, Sadaf was wearing a hijab and an abaya, the floor-length cloak commonly worn by women in the Middle East. She is hoping to get licensed as a day care provider, she told me, in the apartment she and Shahid are remodeling. That way she can earn some money while also taking care of their three small children.
Shahid wanted to make very sure that I understood that the changes his wife had made were her decision, not made at his order. "What I learned is that there's no compulsion in Islam," he told me. "If she decided not to cover, I can't force her, because then she's not doing it for God, she's doing it for me, so if she's doing it for me, that's not Islam. That's something other than Islam. For her to cover or to do anything in regard to religion, is her choice. I can tell her, I can advise her, but what she chooses do is on her. I'm not going to get the sin, if I tell her to do something that is according to religion. It's my duty to advise her. If she chooses to do it or not, it's nothing I can force. I can't force anything." His own preference, he added, would be for her to wear the niqab, the veil that covers the face. But he doesn't expect her to do that; "she's not that type."
Something else Shahid wanted me to understand is that his religion does not approve or tolerate violent acts of terror or embrace those who practice violence. When I asked if he felt his religious awakening was at all related to the 9/11 attacks, he nodded. "In a way," he said. "I wanted to know why people were doing this.... I went to learn what Islam is all about." And what he learned, he went on, is that "attacks, stuff like that, have nothing to do with Islam. Any of the books that I read, they condemned people doing this. I hear a lot of people saying oh, these Muslims, when things like this happen, they don't say nothing. They don't say nothing to the mainstream media, but if you go in that store" (a religious bookstore in a small shopping arcade across the street from the mosque where we met) "and you read those books that scholars published for Muslims to read, they're telling Muslims, you can't do these things... in Islam, what I learned is that to kill one person that is innocent is like killing all of humanity, so that's not a good thing. And to kill yourself also is a big sin, like suicide bombers and stuff like that."
The Muslims who support terrorist organizations don't know their own faith, Shahid added. They are products of a culture that tells them to blindly follow what they are told, without thinking or learning for themselves what the religion really teaches.
Perhaps it's because of his own mixed heritage and his fondness for his Christian grandmother in Georgia, who Shahid remembers "was not at all prejudiced in any type of way" and often challenged racist comments from others in her all-white neighborhood. Or perhaps it's just his nature, but Shahid seems remarkably free of the intolerance and closed-circle life that can often go with a strong religious commitment. His close friends include a family of Pakistani Christians, who are widely treated by Pakistanis as a despised minority. He doesn't share the common prejudice in the South Asian community against African Americans. "I always kept an open mind growing up because I been around so many different types of people," he told me. "I never really judged people by way they look."
Americans don't always treat him the same way. Once on a construction job a plumber, a former marine, walked up to him and said, "if anything like September 11 happens again, I'm killing you and all the people like you." Shahid recalls another odd encounter in a Motor Vehicles Department office where he went to deal with some issue about his license or car registration. He was wearing a skullcap and robe that day, and when he started to tell the clerk at the counter what he needed, she said, "Can you please speak English?" Nonplused, Shahid began to say that he'd been speaking English, but the clerk got up, flounced over to a coworker and said in a loud voice, "I can't understand a word this guy's saying!" That story struck me as a remarkable little study in the physiology of fear and what it can do to the senses. English is Shahid's native language; he speaks it entirely naturally and without any trace of a foreign accent, but for that woman behind the counter, his bearded face and Muslim dress must have looked like her mental picture of a terrorist, and the horror and fear from that visual image was so powerful that it apparently overwhelmed her other senses, including her ability to hear that the words he was saying were in her own language.
Mostly, Shahid shrugs off that kind of episode. "Don't argue with the foolish," says a maxim in one of the Islamic scholars' books he read, and he tries to live by it. That's of a piece with a more general search for a calm life. With his wife's help he is being far more careful to take the medications that control his bipolar disorder, and he is also better at taking things easy and not getting fatigued, which can bring on manic episodes. He doesn't pay attention to the news, just keeps focused on his family, his religious duties, and understanding Islam. "I'm learning as much as I can, implementing what I learn, according to religion," he said, "and I've found so much peace, tranquillity." Life in Pakistan would be simpler than life in America, he believes, so he is thinking of moving there.
Listening to Shahid's story, it occurred to me that he almost perfectly matched the profile for young Muslims who are targeted by terrorist recruiters, or by trolling undercover security agents. A young man confused about his identity, with a chaotic personal life and mental health problems, and looking for guidance about his religion, represents exactly what is considered the prototype of a potential jihadist -- Mohammad Hassan Khalid, for example. I wondered, if the three bearded guys he ran into on that Albany street had not been from Tablighi Jamaat but from al-Qaeda, or from some other violent extremist movement, whether Shahid might have been drawn into that world. But when I asked him exactly that question, he shook his head. "I was always against that kind of stuff. It's just like my nature, I realized you can't kill innocent people, it's not good. So even if someone like that were to have come up to me, even with the limited knowledge that I had about Islam, most likely I wouldn't have gotten involved in something like that."
The Pakistani and Afghan Americans I met whose religious commitment has become stronger in America clearly represent a significant trend in those communities. But not everyone reflected that trend. Some have grown distant or fallen away altogether from their Muslim faith, like the Pakistan-born son and daughter of a mother who left her homeland to escape an unsatisfactory arranged marriage and eventually became a lawyer for a U.S. government agency. The children were 5 and 8 when they arrived with their mother in America. (She decided to emigrate because if she remained in Pakistan after divorcing her husband, he would have automatically gotten custody of both children, the son immediately and the daughter as soon as she reached puberty.) The children are both now in their 40s. Both are lawyers like their mother, and both are married to non-Muslim Americans. The daughter, Saira, married a strongly believing Roman Catholic and some years after her marriage converted to Catholicism; their two children are being brought up in that faith. The son, whose Urdu name is Iftikhar but has adopted Andrew as his professional name, married a woman from a nominally Christian but non-observant family with German and Slovenian roots. He follows some Muslim rules, such as not eating pork, his mother said, but the family has no affiliation with any organized religious community and his children are not being raised as Muslims.
The mother, whose name is Shaheda Sultan, has taken her own spiritual journey away from formal religious practice. For most of her life, including most of her years in America, Sultan was moderately observant, like the family she grew up in. But seven or eight years ago, something led her to reexamine her beliefs. The increasingly conservative religious climate she encountered both on visits to Pakistan and among a sizeable number of Muslims in America was disturbing and, Sultan said, not consistent with Islamic principles as she understood them -- on small things, like one imam's ruling that nail polish is un-Islamic (because it keeps out water and thus prevents proper ablution before prayer), and on larger matters such as growing restrictions on women, which Sultan believes do not really reflect the teachings of the Koran but are promoted and used by men "to control their wives to a point that my mother and I were never controlled by our husbands." After a period of extensive reading and thought about her own and other faiths, she said, she decided that "the interpretations given to Islam as it is practiced by the vast majority, not extremists but the vast majority," were interpretations she could no longer accept. "I seriously said to myself, OK, I cannot practice any such religion."
Her decision is actually compatible with Sunni Muslim tradition, Sultan believes, which allows people to find their own paths to moral principle and practice. "In Sunni Islam... each Muslim is free to communicate directly with God, to read the Koran and draw whatever interpretation they want out of it. I have chosen the path of believing in God but not practicing any particular religion. I practice by following the Ten Commandments, for example. I believe in doing good, but I don't spread out a prayer mat and say the required prayers."
Sultan makes some effort to keep her children and grandchildren connected with their Pakistani heritage -- for example, by holding an annual gathering for the Eid al-Adha holiday, with everyone dressed in Pakistani costume. She is gratified that her Catholic granddaughter likes to bring Pakistani ornaments or cookware for show-and-tell programs at her Catholic school, and very proud that the same granddaughter stood up in the classroom and challenged one of her teachers, a priest, who had made a disparaging and inaccurate comment about Islamic beliefs. But to all appearances Sultan has no sense of sadness or loss at her children's and their children's passage into a generally unhyphenated American identity -- a passage that in a way mirrors her path away from identifying with any sectarian religion, and toward defining her own way to live by what she believes.
I also met people who observe religious rituals as a way of expressing their heritage, but not religious belief, and others who follow the rules selectively or hardly at all. Most continue to call themselves Muslims, because it's the identity they were born with or perhaps only because that's what everyone else assumes they are. "I'm a cultural Muslim," one Afghan American woman told me. "I celebrate the holidays, I might even fast here and there. It's solidarity with the community, respect for the religion. But I'm not a believer, I don't believe in organized religion." She added, with a rueful smile, that it would sound awkward even in her own ears to identify herself as Afghan without being Muslim. "To say you're Afghan and not Muslim is an extremely difficult sentence. It's much easier to say I'm Muslim and Afghan, because the two go in one sentence."
Among the believing Muslims I spoke with, not all have joined the movement toward more conservative beliefs and practices. Sahar Habib Ghazi is one example. "I identify as Muslim, I choose to be Muslim," Ghazi told me. But the faith she identifies with is very different from the one she has seen develop among many American Muslims of her generation, a version of Islam that is "very influenced by Arab culture, and conservative." Ghazi was born in Long Island, New York, then moved to Pakistan at 9 years old when her parents decided to return there -- not without difficulties in adjustment that in many respects, she acknowledged with a smile, represented the immigrant experience in reverse. When she came back to the United States to go to college, she found pressures on her university campus in America that she had never encountered while living in Pakistan. There, she said, if she was praying in public during Ramadan or at a funeral or some other occasion, nobody would approach her to criticize her for not dressing appropriately. In Pakistan, there was "no one coming up to me and saying oh, you're not covered properly... no one saying where your arms should be covered. That's not how I learned to pray. I always just put a loose thing on my head, draped it and prayed. That's how my mom prayed and that's how my grandmother prayed. But the first time I went here to a mosque, three people told me I should cover up properly.... This was when I was in college, in Ann Arbor. I think it was during Eid prayers or something."
Instead of being drawn to stricter observance, Ghazi, now in her early 30s, was put off by attitudes that she feels are meant to enforce surface conformity rather than the moral principles that should be at the center of religious belief. After that experience at the mosque in Michigan, "I said, I'm not going back to one of these places, I don't need to be subjected to judgment by people who don't know anything about religion. That was my reaction to these things, being 18 years old. And I kind of hold to that," she added. She remains a believing Muslim, but on her own terms, and in the more liberal Sufi-influenced tradition that she inherited from her parents. In California, where she and her husband now live, "we've never been to a mosque. Even on Eid, we don't go."
The most outspoken nonbeliever I met was Masood Haque, who makes his living as an emergency room doctor in New York's Westchester County but combines that with his real love, filmmaking. His parents, who brought him and his brother and sisters to the United States in the late 1970s when he was 13, are practicing Muslims, but none of their children are, Haque said. Nor are his children or his American-born nieces and nephews. "In my family," he told me, "the only people who are religious are the Catholics" -- his brother's Irish-American wife and their children, who were baptized in the Catholic faith although the brother himself, like Haque, remains a nonbeliever. Haque is now married to a Pakistani but his first marriage was also to a Christian, though a non-practicing one, and they didn't bring up their son in any religion. His oldest niece is married to a Jew, which Haque said "would be a shocking scandal in Pakistan."
Living in a multicultural society -- the same experience that has driven other Muslims to identify more strongly with their faith -- led Haque to reject not just Islam but all dogmatic religion, which he came to see as the cause of intolerance and conflict and a burden on people's lives. "I think culturally I'm a Muslim, because I come from family that observes traditions, this is what my upbringing was," he said. But he doesn't consider himself a Muslim in terms of religious belief. "If anything, I've read about Buddhism and I find myself much more attuned to their philosophy than Islam."
By coincidence, I met Masood Haque and Shahid Bhatti on the same day, with just a couple of hours driving time in between. The distance between the paths they had taken, one to secularism and nonbelief and the other to strict, almost unworldly piety, was astronomically greater. Their two stories reflect how many different paths there are for Muslim Americans to find on the chaotically diverse terrain of this country. What they show is that three-quarters of a million Pakistani and Afghan Americans and several million other Muslims in the United States are not just a challenge to American pluralism. They are also its mirror.
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 Aminah Mohammad-Arif, "The Paradox of Religion: The (re)Construction of Hindu and Muslim Identities amongst South Asian Diasporas in the United States," South Asia Multidisciplinary Academic Journal, 1/2007, Centre d’Etudes de l’Inde et de l’Asie du Sud (CEIAS), Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, Paris, France; http://samaj.revues.org/55#text
 A hijab covers the hair and neck, but not the face. A more conservative veil is the niqab, which covers the lower face, leaving only the eyes and part of the forehead exposed. Most concealing of all is the burqa, a full-length garment that hoods the head and the entire body with a small mesh panel in front of the face for the wearer to look out through.
 Not to be confused with Eid al-Fitr, the holiday marking the end of Ramadan. Eid al-Adha, also called the Feast of Sacrifice, celebrates the story of Ibrahim and his willingness to obey God by sacrificing his son Ishmael -- the story also told in the Old Testament, with the names rendered as Abraham and Isaac.