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Generation 9/11: America's younger Muslims


Remziya Suleyman hardly noticed the rain as she stood in April under the shelter of a black umbrella in Nashville, waiting for the rally to begin. She had imagined this moment for months, yet her mouth fell open as a bus from Knoxville pulled up, and then one from Memphis, delivering the first of hundreds of Muslims to her charge.

Many had never voted, much less marched. In their native lands - countries like Syria, Somalia and Iran - protests brought dangerous repercussions. But here in Tennessee, a place long considered safe harbour for Muslim immigrants, they were confronting a new tempest: public opposition to mosques, rising hate crimes and proposed legislation aimed, they felt, at marginalising people of their faith.

Then came Suleyman. Born of Kurdish immigrants and raised in Nashville, the chatty 26-year-old activist had gone from mosque to mosque, telling doctors, imams and homemakers twice her age that they could no longer stay silent. "The older generation was like, 'No, this will pass, '" she said in her Southern cadence. "But if we do not speak for ourselves, who will speak for us?

Suleyman belongs to the generation of Muslim Americans who came of age after 9/11. Many were bracing for the trials of adolescence at the time of the attacks, only to find themselves on unsteady new ground. Some became objects of ridicule at school or suspicion at airports. Their neighbourhoods were upended as law enforcement agents raided mosques and businesses, and froze the assets of Islamic charities. Their fathers and uncles were among the hundreds of Muslim men who were arrested without warrant;thousands were eventually deported.

It is not fully known how this era has shaped America's younger Muslims. There is limited academic study of this group, despite the attention drawn to it by the recent Congressional hearings into domestic radicalisation. But a growing cadre of sociologists, demographers and others who are examining the effects of 9/11 on this generation note several striking patterns. Some young Muslims have turned away from their faith, distancing themselves from their community and even changing their names.

"In some ways, they became the tragic experiment in what happens when people are bumped from belonging to not belonging, " said Michelle Fine, a professor of psychology at the Graduate Centre of the City University of New York who has studied Muslim American youth.

Yet, for others, the last decade has brought a very different outcome: a spiritual and civic awakening. In the aftermath of the attacks, the children of Muslim immigrants became the first line of defense against a stream of queries by non-Muslims. They were already accustomed to being ambassadors "of all things Muslim, " said Musa Syeed, 27, a filmmaker from Plainfield. But the task took on a new intensity as their faith came under scrutiny. In the search for answers to complex theological questions, many drew closer to Islam.

In a new study by the Abu Dhabi Gallup Centre, two-thirds of young Muslim Americans said their religion was important to them. This group includes a rising number of young converts like Ify Okoye, 27, a nursing student from Beltsville. Known to some as "Generation 9/11", Okoye and others set out to reclaim Islam's image in America, but found themselves in uncharted waters.

As hate crimes against Muslims soared, the youngest recoiled at first, keeping a low profile, said Lori Peek, a sociologist at Colorado State University and author of Behind the Backlash: Muslim Americans After 9/11. But in a study of Muslims, Dr Peek found that many of her younger subjects changed course, altering career paths to pursue degrees in journalism and political science over their parents' chosen fields of engineering and medicine. They were motivated, she said, by a newfound desire to engage in American civic life - a trend also noted by Dr Fine and Louise Cainkar, a sociologist at Marquette University.

This goal has manifested itself in unpredictable ways. Syeed, the filmmaker, headed off to film school at New York University in 2003, intent on using the medium as a "blunt instrument for change. " But in time, he grew weary of what he called the "Muslims are people too" narrative that has come to define the way Muslim Americans present themselves in artistic pursuits or to the news media. The older generation was particularly concerned, he found, with promoting a positive view of Islam, often at the expense of a deeper portrait. "It's about correcting stereotypes and not about engaging the craft in any of these mediums, " said Syeed, who will soon complete his first feature film, Valley of Saints. "I've had to put that aside. It's about telling good stories - universal, human stories. "


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