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Rethinking America's Muslim Youth

By Dr. Omar Afzal

[Dr. Omar Afzal obtained his PhD in Linguistics from Cornell University, M. Lit (Linguistics) from Delhi University, M.A. (English) from Aligarh Muslim University, and Alim (Islamic and Arabic Studies) from IHIS Rampur.  Dr. Afzal is an outstanding linguist who speaks, reads, and writes many languages from Middle East, South Asia, and Europe. He has expertise in Islamic law, Islamic History, Contemporary Islamic movements, Islamic calendar, and Modern Islamic Thought. For twenty-six years he worked at Cornell University. He supervised several research projects leading to PhD and Master degrees. He is a prolific writer, editor of the Message, and a member of the Islamic Fiqh Academy. He has also been the Chairman of the Center for Research and Communication, and the Committee for Crescent Observation International. and]

Islamic history is replete with young role models who carried the torch of light for the coming generations. Muslim youth should read the lives of Yusuf (AS), Mus'ab b. Umair, Usama bin Zaid, Muhammad bin Qasim, Musa bin Nusair, etc. How in their young age they learned what being a Muslim meant, and how a combination of profound belief and impeccable character helped them bring a sea of change in the lives of others around them. What motivated these beacons of light to assume the leadership role was their love of Allah and dedication to His cause.

The Qur'an has given very fine details of Yusuf’s (AS) story. Youth in America are getting excessive doses of violence, sex, drugs, and unethical behavior not only from the visual media, chat rooms, and video games, but also from peer networks, and the society is reeling under their onslaught. Yusuf (AS) shows the Muslim youth, especially in America how to shun the carnal temptations and sexual advances often encountered in classrooms and work places. He was betrayed by his older brothers, rescued to a royal household, and enticed by the lady of the house. He was thrown into a prison for not obeying her wishes. He told other inmates how he believed in a God quite distinct from those worshipped by others. He rose to the highest rank of the kingdom for his management skills, and forgave his brothers when they came begging for help. Remember what the ladies in Egypt said about his character: “We know no evil in him.” It is your unblemished character like Yusuf that will help you come out unscathed in the worst turbulence. Like Yusuf (AS), learn that all humans may fall to the lure and enticements: “I do not absolve myself: Human hearts succumbs to evil. Unless my Lord bestows His mercy.” Yusuf had a prayer to help him get clear of the seduction by a host of charming ladies: “(O Allah) unless You turn away their trap from me I should feel inclined towards them.” He opted for a harsh prison life to succumbing to the evil designs of the royal ladies only because Allah required all of us to be chaste.

Ali (RA) was very young when he accepted Islam. He was assigned the task of arranging for a feast for the elders of the tribe. The strategy was to feed them first and then introduce them to Islam. Ali remained in the forefront all his life despite extreme poverty and lack of resources. He did not worry about his own life in difficult circumstances. When the Messenger (PBUH) asked him to occupy his bed for the night he left Makkah for Medinah, Ali was fully aware of the danger. The enemies had decided to kill the Messenger. Sleeping in his bed meant almost certain death, but he was willing to take the risk.

Mus'ab b. Umair was a handsome young man, son of rich parents, who enjoyed all the comforts of a wealthy life. Islam made so deep an impression on him that he abandoned the advantages of his social position and comforts. Those who saw him in earlier days of his youth could not believe the depth of his commitment to Allah that made him go through the rigors of hunger and poverty. It was he who was deputed by the Messenger (PBUH) to go to Medinah add teach Islam to the newly converts of Aws and Khazraj.

Usama b. Zaid was the son of the Messenger’s freed slave. Despite his tender age he tried to be enlisted in the Muslim army for the crucial battle of Uhud but was turned back. Later the Messenger (PBUH) appointed him to lead the first Islamic army to challenge the Byzantine Empire, and it was his conquest of Syria which opened the gates for the Muslims to reach outside the Arabian Peninsula. Rafi’ b. Khudaij was another young kid who tried to look taller and was given the chance to participate in the most crucial battle of Islamic history.

Muhammad b. Qasim led the Muslim army to India’s gateway – Sind when he was only 17 years old. He left his indelible impression on the history of Sind.

Musa b. Nusair entered a career of successful conquests in N. Africa. He conquered Spain and established the Islamic rule there.

Select your role model and look for the details in their life pattern. You will not be disappointed and will not feel the need to do what your peers are doing for fun, but what is leading to a social catastrophe.

Not a Role Model

In Justice A.M. Kennedy’s words, “The real world of school discipline is a rough and tumble place where students practice newly learned vulgarities, erupt with anger, tease and embarrass each other, share offensive notes, flirt, push and shove in the halls, grab and offend.” Parents find themselves in a losing battle against the outrageous tendencies among the juvenile offenders. The Muslim parents face a similar trauma, and feel helpless when they observe their youth drifting away and disappearing in the melting pot. The community elders are puzzled when they find the Muslim youth shunning the activities where their presence was taken for granted in pre-teen years.

All of us agree that youthful behavior has markedly deteriorated in recent year, and there are far fewer adults around to influence youngsters. As a result, violence on TV screen and images on video games have become role models instead of older friends and relatives. Adolescence is time for children to become adults, and part of what they have to do in the new space they learn by testing their limits. Adults are their teachers, but other youths are their testers. For this generation, the lack of adult guidance and supervision is a very big issue. Reduced supervision stems not only from both parents working outside of the home; it is also because relatives and good neighbors are away as well. A massive national survey of 90,000 students by National Longitudinal Study on Adolescent Health – a youth research and advocacy group was released on June 3, 1999. It reveals that the more teens feel connected to and comfortable with parents, school and other adults, the less likely they will commit violence, use illegal substance and become sexually active. The study identifies a battery of conditions and circumstances that increase chances of risk behavior. It also underlines the “protective factors” that can counter delinquency – mainly health relationships with parents and other adults.

Most Muslim communities either lack meaningful programs for youth or have narrowed their sphere of activities to “discussion groups,” lectures on religious topics, etc. After years of listening to the same jingles the youth feel bored and neglected. Their initial protest turns into open hostility and complete alienation from community sponsored programs. Often they live a dual life: an “Islamic” face when they interact with other Muslims, attend Muslim camps and conferences, or take responsibilities at the local mosque. They would do it in their own self-interest: keep their parents happy. With peers in school and college away from the watchful eyes, they are as wild and unrestrained as other American youth.

Here are a few tips for the Muslim parents and community elders if they wish to minimize the impact of “peer world” on the Muslim adolescents and unmarried adults. It is our duty to keep them attached to the Muslim community through their active participation.

1. Watch for the trouble spots: Your son or daughter may be doing well in school or college, getting good grades, and rave reviews, but appears obsessed with something or someone. Long telephone calls, reclusive, avoiding behavior, and excuses to stay out, especially at odd hours, etc. should alert you.

2. Don’t panic: Talk to them. Instead of rebuking, or putting undue restrictions, emphasize the values they had learned earlier. How could they be better off by living Islam in this life, and how their whimsical decisions impact their life later. Select the correct language for the issue to be tackled. Cover the areas of decision-making and negotiation not previously considered.

3. Avoid stigmatization: Be sensitive to their feelings. Harsh words against them, their “friends” or nit-picking on innocent mistakes will lead to cementing their rebellious tendencies. Often boredom and lack of interesting alternatives lead our youth to explore other avenues.

4. Establish underlying framework for action: Initiate discussions, and let them identify priorities and set pilot projects, instead of leading them by nose and imposing a set plan of activities.

5. Win acceptance for the community programs: Invite their participation, instead of imposing a cut and dry plan prepared by the “elders.” Participatory approach is far more effective than interventionist strategy.

6. Use peer educators to gain access into smaller groups otherwise not accessible. Very few among the elders of the community have skills to attract the youth. They are seen as symbols of authority and power. Peer educators have a better chance to pull in the disenchanted.

7. Use influential personalities as role models: Expand from the idea of peer educators. Some communities have successfully used well-known personalities to influence youth behavior.

8. Develop services that respond to the social needs and political environment of the community being targeted. Youth are full of energy. Don’t kill their interest and enthusiasm by long boring meetings where they just sit and listen week after week.

Federal, state, and county funds are available to start various programs for the youth. By offering support to churches, synagogues, and other religious entities that help fight social ills, these government programs are simply trying to expand the types and number of resources that can be brought to bear on the social problems in America. Muslim youth may prove an extremely valuable asset if their energies are channeled properly.


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