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Walking the Line

NEWSWEEK's Lisa Miller joined us for a Live Talk on Wednesday, July 25, about the American-Muslim experience in a post-9/11 world.

Robina Riccitiello and Karen Breslau

Newsweek Web Exclusive

Updated: 3:28 PM ET Aug 15, 2007

Saba Anees fits her observance of Islam seamlessly into her jam-packed teenage schedule. The 16-year-old high-school junior from Sunnyvale, Calif.—an aspiring fashion editor—has tailored her headscarf for tennis practice. She chats with friends online, under the watchful eye of her Pakistani immigrant parents. Anees makes time for her mosque youth group, despite the pressures of classes, homework and social pursuits—in part to please her parents, who work in Silicon Valley's high-tech industry. Confident and outspoken, she has learned that being Muslim in America often means being an ambassador for the faith, even when the questions are anything but diplomatic. "When I started high school a boy asked, 'Do you wear that scarf to hide your bruises?'" she says. "People expect you to be abused or something."

It fell to Anees, then 14, to explain that adhering to Islam's modest dress code for women "doesn't mean you're kept back by men." Her mother, after all, works as an analytical chemist for a pharmaceutical company and would like to see her daughter become a lawyer someday. But dealing with misconceptions is only part of the challenge for observant Muslim teens. Navigating the risks and temptations of American pop culture—whether racy music, dating or having an account on Facebook—can be far trickier. "Parents who didn't grow up here aren't used to teenagers who have their own lives," says Sarah Azad, a volunteer youth group leader at the Muslim Community Center Association (MCA) of Silicon Valley, where Anees and her family attend. "The No. 1 complaint I hear from parents is not that their children aren't religious, but that they spend too much time on the computer."

The lament is hardly unique to Muslim parents. But for a generation of Muslim children, learning to walk the line between the demands of their faith and their desire to fit into the local culture is part of a broader identity search. Each Friday evening, Anees and a group of teenage girls meet at the MCA mosque with Azad, who squeezes time from her grueling schedule as a first-year medical resident, and another counselor to vent—and to give each other support. For the younger generation, Azad says the main complaint is that immigrant parents can't understand what it means to grow up as a minority in a culture where values are far different from those their parents experienced growing up in India, Pakistan, Syria or Morocco. It's a dilemma Azad understands well. The daughter of Afghan immigrants, she grew up in St. Louis, answering the same questions about Islam—having the same struggles with her parents, that the girls do now.

Sometimes, the accommodations are easy. Yousur Alhlou, 17, a high-school senior, who was born in Oklahoma, says it's not hard to find music that won't offend her—or her Syrian-born parents. She likes Coldplay and sometimes just switches to news radio when she can't find music she considers appropriate. "Anees convinced her parents to lighten up by downloading a Carrie Underwood song from iTunes. Country music, with its clean lyrics, seems to be a safe middle ground.

But dating, or even mingling unsupervised with boys, is an entirely different matter. Courtship and marriage are considered by many Muslims to be a social negotiation involving families, not just a would-be couple themselves. During high school and college, Muslim girls are expected to socialize with other girls. Alhlou, a 17-year-old senior, has many non-Muslim friends who organize all-girl movie outings so she can join them. The public high school Alhlou attends in San Jose has so many Muslim students that on prom night, organizers rented an extra room so that Muslim girls could have their own dance space—a compromise that allows them to both have fun and remain observant. Alhlou cracks up the group with her story of a classmate who asked if he would have to marry her because he saw her hair come loose from her hijab. "I told him, 'Yeah.' The poor guy got so scared."

Fitting into American jock culture has proven surprisingly easy. Mounia O'Neal, the daughter of a Moroccan mother and an American father, plays tennis and runs track in her hijab. Others play volleyball and basketball and field hockey in long pants instead of shorts, often laughing at the distraction their headscarves can provoke among opposing players. Saadia Hameed, one of the youth-group leaders, tells the girls how she snorkels and goes scuba-diving wearing a hijab and a modest swim outfit specially designed for Muslim women. Every now and then, someone at her local health club will ask about her getup. "If I'm not running on the treadmill, I'll explain things—that it's a sign of modesty," says Hameed, who plans to become a school psychologist.

The defining moment of their young Muslim lives continues to be 9/11. O'Neal, then a fourth-grader, cried along with her classmates on the day of the attacks. Soon though, she remembers that other children started echoing their parents' fears and a young Muslim boy running for student council found the word "terrorist"—spelled wrong—written in green crayon all over his campaign posters. Saba Anees says her Muslim elementary school had to shut down for a week because it received so many threats. But, as it did for their parents, the attacks spurred many young people to deepen their commitment to Islam. After 9/11, says O'Neal, 14, "I felt I have more of a duty to be myself and wear a hijab and become more of a Muslim, so I can represent Islam the right way."

Despite the challenges, for the girls at the MCA mosque, identifying as both Muslim and American has proven easier than for their parents. Saba Anees has spent nearly her whole life in America and worries that she'd feel like a stranger in Pakistan. "I feel like sometimes I can't connect to the Pakistani culture as much anymore. If I were to go back and try to speak Urdu, they'd be like, 'What are you doing?'" Visiting their parents' countries can bring up interesting conflicts, especially when relatives in the home country are not as observant as the American teens. Some of Yousour Alhlou's relatives in Syria don't wear a hijab, and they smoke. The relatives assume that the American girls don't strictly follow Islam. "I get the occasional, 'So, do you wear a scarf? How many boyfriends do you have?'" Alhlou says. "Some things I do more religiously than they even do. But even if you tell them that, I get doubtful looks and 'Yeah, right.' They think we worship Britney Spears!" Asif.


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