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Turning Humiliation Into Inspiration



July 26, 2008

On Religion



PARADISE VALLEY, Ariz. — Yasmine Hafiz was passing through security at an airport near Washington several weeks ago when a federal agent stopped her. Something strange and metallic had shown up in her carry-on bag during screening. Now she needed to explain what the suspicious object was.

At 18, newly graduated from high school, Yasmine knew the drill all too well. A few years earlier, an immigration officer had demanded she present a visa to board a flight from Canada to her home in Arizona. It was as if, because she had dark skin and a Pakistani surname and was Muslim, she, an American citizen, still needed permission to enter her own country.

This time, the security agent began unpacking the carry-on bag until he found his quarry. It was a bronze disc plated with gold. “It’s a medal,” said Yasmine’s mother, Dilara, who was traveling with her. “It’s from the president.”

Yasmine had received the medallion in the White House the day before, when she was honored as one of 139 Presidential Scholars.

Humiliated in the wake of triumph, scrutinized, literally, for her achievement, Yasmine in that moment lived the very contradictions she had sought to address in a book. Called the “The American Muslim Teenager’s Handbook” (Acacia, 2007), written with her mother and her younger brother, Imran, and improbably modeled on that cheeky 1980s phenomenon “The Official Preppy Handbook,” the slender volume aspires to nothing less than bridging a cultural chasm.

“In some ways, the book looks like a novelty because it’s by and about teens,” said Yasmine, who will start college at Yale this summer. “But the book also has some profound things to say about religion and identity and assimilation. And maybe we can get under the radar, and avoid some of the criticism, because we are teens.”

Imran, a 16-year-old high school junior, expanded on the point in a recent interview in the family’s home here in suburban Phoenix. “From the beginning, I wished there was a book that could explain to my classmates what it means to be a Muslim,” he said. “But I was also thinking of something that could make me proud of being a Muslim and that could show Islam’s a can-do religion, not a can’t-do religion.”

Certainly the book has already surpassed almost anyone’s expectations. Produced by a small Arizona publisher for no advance, the handbook has sold 3,000 copies, won a statewide award for young-adult nonfiction, been featured on Voice of America and been covered in newspapers from The Guardian in England to The National in Abu Dhabi.

The catalyst for the book came from two incidents after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Yasmine was browsing through the young-adult section of a bookstore and amid books for Jewish teenagers, Catholic teenagers, Christian teenagers and even Wiccan teenagers, she could find nothing for Muslims like herself. Around the same time, Imran’s middle-school classmates barred him from a pick-up soccer game because, as one boy told him, “You’re in the Taliban.”

Inspired and incensed, Yasmine and Imran started out by jotting down a list of prospective chapters: some on Muslim religious law and tradition, some on lifestyle issues like drinking and dating, some on the pervasive stereotyping of Muslims as terrorists. They wrote a questionnaire and submitted it to students at 40 Muslim parochial schools and weekend-enrichment programs throughout the United States.

Dilara Hafiz, 43, who grew up in Washington as the daughter of a Pakistani diplomat, suggested the “Preppy Handbook” as a model, not in the sense of being fictional or wholly satiric but definitely in the sense of using a sprightly, sometimes humorous tone. Yasmine and Imran, however, drew the line at maternal involvement when Ms. Hafiz wanted to include the word “groovy.”

Amid its witty asides and tongue-in-check answers to multiple-choice questions, the handbook clearly stakes out a position for a moderate, flexible version of Islam, one that places a higher premium on moral intent than reflexive observance of every rule. While the Hafiz family fasts during Ramadan and eschews liquor and pork, for example, neither Yasmine nor her mother wears the hijab, or head scarf.

“We believe Islam is a personal journey,” said Hamid Hafiz, 54, Ms. Hafiz’s husband and the children’s father, a British-educated banker. “We want to get away from the judgmentalism.”

Yasmine added, “We pray, we fast, but we don’t say in the book how often, because some Muslims will tell you it’s not enough and some will say it’s too much.”

Indeed, one of the unplanned lessons of the book is how controversial a gentle text can be.

“It really comes from both sides,” Imran said. “It’s not just the conservative Muslims who say, ‘She doesn’t wear hijab? Then the book is haram, forbidden.’ We’re always getting right-wing hecklers saying we’re Muslim apologists. One guy said to me, ‘You mean you think Muslim kids should read the Koran?’ ”

A few Sundays ago, Yasmine and Imran spoke as part of an interfaith series before a mostly liberal audience at the Scottsdale Congregational United Church of Christ. Even there, many of the questions were harsh: “What is generating this tremendous hatred of radical Muslims toward Christianity?” “Why has there been so little outcry by Muslims against fanaticism?” One congregant who had served in Kuwait with the Army National Guard recalled her fear at the sight of a roomful of Muslim women praying.

With preternatural composure for a couple of teenagers, Yasmine and Imran answered each question. They had fielded many such inquiries at other talks and book-signings. Unlike most other authors, they had, in effect, signed up to be public paragons.

“What helps me with the restraint and patience is that we are role models,” Yasmine put it. “People don’t look at us as teenagers first but as Muslims. If I lose my temper, that’s playing into their stereotype that Muslims are angry. It’s doubly important to be as patient as possible if you’re the example of an entire faith.”


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