We used to want to go to mosques and community centers. As early immigrants, some 30 odd years ago, those structures served as a place where you found people like you. It’s where you met friends and availed the opportunity to give your children a piece of the culture you grew up with. I distinctly remember being a proud father of children who attended and even taught at Sunday school, encouraging them to speak their mind and ask questions. However, somewhere along the way our community centers began to change and our pre-occupation with rituals quelling the room for open discussion that allowed our children to learn.
I don’t know the precise moment when the disappointment took hold. Perhaps it was at Friday prayers when I saw that women had been given a sliver of space to pray, and were expected to keep a watchful eye on their children while praying. It could have been during a lecture where the reigning cleric chose to pursue commentary on “The West vs. Us” or the need for women to cover themselves. I thought about how my wife and daughter may feel about these sorts of topics and whether it was the reason that they preferred not to be heavily involved in the community building activities I so valued. Is this why my son chose to be peripherally involved in the mosque? After all, if I, as a grown man, felt judged by the clerics in these moments, it was not hard to imagine how my children must feel.
Having had the above reflection, I also realize that Muslim-Americans have accomplished a great deal. In every major city in the United States today, there is a multitude of Islamic and Muslim community centers that one can be part of and can go for prayer just a few miles from home. In the late 1970’s when I arrived to this country, I could count such centers on my ten fingers. Secondly, mainstream Muslim organizations like ISNA, MSA, CAIR and many others, have taken roots and demonstrated staying power.
The Muslim-American population has steadily increased to a significant number, perhaps closer to the size of the Jewish community. We have reached critical mass where we can seriously organize and become a positive force in our own communities and the community at large. For the first time, the number of Muslims born in this country perhaps equals those who are immigrants. This second generation has diversified its careers, from traditional doctors and engineers to a wide variety of fields including legal, media, entrepreneurship, teaching, community advocacy, foreign relations and public service. I see immense potential for Millennial Muslims to step forward, shape the dialogue and make positive contributions to this great country of ours that we call home.
Here are a few suggestions for us to harness this energy and momentum:
(1) Begin by considering this our country our “home” and not call the birth places of our parents our home;
(2) take responsibility to deepen our knowledge of Islam and the human condition and reduce dependency on clerics, scholars and even our elders who may be ill-informed, although well-intentioned;
(3) create social and civic minded organizations (not religious/cultural centers dominated by clerics, myopic religious dogma and ethnic or sectarian biases) to foster open dialogue and challenge all conventional thinking rooted in divisive cultural baggage;
(4) and make a serious commitment to fully involve our female counterparts in our activities and organizations (I would go so far as to suggest that every leadership position be co-shared by a team of male and female).
Let’s not define our identity in terms of the beard, the hijab, what country we came from or what sect we belong to, but rather in terms of cultivating a better understanding of and a genuine commitment to the timeless principles of truth, human equality and justice for all people as laid out in the Qur’an, Bible and Torah and other books of revelations. If in our attempt to become a “better” Muslim, we become a lesser human being by undermining people of other sects or faiths, restricting women’s freedom to contribute and lead and cutting ourselves off from the larger American society, then we have failed God and we have failed ourselves. The time has come to define and shape our destiny as Muslim-Americans– female and male alike.
Mr. Hasan is a serial entrepreneur, management consultant and business executive. His recent book: Removing The Middleman, Volume 1: Deciphering Faith Without Ritual, is now available on Amazon (https://www.createspace.com/