The Boston Marathon bombings highlighted, once again, the challenges of assimilating Muslim youth. And while the onus of accountability ought not rest exclusively on Muslim Americans, it understandably weighs most heavily on them. Indeed, any fair-minded assessment of recent events must underscore the inadequacies of Muslim-American leaders. Yet the usual criticisms are wide of the mark and fail to identify the institutional as well as intellectual weaknesses of these leaders.
In general we too easily overlook—even in the midst of a raging debate over our immigration policy—what Norman Podhoretz once referred to as “the brutal bargain” that immigrant children must accept in order to assimilate into the society their parents chose for them. For Muslims today, the drama involves not so much overcoming poverty and educational deficits but adapting to a society whose values are sharply at odds with their religious heritage. Among Muslim-American youth, especially since 9/11, this has led to heightened criticism and suspicion of U.S. government policies at home and abroad. More generally, it has resulted in a hard-edged identity politics that has encouraged some young Muslims to define themselves not only in opposition to the government but to American society and culture.
Marcia Hermansen, a Muslim who is also a professor of Islamic studies at Loyola University in Chicago, recounts her shock when she “encountered some Muslim students on my campus who seemed to feel vindicated by the destruction and loss of life on September 11.” As she elaborates, “Quite a number of Muslim youth in America are becoming rigidly conservative and condemnatory of their peers (Muslim and non-Muslim), their parents, and all who are not within a narrow ideological band of what I will define as internationalist, ‘identity’ Islam.”
This trend was picked up by Pew pollsters who reported in 2007 that Muslims older than 30 were much less likely (28 percent) than those aged 18-29 (42 percent) to agree that “there is a natural conflict between being a devout Muslim and living in a modern society.” When it surveyed Muslims again in 2011, Pew asked if “there is only one true way to interpret the teachings of Islam”: 31 percent of foreign-born Muslims agreed, but 46 percent of native-born Muslims did. Also that year, Pew found that 58 percent of foreign-born Muslims agreed “the American people are generally friendly toward Muslim Americans,” compared with only 37 percent of their native-born offspring.
Among many Muslim-American youth, there is self-conscious rejection of their parents’ easygoing, traditionalist understanding of Islam, inevitably suffused with the customs of their homeland. The youthful response is frequent invocations of the ummah, the worldwide community of Muslims that ideally transcends all barriers of ethnicity, race, and nationality. Sustained by such Islamist constructs, young Muslims on college campuses often trump their parents’ insistence that they marry within their ethnic group with a religiously grounded ethic that prioritizes marrying another Muslim regardless of ethnic or racial background.
As Hermansen notes, such youthful perspectives entail a “religious and cultural superiority . . . a mindless and rigid rejection of ‘the Other’ . . . a smug pride in one’s superior manifestation of visible symbols of identity.” One result is a preoccupation with “the evils of Western cultural elements such as the celebration of birthdays, Halloween, and prom night.” And while this mindset does not typically lead to violence, it was clearly on display when Tamerlan Tsarnaev disrupted speakers at his Cambridge mosque when they embraced the celebration of American national holidays such as Thanksgiving and praised a non-Muslim religious leader, Martin Luther King Jr.
Hermansen argues that such views have been “allowed to run unchecked and uncriticized . . . even been encouraged among youth by mainstream Muslim organizations in America.” In fact, Muslim-American leaders have themselves espoused such views, especially before 9/11. Yet since then, these leaders have been struggling, however opportunistically, to adapt to the realities of American life. The problem is that they have all too often led their followers down blind alleys.
For example, in the 1970s and 1980s Muslim leaders explicitly urged their people to avoid assimilating into the American mainstream and to withdraw into Islamic community centers, schools, and colleges. Paradoxically, they also encouraged Muslims to do dawa and seek to convert the very Americans they were to shun. Similarly, these leaders denounced U.S. foreign policies impacting the ummah but discouraged Muslims here from participating in the political process.