Youth Violence Among American Muslims: A Perspective

Having a hybridized identity is about as American as it gets. But for young Muslim adults, the divide between their faith and their nationality can bring a rash of difficulties. Take the case of youth violence among Muslims, which has come under a good bit of scrutiny recently; if only because the Muslim community’s public image is so entangled with the war on terror.

The city of Minneapolis, for instance, set aside a special development grant meant not just to reduce crime in Somali neighborhoods (as was announced), but also, some say, to prevent Somali youth from getting involved in domestic terrorism. (After all, some of these same youth are known to have slipped out of the country to engage in acts of piracy on the east coast of Africa, or to help al-Shabab, a paramilitary youth group, topple Somalia’s transitional government.)

Then there are the recent arrests in Sydney, Australia of Somali youth conspiring to storm an army base and kill soldiers indiscriminately. And this is not just about recent immigrants from third world countries. Reza Taheri-azar, a philosophy and psychology major at the University of North Carolina, and a longtime resident of the United States, struck nine people with his sport utility vehicle at a pedestrian crossing because he wanted to “avenge the deaths or murders of Muslims around the world.” Which begs the question: what drives these young Muslims, some with promising careers in the making, to fight other people’s wars in foreign lands—or worse still, to bring home such wars to be fought against friends and neighbors?

Is it because they belong to a small disgruntled group of social misfits who took the wrong sermons at the local mosque to heart, or is it because they are, in fact, part of an inexorable demographic shift worldwide that is turning society inside out?

Artificially-Synthesized Identity

Jurgen Habermas, the German sociologist, would argue that the problem Minneapolis is experiencing is part of a broader change taking place worldwide in the relationship between citizenship and national identity.

In Europe for instance, two countervailing forces are seriously subverting the national identity of its citizens. On the one hand, the establishment of the European Union has so scrambled the national identities of longstanding nation states that their citizens now complain of being turned into one bland demographic blob. On the other hand, the influx of non-Europeans from Turkey and North Africa brings them face-to-face with communities desperate to live next door, but not to become part of that very blob!

Europe thought it had dealt with these issues way back in the 16th century when monarchies in places like Spain, Portugal, and Sweden gave way; first to territorial states, and then to nation states. These nation states, first formed in Europe and then transplanted elsewhere, were to have sublimated culture, language, and religion to a new collective identity based on a common citizenship within a specific territory.

The nation state was to have been a new collective consciousness, not of people of the same descent (as in an ethnic enclave), but of legally recognized citizens who politically integrate and collectively organize to pursue their individual civil rights. But globalization seems to be unhinging this artificially synthesized identity that, many would argue, has served the modern world more humanely and efficiently than any ethnic or sectarian identity. In the United States, this unhinging manifests itself among young adult Muslims in an odd way that reflects their peculiar circumstances.

Faith vs. Nationality

Recent surveys undertaken on behalf of national Muslim organizations such as the Muslim Youth of North America (MYNA), the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), as well as one published in The Muslim World in January by Fait Muedini, show that Muslim youth suffer identity crises that put their faith and their nationality at odds with each other. They might learn that the mere display of their Islamic identity in school unnerves those around them, or that their American identity doesn’t feel comfortable at the local mosque. Young adult Muslims find themselves caught between two communities, which, too often, look at common issues in ways that polarize rather than synthesize.

They complain, for instance, that the media so distorts the image of Islam that all attempts to say otherwise are dismissed as faith-based babble or a threat to homeland security. Their parents complain as well, listening to their own children speak passionately in defense of US foreign policy or against societal inequities rampant in parts of the Muslim world. This backlash from both sides underscores the tight spots Muslim American youth find themselves in; but it also puts some responsibility for such behavior on, of all things, the lofty ideals of both communities.

As Muslims these youth are taught that in fighting oppression they serve not just the oppressed, but the oppressor as well, because oppression ultimately cuts both ways. They are also taught to think of their communities like the human body: if one part suffers injury, the rest moans in sympathy. As Americans, they see themselves as good cops in the dangerous neighborhood that the world is today. And they see American foreign power not as colonialism in disguise, but as a humanitarian mission to take law and order, democracy, and human rights to those without it. These teachings act in tandem to inspire them—to hold both communities to a higher standard.

As Muslim Americans driven by their consciences speak truth to power, they take their government to task: for example, for its foreign policy imbalances, and the Muslim world for perpetuating antiquated prejudices. Needless to say, many of their fellow citizens, and believers, find such talk unsettling. And so they withdraw from public life, preferring instead to pray at home or hold religious services in basements rather than in the local mosques; and they’ve come to learn that some opinions about America are best kept from friends and neighbors.

They have also discovered (much to their dismay) that to air the core values of their respective communities is to attract the kind of attention from those very communities that casts doubts on their loyalties.