Young American Muslims Face Pressure, Are Optimistic Of Increasing Tolerance

 (Courtesy of Nada Zohdy)
(Courtesy of Nada Zohdy)

Every time a violent attack is carried out in the name of Islam, as happened in Paris, Muslims in this country often feel pressure to speak out, to say how extremists have nothing to do with their faith.

We turned to Muslim Americans, who came of age after Sept. 11, to understand how they have managed that kind of pressure, and how it affects their lives and their faith.

Five young Americans, each with different Muslim backgrounds, share their views with NPR's Rachel Martin. Despite varying levels of scrutiny they've faced as a result of their faith, many were optimistic about a more tolerant future for the country.

Interview Highlights

Zeba Kahn, 34, San Francisco, Calif.

Kahn has very religious parents from India, but says she's never felt the pressure to follow their faith in the same way.

"My father hasn't missed a prayer since he was like 22, but also really follows the Islamic idea of there's no compulsion in religion so I've never been required to do anything."

She recalls a few years ago when someone set her community's mosque on fire, and the local community stepped up to help.

"With every horrible action of vandalism and discrimination there's always a counter," she says. "There's a group of the larger community that responds with kindness and that's an amazing thing and something that I take hope in."

Nada Zohdy, 26, Washington, D.C.

Zohdy, who grew up in a Detroit suburb with moderately religious parents from Egypt, remembers when she chose to embrace her faith for herself.

In college, when she started wearing hijab, she remembers, "I suddenly felt this opportunity to kind of be an ambassador for my faith and represent my faith as I understood it and all of its beautiful values. I feel like we're just swimming in this constant, pervasive narrative of all of these deeply negative things about Islam, whether it has to do with violence or women's oppression and I feel like in everything that I do in the way that I live my life, you know, I try to chip away at that."

Colin Christopher, 31, Silver Spring, Md.

Christopher, who grew up in Madison, Wisc., calls himself a practicing Muslim and comes from a family that's not religious at all. He says he was drawn to the rituals in Islam and converted six years ago, but that as a white, straight, educated male, says he doesn't experience the same level of scrutiny.

"Many of the actions of ISIS are so beyond what human beings understand as being a human being, that for me it's hard to even associate Islam and Muslims in the same sentence as ISIS or any faith tradition or anything that has any value of any positive nature. It reminds me of aspects of the crusades in relation to Christianity and just burning towns down or justifying the slave trade through Christianity. If someone today went on CNN and said 'The slave trade, what do you think about that, is that Christian?' it wouldn't make the air. But saying that ISIS is Islam makes the air. And I think we're gonna look back on this time period in 100 years from now and say, 'God we were so stupid.' I really do, I think that this country does have something unique and it's through the diversity of immigrants coming to this country that makes this country what it is. And I think that we're going to get through this. It's gonna take time, it's gonna be ugly, I think we will get through it.' "

Ali Rizvi, 33, Arlington, Va.

Rizvi, born in Pakistan and raised in Houston, Tx., considers himself a former Muslim — though he still celebrates Muslim holidays and doesn't eat pork.

He's not as quick to disassociate ISIS and other extremist groups from Islam or Muslims.

"Simply saying ISIS is not Muslim or al-Qaida is not Muslim is just the wrong way of going about it. Me, personally, I do think ISIS and al-Qaida are part of Islam. And I say that because Islam is not a homogenous entity. It includes everything from agnostics to ... to and everything in the middle ... and Muslims are afraid to say it."

Makkah Ali, 26, Atlanta, Ga.

Ali was born and raised Muslim in African-American Muslim community in Atlanta, Ga., remembers a distinct change after the Sept. 11th attacks.

"I remember my mom sitting down and saying very seriously that it might be hard to be Muslim for a while and to live my life in a visible way that was Muslim and I would need to decide what that meant for me. And I remember just crying at this monumental task that she had placed on my shoulders to decide what do you believe, who do you stand for, you know, what exactly are you going to say, but those words have really stuck with me every time something happens to reinforce the negative ideas every time we're spoken about like animals, like we're not a billion people, like we're just one huge group that's exactly the same. The question keeps running through my mind, 'Well what feels right to you?' "

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