American Muslim Teenagers: Torn Between Religion and Culture | Teachers College Columbia University

Skip to content Skip to main navigation

American Muslim Teenagers: Torn Between Religion and Culture

Dr Louis Abdellatif Cristillo, a professor at Teachers College, Columbia University, studied experiences of Muslim boys and girls in New York City public high schools in a recently completed three-year research initiative.

The United States is home to Muslims from all walks of life and ethnicities. Some are immigrants and others are born and reared Americans; yet, that does not diminish the difficulties Muslim youth sometimes face on account of their religious identity.

Muslim teenagers—both American born and first generation immigrants—are torn between the norms and values taught at home and the youth culture of public high schools in the U.S.

Dr Louis Abdellatif Cristillo, a professor at Teachers College, Columbia University, studied experiences of Muslim boys and girls in New York City public high schools in a recently completed three-year research initiative.

Funded by the Ford Foundation, the project collected data on how the post-9/11 school climate has impacted the lives and attitudes of youth, especially in regard to their personal identification as Muslims and Americans.

Educators have studied gang violence, poverty, achievement problems and language barriers between Christian and Jewish youth. But no one has yet added to the understanding of Muslim youth in the U.S. and their distinct needs as the fastest growing religious minority in public schools, said Cristillo.

Muslim parents in 2006, for example, had to make the bitter choice between sending their children to school for the mandatory statewide Regents exam—an exam that could affect their future—or being marked absent in order to celebrate Eid-ul-Adha with their families.

What interested him most, Cristillo said, is the impact of the post-9/11 school climate on Muslim students’ feelings of being accepted into or excluded from the American mainstream.

Cristillo, along with his research assistant Muntasir Sattar, interviewed 633 high school students as part of his research, of an estimated100,000 Muslim students in New York City Public Schools.

The research also included focus groups of students and key adult stakeholders such as teachers, guidance counselors and parents, in addition to ethnographic interviews inside a high school, conducted by Dr Ameena Ghaffar-Kucher.
"Psychologically, the youth is stressed out to confirm and perform," said Cristillo.

Like other religions, Islam prescribes certain dos and don’ts in relation to dress, social norms, culture and dietary restrictions. At times, these tenets and teachings can be difficult to adhere to—especially in a student community that is ignorant or misinformed of your belief system which does not understand your religious sentiments, remarked Cristillo.

As an educator, trained in Teachers College at Columbia University, Noura Badawi pinpointed the confusion that has clouded many young and fertile minds. "Muslim teenagers are very conflicted; they have a need to assimilate, but they also have a strong desire to please their parents and their community," she said.

"Sometimes the pressure is so great that the teenagers go the complete opposite direction or break free by moving away as soon as an opportunity comes up."

For example, a headscarf is considered to be a mandatory part of the traditional Islamic dress code for women, but it is often associated by Western people with female oppression.

 "The constant cracks at Muslims in general are enough to make the girls feel different, misunderstood, hurt and secluded" said Badawi.
"This is especially true for those girls who wear hijab. Some of them removed it out of insecurity and fear of being singled out, targeted, and being the butt of a joke," she added.  

"At the beginning, I didn’t cover up, but I dressed up modestly, until I saw another girl pass by in the cafeteria, wearing a hijab, which gave me the will and the confidence to start wearing it again and embrace my identity as an Arab-Muslim," said Al-Shoeb, the student who had emigrated from Saudi Arabia.

High school is particularly difficult for teenage Muslim girls, said Cristillo, because they often are much more  sequestered than boys, especially those who come from conservative families.

"It is often young girls, more than boys, who must consciously negotiate their identity in public," said Cristillo.

 Some boys who shave and groom themselves like other kids in the school can hide their ethnic background, Cristillo said, but the stereotype that young Muslim men pose a threat continues to be a problem for many high schoolers.

"A man with a beard on a subway is usually feared by other passengers because he resembles the terrorists they see on television,” said Sattar, Cristillo’s research assistant. 

The way Muslim boys are profiled in the post September 11 era is counterproductive, said Sattar, and boys—especially those who grow beards for religious reasons—are labeled by other students as politically charged individuals and dangerous.

"The US government’s anti-terrorism policies have sowed the fear of homegrown Islamic radicalism in the American consciousness," said Cristillo.

The focus on how students cope with youth pressures in high school is a means of informing educators, social service providers and public policy makers how necessary it is to cater for the various needs of Muslim students.

The data collected from the conversations with many of the Muslim students, according to Cristillo, show that some students avoid revealing their ethnic identity to non-Muslim students for fear of being ridiculed or harassed. More religiously oriented students are, however, forthright about it.

"Islamophobia has been around for a long time," said Cristillo. "There are stereotypes about Arabs and Islam that go back centuries.  Sadly, 9/11 was the catalyst for the US government to institute draconian policies that authorized unfair measures like racial profiling. And this, in turn, has legitimized many of the negative stereotypes in the consciousness of the American public."

Dr Cristillo’s research is intended to  promote understanding and tolerance toward Muslim youth on the part of school officials, city agencies and private community organizations that provide services to Muslim youth.
"There are lots of assumptions about Muslim youth and many stereotypes are misinformed," said Sattar. 
A newly published anthology of oral histories of 23 Muslim adolescents, titled This Is Where I Need to Be: Oral Histories of Muslim Youth in NYC, was compiled and written by 12 Muslim teenagers who recorded and wrote the oral histories as part of Dr Cristillo’s study. A teacher’s guidebook to accompany this volume is now being prepared for publication in Spring 2009.

"Our goal is to encourage high schools to incorporate this volume in their courses to teach about tolerance for religious and ethnic diversity," said Dr. Cristillo.
The article "American Muslim Teenagers: Torn Between Religion and Culture" was published on December 21st in the "Watan - Arab American National Newspaper"

Published Monday, Jan. 5, 2009


More Stories