A recent story I read in the New York Times last week began with this anecdote about a trip to the airport that I know many of us can relate to:
Yasmine Hafiz was passing through security at an airport near Washington several weeks ago when a federal agent stopped her. Something strange and metallic had shown up in her carry-on bag during screening. Now she needed to explain what the suspicious object was.
At 18, newly graduated from high school, Yasmine knew the drill all too well. A few years earlier, an immigration officer had demanded she present a visa to board a flight from Canada to her home in Arizona. It was as if, because she had dark skin and a Pakistani surname and was Muslim, she, an American citizen, still needed permission to enter her own country.
This time, the security agent began unpacking the carry-on bag until he found his quarry. It was a bronze disc plated with gold. “It’s a medal,” said Yasmine’s mother, Dilara, who was traveling with her. “It’s from the president.”
Yasmine had received the medallion in the White House the day before, when she was honored as one of 139 Presidential Scholars.
This airport story is not one-of-a-kind – many of us have been through similar experiences in recent years. What it is resemblant of, however, is one of the challenges many South Asian-American students face – despite widespread success in various areas of student life, from math and science to athletics, South Asian high school and college students in the U.S. still face misconceptions about their culture, religion, and background, often at the most basic level. One graduating senior from high school in Arizona, Yasmine Hafiz, who is described in the Times article above, at only 18 years old, is working hard with her family to change misconceptions of Islam that are common in American schools, discussions and media. She and her family have written a book, the “American Muslim Teenager’s Handbook,” that aims to “bridge a cultural chasm” (NYT) by giving a clear and light explanation of the basic religious and cultural tenets of Islam for audiences of all ages. This book is an “easy-to-understand, nonproselytizing explanation” of Islam that has become a popular and moderate explanation of the religion among Jewish mothers and Episcopal schools in Arizona, as well as the ministry of education of Malaysia. Yasmine’s younger brother Imran, a sophomore, explains why his family has written the book:
“I went to bed on Sept. 10th an American, and on Sept. 11th, I became a Muslim in people’s minds,” says Imran Hafiz, a high school sophomore in Phoenix. And not just any Muslim.
He was only in fourth grade back then, but that shift in perceptions affected Imran directly. A few days later, all of a sudden his pals at school told him, “You can’t play soccer with us anymore.” When he asked them why not, they responded, “Because you’re a Taliban.”
The youngster was shocked and scared, but his family helped him see that his friends’ reaction “came from ignorance, not from hate,” he says.
Since then, Imran, his older sister Yasmine, and their mother, Dilara, have been hard at work on a dual project: to write a book that could dispel that ignorance and at the same time help Muslim youths deal with the many issues that confront them. (NYT)
To write the book, the family had to conduct some research of their own, and in addition, they sent out a survey to 44 Islamic schools, and received 150 responses to their questionnaire. They found, as in any major religion, that many Muslim youth have fundamental differences in opinion on a variety of religious and cultural issues, “from why they are Muslim to how often they pray to whether or not they wear the hijab” (CSM).
“Along with “Islam 101,” there’s a guide to prayer and the hajj, tips on reading the Koran, and thoughtful discussion of controversial issues. One chapter deals with “the 4 ‘D’s” â€“ dating, dancing, drinking, and drugs.” (CSM)
The book has been a great success, but the family has not stopped at merely publishing – they have also attended interfaith forums, where they often patiently respond to questions that often come from a predisposition to fear Islam, or a lack of knowledge about the faith.
“A few Sundays ago, Yasmine and Imran spoke as part of an interfaith series before a mostly liberal audience at the Scottsdale Congregational United Church of Christ. Even there, many of the questions were harsh: “What is generating this tremendous hatred of radical Muslims toward Christianity?” “Why has there been so little outcry by Muslims against fanaticism?” One congregant who had served in Kuwait with the Army National Guard recalled her fear at the sight of a roomful of Muslim women praying.” (NYT)
Though not a Muslim myself, I can certainly understand the issues with tolerance and ignorance that students of South Asian descent have had to deal with in the past few years. As an avid high school debater, I was often in interesting situations in which we were debating fundamental national security issues including racial profiling, religious discrimination, and immigration quotas, often in a group that included many very bright students of South Asian descent. Many students held preconceived notions that were often fed to them by much of the media, but as opposed to angry reactions, students of South Asian descent often changed their peers’ views through logical reasoning and explanation of their culture and background. I remember one of the speeches I was proud of was one to my fellow students in which I explained how I, as a proud follower of politics and government, and the son of parents who had strived to achieve the American Dream, was dismayed at calls for racial profiling.
There are certainly barriers that young South Asians must work to break down, but the actions of the Hafiz family shows that these barriers are certainly not impossible to scale. Yasmine was rightly recognized for her admirable achievements, named one of the 2008 Presidential Scholars, selling 3500 books, and winning the 2008 Arizona Book Award. Muslims in the United States certainly face unique challenges; this book has taken one step towards helping them – have readers come across any other young adult literature related to Muslim life in America?