Score One for Tolerance

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.

fontchangedlastfrontcover.jpgThis 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” – 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?

37 thoughts on “Score One for Tolerance

  1. US citizens being stopped from entering the US will be the next big judicial battle. Paging Neal Katyal though he might be too busy advocating for killing rapists.

  2. 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.”

    This reminds me of a story on This American Life, the episode was “Shouting Across the Divide,” where one woman recounts how badly her children were treated by her school and peers after 9/11. I guess I find those stories particularly disheartening, you know those kids are echoing things they hear at home.

  3. 1 · Pagal_Aadmi_for_debauchery said

    US citizens being stopped from entering the US will be the next big judicial battle

    didn’t that already happen with the son of the pakistani ice cream vendor in la – hayat was his name, i think? they were blocked from reentering unless they answered fbi questions while wired up to a lie detector.

    and wasn’t hamdi released under the condition that he give up his us citizenship, even though he was never charged, and was detained without trial (or charges) for several years?

  4. 4 · yasmine said

    have readers come across any other young adult literature related to Muslim life in America?

    wasn’t there that book sandhya blogged about a while ago. i personally thought it had far more irony/sarcasm than would be appreciated by young adults, but the blog post seemed positive about the book.

    and kite runner is written at a really juvenile level, although i guess it wasn’t marketed as ya.

  5. 5 · ice cream man said

    and kite runner is written at a really juvenile level

    idk of too many YA books that contain multiple instances of child rape

  6. johnny valker, when you are old enough to be a ya, you will see that my comment was sarcastic :p

  7. I find that MSAN & CAIR’s commitment to secularism is very weak. Basically their argument is “Hey, we’re no worse than the Christian Right”. Most of the South Asian academic community would find this argument pretty weak, rightly so, coming from the Hindu Student’s Council(HSC) but for some reason their resolve falters when dealing with these groups

  8. Interfaith dialogues are pretty useless when the participants are not representative of the mainstream of their respective faiths. United Church of Christ…come on. They are great people who are on the forefront of civil rights and who knows maybe they come closest to what Jesus had in mind but most other Christians will question their authenticity.

  9. This is an interesting topic, and not at all new to the sociopolitical U.S. scene — we interred American citizens of Japanese descent in concentration camps on U.S. soil during WWII after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

    Another title more germane to the subject at hand is a wonderful book by Farah Ahmedi. “The Story of My Life: An Afghan Girl on the Other Side of the Sky recounts an epic journey. It deftly interweaves a childhood in Afghanistan, where the classrooms are naked chambers with only chalkboards on the walls and are filled with more students than seats (and no books), with an American adolescence, where teenagers struggle to decide whether to try out for school plays, whom to take to the homecoming dance, and where to go to college. In Kabul, they cancel school because of rockets and bombings; in Chicago, Farah might have a snow day. In Kabul, a schoolgirl wears a black dress and a white headscarf; in America, girls need the right jeans and trendy tops. Thanks to a number of good people who crossed her path at critical moments, Farah is thriving. She may be haunted by her past, but she is no longer enslaved by it. She is actively enjoying the realization of her childhood dreams; she’s an Afghan American, free to learn, work, support herself, and choose her own path. She’ll graduate from high school soon and is being recruited by some of the best colleges in the world. Farah is living proof that not only can the human heart endure, it can also thrive. Even in war, there are miracles. Even when limbs are amputated, we are whole. Even in refugee camps, dreams come true. Even when fathers and siblings die young, there is love. The Story of My Life is our new great American memoir. “

  10. I thought this was a blog, not a college application essay titled “Do-Gooders of the World Show their Naive Optimism and Write using lots of Trite Sayings.”

  11. yasmine, I love Mohja Kahf — her writing is really wonderful, and, in my opinion, highly accessible.

    louciecypher, have you participated in interfaith dialogues? I’m wondering where all of this is coming from. Given the variety and diversity of Christian groups and organizations (and even congregations within one church!), what would be a “representative” organization to you?

    Ravi, thanks for this post; it was heartening, especially coming out of Arizona.

  12. louciecypher, have you participated in interfaith dialogues?

    Yes. Buddhist-Christian and Hindu-Christian. Most of the audience was Catholic as the lead was a monk (i.e. not a priest)from a Christian order who was interested in monasticism & meditation. The lay people pretty much stuck to their guns that we were in error but graciously agreed to tolerate us.

    I’m wondering where all of this is coming from. Given the variety and diversity of Christian groups and organizations (and even congregations within one church!), what would be a “representative” organization to you

    Yeah Camille, I am being really unreasonable by suggesting that a denomination like the UCC that ordains gays is not mainstream. How about Baptists, Catholics or Presbyterians? Last time I checked the Pope, who described Buddhism as masturbation or self indulgence, was not a schizo standing on a street corner but rather the head of a state and a global org. That’s where it is coming from. The utter futility of negotiating with absolutists for respect. I as a Hindu will not beg for understanding

  13. Muslim Youths

    Muslim youths are angry, frustrated and extremist because they have been mis-educated and de-educated by the British schooling. Muslim children are confused because they are being educated in a wrong place at a wrong time in state schools with non-Muslim monolingual teachers. They face lots of problems of growing up in two distinctive cultural traditions and value systems, which may come into conflict over issues such as the role of women in the society, and adherence to religious and cultural traditions. The conflicting demands made by home and schools on behaviour, loyalties and obligations can be a source of psychological conflict and tension in Muslim youngsters. There are also the issues of racial prejudice and discrimination to deal with, in education and employment. They have been victim of racism and bullying in all walks of life. According to DCSF, 56% of Pakistanis and 54% of Bangladeshi children has been victims of bullies. The first wave of Muslim migrants were happy to send their children to state schools, thinking their children would get a much better education. Than little by little, the overt and covert discrimination in the system turned them off. There are fifteen areas where Muslim parents find themselves offended by state schools.

    The right to education in one’s own comfort zone is a fundamental and inalienable human right that should be available to all people irrespective of their ethnicity or religious background. Schools do not belong to state, they belong to parents. It is the parents’ choice to have faith schools for their children. Bilingual Muslim children need state funded Muslim schools with bilingual Muslim teachers as role models during their developmental periods. There is no place for a non-Muslim teacher or a child in a Muslim school. There are hundreds of state schools where Muslim children are in majority. In my opinion, all such schools may be designated as Muslim community schools. An ICM Poll of British Muslims showed that nearly half wanted their children to attend Muslim schools. There are only 143 Muslim schools. A state funded Muslim school in Birmingham has 220 pupils and more than 1000 applicants chasing just 60.

    Majority of anti-Muslim stories are not about terrorism but about Muslim culture–the hijab, Muslim schools, family life and religiosity. Muslims in the west ought to be recognised as a western community, not as an alien culture. Iftikhar Ahmad http://www.londonschoolofislamics.org.uk

  14. it’s good that muslims are trying to educate caucasians in america but moderate muslims should also try and reach out to and educate those people who eventually become terrorists.

  15. 4 · yasmine said

    have readers come across any other young adult literature related to Muslim life in America?

    another YA book is “Does My Head Look Big in This?” by Randa Abdel-Fattah.

    Amal Abdel-Hakim is a 17-year-old Australian-Palestinian-Muslim whoÕs asking the same question all teens ask: How do I fit into my world?. SheÕs bright, pretty, popular, and sheÕs just decided to wear the hijab–the headscarf–full time. How this changes AmalÕs life is recounted in serious and hilarious detail and narrated with authenticity by Rebecca Macauley, who manages both teen angst and adult tones with equal aplomb.

    There’s also this recent publication from Teachers College’s Student Press Initiative (SPI) and Ford Foundation: This Is Where I Need to Be: Oral Histories of Muslim Youth in NYC -

    Trained in the methods of oral history at Teachers College, Columbia University, a dozen Muslim teenagers set out to document stories from the real-life experiences and feelings of their Muslim peers in public high schools.

    SPI is working to get a copy of this book into every NYC public school, I believe, along with a curriculum guide.

  16. which may come into conflict over issues such as the role of women in the society

    According to you, what is the role of women in society?

  17. Thank you, Ravi, for such a thoughtful, timely post. These are issues many Desi teens deal with, but often have no space to discuss. I don’t know if anyone has mentioned this already, but Marina Budhos’s Ask Me No Questions is a YA that deals with Muslim issues.

  18. 14 · Iftikhar Ahmad said

    Bilingual Muslim children need state funded Muslim schools with bilingual Muslim teachers as role models during their developmental periods. There is no place for a non-Muslim teacher or a child in a Muslim school.

    wow. this is exactly the opposite of what will promote tolerance. how can you teach a child to be comfortable/tolerant if you isolate them from people who are different, whom they will eventually have to interact with one day? and how can people of other faiths begin to understand muslims if you sequester muslims like this?

  19. louciecypher, I didn’t say you were being unreasonable, I asked for context — thanks for providing it. I think these anecdotes are helpful for understanding how different religious communities work at a micro- and macro-level. Interfaith dialogue in one location may be successful (and involve leadership from “mainstream” churches and other religious groups), or it can be totally absent.

  20. Iftikhar Ahmad, that was one long ridiculous comment. Muslims have no such special rights. And their problems are caused by their own religious fanaticism.

  21. There is no place for a non-Muslim teacher or a child in a Muslim school.

    I do admire the guts and utter lack of irony with which some Muslims make their completely unreasonable demands. Anyway, perhaps then, following your logic, there’s no place for Muslims in the UK, huh, Iftikhar? If you keep up your agenda I’m sure you’ll find a lot of non-Muslims agreeing with that statement.

  22. I don’t think Iftikhar Ahmad is necessarily in the wrong here. Here in NJ there is a decent number of Jewish schools where young Jews can learn essentially the same subjects as their public school peers while still feeling comfortable in expressing their faith, i.e. wearing yarmulkes and tzitzit without being asked why there are threads coming out their ass. As far as I know they don’t really let goyim study or teach there, and many of them do appropriate state and local funds for their own use. The end result is that most of the graduates go on to good universities, Jewish or not.

    What I want to know is that with the UK desi population in its 3rd generation or so, how many of the pupils would actually speak Urdu/Punjabi/Bengali at home? If there were to be bilingual education in UK Muslim schools, what language would it be in?

  23. Johnny Valker:

    Here is more from Iftikhar’s post

    It is the parents’ choice to have faith schools for their children. Bilingual Muslim children need state funded Muslim schools with bilingual Muslim teachers as role models during their developmental periods.

    Is the Jewish community asking for the state to fund their religious schools? The sense of entitlement of this community in the UK is amazing.

  24. 20 · Camille said

    Interfaith dialogue in one location may be successful (and involve leadership from “mainstream” churches and other religious groups), or it can be totally absent.

    in my Yogaville experience, the driving force for which was interfaith communication/collaboration etc, the denominations who played the nicest were in order:

    xtians: 1. Catholic Church (not excommunicated padres, but ones in relatively good standing) 2. Anglican Church

    Judaism: 1. Reform Rabbis (the first and the best collaborators! love em!) 2. Chabad-sympathizing but otherwise Reform Rabbis

    Islam 1. Sufi

    There were a few baptist churches who would arrange visits to the largest temple on-site, in order to give physical examples of damned, heathen relativists who were going to hell for the benefit of curious parishioners.

  25. 24 · louiecypher said

    Is the Jewish community asking for the state to fund their religious schools?

    That was my main concern with his proposal. I don’t think any govt. has a responsibility to foot the bill for faith-based schools, and certainly not in the West. That being said, from time to time, the local school board (I’m not sure about the state DOE) allocates funds to Jewish and Catholic schools for transportation and/or technology upgrades. But that’s still a drop in the bucket compared to financing the whole school.

  26. in my Yogaville experience, the driving force for which was interfaith communication/collaboration etc, the denominations who played the nicest were in order: xtians: 1. Catholic Church (not excommunicated padres, but ones in relatively good standing) 2. Anglican Church Judaism: 1. Reform Rabbis (the first and the best collaborators! love em!) 2. Chabad-sympathizing but otherwise Reform Rabbis

    Dialogue between Reform Rabbis & Buddhists (Hindus to a lesser degree) is a love-in…there’s no tension. Most Reform people I know are crypto-Buddhists to begin with. In the end the only issue is intermarriage. Not over theology but but rather the very real fear of cultural extinction

  27. The right to education in one’s own comfort zone is a fundamental and inalienable human right that should be available to all people irrespective of their ethnicity or religious background.

    Iftikhar: Right on! You would be happy to know that on this side of the pond, the US Supreme Court has interpreted the US Constitution to guarantee a comfort zone for all kids in the United States. It is not a constitutional duty on all public schools to maintain an environment in schools where no kid is ever exposed to queers or wiccans which is always offensive anyway.

  28. Iftikhar Ahmad

    Muslim youths are angry, frustrated and extremist because they have been mis-educated and de-educated by the British schooling. Muslim children are confused because they are being educated in a wrong place at a wrong time in state schools with non-Muslim monolingual teachers. … The right to education in one’s own comfort zone is a fundamental and inalienable human right that should be available to all people irrespective of their ethnicity or religious background. Schools do not belong to state, they belong to parents

    As proof of this we have the the liberal, forward looking, tolerant graduates of the state / community supported in Muslim countries, which follow the policy espoused. Surely, the British educational system will do well by following the shining example set forth by the Madarassas of the Pakistan

  29. cmon guys most terrorist attacks are caused by muslims. the “prophet” muhammad was a killer himself. these guys are part of a nutty cult so they should be profiled for america’s safety!

  30. What is this idea of “inter-faith” dialogue? For me as a Hindu it seems absurd to discuss faith at all, when I have none. Most of the time, people of faith have tried to get me to first get me to admit that I too have a faith – different maybe, then push me into coming up with parallels or counterparts in my “faith” to their icons, and then when neither succeeds bamboozle me into owning up that all I have are some fake icons. Both the current Pope and his predecessor have made it clear that this is what inter-faith dialogue is all about.

  31. what non-sense – this is reverse stereotyping. The article is trying to critize the TSA agents for doing their jobs.. over sensationalizing it by calling them “federal agents” – as if forcing us to picture secret service agents swarming in. if was some John Doe white person with the same metallic object what is to say they would not have been stopped as well?

    The post may have some merit to it, but the leading story is nothing but tabliod journalism…

  32. neither! you losers at SM always bitch about racism and bullying. god shut up. everyone goes through racism so stop sensationalizing what happened to this little muslim chick. its the cold hard truth that the islamic religion is the root of islamic terrorism. you guys just want to put up a “multicultural” face to act “modern”. just a bunch of intellectual wannabes.