Where Are You From? The Muslim Youth’s Identity Crisis

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Change is difficult regardless of if the change is physical or emotional. Often when a person undergoes a physical change, such as moving from one place to another, it is because of pressures in their current homes, the promise of a better life somewhere else or a combination of the two factors. Similarly, when a person undergoes an internal change, it is often because of internal or external pressures and the promise of a better, or simply good life. However, the definition of a good life is subjective; there is no universal consensus on what that is. And so people, especially youth, become confused about what it is and how to attain it.

The problem is compounded for young Muslims. Consider that a large proportion of Canadian Muslims are either immigrants or the children of immigrants and so they have strong attachments to countries other than Canada. Therefore, some very important aspects of their lives, including family, culture, and native tongue are directly linked with those places. Consequently, Muslim youth who are immigrants or the children of immigrants and have mostly grown up in Canada will be equally or more influenced by their traditional culture as by the Canadian Western one. But problems can occur when the definition and guidelines for living a good life differ amongst the two cultures, as they do frequently. The resulting interaction and conflict between the two can make a person question the validity of both and themselves. Sometimes that questioning results in the identity crisis much referred to when discussing Muslim youth.

The crisis is one with two main factors. First is the corrupting influence of some mainstream Canadian and Western pressures on youth. Second is the corrupting influence of a traditional culture’s pressures on youth. Included in the Western pressures are the stereotypical depictions of Muslims in the West [insert screaming A-rab terrorist here], and of ethnic minorities in the West [insert genius Asian here].

The crisis is one with two main factors. First is the corrupting influence of some mainstream Canadian and Western pressures on youth. Second is the corrupting influence of a traditional culture’s pressures on youth.

I think it’s safe to say that I write from experience, being a visible Muslim (because of the hijab) who also happens to be a Nigerian immigrant. I remember growing up and being continuously bombarded with images of who a young black African girl should be. They were not the images of the ideal that I and many others are trying to reach of an observant Muslimah (admittedly, a hijabi would look strange in a rap video). Rather, they were the most common stereotypical images of black America: rappers, entertainers and basketball players that were loud, silly and mildly barbaric. The pressure of conforming to these stereotypes was made all the stronger because the caricatures portrayed looked so much like me- others might be attracted to them for different reasons. And yet, I was never satisfied with resigning myself to them.

Adding to the problem of Canadian and Western Stereotypes are the equally formidable stereotypes of the traditional cultures of Muslims. For example, a young person that has grown up in Canada may be unfairly labeled as being troublesome because he or she is seen as “Westernized” and has having lost the traditional culture. In order to prevent that labeling, some go to extremes. For example, as I grew older, I discarded the false images and roles pushed on me by Canadian and Western stereotypes in favour of my African heritage. I rushed headlong into an Afro-centric worldview that was inspired by my embracing the ideas of pan-Africanism. I thought the ideology would help to create and preserve a stronger attachment to my traditional culture so I could not be accused of abandoning it. But the ideology did not or could not do that. It only helped to increase my confusion about identity and purpose. How could I attain to a good life when there seemed to be a different definition of that wherever I turned to?

I stayed in that confused state until I recognized the truth that never really left me. The answer was so utterly simple and so profound, it changed the way I lived my life. The answer was Islam. Don’t get me wrong, I was always a Muslim but when the question of identity arose, I looked high and low but not to the truth that was always a part of my life. Subhanallah, the questions of identity and purpose were all answered and the pursuit of a good life was given a blueprint! As Allah says in Qur’an (translation):

“Whoever works righteousness — whether male or female — while he (or she) is a true believer (of Islamic Monotheism) verily, to him We will give a good life (in this world with respect, contentment and lawful provision), and We shall pay them certainly a reward in proportion to the best of what they used to do (i.e. Paradise in the Hereafter)”
[al-Nahl 16:97]

I found the reassurances that I was looking for in Islam, and there was absolutely no need to look elsewhere. However, the confusion that one may undergo because of different influences can result in a person trying to achieve a compromise between them. But with compromise comes the danger of creating a Frankenstein of Canadian and Western customs, traditional cultural customs and Islam, even if they are contradictory. An example would be a clubbing hijabi, or a guy who expects his sister to wear jilbab (which is a noble thing to do), but he’s drinking and partying up with girls.

Alhamdulillah, instead of being Frankenstein-like, this fusion of cultures and ideals is proving to have some very positive effects. For example, the beginnings of a community of young Muslims that is bound together primarily by religion, and not by Canadian Western culture or traditional culture, is emerging. Because of alienation from traditional as well as Canadian Western
culture, there is a growing sense of understanding and community amongst young Muslims who are drawn together by that alienation. We’ve known, and are now experiencing for ourselves, the reality of Islam as a unifying force for all people, regardless of race, ethnicity and culture. As the best of creation, Prophet Mohammad (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) said:

“O you who believe, verily your Lord is One, and your father [Adam] is one. There is no superiority of an Arab over a non-Arab or of a non-Arab over an Arab, or of a red man over a black man or of a black man over a red man, except in terms of taqwa (piety).”

By understanding that principle of unity, young Muslims will have the potential to live and implement it, insha’Allah. However, emphasizing that growing understanding is not to deny the deep racism, tribalism and colourism that exist and may even be prevalent amongst the Muslims, including youth. Nor is it to deny that ethnic cliques form very easily amongst Muslims because of the large immigrant communities. Additionally, there are many Muslim youth who compromise their religious beliefs, cultural background or both in order to wholly be a part of mainstream Canadian and Western society.

I don’t have a specific culture, but the culture that fits with Islam.

Despite these realities, young Muslims are showing the potential to create a unique and dynamic community, a community that is distinct from the mainstream Canadian Western culture and various traditional cultures without being foreign to either. Rather it would be an affirmation of Islam that incorporates the best of both. As I recently heard a sister say “I don’t have a specific culture, but the culture that fits with Islam.”

  • This is a beautiful and important article. As an American-born Muslimah with parents from Afghanistan and Lebanon, I could really relate. Thank you for your insights!

  • Semeerah Abdulqadir

    I agree

  • Leviathan

    Nice article but I do not think alienation always has a unifying force. Alienation can also make worse whatever pre-existing discord might have already existed. For example, within the alienated minority we might have one group trying to be more like the majority and one group that has become excessively religious as some kind of backlash to the super-modern, liberal way of life promoted for the majority. In that case, we might get little ghettos where even within alienation, little groups never mix and empathize and get together but pass judgment upon judgment and feel suspicion and resentment. It is like even among all the bullied kids there is a dominance hierarchy.
    The problem is that many immigrant Muslim communities are not only bringing in the positives but also their negative attitudes about Muslims from other countries, about other races, about the West and using those as a barometer to judge. That can lead to more alienation even within alienated minority groups and so the suffering of alienation which could have instilled lessons in being open-minded, compassionate and acceptance are lost.
    I have experience of being accepted within the Muslim community in Canada but I have also seen racist or contemptuous attitudes young Muslims have shown one another.