Muslim students find American life can be a challenge

Torn between religion and country, many feel the U.S. is anti-Muslim

October 17, 2001|By Susan Sachs | By Susan Sachs,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

NEW YORK - They are Americans who feel duty-bound by Islam to obey American laws. But if their country called them to war against a Muslim army, some of them say they might refuse to fight. They cannot be shaken from the conviction that the United States is intrinsically anti-Muslim. Yet they see it as the one place where Muslims are free to be themselves.

To be young and Muslim in the United States today, as students at Al Noor School in Brooklyn tell it, is to be both outsider and insider, to revel in both roles but see neither as the ideal. It is to be consumed by causes abroad and removed from politics at home, to feel righteous and also confused, to alternate between gratitude and resentment toward the world outside their classrooms.

As any parent knows, this is the paradoxical planet inhabited by many teen-agers, whether they are Muslim or not. But in a country wounded by terrorists and preparing for war, young Muslim-Americans are finding that real life has raised especially acute questions for them about competing values of allegiance and faith.

"We have a burden on us," said Andira Abudayeh, who is 16 and attends Al Noor. "We're Muslims, and we feel like other Muslims around the world do. And we're Americans."

In extended conversations last week, high school students at Al Noor spoke of their empathy for the young Muslims around the world who profess hatred for America and Americans, saying the hostility is an outgrowth of U.S. support for Israel.

They said they do not feel that the hatred extends to them. "Muslims are all one," said Fariah Amin, who is also 16. "They kind of think of us as just living in America."

The students complained that the United States threw its weight around too much in the world, but that it also was not active enough in support of what they called freedom-seeking Muslims in Chechnya and the "true" Muslims who oppose the rulers of Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

"Isn't it ironic that the interests of America are always against what Muslims want?" said Fami Fozi, a 17-year-old student who said he would rather go to prison than fight in the U.S. Army against Muslims.

The students also said the Quran, which Muslims consider the literal word of God, provides a perfect blueprint for their lives. Their ideal society would follow Islamic law and make no separation between religion and state.

In the meantime, they said, they want to become doctors and lawyers and teachers in the United States. Even though the U.S. government may use taxes to finance things that are un-Islamic - licensing the sale of alcoholic beverages, for example - they said Muslims here should pay taxes and accept the judgments of secular U.S. courts.

"If you want to survive in freedom, I guess you just have to pay taxes to get the benefits from America," said Ahmad Odetalla, 14. "You know you're not going to be the one who buys alcohol. So as long as you stay away from what is forbidden in religion, I guess we have to pay taxes."

The students at Al Noor may not be a scientific sampling of Muslim-American youth. But their comments are similar to those posted by Muslim-Americans on the numerous Internet chat rooms and message boards about Islam, and their outlook is similar in some ways to that of other newcomers.

Different worlds

Immigrants and their children often feel the strain between the adopted and the native culture. Their political interests may focus on the topics and debates in their homeland. The Al Noor students are children of immigrants from places like Pakistan, Egypt, the occupied Palestinian territories and Yemen, which have been preoccupied for years by the efforts of Islamic fundamentalist movements to gain power through violence or the ballot box.

Still, some of their comments reflect what they have been reading and have been exposed to in the United States, where some Muslim clerics say openly what is said underground in Muslim countries: that the United States is to blame for the ills of the Muslim world through its support of more secular Muslim rulers.

Some of the students, for example, said they would support any leader who they decided was fighting for Islam. Among those who do not fit that definition, they said, are the rulers of just about every Arab and Muslim country.

Fozi, for instance, said that he would support any leader whom he determined to be an observant Muslim fighting for an Islamic cause, and that he would do so even if it meant abandoning the United States. "I would support him with my life," he said. How would he know who was a true Muslim? "I use my understanding of Islam and see what the person is doing," Fozi said.

Several of the young men said they could fight against a Muslim if they were convinced that the Muslim had committed a crime. They all said they were not convinced that Osama bin Laden - or any Muslim, for that matter - was behind the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, attacks that they condemned as violating all precepts of Islam.

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