A few years ago, on a 4th of July cookout, I met a group of youth who were feeling alienated and downright embarrassed about declaring their Muslim identity. "Am I a foreigner Muslim living in America or a Muslim American who was born oversees?" one of them asked. "Being a Muslim and an American is not easy," remarked the other.
This conflict manifests itself when a third-grader calls in sick to celebrate Eid at the end of Ramadan and along the way turns from a "Bilal" into a "Bill." Years ago, when my patients would say, "Doc, you look very familiar," I would respond, "You may have seen my picture in the post office."
Today is the celebration of American independence and of the notion that men and women from all over the world come to this nation to live in shared values of freedom and liberty. But this 4th of July is a time when Muslim American youth find it increasingly difficult to experience that national identity.
A Pew research poll found that 1 in 2 Muslims say it has become more difficult to be a Muslim in America since 9/11. A quarter rationalizes suicide bombings under specific circumstances. What you have is an intense media stereotyping on one hand and constant anti-American rhetoric from largely immigrant parents on the other. Sandwiched between the two is a confused youth.
But why should America care about "their" crisis?
A disconnect between "Muslim" and "American" loyalty is making some of these youth vulnerable to extremism. The wife of the Washington sniper who killed 10 Americans in 2002 characterized him as "confused, puzzled and unsure of himself." Maj. Nadal Hasan murdered 13 of his fellow servicemen and women to express his failure to reconcile Islam and American values. Five Muslim men from Northern Virginia were convicted in Pakistan of attempting to battle U.S. troops in Afghanistan. The phenomenon is color blind and gaining momentum by the day. Gender too, is not a predictable marker. Jihad Jane, anyone?
On this 4th of July, why not put these "Muslim" and "American" loyalties in the melting pot and raise a generation of "Muslimericans"?
Here is the recipe: Help Muslim youth integrate their pledge to Holy Quran with their Pledge of Allegiance. Muslim American parents must appreciate the freedom and opportunity that America provides, even in the aftermath of 9/11. Last I checked, thankfulness was a core Islamic value. Muslim scholars must personify verse 4:60 of the Holy Quran proclaiming, "Obey Allah and obey His prophets and obey those in authority among you," instead of creating doubts regarding loyalty to non-Muslim states.
Some identity conflicts are inescapable, but others can be avoided. My Muslim friend in the Army experienced a moment of confusion when he was being deployed to Iraq — inescapable. But the huge media frenzy that came after another Pew poll from December 2009 claiming that 47 percent of American Muslims think of themselves as Muslims first and Americans second — totally avoidable. A similar poll three years ago received no media attention when 42 percent of Christians answered the same question in the exact same way.
Media, instead of focusing on those accused of fostering or committing terrorism can protect the rights of Muslim youth by avoiding stereotyping. Try explaining to a 20-year-old why no TV channel was interested in covering a 1,000-strong Muslim Peace Conference when they would have flocked in a heartbeat for one Muslim planning to blow himself up.
And no indirect lifestyle pressures please. Many Muslim American women are educated, and hijab is their choice, not a sign of oppression. Who says that shaving a beard or going to a night club is necessary for integration? No one should be pressured into a pre-marital relationship. And yes, football can be fun without beer. Is being different not a part of American individualism?
Once embraced and empowered, these "Muslimericans" would not only make America safe but also become the ambassadors of freedom by supporting a Saudi woman's right to a driver's license, being the voice of Indonesian Christians in countering blasphemy laws, or helping restore human rights for millions of persecuted Ahmadiyya Muslims in Pakistan.
And to the Muslim youth at 4th of July cookouts this year: Jews, Blacks, Latinos, Japanese, Irish and many others endured alienation and embarrassment in the past. So what if it is your turn now? Freedom is not free.
Faheem Younus is the President of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community youth organization — the oldest Muslim Organization in the U.S. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.