Young American Muslims Face Pressure;
Some Are Optimistic Of Increasing Tolerance


Every time a violent attack is carried out in the name of Islam, as happened in Paris, Muslims in this country feel pressure to speak out, to say again how the extremists have nothing to do with it their faith. We wanted to try to understand how young Muslism Americans who came of age after 9/11 have managed that pressure and how it affects their lives and their faith. So we gathered five of them together to talk more about it. Thirty-four-year-old Zeba Khan of San Francisco is a practicing Muslim. She grew up in Ohio and her parents, who were born in India, are very religious.

ZEBA KHAN: My father has not missed a prayer since he was, like, 22 but also really follows the Islamic idea of there's no compulsion in religion, so I've never been required to do anything.

MARTIN: Nada Zohdy is 26 years old. She's Egyptian-American, grew up in a suburb of Detroit. She also came from a religious family, but she remembers when she chose to embrace her faith for herself.

NADA ZOHDY: I was just so amazed as I came to understand Islam's message of social justice as I perceive it.

MARTIN: Thirty-one-year-old Colin Christopher grew up in Madison, Wisc. His family wasn't religious at all. He says he was drawn to the rituals in Islam and six years ago he converted.

COLIN CHRISTOPHER: I find bowing my head on the ground in prostration a very humbling experience and connected to the earth.

ALI RIZVI: I would consider myself a former Muslim.

MARTIN: This is 33-year-old Ali Rizvi. He was born in Pakistan and grew up in Houston. He calls himself a former Muslim, but he still celebrates Muslim holidays and he doesn't eat pork. And finally, 26-year-old Makkah Ali.

MAKKAH ALI: I was born and raised Muslim in an African-American Muslim community in Atlanta, Ga. And I think I didn't have a single non-Muslim friend until I was in high school, which coincided, you know, right with the aftermath of 9/11.

MARTIN: Like all Americans, each of them remembers where they were when the towers fell. But as Muslims, most of them also remember the fear of reprisals and the anxiety in the days that followed.

ALI: In terms of how 9/11 impacted my relationship with my faith, I definitely felt at that young age a compulsion to shatter stereotypes and to be the model Muslim person. And I spent a lot of my high school years trying to be exactly that. And by the time I got to college, I was exhausted (laughter). I was like, I'm not doing this anymore.

ZOHDY: If I could jump in, this is Nada speaking. Building off of what Makkah just shared, I made the decision to start wearing hijab just before I started college. And I suddenly felt this opportunity to kind of be an ambassador for my faith and represent my faith as I understood it and all of its beautiful values. You know, I feel like we're just swimming in this constant pervasive narrative of all of these deeply negative things about Islam, whether it has to do with violence or women's oppression. And I feel like in everything that I do in the way that I live my life, I - you know, I try to chip away at that.

MARTIN: Do all of you feel that compulsion, that part of being a Muslim, even a former Muslim or having it as part of your secular identity, requires that you work to break down stereotypes, that you have to engage in public conversations like the one we're having right now about Islam and its role in our society today? Do you all feel that responsibility?

RIZVI: Absolutely. If I would...



RIZVI: I especially talk to a lot of my younger nephews and nieces and cousins who are Muslim about this because, you know, they need to understand how to educate other people. Simply saying, like, ISIS is not Muslim or al-Qaida is not Muslim is just the wrong way of going about it. Me personally, I do think ISIS and al-Qaida are part of Islam. And I say that because, you know, Islam is not a homogenous entity. It includes everything from agnostic Sufism to the Nation of Islam to the Shia Muslims all the way to, like, the Salfis and everything in the middle. So it's not a homogenous entity. There's no one thing of Islam and Muslims are afraid to say it.

MARTIN: So Ali just said something provocative. Does anyone have any follow-up thoughts on that?

Nobody responded to Ali's point in a moment, until later in the conversation as you'll hear. Instead, Zeba moved the discussion back to the burden of always feeling like every thing she does and says will somehow reflect on her religion. Colin doesn't experience the same level of scrutiny.

CHRISTOPHER: I walk around with every privilege you could imagine. I'm white, I'm male, I'm straight, come from an upper-middle-class background. I'm highly educated. And I try my best to use those privileges in a positive way. My wife is of a Bangladeshi background and so when I'm with her I am treated differently than when I'm by myself. But I'm able to engage in conversations largely with white people who feel comfortable talking to me because I'm white and I'm male about sensitive topics related to Islam and Muslims in a way where they're more open if they're strangers because they don't know I'm Muslim. Oftentimes, this happens in travel situations, right? So I'm on the plane and people are talking about a headline or they're making a comment about their daughter going abroad to Morocco and how they're so concerned about her. And you know what I mean. Or just - they'll even be very straight-up and say I just - these crazy Muslims. They just need to be taken out. And I'm sort of - what I try and do in those situations is I try and engage and offer different perspectives and talk about my own personal experiences with Muslims. And usually towards the end of the conversation I try and at some point drop in that I am a practicing Muslim myself. But it's sort of the end of the conversation because if I drop that at the beginning of the conversation, they wouldn't share what they share with me.

MARTIN: So we are at another moment, the attacks in Beirut and then the larger reverberations after the attacks by ISIS in Paris have focused the media's attention, focused the country's attention, again, on what it is like to live in this country as a Muslim. Is the responsibly, the pressure you feel to always be defending your faith, do you feel that less now or more acutely or have you just decided, you know, maybe one-on-one conversations you can manage that and you accept that, but from a larger perspective you're just going to live your life and people will think what they may?

ALI: So this is Makkah. After September 11, I remember my mom sitting me down and saying very seriously that it might be hard to be Muslim for a while and to live my life in a visible way that was Muslim and I would need to decide what that meant for me. And I remember just crying (laughter) crying at this monumental task that she had placed on my shoulders to decide, you know, what do you believe, who do you stand for? Oh, you know, what exactly are you going to say? But those words have really stuck with me. Every single time something happens to reinforce the negative ideas, every time, you know, we're spoken about like animals, like we're not a billion people, like we're just one huge group that's exactly the same, the question keeps running through my mind, you know, well, what feels right to you?

KHAN: This is Zeba. Can I add in?

MARTIN: The question made Zeba want to share a story about her childhood mosque back in Ohio.

KHAN: A few years ago, somebody came in and set it on fire and caused about a million dollars' worth of damage. He had a gun and thank God no one was in the building at the time. And, you know, a million dollars of damage, it sort of devastated the community. But the local community, non-Muslims, opened their arms and opened their buildings and opened their houses to us so that our Sunday school classes for the kids could be had - taking place and the sermons could take place and the prayers could take place in the local public high school. And so with every horrible action of vandalism and discrimination is also a counter and that happens always that there's a group of the larger community that responds with kindness. And that's an amazing thing and something that I take hope in.

MARTIN: Anyone else have closing thoughts? Colin.

CHRISTOPHER: Yeah, I just want to take on this issue of ISIS head-on.

MARTIN: At this moment, Colin picks up on what Ali had said earlier in the conversation, about ISIS being part of Islam.

CHRISTOPHER: Many of the actions of ISIS are so beyond what human beings understand as being a human being that for me it's harder to even associate the word Islam and Muslims in the same sentence as ISIS or any faith tradition or anything that has any value of any positive nature. It reminds me of aspects of the Crusades in relation to Christianity and just burning towns down and - or justifying the slave trade through Christianity. If someone today went on CNN and said the slave trade, what do you think about that? Is that Christian? It wouldn't make the air, but saying that ISIS is Islam makes the air. And I think we're going to look back on this time period in a hundred years from now and say, God, we were so stupid. I really do. I think that this country does have something unique and it's through the diversity of immigrants coming to this country that makes this country what it is. And I think that we're going to get through this. It's going to take time. It's going to be ugly. I think we will get through it.

MARTIN: That was Colin Christopher, Zeba Khan, Makkah Ali, Neda Zohdy and Ali Rizvi.


MARTIN: If you have thoughts about the segment you just heard or anything else on the show, let us know. You can find us on Twitter - @NPRWeekend - or I'm @rachelnpr. I also just launched a new public page on Facebook with behind-the-scenes details on how we put the show together every week. There's a video message up there right now actually from Will Shortz if you want to check it out. You can find it at

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