Muslims Balance Between Cultures

A tradition of assimilation makes immigrants and their children less likely recruits for terrorism, experts say.
By Gaiutra Bahadur
The Philadelphia Inquirer

Adam Bdeir jigged his shoulders like rapper Jay-Z. Then the 7-year-old spat out the Arabic alphabet, to the beat of a Middle Eastern drum: Alif, Baa, Taa.

The so-called Alif Baa rap, concocted at a summer camp among suburban estates, is a twist on an old story: Immigrants and their children become part of American society by fusion. But it also captures – in the weeks after suicide bombings in London carried out by Britons by birth – why experts say second-generation Muslims here are less likely recruits for terrorist organizations.

Though the camp in Whitemarsh, al-Bustan, is not exclusively Muslim or even Arab American, it is devoted to promoting Arab culture. It is part of a multicultural mechanism that allows Muslims here to strike a compromise between two worlds, even in the midst of a post-9/11 backlash that has made that compromise harder. And its campers mirror the Muslim population in the United States: They come from middle-class, suburban families who do not live sealed off in ethnic enclaves.

The descendants of Muslim immigrants in Europe – largely guest workers from Northern Africa who rebuilt cities after World War II – continue to live in ghettos isolated by poverty, language, religion or national origin. One nationality tends to overwhelm: Pakistanis in England, Moroccans in the Netherlands, Algerians in France.

“It’s much easier to recruit in enclaves,” said Robert S. Leiken, an expert on immigration and national security at the Nixon Center in Washington. “It’s much easier to make contacts within a community like that.”

It’s also much easier for residents of an enclave to feel they or their communities don’t have a stake – or have been denied a stake – in their adopted country. That kind of alienation exists to a lesser degree among second-generation Muslims in the U.S., Leiken and other analysts say.

American Muslims are better educated and wealthier than Americans as a whole, and a third are professionals, according to a 2002 Cornell University survey.

They come from a wide variety of countries. Only seven percent of mosques draw worshippers from only one ethnic group, according to a 2001 Hartford Seminary study. And mosques are growing faster in suburbs than in cities.

The parents of many U.S.-born Muslims came here in a wave of students and high-skilled workers after 1965. They have lived the American Dream, and it has scattered them across the country, mostly in towns and suburbs.

Adam, the 7-year-old mock rapper, is the son of a Palestinian, a medical researcher at the University of Pennsylvania who settled his family in Jenkintown when he immigrated nine years ago.

“It had a good school system,” explained Mukhtar Bdeir, 13, Adam’s brother and a camp counselor at al-Bustan. “And, it was a nice, small town.”

It’s also a town with few other Muslims or Arab Americans – the kind of suburban patch that can both fast-track assimilation and make the children of immigrants feel more like misfits.

But a web of civic organizations keeps the Bdeir boys from falling as they try to straddle two cultures. There is al-Bustan, and there is the Foundation for Islamic Education, the Villanova Islamic center where Mukhtar learned Arabic and the Koran.

Such civic organizations allow “the kids to be American and to be Muslim at the same time,” said University of Illinois sociologist Louise Cainkar, another expert on American Muslims. “That is a path other groups have taken in this country. You can be both.”

Just as U.S. Muslims differ from their European cousins, the United States is a different place for foreigners from most European countries. Over more than 150 years as an immigrant magnet, it has developed a model for accepting and integrating immigrants that sets it apart.

While pressures on immigrants to fit in have always existed in the United States, pluralism is a reigning social value.

The children of fairly secular immigrants have, in fact, become more Muslim than their parents, Cainkar said. The revival has taken the form of an explosion in Muslim student associations on campuses, in more U.S.-born women donning the veil, and in more mosque-going.

In France, Muslim girls can’t wear a hijab, or traditional head scarf, at public schools. In the Netherlands, Moroccans are barred from nightclubs. In Germany, Christian and Jewish organizations are allowed to offer instruction in public schools, but Muslim organizations can’t.

“In Europe, the children [of Muslim immigrants] have not been accepted, by and large,” said Leiken, who argues that rejection makes them ripe for jihadists. “There’s a lot of discrimination.”

Policies and attitudes following 9/11, however, have changed the way many Muslims feel about their place in America. As Murad Mustafa, a graduate of Northeast High School born in the United States, put it: “America’s not for us.”

The beheading of businessman Nick Berg by insurgents in Iraq prompted Mustafa’s classmates to lob slurs at Arab Americans. When Mustafa’s twin brother fought back with his own insults, it set off a chain of events that ended with federal agents’ scouring the family’s ceiling for weapons and his brother’s being transferred to a disciplinary school.

Mustafa lives in a diverse neighborhood in the Northeast, next to an elderly white woman he affectionately calls mashghuula(in Arabic, “the guardian” of the block). He goes to al-Aqsa, the mainstream Philadelphia mosque that draws worshippers from 40 countries and from both the suburbs and the city. And he salutes the mostly African American customers at his family’s convenience store with the inflections of Philadelphia: “Yo, man, what’s up?”

Still, however assimilated, he feels targeted. Some say that even that sense of siege has shoved Muslims into the mainstream, as they organize against hate crimes and profiling.

“You see Muslims as participants in coalitions,” Cainkar said. “You see Muslims on the public stage.”

And you also see young Muslims continue to sort through the tensions between their two identities.

Nadia Elokdah, an al-Bustan counselor, regrets that her father – an Egyptian immigrant – never taught her Arabic, in order to ease her acceptance in the Bucks County suburbs. But she has already made concessions of her own. She does not wear the hijab.

“If I lived somewhere else, I would do it,” the 18-year-old said. “We’re told by the Koran not to stand out. We’re told to fit into society.”

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