By Leila Fadel
Fashion designers. Community activists. Parents. Converts. High school students facing down bullies. Podcasters creating their own space to exhale.
The newest generation of American Muslims is a mosaic, one of the most racially and ethnically diverse faith groups in the country. At a time when all religions are struggling to keep youth engaged, Islam is growing in the U.S., according to the Pew Research Center.
Many American Muslims found themselves on the defensive after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. But this generation says it is tired of being expected to apologize. Instead, young Muslims are determined to take control of their own stories. And they are creating fresh paths for the estimated 3.45 million Muslims in America.
Rather than defending themselves, they are defining themselves. In a tense political climate, they are worried less about explaining Islam to others and more about contributing to the American tapestry through their unique perspectives.
“There is a distinctive American Islam that is emerging,” says Jihad Turk.
Turk is the head of California-based Bayan Claremont, the only Islamic graduate school in the country. There, he tells his students that “the sign of us having arrived in America is not just that we are consumers of culture but that we’re producers of culture. That we contribute to art and the aesthetic of what it means to be an American.”
Over the past year, NPR correspondent Leila Fadel traveled across the country — from Chicago to Los Angeles to northern California to southern Texas — to meet young Muslims expressing themselves in new ways. Below is a montage of what she found.
Her stories were reported in collaboration with National Geographic. You can read and see more in the May issue of the magazine.
Amani Al-Khatahtbeh: “Can’t be put in a box”
From “Austere Attire” to “Haute Hijab,” young Muslim fashion designers are starting their own lines to give Muslim women who want to dress modestly ways to do it with confidence and style. And the fashion industry is jumping on board.
Most recently, Macy’s started selling a modest fashion line featuring maxi dresses and hijabs. Fashion designer DKNY started a Ramadan collection in 2014, Nike sells a sports hijab called the “Pro Hijab,” and American Eagle debuted a denim hijab last year.
The nail polish giant Orly partnered with MuslimGirl.com founder Amani Al-Khatahtbeh to create a “breathable” polish called #HalalPaint so young women can paint their nails and still pray. Typically, Muslim women don’t pray with nail polish on because water doesn’t penetrate the lacquer when they wash for prayer.
Khatahtbeh started the MuslimGirl website from her bedroom as a teenager, writing about issues that interest her as a Muslim American woman, from fashion to identity. The problem, she says, is that the estimated 1.8 billion Muslims in the world are constantly referenced as one entity even though Muslims are so diverse.
MuslimGirl.com, she says, amplifies stories of women like her — as well as women who are not like her. “Because you know we, just like any women … can’t be put in a box.”
Some of the young women at the Bosnian Islamic Cultural Center of Chicago say they’re arguing with their parents because they want to cover their hair, but their parents won’t let them out of fear they’ll be attacked.
Those who don’t cover their hair outside the mosque say no one thinks they’re Muslim — they don’t fit the stereotype with their European looks.
According to the Pew Research Center, Muslims in America hail from more than 75 countries, thus the country’s more than 2,000 mosques vary widely in tradition and practice. At this Bosnian mosque, they have a girls’ choir that performs in front of the congregation. They sing about God, the Muslim prophet and Islam.
Enessa Mehmedovic, 24, picked the outfits for the singers and organizes teens and young women from the center to volunteer in the larger community. She encourages them to wear their headscarves, even if they usually only wear it to pray, so people who see them know exactly who they are. Some women choose to wear the headscarf, others do not.
Enessa Mehmedovic: “A walking representation”
“Being a walking representation of Islam is, like, so beautiful to me,” Mehmedovic says, “because when someone looks at me what is the first thing they notice? That I’m Muslim.”