Faryal (F): When I was younger, I couldn’t grasp how large and diverse the Muslim population was around the world. We’re the second largest religion in the world and the fastest growing, yet I only knew the handful of Muslims who lived near Kansas City.
Natasha (N): Growing up in Karachi, faith was always through my family. I remember after the 2005 earthquake in Pakistan, my cousins and I spent the days leading up to Eid sitting around my aunt’s dining table, preparing goodie bags for children who’d been affected. For me, that’s always been the image I hold on to as what it means to be a Muslim.
F: While I’m thankful for the families I did grow up near — they were my adopted extended family — I wish I knew more about the Muslim community beyond our bubble. When I got to college, my eyes were opened to a whole new variety of Muslims. This might sound strange, but I saw that there were several different definitions of a Muslim depending on how you grew up. I had never really grown up with a Muslim model that was outside of the archetype I saw at the mosque when we met the other Muslim families.
N: One of the biggest problems I’ve found is that religious education focuses too much on black and white interpretations of what is haraam (forbidden) or halal (strongly encouraged). It’s just so alienating, especially to us confused young people growing up in the United States. We really don’t have any space for growth or exploration in between that allows us to figure out religion in relation to our lives as college students.
F: One thing I do wish I had was a sort of more progressive Muslim youth program. I remember being so jealous of my Christian and Jewish peers who would go off to their respective summer camps every summer. They came back with lifelong friends and a progressive way to stay connected to their faith. While there are a few programs that exist currently, I haven’t personally been able to find one that is progressive enough for me.
N: Exactly. I feel like these internal issues, coupled with the fact that Muslims are so heavily essentialized from the outside, make it so difficult for us to accept and be proud of the variation within our identities and how we choose to practice our religion.
F: Yes. Too often I see young Muslims push away from their faith because they can’t see themselves fitting the mold with which they grew up. It’s hard to understand that it’s also possible to make a religion work for you instead of the other way around. I think meeting other Muslims who share the same worldview and hold the same beliefs as you can be incredibly formative for a maturing Muslim. You can see that there are other Muslims who think and act the same way as you. There is a sub-community where you feel you might fit in better than, say, in your home community.