“How do we understand ourselves as young Muslims in America?” asks Rami Kawas. He’s camp counselor-meets-spiritual advisor for the nearly 500 young people who pray, play and hang out at the Muslim American Society (MAS) Youth Center.
The center was conceived of in the late 1990s, when members of MAS New York sought to reach the growing number of teens and pre-teens among the Middle Eastern and North African families they served. They bought an old Italian-American function hall on Bath Avenue in Brooklyn, replacing the Italian weddings and anniversary parties with daily prayers and a Koranic lecture series. The Center offers karate classes, organizes regular Friday night bowling parties, and even sponsors a ‘sisters prom’ for high-schoolers who want to rock-out in a girls-only venue.
The kids at MAS Youth Center Brooklyn are in some cases reacting to a label that has been forced on them, especially in the wake of September 11th, notes Ali Asani, professor of Islamic Religion and Cultures at Harvard University. “What happens in the U.S.,” he says, “is that you’re identified as Muslim – even if you come from a secular background.” Asani points out that many young Muslims work hard to assimilate, even going so far as dropping their Arabic names. By embracing their faith, the teens at the MAS Youth Center have taken the opposite approach to fighting the “stigma of 9/11.”
But they are also just being typical teenagers, forging an identity distinct from their parents. “To their parents,” Asani says, “culture—food, their dress, the circle of friends they associate with—not religion, may be their primary identity marker. And for kids without that connection to the homeland, they might want to try out religion as their identity marker.”
That’s just what the young people at the MAS Youth Center Brooklyn are doing, exploring their religious identity over pizza parties and video games.