What is it like to be a young Muslim in America?
"It definitely is a struggle -- not only being a Muslim, not only being a Muslim American -- being Somali, being black, being young -- there're a lot of identities that you have to reconcile,” said Mohamed Hussein of the Somali American Youth Foundation in Virginia, one of the panelists in a discussion broadcast by the Voice of America on Tuesday from the Newseum in Washington.
“Being Young and Muslim in America” was moderated by the VOA Afghanistan Service’s digital managing editor, Akmal Dawi in the wake of the carnage in Orlando that has left lingering questions about how young Muslims are assimilating into the American mainstream. “We’ve heard from pundits, we’ve heard from experts, we’ve heard from political figures about what Muslim Millennials feel, think, need and want,” said VOA Director Amanda Bennett. “Through this panel discussion with these Muslim Millennials themselves, we were able to understand the tensions they feel and the hopes they have.”
“When a Muslim does something like that [i.e., carryout a mass shooting like the recent attack in Orlando], it’s all over the media. But when a Westerner does the same thing, it doesn’t have the same impact,” said Morsal Mohamad, president of the Afghan Students Association at The George Washington University.
“A lot of these people who give a bad name to Islam don’t even come to the mosque,” said Mohamed Hussein, executive director of the Somali American Youth Foundation, who also appeared on the panel.
"I think that oftentimes people try to split it [i.e., the Muslim community] into moderate Muslims and conservative Muslims, but there is a lot of diversity past that. And I think that that's one of the nuances that gets lost in discussions about Islam in the U.S.," said Oya Rose Aktas, a recent college graduate of Turkish background living in Washington, D.C.
“I also think that focusing on cyber radicalization kind of loses sight of the bigger picture,” Aktas added. “You have to focus more on community groups; you need to focus more on human interactions; you need to focus more on making sure that people are living fulfilling, satisfying lives outside of the Internet.”
Othman Altalib, a board member at the ADAMS Center, one of the largest Muslim organizations in the United States, said that most U.S. Muslim groups have not been able to effectively counter the Islamic State’s appeal to disaffected youth. “Let’s get our youth involved in the community,” he said. “We should lead by example,” added Mohamad, citing the need for Millennial Muslims and Muslim leaders in the United States to serve as “examples to follow.”
Hussein noted that the U.S. Muslim community is diverse and that each person brings a different experience based on his or her country of origin. He said mosques and Muslim community centers engage worshipers in conversations about democracy in America, and added that they approach voting as the best way to express free will and preserve freedoms. “We don’t tell them who to vote for,” he said.
“Our common American experience is what unites all of us living in this country,” said Akbar Ayazi, director of VOA’s South and Central Asia Division. “No matter what god we believe, what faith we follow; no matter what background we have, no matter where we come from -- we have one thing in common and that’s our humanity. We all pursue the same ideal, which is the American dream.”
The event was streamed live on multiple VOA language platforms, reaching audiences around the world. More than 67,000 people watched on the VOA Central News Facebook page alone. In addition, #YoungMuslimVOA trended on Twitter throughout the broadcast.
Through its eight services on radio, television and the Internet, VOA’s South and Central Asia Division broadcasts news and information about America and the world to regions that are vulnerable to extremism and terrorism. The division’s Afghanistan Service reaches roughly 40 percent of the country’s adult population with programming in Dari and Pashto. The Azerbaijani Service reaches audiences in Azerbaijan and neighboring provinces in Iran. The Bangla Service serves Bangladesh and the Bangla-speaking Indian states of West Bengal, Assam and Tripura as well as several Arab and Muslim countries. VOA Deewa broadcasts to the Pakistan-Afghanistan border region, where more than 50 million Pashtuns live. The Urdu Service serves Pakistan and diaspora communities. The Kurdish Service reaches more than 30 million Kurds living in the Middle East and Eurasia. Turkish Service programming is vital to a nation where press freedom increasingly is restricted. The Uzbek Service reaches audiences in Uzbekistan, Central Asia and Afghanistan. And the newly established Extremism Watch Desk also supports VOA’s mission by enhancing the agency’s in-depth coverage of extremism around the world.