Raising My Kids to Be Unapologetic American Muslims

Growing up in North Dakota in the 1980s and 1990s, there was nobody who shared my family’s last name. “Husain? Hoooooo-sayn? You’re not related to … ?” teachers would sometimes ask.

No, I would explain, I wasn’t. My name was spelt differently from the then-dictator Saddam Hussein, and, either way, it’s a very common name in the Middle East and South Asia. Sometimes teachers would half-laugh; sometimes they would just look me over with a hint of skepticism. If they had taught one of my brothers before me, I could guess I was pretty much in the clear. But, if the Husain family was unknown to them, I never knew which way it was going to go. My best bet was to lie low and be a good, diligent student.

I was entering 10th grade at Central High School in Grand Forks, North Dakota, when the first Gulf War broke out. I was one of the only Muslims and brown kids there (save for my older brother, who was a senior in the same high school; there were some American Indian students as well). Grand Forks Air Force Base’s high schoolers came to Central, and it seemed like every third kid had some relative who was serving a tour in the Gulf War. This made for several uncomfortable jokes at me and my brother’s expense, some anonymous and ominous calls to our home, and even a threatening note or two pushed into my locker—notes that my brother confiscated before I could read what they said.

It was an uncomfortable time. I was the girl who wore sweatpants instead of the standard shorts in the gym due to my religion’s modesty requirements (and my mother’s insistence) and the one who never attended school dances. My brothers and I were the ones who fasted in Ramadan (“What? You eat nothing from sunrise to sunset? You don’t even get to drink?”), hanging out in the library or the guidance counsellor’s office while our friends ate in the school cafeteria.

And yet, for the most part, we still felt like a part of our small-town community—I didn’t feel ostracized. I had lived there essentially my entire life. We had moved to Grand Forks from Northern California when I was a toddler, for a tenure-track position my father accepted at the University of North Dakota. Upon arriving in Grand Forks, my mother says she was overwhelmed by a feeling of loneliness.

As the family story goes, my father promised her we would only stay for a few years. We ended up living there until I was 16.

I often think about all my parents went through, the compromises they made while holding fast to their faith, traditions, and values to raise us as practicing Muslims and proud, assimilated Americans. Little-league baseball games, piano lessons on Friday afternoons, band practice, marching in the annual Potato Bowl parade, trick-or-treating in our neighborhood, and also: praying together as a family, reading the Koran in the morning before leaving for school, teaching us about our faith, all without the benefits of Islamic Sunday School, a local mosque to go to, or hardly any books or curricula to follow.

Nearly 30 years later, with three children of my own—two in high school and one in elementary school—it’s amazing to compare what my parents strove to do back in the 1980s and 1990s as immigrants who became naturalized citizens with how I am raising my children now. Generally, there have been three different eras for Muslim kids growing up in America in recent decades. When first-generation or immigrant Muslims were growing up in the 1980s and ’90s, the focus was on assimilating as much as possible while trying privately to hold onto culture and faith. Then, in the years immediately following 9/11, kids who were coming of age received a different kind of messaging, a particular mix of pressures: to condemn terrorism, express their patriotism, and sometimes downplay their Muslimness. Today, for my kids, with 9/11 more than 15 years in the past, they are facing something wholly new: an era when it’s encouraged to be unapologetically Muslim while at the same time staking claim to their Americanness.

I remember the years immediately following 9/11, soon after I had begun covering American Muslim communities, particularly in New York, where I lived at the time. In her recent book Muslim Girl: A Coming of Age, Amani Al-Khatahtbeh, the founder of MuslimGirl.com, talks of the burden of being Muslim in the wake of 9/11, writing of living in a time of endless suspicion and constant demands to prove her patriotism. In recalling a conversation she had with someone who wasn’t Muslim, she writes, “I hope she knows my pain is genuine, I thought. I hope she doesn’t doubt that a Muslim American can be this impacted by 9/11, too. The truth is that 9/11 never ended for us.”



Dilshad D. Ali


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