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State of American Muslim Youth : Research & Recommendations

by Sameera Ahmed, PhD, Sadiq Patel, MSW, Hanan Hashem, BA

Executive Summary: 
American Muslim youth are a heterogeneous group, with varying backgrounds, experiences, and needs. Family, schools, and communities can benefit from research on American Muslim youth to improve current approaches in youth programming and development. This report identifies the nuances and complexities of American Muslim youth’s developmental context or environments. It highlights research on underserved Muslim youth populations—namely young Muslim women, African-American Muslim youth, convert Muslim youth, and refugee Muslim youth. Risk factors and behaviors are also highlighted. Finally, eight youth programming recommendations that can be implemented by families, schools, and communities are provided.

As young people navigate through the complex world of adolescence and emerging adulthood, awareness of their unique realities and challenges will help caring individuals (i.e. parents, teachers, youth mentors) as well as institutions (i.e. academic religious, cultural, and community based organizations) more effectively promote positive youth development among American Muslim youth.

The differences in developmental outcomes for American Muslim youth are a result of multiple, interacting, personal and social developmental contexts (e.g. family, school, community). Thus, individuals interested in American Muslim youth development must consider the interaction of 1) the young person’s specific characteristics and experiences, 2) fluidity of development, and 3) varying environments the person is embedded within, including social, structural, developmental, and religious contexts, in order to account for the diversity in developmental outcomes of American Muslim youth. The religious context and socialization experiences can have a major positive or negative impact on a young person. Hence our thought process must be person-centered, fluid and contextually grounded.

Just like any other population, American Muslim Youth contain many subgroups that are considered underserved in the community. Awareness of issues specific to these subgroups can also enhance effectiveness of youth programming. The intersection of gender and numerous factors within their developmental context results in unique issues experienced by young American Muslim women that are often not understood by those interested in promoting their development. Some of these issues include: culturally determined narrative of women in Islam and religious spaces, issues related to the observance of hijab, and internalization of beauty standards and the repercussion on body image among young American Muslim women. Some young women are asserting themselves, trying to change the current narrative through organizational cultural changes, increased involvement in leadership, as well as advocating for increased programming and space within mosques and religious organizations. Other young women are empowering themselves through the use of social media as a platform to connect with young women, give voice to their experiences, and push for community conversations. Such activism has resulted in triggering conversations with parents and congregational communities regarding discrepancies between religious and cultural practices.

African American Muslim youth are heterogeneous, live in diverse social and structural contexts, and have varying experiences depending on whether they are a convert or grew up Muslim, live in an urban or suburban environment, attend an immigrant or an African American led religious community, and what the congregation’s ideological understanding and practice of Islam is within their religious congregation. Further, African American Muslim youth’s social context is highly influenced by race. Thus, African American Muslim youth experience stigmatization due to both religious and racial identification at multiple levels.

Adolescence and emerging adulthood is a period often associated with the process of self-exploration, which may serve as a catalyst for change, resulting in conversion to Islam. Unlike older Muslim converts, young converts are more susceptible to experiencing negative outcomes due to the loss of support from parents as well as old friends, resulting in a critical unmet social need for these converts. Unfortunately, very little is known about the impact of conversion during adolescence and early adulthood on the young person’s developmental context and the transition experienced. The relative ease of integration within the Muslim community is often influenced by the community make up. Young converts attempting to integrate into mono-cultural, immigrant dominant communities experience greater difficulty compared to more culturally diverse, convert, or racial/ethnic communities (e.g. African American, Latino religious cultural centers.

Refugee Muslim youth experience unique developmental contexts with differing intersecting cultural, sectarian, tribal, and racialized implications as they attempt to integrate into the U.S. In addition, understanding their individual and family’s experiences during the migratory process (i.e. pre-migration, asylum-seeking, and re-settlement stages) is critical in assessing the impact on the individual’s development, identifying potential risk, and developing appropriate interventions. Difficulties with social adjustment may manifest as risk behaviors. Refugee youth that have experienced multiple losses (e.g. extended family members, friends, and familiar contexts), financial stress, lack of parental availability and/or monitoring, lack of social support network, as well as untreated psychological wounds, may increase their propensity to engage in risk behaviors. In addition, they may be challenged with issues of identity related to their religious or ethnic identity, which may include frustration due to lack of memories of their home country, attachment to their country of origin at the expense of connecting with peers, or detachment from ethnic culture in attempts to avoid emotional triggers.

As we consider the developmental contexts of American Muslim youth subgroups, we must 1) identify the potential risk factors as well as 2) acknowledge the evidence of growing number of Muslim youth engaging in risk behaviors. Studies focusing exclusively on risk factors impacting Muslim youth development are limited. The risk factors include both mental health (acculturative stress, depression, etc) as well as education engagement. Despite an increase in availability of culturally competent mental health services, Muslim youth who experience depressive symptoms and report high level of religious involvement are often hesitant to seek appropriate mental health treatment due to the social stigma associated with seeking professional psychological help. The quality of education environment is critical to promoting American Muslim youth development. Poor or unsafe (physical or emotional) educational contexts, where young people do not feel supported, can decrease motivation for academic achievement, and increase the likelihood of young people engaging in risk behavior. Muslim youth face misunderstanding and at times hostility within public schools, from teachers as well as their peers, and as a result Muslim students report high levels of stress.

Despite potential negative impact of risk behaviors (such as alcohol and drug use), it is theorized that engaging in such behaviors is often purposive and may serve a number of functions such as increasing peer acceptance, assisting in individuation from family as well as community, and coping with anxiety. The report lists in detail the statistics around risk behaviors Almost half the Muslim youth studied reported alcohol use, a quarter illicit drug use, and over a third used tobacco. Over half the Muslim youth also reported engaging in pre-marital sexual activity.

Perception of American Muslim youth risk behaviors among mosque congregants and ethnic organization members is low, which has resulted in a lack of attention by many American Muslims. Youth programming may exist in mosques, but it does not address risk behaviors. Youth programming often lacks direction, are underfunded, under resourced, and lack appropriate training and understanding of American Muslim youth. National organizations focusing on youth development interacting directly with youth or indirectly through parents, youth workers, and mosques to strengthen families exist, but often lack funding, capacity building training to maintain growth, and reach within the community despite enjoying local success.

The report outlines eight areas of recommendations. Effective components of youth programming should include (1) collaboration between groups serving youth, (2) youth empowering programs and environment that is strength based, youth generated, and address their identified needs, (3) have a positive relational experience with peers, mentors and adults, (4) having clear programmatic objectives and goals that inform and direct their activities, (5) having a multi-method, multimodal approach to achieve programmatic goals, (6) allowing flexible levels of participation due to varying factors in each individual’s lives that may not allow for a full commitment, (7) integrate social media and technology, and (8) must be financially sustainable.

Further, just as it is important to incorporate certain elements in youth programming, the location of the programming may also impact the effectiveness of the particular program. The report makes recommendations on the roles family, school, and the Muslim community (religious community, religious content, congregational culture and community programming) must play to enhance American Muslim youth development.

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State of American Muslim Youth: Research & Recommendations
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