One has to wonder how difficult it can be to grow up as Muslim in today’s world. Since 9/11 and it’s fallout that rages on today, there is barely a day that goes by in which the acts of Muslims, or Islam as a whole, isn’t being critiqued or attacked. Growing up is difficult enough without having to deal with the baggage that comes with being a Muslim. This is further complicated by the fact that children, especially pre-teens, have not yet developed their critical faculties so as to be able to separate the wheat from the chaff, and let us be honest, there is a lot of Islam-related chaff out there today. Whether it’s your younger brother, sister, niece, nephew, daughter or son, there are some steps we can take to protect their well-being given the extraordinary circumstances in which many are growing up today.
1. Don’t keep them in a bubble
The rise of Islamophobia has coincided with the rise of the 24-hour news cycle. It now goes beyond merely the influence of the 24-hour news cycle, though. Children are spending increasing amounts of time facing a screen (TV, computer, smartphone or tablet), with one report citing that the average American child spends between 5-7 hours a day doing so. These three factors have created a perfect storm in which children (and adults) face the potential of being constantly bombarded by negative messages about their religious identity.
This is not about keeping our children disconnected. Keeping children in a bubble will only harm them in the long run; they will have to face these things sooner or later. Rather than keeping them in a bubble, we should ensure that we set some limits to their exposure of aspects of the media while also taking the opportunity to discuss what they see in a way that develops their critical faculties and awareness.
2. Be aware
It is important to be aware if a child is giving off signals that something is amiss. As well as the general indicators of disruptions in sleep, eating, socialising and mood, more specific indicators could be found in the way in which they talk about Islam and Muslims. If the hateful messages that do exist around us today are being absorbed, it is likely that a child will send this back out into the world, in the words they use and the way in which they play. Children might also indicate their inner conflict by externalizing behavior i.e. acting out. Other children might internalize behavior and let the hate grow within themselves. This is often more difficult to deal with; the externalizing child is known to be facing a challenge while the internalizing child can remain under the radar for a long time.
3. Create a welcoming environment
One way developments such as this can be pre-emptively combatted is by actively engaging with our children. Create an environment in which the child feels safe to open up to you and discuss anything that might be troubling her/him. If a child feels unjudged, listened to and cared about, they are more likely to share their thoughts with you. If these thoughts are treated with respect, it helps foster an environment of trust. Crucially, the child needs to feel that they are worthy of your time and they are often more perceptive at picking this up than we imagine.
4. Discuss & engage
As well as creating a welcoming environment, actively discussing these issues with children can be helpful. Appropriately asked probing questions are a good tool to get a sense of how your child is coping with attacks upon her/his identity. Asking general questions, such as how they feel about being a Muslim, or asking more specific questions, such as how they feel about a certain event of person, can be helpful. For younger children, paying attention to how they play is often the best way of gauging as to what is going on in their inner world. More often than not, a child whose play is characterized by friendly relations and happiness is feeling at peace with her/himself.
5. Teach them resilience
This much sought after quality describes the ability to face challenges and difficulties, and even failure, without having it overcome you or pull you down into the abyss of depressive thinking. Resilient children will be able to cope with the added stresses directed towards Muslims as a whole today. Studies have shown that the single strongest factor in the development of resilience in children is the presence of one stable, supportive and loving adult within the child’s life. Aiming to be that adult to the children in your life could be a helpful endeavor.
Resilience can be built by guiding our young through the process of “failure”, helping them see it as a part of the learning process rather than an indictment of their whole being is a fruitful investment. Help them see that life’s challenges, such as the negativity about their religion, are a chance for them to educate themselves and enlighten those around them. Another significant source for developing a child’s resilience lies in mobilizing sources of faith and religion (Note – this piece of information is taken from the Harvard Center on the Developing Child). One way in which this might be fulfilled would be by reminding our children of the presence of God, to whom they can turn to at any moment, and the existence of a greater plan.
Second only to a child’s home, school is the place wherein which so much of our identity formation takes place. The experiences we have here shape us for the rest of our lives and more often than not, a child’s engagement with school sets the tone for how they engage with the rest of the world as they grow. If your young relatives attend a school in which there a significant number of other Muslims and Islam is talked about, that is great. If not, think about small ways in which it might be introduced in their schools e.g. a small presentation of Ramadan during that time of the year. It’s about ensuring our children see their religious identity represented, and on an equal footing with other worldviews, in their own personal worlds.
7. Tell them Muslims are beautiful
Channeling the great Marcus Garvey, who attempted to uplift his oppressed people by reminding them that “Black is Beautiful”, we need to make doubly sure that our young Muslims know that Islam and Muslims are beautiful. Positive role models can play a crucial role in helping a child develop an identity that is in turn positive. Having people within the local community who are role models is golden however not all of our children are growing up in vibrant Muslim communities. Young people are drawn to celebrities in a majorly, something that can be a gift or a curse. Introducing young Muslims to our heroes can go a long way towards nourishing their inner Muslim identity; a great remedy to their constant exposure to the terrorists overrepresented within the media cycle. They do not need to be comprehensive life guides, rather, talented, proud, individuals who happen to be Muslim. Again, it is about our children’s personal worlds including role models with whom they share their religious identity.
8. Let them know that Islam is beautiful
The idea that Islam is a predominantly destructive force needs also to be challenged. We are living in times in which a minority of Muslims are proving to be incredibly destructive. Tell your younger relatives about the great cities built by Muslims energized by Islam’s light, of the hospitals built as early as 705AD in Damascus. Talk to them about the great universities of Muslim Spain. Make sure they know of Islam’s contributions to civilization, from chemistry to optics, algebra, and medicine.
It is also important to ensure they are aware of Islam’s continuing contribution to the world today. We can often fall in to the trap of only looking back and remembering the “golden” age while ignoring the fact that Islam is a motivating factor for good today. Remind them that Muslims are doing some impressive things in terms of giving charity today, inspired by Islam. Let them be aware of the work that thousands of grassroots Muslim activists are doing throughout the world today. The mvslim website is a great source for this, bringing to light the positive contribution of Muslims.
9. Introduce them to Muslim thinkers & scholars
When they are a little order, and begin wanting to find their own way independent of you, tap into our vast well of thinkers and personalities to serve as guide points for them who will help them on their journeys. For every Bill Maher out there trying to smear the Islamic identity, we’ve got a Tariq Ramadan who can dispatch with Bill’s arguments with ease. For every Megyn Kelly, we’ve got a Linda Sarsour.
Childhood and adolescence are marked by confusion about who we are and our place in the world, particularly for young Muslims. They are actively being told that being a Muslim often means being an extremist, and that Islamic values are often precursors to violence. Listening to our scholars can be the best antidote to the confusion that is being stirred by some. The place of these thinkers is made all the more important with issues that the laywomen and men cannot always address e.g. does Islam permit slavery?
10. Remember, every child will be different
It is important to remember there is no one size fits-all remedy to this. Every child is unique and so each child will react to their situation differently. Some will rise up to the challenges facing their Muslim identity and become mini-spokeswomen/men for their religion, fielding questions from their peers and helping enlighten those around them to some realities. Others will respond with indifference, reacting neither positively or negatively, at peace with everything. While another group will need support on this issue. As with all issues relating to our children, it is important to be in-tune with them and understand how they think and feel about significant areas of their life.
This vast topic is worthy of our time and energies. Growing up with any religious identity is becoming an increasingly challenging task. These challenges are further compounded for our young Muslims. Being mindful of the playing field and engaging with our children with a sense of purpose born out of love can go a long way to addressing the issues facing us. It is important the next generation do not feel disillusioned with their precious Muslim identity.