For young Muslims, the struggle to belong is ‘emotionally draining’


December 15, 2015

They come to him — students, co-workers and congregants alike, sometimes in tears — with their questions: What should we do, Imam Zaid? What should we do about the suspicion, about the hatred, about the second glances and the threat of confrontations on the street?
What should we do about Donald Trump and his rhetorical attacks on Muslim immigrants? And how do we process the deadly attacks by people who invoked our religion? Should we return to our ancestral home countries, hunker down in the shadows?

Zaid Shakir, co-founder and faculty member at the nation’s only Muslim liberal arts college, and a 59-year-old Air Force veteran widely regarded to be one of America’s most influential Islamic thought leaders, has his answers ready.

He tells those who have come seeking his counsel in a hard time that, for now anyway, there’s not much they could, or should, do but be themselves. Live their lives just as they did the day before San Bernardino, or Paris, or the Twin Towers.

“Be patient,” he tells them. “Forge on.

“You can’t become obsessed with things you can’t control. You can’t control what Donald Trump or any other demagogue might say. You can’t control what ISIS or any other people claiming to be Muslim might do.

“What you can control are your own actions.

“You can control your smile.

“You can control the good work that you do on your job.

“You can control whether you are a good neighbor or not, or how you interact with your fellow students and co-workers.

“So just take care of those things in your control, and leave the rest to God.”


Zaytuna College sits just above the north entrance to UC Berkeley in a leafy neighborhood of narrow streets known to locals as Holy Hill.

The designation refers to the constellation of religious institutions clustered on the hill — the Graduate Theological Union, the Pacific School of Religion, the Starr King School for the Ministry, and the Mormon Berkeley Institute of Religion, to list but a few.

Zaytuna, which began as an institute in Hayward, moved to the hill in 2009 and graduated its first class of seniors last year. It occupies two buildings one block apart: One was built in the 1930s by the Disciples of Christ; the other had been home to the Franciscan School of Theology.

The fledgling college, with a student body of 60, is something of an academic hybrid — an accredited liberal arts college that blends a classical Western education with course work related to the study of Islam.

For Zaytuna students, in the aftermath of the Dec. 2 attack in San Bernardino, seeking a balance between American citizenship and Islamic faith no longer had the feel of an academic exercise, if it ever did.

Once more, they found themselves painted as a monolithic “them,” a mysterious other. Once more, they faced delicately worded but probing questions from non-Muslim acquaintances, and watched as their faith was held under a harsh spotlight of national media attention.

And as young Americans who have known no other country but this one, and who came of age amid 9/11 and the wars that followed it, once more they were struggling to find their emotional and societal footing.

The women, in their hijabs, or head scarves, spoke of making sure to walk in twos or threes as they made their way from Zaytuna to their dormitories on the opposite side of the UC Berkeley campus. Out of the corners of their eyes, they could see the occasional lingering stares.

“I’m just ordering my pizza, you don’t have to look at me like that,” Aisha Ibrahim, a 21-year-old junior from Chicago, said she wants to say sometimes to those giving her a worried once-over. But she doesn’t.

I am a nice person, just trying to follow my religion. As a Muslim woman, I guess I never realized how far I was set apart, as an ‘other.’

“I just feel I have to be nice and very polite. I am a nice person, just trying to follow my religion,” she said, a hint of exasperation in her voice. “As a Muslim woman, I guess I never realized how far I was set apart, as an ‘other.’”

The San Bernardino shooters, she said, were “messed up” people, as are all perpetrators of such attacks on innocent lives.

“A shooter is a shooter,” and to blame an entire religion for their bad acts is “silly,” she said.

Still, she and others interviewed said they would force extra-wide smiles, to put any passersby at ease, and they would be filled with gratitude if their smiles were returned.

But behind the smiles, and beneath the hijabs, they faced a roil of emotions about how to react and how they might be expected to react, about how they viewed themselves and how they might be viewed by others.

It’s what W.E.B. Dubois called, in the context of the African American experience, a “double consciousness.” And it can be wearying to maintain.

“I think a lot of young Muslims share some resentment about feeling like we need to apologize when we have done nothing wrong,” said Reema Lateef, a 21-year-old senior from Orlando, Fla. “I grieve that someone took away innocent life, from my fellow Americans. But we are just Americans following our faith. We did nothing wrong.

“It’s emotionally draining, this feeling that you need to smile all the time, to be a model Muslim, when maybe inside that day you feel like screaming.”


Imran Ghani, a 26-year-old from Houston, and Nirau Bhardwaj, 25, of El Dorado Hills, outside Sacramento, sat at a table in an otherwise empty classroom and talked about the need for young, educated Muslim Americans like themselves to find a path forward.

“Maybe it’s our turn to step up to the plate,” said Bhardwaj, a UC Irvine graduate who was working in analytics for the Angels baseball organization before he converted and came to Zaytuna.

He spoke of the need to push outward, not inward, when watershed moments such as 9/11 and San Bernardino occur, to not only tell but show what the Muslim faith is truly all about.

“I don’t know the answer of how to do it,” he said. “But we can’t just sit at home, hoping that this will pass.”

Ghani agreed.

“We need to be wearing our Islam a little more,” he said.

He described a common moment with new acquaintances when he volunteers that he is Muslim.

“And they are like, ‘Wow. You are almost normal, and not a member of a sleeper cell or something.’”

He returned twice in the conversation to a potential remedy he heard proposed once at the college — offered in jest, perhaps, but one he is disinclined to dismiss outright.

“I am honestly attracted,” he said, “to the idea of a good Muslim sitcom.”

In time, perhaps, but for now anyway, the laugh track is muted.