Youths Return To Islam Group Wages War On Stereotyping

By Lisa Fernandez Huda Shreim used to be a bad girl: Cutting class, fighting, lying, scrawling graffiti. Today, the 19-year-old Jordanian immigrant prays five times a day and covers herself from head to toe, following the Islamic mandate to dress modestly. She’s easy to spot in a full-length tie-dyed pink abaya robe and matching head covering as she stops in at Starbucks or Barnes & Noble in Fremont, where she lives. Shreim is a member of a new wave of Muslim youth in Silicon Valley, and elsewhere, who are breaking with their secular upbringing and becoming more devout. In many ways, the phenomenon is nothing new or unique to being a Muslim. But this group is special in that their desire to become more observant intensified after Sept. 11. Their motivation? To show the world that they can be religious Muslims, dress traditionally and not be terrorists. Surprisingly, these young people say that putting on austere-looking garb from Saudi Arabia is a very American thing to do. “These kids are saying, `I was born in America, and the Constitution says that I can practice my religion, and my religion says I must dress this way,’ ” said Yvone Haddad, a Georgetown University professor who studies Muslims in the West. “Though one option is to just go into hiding and `be like us,’ these kids are saying, `No.’ ” Shreim and other newfound Islamic enthusiasts know their highly distinctive clothing is an invitation for others to ask about their backgrounds — and they welcome the challenge. They also realize their appearance can be a magnet for verbal abuse and violence. Haddad likens the post-Sept. 11 trend to the Black Power movement, when young African-Americans embraced their cultural identity most visibly, by sporting large Afros. “Islam is beautiful,” Haddad said, playing off “Black is beautiful,” the civil rights era slogan. “Women who have never put on the veil are now putting it on. They are taking on the burden of showing the world that Islam is not terrorism.” There’s no way to document how many young Muslims are becoming more observant, but scholars and Islamic leaders say a significant number are closely studying the Koran for answers. Nadia Roumani, a researcher for the University of Southern California’s Center for Religion and Civic Culture, has found that Sept. 11 caused a number of Muslims, who previously didn’t know much about their own background or faith, to “redefine their religion and rearticulate it.” In some cases, she said, that meant “exercising their faith in a more outward manner.” Many previously non-practicing Muslims re-energize their interest by taking classes. In 2003, the AlMaghrib Institute (of Islamic Studies) started teaching 81 students in three cities. Today, the program has 2,800 students in 14 cities, including those in classes at San Jose State University and Fremont’s Ohlone College. About one-third of these students, discovering new depth in their faith later in life, are loosely considered reborn fundamentalists, said the institute’s manager, Irtiza Hasan. “There was an increased desire for Muslims to learn more about their own religion after 9/11,” Hasan said. “They didn’t know a lot of the deeper stuff, and they want to be able to answer others.” Shreim’s new religious insights and her garb — which includes a colorful assortment of full-length robes to cover her jeans and flip-flops — caused some initial grief for her family. Now, her parents are proud and have become more observant themselves. “You might find this surprising,” said her father, Jalal Shreim. “But you can be more Muslim in the United States than in so-called Islamic countries. There is more freedom here.” Parental concern about possible abuse for their Muslim children turning super religious is common. Omair Ali, 28, of San Jose said his parents have stopped “freaking out” about his spiritual journey, but they are far from being completely supportive. Before Sept. 11, the man known as Disco Omair, and DJ Iceberg described himself as a “party animal” with orange-frosted spiked hair. But after the terrorist attacks, he wanted do to something to defend his faith against false stereotypes. “First and foremost,” he said. “I knew that I would have to reform and purify myself before telling the world about Islam.” On his radio show at San Jose State University, Ali discussed the richness of Islamic art, rules of marriage, roles of women — anything he could to expand the outside world’s limited knowledge of a faith associated with suicide bombers. Now, he hosts a weekly Islamic-topic show called “MeccaOne” on KSJS-FM (90.5) and runs a Web site for Zaytuna Institute, an internationally renowned Muslim academy in Hayward. But he said his parents — immigrants from India and Pakistan — saw him growing a long beard and donning a kufi cap, and feared he’d become a “lazy bum, praying all day,” or worse, head off to Afghanistan to fight with the Taliban and get captured by the FBI. “They wanted me to work in the corporate world,” he said. “That was their American dream.” But for Ali and Shreim, their American vision involves expressing themselves in a free society as God-conscious Muslims. Their choice is not without struggle. Four years ago, exactly on Sept. 11, just hours after the attacks, Shreim ventured out of the house wearing a dramatic black abaya and veil from Saudi Arabia for the first time. That day, she got her share of hateful looks and taunting. And even now, she gets an odd stare, or someone will plead with her to convert to Christianity. “But this doesn’t make me feel weaker, only stronger,” Shreim said. “One woman came up to me and said, `This is America. You don’t have to do this.’ I said, `I do this because I want to.’ ”