Growing Up Muslim

By wael | March 16, 2010

Growing up MuslimGrowing up Muslim

BY THE VANCOUVER SUN, SEPTEMBER 8, 2007

Just before Mustafa Abousaleh jumped into his school team’s dragon boat to paddle in a race on False Creek, the teenage Muslim prostrated himself on the grass in prayer.

Passersby stared.

But his multi-ethnic dragon boat teammates took it in stride.

“When strangers look at me praying, it doesn’t matter; my teammates respect what I do,” says the young Surrey Muslim.

Muslim cricket players praying on the field

A Muslim cricket team praying on the field

Abousaleh doesn’t even mind when people take photos as he supplicates himself outdoors during his five-times daily prayers, known as salah. That’s what happened when he and his family once performed the prayers, which are required of Muslims, at White Rock beach.

B.C. teenagers who are devoted members of their Muslim faith are on the front lines of unpredictable change in multicultural Canada, blending their families’ 1,400-year-old religion with West Coast popular culture, with secular lifestyle possibilities they often find fun, but sometimes trivial and distasteful.

At a time of mounting global conflict, this is the story of four diverse teenagers in B.C.’s 70,000-member Muslim community; profiled as the holy month of Ramadan is set to begin on Thursday and on the eve of Tuesday’s sixth anniversary of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, which made many in the West suspicious of Muslims.

Four Muslim students talk about life

Abousaleh — a 19-year-old who moved with his engineer dad and doctor mother to Canada six years ago from Syria — recently gathered with three other Metro Vancouver Muslim teens to talk about what it’s like to be young and Muslim in this pluralistic, multi-faith metropolis.

Calling each other “brothers” and “sisters,” the Muslim university and high school students discussed how their values interact with mass culture in this corner of the 1.2 billion-member Muslim world, far removed from most of the world’s Muslims, who are concentrated between north Africa and Indonesia.

The four Sunni Muslim teens talked about Canadian sports, MuchMusic, TV shows such as Fox Television’s 24, Bollywood movies, national politics, their mosques, the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, “Muslim terrorists,” arranged marriages, sex, dating, drinking and prayer.

We met at Simon Fraser University’s new Interfaith Centre, which contains special tiled washrooms so male and female Muslim students can wash their hands and feet in separated stalls before engaging in prayer in the multifaith, symbol-free sanctuary.

Along with Abousaleh, a confident University of B.C. engineering student, the Muslim teenagers included quiet-but-firm Hanan Dumas, a 15-year-old Richmond girl who is attending Richmond secondary’s Grade 11 international baccalaureate program this year.

There was also forthright Sana Siddiqui, a 19-year-old criminology student at SFU, born and raised in Vancouver after her dad moved to Canada from Pakistan. Rounding out the group was cheery Aamir Mushin, a 17-year-old science student from Dubai who is entering Grade 12 at Burnaby Central Secondary.

Sports a cultural meeting ground

Even though the conversation eventually turned to sensitive issues such as sex, drinking alcohol, Canadian politics and the wars that were triggered by the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, the young Muslims enjoyed starting out by talking about how sports have offered them a great cultural meeting ground.

The Carolina Cyclones all-female Muslim basketball team

The Carolina Cyclones all-female Muslim basketball team

Just as Abousaleh’s diverse dragon boat team is captained by a Muslim “sister,” Siddiqui proudly wears her head scarf over her long hair while playing for SFU’s mixed field-hockey team. She did the same while playing rugby as one of only a couple of dozen Muslims attending Killarney Secondary in east Vancouver.

On her ethnically mixed field-hockey and rugby teams, Siddiqui said her teammates and almost everyone else completely supports her choice to wear a head scarf. And she’s never had any referee tell her it’s unsafe, as one (Muslim) referee in Quebec did last year to a female Muslim soccer player, leading to international controversy.

“I think the safety issue is ridiculous. I think it’s a covert way of being discriminatory. I’m an example [that] Muslim women can do anything,” said Siddiqui, who is president of SFU’s 70-member Muslim Student Association, and not shy about standing up for minority rights.

“I have experienced looks of intolerance when I wear the head scarf playing sports. Not in Greater Vancouver, but in smaller communities, like Agassiz. My (SFU) teammates have been told certain things, such as, ‘It’s not necessary to wear the head scarf. You’re living here. You should be more Canadianized.'”

Mushin said “tons” of devout Muslim boys love playing basketball and especially soccer in Metro Vancouver, including on mixed teams. They also watch European soccer on TV, as well as following the Canucks hockey team.

When it’s hockey season, “I’m glued to Sportsnet and CBC,” Mushin said. “Nothing should stop you from watching or going to these games. They’re just entertainment.”

Mushin brings the same relaxed attitude to the outdoor paint-ball games that his 15-member all-male youth group takes part in through the new Tri-Cities Mosque in Port Coquitlam.

For her part, Dumas, who doesn’t wear a head scarf because she’s “too young,” is not really into team or spectator sports. Instead, she is taking swimming lessons to become a lifeguard.

In the name of Islamic modesty, Dumas avoids wearing a bikini or two-piece bathing suit. Instead, she swims in long shorts and a T-shirt.

Muslim teens the same, but different

As the talk turns to erotically-tinged popular music, it becomes clearer how Greater Vancouver’s young Muslims are the same as other teens, but also different.

Dumas, whose dad is a Caucasian woodworker and whose mother is an East Indian legal assistant, declares she likes The Beat 94.5 FM, a radio station that plays hip-hop, R&B, rap and pop music.

Still, Dumas said wryly, she grows a little weary of so often hearing the lyric, “Baby.” And she finds most of the sex-saturated music videos on MuchMusic to be “really graphic,” as well as “silly” and “over the top.” Her parents ask her not to watch them.

Most of the Muslim teens watch cable TV. But Siddiqui is appalled by the blatant sexuality in so many music videos. “If a woman wants to succeed in music, it seems they have to wear less and less clothes. And that’s especially true of black or coloured women.”

Siddiqui said she wears her head scarf, or hijab, out of respect for her body. “I don’t need to show flesh to get attention, or to get places. I’d rather be recognized for my intellect.”

Thrusting so many scantily clad women into music videos, adds Mushin, is all about marketing, trying to get attention by doing something “drastic and controversial.”

Dawud Wharnsby-Ali

Dawud Wharnsby-Ali's music is popular among young Muslims

The teens soon turn to how they all like Islamic music — or nasheeds.

Traditionally sung a cappella, accompanied only by the beat of a large drum, nasheeds often consist of religious stories and haunting recitations of the Koran in Arabic.

When he’s travelling from Surrey to UBC on the bus, Abousaleh listens to a variety of contemporary nasheed performers on his cell phone, using earphones.

The Muslim teens admire the nasheeds of crossover Muslim artists such as the acclaimed Ontario-born convert Dawud (David) Wharnsby Ali, who performs in English using a variety of instruments.

They also like the nasheeds of British-Iranian star, Sami Yusuf, as well as the music of Yusuf Islam (formerly known as Cat Stevens, who sold 60 million albums as a pop-folk singer-songwriter in the 1970s before converting to Islam).

Even though the Muslim teenagers are not necessarily hooked on it, they noted many are drawn to Islamic-oriented hip-hop and rap, which was performed this summer at the Muslim cultural Expo attended by thousands outside the Vancouver Art Gallery.

In addition to watching North American movies, Mushin, who has Sri Lankan ancestry despite being born in the Middle East, said he often finds DVDs of Indian movies, with English subtitles, from Bollywood.

“It’s easy-going entertainment,” he said, not much different from the usual Hollywood fare of comedies and drama.

Siddiqui added that she often can not stand the way Muslims, specifically Arab Muslims, are portrayed in popular movies and TV shows.

When she grew curious about watching the Kiefer-Sutherland TV thriller, 24, she soon grew annoyed at the way the plots so often relied on Muslim terrorists.

“What’s not bothersome about that?,” she asks, rhetorically. “It pushes all Muslims out to the margins, suggesting they’re all violent.”

Grateful for the right to speak out

The Muslim teens had many things to say about human rights, Canadian multiculturalism and politics.

But, before we explored things they found disturbing about the global conflict between the West and much of the Muslim world, Mushin talked about just how grateful he is for Canadian freedom of speech.

“There would be no chance to have this discussion with a journalist in a lot of countries,” said soccer-loving Mushin, who has lived in B.C. for 11 years. His mother is a secretary and his father works in shipping.

Mushin cited restrictions on free speech in his home country of Dubai, as well as Saudi Arabia, Syria and, expanding his argument beyond Muslim-run countries, China. He noted how Vancouver protesters who unfurled a pro-Tibet banner in August in China were hastily arrested and deported.

“I find Canada good because you can speak. It feels easier to be a Muslim here than it would in, say, Afghanistan,” said Mushin.

That’s not to say these Muslim teenagers don’t have their concerns about politics in Canada.

They wish they could find a Canadian political party that better fit their wide-ranging Muslim values, with Siddiqui joking maybe they should create one.

Muslim doctrine tends to lead to support for both market capitalism and the redistribution of wealth, said Siddiqui. She cited how the Islamic tradition of the consumer bazaar complements Muslim values about egalitarianism and charitable giving.

“Islam is neither totally socialist nor totally capitalist. But it does teach that the rich, because of their wealth, are more accountable, and need to have more personal responsibility,” said Siddiqui.

In line with the Koranic virtue of khalifah, or stewardship, Abousaleh also said Muslims believe in taking care of both their families and the environment, in part since many come from desert regions where conservation is of ultimate importance, particularly of water.

Echoing contemporary ecological ethics, Abousaleh said, “Islam teaches we’re sent to take care of the Earth.”

Even though Siddiqui said many Islamic values correspond with the policies of the New Democrats, she added many Muslims oppose the centre-left party’s backing of same-sex marriage.

Although Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative government includes many MPs who oppose same-sex marriage, the teens said they dislike the Conservatives’ vigorous support for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“On the political spectrum,” Siddiqui said, “no single party reflects Muslim values.”

Afghanistan war ‘a disaster’

Which led us into a worried discussion of global affairs.

With tens of thousands of Iraqi Sunni and Shia Muslims being killed in the U.S.-led Iraq war, including in sectarian violence, the teens found it disturbing that the West invaded the Middle Eastern country without having an exit strategy.

“The Iraq war is definitely making good work for coffin makers. But that’s about it,” said Mushin. “The American people know it. Everyone knows it.”

The war in Afghanistan, launched in the name of keeping the extremist Muslim Taliban at bay, Mushin added, “is also just another disaster.”

The teenagers, who as Sunnis belong to the group that make up 85 per of all Muslims, said the main, strategic reason behind the Western incursions was to control massive oil reserves in Iraq and maintain oil pipelines that run through the region surrounding Afghanistan.

Asked whether they believe the West is justified in tracking down and killing terrorists who are Muslim, Siddiqui, whose father is from Pakistan and mother is a white Canadian convert to Islam, offered a correction. She said: “They are terrorists who claim to be Muslim.”

Despite saying many of the world’s Muslims feel besieged in the face of Western political and economic power, Siddiqui stressed no one who purposefully murders innocents can call himself a Muslim.

Those who launched the terrorist assaults on New York City and Washington, D.C., on Sept. 11, 2001, she said, were “completely un-Islamic.”

Abousaleh, for his part, quietly noted he is not entirely convinced Muslims were actually behind the history-changing airliner attacks.

Abousaleh is open to the possibility the Sept. 11 attacks were an “inside job,” performed by rogue elements in the U.S. administration to justify military assaults on the Middle East and elsewhere.

In suggesting as much, he is echoing a widespread belief among Muslims. A recent Pew Forum poll found 60 per cent of American Muslims do not believe Arabs actually conducted the attacks. He is aware of a related poll, by Zogby, that showed 37 per cent of all Americans do not believe the government’s official version of the attacks.

Whatever the case, while some people are suspicious of Western Muslims turning into “homegrown terrorists” in light of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Siddiqui said she finds most Canadians are simply open and curious about Muslims.

Since all her teenage years have been in the post-Sept. 11th era, Siddiqui has found that part of her identity includes being a defender of Islam.

“I tend to almost intimidate people with friendliness,” she said with a laugh. “The people I know say: ‘You’re my friend. You’re a Muslim. How could Muslims do this?’ And they’re glad to hear it’s not part of the religion.”

The Muslim teens were generally sardonic about much of global affairs, however. Siddiqui didn’t believe Western powers have any economic motivation to pull out of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, given that the U.S. and many of its allies are major arms dealers.

On the other key global conflict involving Muslims, the longstanding tensions between Israelis and Palestinians, Siddiqui stressed that Jews, Muslims and Christians all share a common Biblical heritage, linked by the patriarch Abraham, whose story is told in the Book of Genesis. Members of all three religions, she said, need to find a way to live together in peace.

Stressing that Muslims and Jews have generally tolerated each other throughout history, including in Moorish Spain and during the Ottoman Empire, Siddiqui said the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is about “land and resources,” not religion.

The troubles could be largely resolved, she said, through leaders on both sides showing pragmatism and goodwill.

Sex outside marriage a no-no

After this discussion of often-disturbing global affairs, the talk turned to more intimate concerns.

Sex.

The Muslim teens definitely don’t believe in sex outside marriage, even though Mushin said non-Muslim male friends sometimes tease him for abstaining.

“Some people say marriage is half of religion,” added Siddiqui, who emphasized that Muslim teenagers restrict their sex lives in much the same way as orthodox Jews and Christians.

“If I could, I’d get married now,” remarked Abousaleh.

If Muslim friends start to have sex before marriage, Abousaleh said “it is our duty to advise them” against it. Even with non-Muslim friends, Abousaleh might be tempted to tell them, “Would your new wife like to know you’re not a virgin?”

The others chimed in they have 19-year-old Muslim friends who are already planning to get married.

The teenagers believe many non-Muslims carry around “stereotypical” beliefs that Muslim youngsters are forced into arranged marriages.

Although there is an extensive network of Muslim family members who take on the role of introducing young men and women to each other for the purpose of marriage, Siddiqui said it’s not true that a Canadian “Muslim girl doesn’t get a choice of who she’ll marry. She gets ultimate choice.”

When it comes to dating or partying, Hanan said her friends in Richmond don’t “do drugs or alcohol or any of that stuff. I don’t feel tempted at all by any of those things.”

If Siddiqui is invited to university parties where non-Muslims will likely be drinking alcohol, which is forbidden in Islam, she said she doesn’t go “because that would sort of be endorsing it.”

The Muslim teens are not exactly sure how many youths from Canadian Muslim families don’t take the faith seriously — by not bothering to attend mosque, by having sex outside marriage or by drinking.

In the U.S., polls suggest Muslims are slightly less active in their religion than evangelicals. Seventy-two per cent of all American Muslims say religion is “very important” to them, compared to 80 per cent of evangelicals. There is no reason to believe those figures aren’t similar in Canada.

Abousaleh said teenage Muslims who turn their backs on the religion “just don’t understand it.”

Mushin said, “You want to help them. But it’s difficult. You can’t heckle them too much.”

Prayer a chance to ‘connect with God’

These four teenage Muslims would not for the world give up their faith, despite the challenges, both outer and inner, that come with it.

That includes the Islamic requirement of praying five times a day, which often makes these teens stand out in Canada, including when passersby take photos of them in supplication.

“The Quran teaches that you can satisfy your body and soul by giving back to the Creator through prayer,” said Siddiqui, acting as if her devotion to Allah was a no-brainer.

“Prayer is sort of like to calm myself, or relieve stress,” added Hanan, showing self-awareness beyond her 15 years.

“Your day is so busy. And prayer gives you five minutes to slow down and connect with God.”

6 Responses to “Growing Up Muslim”

  1. Zahra Says:
    March 18th, 2010 at 8:37 am

    salaam again..
    well…i read the whole article and im really really happy to see how the viewpoints of me ,living in this part of the world is near to my muslim brothers and sisters ,regardless of where they r living.
    to be honest,by seeing these guys and how devout and passionate they r towards Islam,i felt a bit ashamed of myself…i felt like their Islam is more precious than mine as a person who’s been and is living in an Islamic country,among the people who are muslim as well and im not gonna be told: ‘It’s not necessary to wear the head scarf. You’re living here. You should be more Canadianized.’”!!!

    All i can say is Allah bless u Guys ..and U Wael

    Thank u Sumayyah..Great as always ,God bless u too

  2. wael Says:
    March 18th, 2010 at 9:47 am

    Sister Zahra, I’m glad that you read the whole thing and enjoyed it, ma-sha-Allah.

  3. lanah Says:
    October 25th, 2010 at 8:07 am

    I really hope all good faithful muslimahs can find ourselves just as faithful male muslims! I don’t want to marry a non-virgin man but sadly in my town practically all the boys have sex before marriage- yet expect to marry a virgin wife? Double standards totally unfair and totally wrong for any wife to marry a male muslim if he’s even betrayed her before marrying her, so to speak.

  4. fariha Says:
    December 5th, 2010 at 6:27 pm

    ouch. sex (outside of marriage) is haram in islam, anyway. why marry a muslim guy who doesn’t even adhere to Islamic rules?
    by the way the article was awesomee 🙂

  5. Giri Says:
    July 20th, 2011 at 10:51 pm

    salaaam…

    im from indonesia…

    the article was awesome 🙂

  6. Jnaida Says:
    January 13th, 2012 at 4:53 am

    assalamualaykum!
    Im aida. and hi

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