Voices of M-A: Life as a Muslim-American Teenager

Sana Sheikholeslami
The mosque my family and I attend.
Eid Al Fitr Prayer at the Islamic Cultural Center of Northern California
Praying at home
“Sema of the Path of Love”

Religion has always been a part of my life. Growing up, I attended mosque every week and there I created memories and learned lessons that are woven into my identity. The teachings of Islam have helped me understand what it means to be respectful, empathetic, generous, and peaceful. My daily experiences as a Muslim-American teenager enforce these values, yet the media and politics often assume that I cannot be both American and Muslim and that being Muslim-American is a juggling act at best. However, this twisted perspective is not true; being Muslim and American strengthens my identity, and the two complement each other.

In my U.S. History class last year, I constantly saw parallels in my religion and the ideals the United States was built on, including the rights to ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.’ Americans and Muslims value the same principles and thus it is easy to identify as a Muslim-American. With heightened negative news coverage on Islam and widespread bigotry toward Muslim-Americans after recent terrorist acts, I feel like I should struggle with my identity. However, I am confident of who I am as a Muslim-American and see no reason to listen to those spreading fallacies about Muslim-Americans. I am both a patriot and Muslim and I do not need to explain how I love barbecuing and watching fireworks on the Fourth of July as much as I love praying and visiting mosque on Eid Al Fitr (the holiday marking the end of Ramadan). Even with this confidence, I am still a teenager trying to navigate through senior year and discover a path for my future, which is not easy.

High school is a stressful time. This year, I am often overwhelmed as I balance all that I need to do: finish homework, study for tests, apply for college, stay involved in extracurriculars, see my friends, and spend time with family. Fortunately, my religion and spirituality serve as an outlet to channel my stress. At times like this, I try to connect myself with God more, and remind myself of the virtues Islam emphasizes. I try to be empathetic and giving, rather than frustrated and stressed. Through praying, visiting mosque, and spending time in nature with my family, I connect with God and remember these virtues.

While I turn to God when I need help, this does not mean I do not question him and the world around me. Questioning leads to growth and evolution which is necessary in all aspects of life, including religion. For example, it is difficult to understand why suffering exists. While suffering upsets me, I know that to bring change I need to be active in my community. The most productive action I can take is to be involved in a manner that reflects the values of Islam and America, like volunteering at a homeless shelter or tutoring kids.

Visiting mosque is one of my favorite activities. My mosque is a cultural and community center that strives to celebrate Islam through art, culture, and education. When I visit, I am stripped of distractions and pressures from school and life. Instead, I become one with art, culture, religion, and the community. Visiting mosque is a humbling experience. Last Sunday, I attended an event at my mosque called “Sema of the Path of Love.” Sema is a ritual, often practiced by a specific sect of Muslims, that “represents the human being’s spiritual journey” and emphasizes inner peace and love of all humanity.

This ceremony was timely in regard to current events like the terrorist attacks in Paris and the shooting in San Bernardino, California. The attackers claimed to be Muslim, which has led to the misunderstanding and hate of average Muslims around the world. A handful of people with a cruel and violent perception of the world do not reflect 1.6 billion people. If I claimed that all students at M-A cheat on tests because last year two students cheated, this would be a misconception about the M-A campus. As a practicing Muslim, I know that Islam condemns violence and any beliefs stating otherwise are misconstrued.

It is difficult to turn on the television or check the news online and hear so many negative and incorrect ideas about Islam. It hurts to be at the receiving end of hatred. If I were to talk to someone who hates Muslims, I would let him or her know that Islam is not the root of violence and that Islam should not be blamed for acts committed by a small group of people who disregard the teachings of Islam and instead misuse the religion to be violent. While it is easier to blame each other for heinous acts of violence, society must come together and evaluate the source of violence and hatred in our communities. It would be easy if the source of hate and violence was something as simple as a religion, but it is not. A complex web of misconceptions has trapped society in a cycle of hatred.

At times, I feel defeated and tired of explaining myself and my faith, however, I realize this is the only way to change the Muslim-American narrative. People will not change their bigoted mindset until they speak to Muslim-Americans, make friends with them, and trust them. I will continue to share who I am to dispel misconceptions, but I will not apologize for being a proud Muslim-American.