“Ordinary” and Muslim

By Mary Ann Zehr — May 28, 2008 1 min read
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“It’s hard to be perceived as ‘ordinary’ and Muslim at the same time in post-9/11 America,” write several teachers in the introduction to a book that relays personal narratives of Muslim high schoolers living in New York City.

The book, This is Where I Need to Be: Oral Histories of Muslim Youth in NYC, is a collection of stories based on interviews of Muslim teenagers that were conducted by Muslim youth. It grew out of a research study on Muslim youth in public schools carried out by Louis Cristillo, a research assistant professor at Teachers College, Columbia University. The project was funded by the Ford Foundation and was released this spring by the Student Press Initiative at Teachers College.

Several of the stories are about immigrant Muslim teenagers. I think most of the stories could serve as a springboard for discussions with high school English-language learners about the dangers of stereotyping people by their culture, religion, or nation of origin.

I was struck by an account from Abdulrahman Abdulla, a native of Yemen, about how it can be hard to educate people about one’s name, which seems to me to be an important part of one’s identity. Here’s an excerpt.

I don't have many conflicts at school, but people would make fun of my name. My name, Abdulrahman, means the servant of the merciful. This is my name and it's a good name because of its meaning in the Islamic religion. Allah has ninety-nine names or characteristics; Rahman is the second name after Allah. But in my school the word haram, which means prohibition in Islam, has become popular. This makes some students call me "Abdulharam." This is unacceptable because haram is not one of Allah's names and it makes me feel insulted to be called the servant of prohibition. People would change my name because it's long and it's hard to say. But instead of them doing that, I just tell them to call me Abdul. ... Therefore, I have faced and am still facing problems because of my religion and culture. Sometimes I ignore those who I feel are too ignorant to explain to, but most of the time I try to explain to them the right thing. At least they should learn how to say my name right!

A version of this news article first appeared in the Learning the Language blog.