America's Next Generation Of Muslims Insists On Crafting Its Own Story A new generation of American Muslims has moved from defending itself, as Muslim communities did in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, to defining itself.

America's Next Generation Of Muslims Insists On Crafting Its Own Story

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After 9/11, many American Muslims faced this double trauma - their country attacked and people associating them with the attackers. They found themselves on the defense, questioned about their religion. But today, in a similar political climate of rising anti-Muslim hostility, a new generation of Muslims is done defending itself and is instead asserting itself. It's a generation determined to tell its own stories. Today, NPR's Leila Fadel begins a series of stories about the increasingly diverse mosaic of Muslims across this country who are controlling their own narrative. She reported this in conjunction with National Geographic and wrote a piece for the May issue. And she joins us now. Hi, Leila.


GREENE: So when we say the word Muslim, I think a lot of people think they know exactly what that means. But in this series, you're finding a lot of that turned on its head.

FADEL: That's right because Muslim doesn't mean one thing. I visited communities in Chicago, in LA, in Texas, New York, Pennsylvania. And what I can say is that Muslims are this mosaic. And outside of maybe Hajj, the Muslim pilgrimage, is the first time I saw such a diversity of practice and tradition and culture. And in these communities, really, one thing struck me. And that was that young Muslim Americans, they're done feeling like they have to apologize. And they really just want to tell their own stories. So take a listen to Usama Canon. He's a California-based preacher that I met during my reporting.

USAMA CANON: One of the great scholars said that Islam is kind of like a pure, clear water that takes the color of whatever riverbed it flows over. I'm hoping that Muslims in America can kind of color that bedrock in a beautiful way.

FADEL: And that's something young Muslims are doing now. They're running for political office, getting on school boards, creating art and being really loud and unapologetic about their identity.

GREENE: So let's just set up your first story. You're going to tell us about two 20-somethings who decided they were just sick and tired of Muslims being put in a box and defined as either villain or victim and people just never asking them about their dreams or how their day is. So they started this podcast. Let's listen.

FADEL: Makkah Ali and Ikhlas Saleem are both 28, both from Atlanta, both married, both raised in two different black Muslim communities and best friends since they met as undergrads at Wellesley College.

MAKKAH ALI: Ikhlas is actually the first friend that I've ever had where I didn't have to code switch because she was from the same town as me. She, like, was Muslim. She was black. We went to the same college together. So we were having, like, a lot of identity formation experiences together.

FADEL: That's Ali talking. When she says she didn't have to code switch, she means Saleem just gets her. She didn't have to put on some version of a perfect black American Muslim woman.

ALI: Once you're in the company of someone that lets you exhale, like, you never want to hold your breath again.

FADEL: And that's kind of how the podcast they're doing together was born, a place where they can exhale and give others permission to do the same. People like Ali and Saleem are a face of Islam that a lot of Muslims in America relate to. They're young, and so are so many Muslims in the U.S. About half of U.S. Muslims came of age after 9/11. Ali does the podcast from DC and Saleem from Atlanta. It's called "Identity Politics." And it's two girlfriends just talking.


IKHLAS SALEEM: Hey, this is Ikhlas.

ALI: And this is Makkah.

SALEEM: And you're listening to "Identity Politics," a podcast...

FADEL: About life, love, race, gender and faith plus guests, like this episode that tackled race with Margari Aziza Hill, co-founder of the Muslim Anti-Racism Collaborative.


MARGARI AZIZA HILL: There is especially a kind of curiosity towards white converts, you know? Like, it's like, why did they choose Islam? They had everything to lose.


HILL: And with us black folks, they're like, of course, you...

SALEEM: It's so true (laughter).

HILL: ...Became Muslim.

ALI: Crawling your way out of the struggle.

FADEL: The podcast is both light and serious, a lot like the two women who created it - Saleem with a Harvard graduate degree and Ali a graduate degree from George Mason University. Ali covers her hair and Saleem does not. In the podcast, they go right to the big questions.


ALI: When young, black and Muslim and immigrant and female kids look to that metaphorical podium, that stage today, like, who is validating their existence? Like, who's showing them...

FADEL: They bring on guests to talk about the stuff that young Muslims want to hear, like this conversation with Muslim poet, writer and performer Fatimah Asghar about the silence around desire.


FATIMAH ASGHAR: I just think about that that I was where I was like first feeling these things of desire and not knowing how to talk about them and just wanting to create the art that gives permission that, like, it is OK. You know, like, you are OK.

FADEL: And the two women are getting some attention. The podcast audience has grown from less than a hundred downloads per episode in 2016 to some 3,000 today. On the day I meet them, they're speaking at the Muslim Protagonist Conference at Columbia University. A fan walks up.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: I loved the episode with the husbands. I think...


SALEEM: So many people love that episode.

ALI: That is a crowd favorite.

SALEEM: It is.

FADEL: What's the episode with the husbands?

ALI: We interviewed our husbands...

SALEEM: Husbands.

ALI: ...About, like, a lot of things.

SALEEM: It's called Bae Watch (ph) - was that?

FADEL: The conference is for a bunch of Muslim literary nerds who are talking about how they can be the heroes of their own stories. And that's exactly what Saleem and Ali are trying to do with their podcast. On a panel, they take questions.

SALEEM: I want to see Muslims doing the work. I want to see Muslims building their own platforms. That's - I don't know - right? - because the only way you can represent is when you represent yourself.

FADEL: This year, the conference is focused on being authentic. And Saleem tells me that's at the heart of what their podcast is all about.

SALEEM: First and foremost, our audience are, like, young Muslims like us. And if other people listen in, great. But what we're not going to do is go, here is Islam 101, like, what you need to listen to this.

FADEL: Because the issues they take up are important to everyone.

SALEEM: When we're talking about gender, when we're talking about race, all of these things exist outside of Islam and within Islam. And so I think that's our primary goal of, like, really talking about the difficult issues.

ALI: Yeah.

SALEEM: And shaping the conversation.

ALI: We don't exist as a vulnerable population that only is in response to the climate that we're in. We live day-to-day. We, like, have to manage our anger and our budgets and, like, relationships and...

FADEL: But they couldn't find anybody talking about those daily life experiences.

ALI: A lot of the space that Muslims were given in the media was, like, can you come and react to issue X or issue Y? Not, like, what are you interested in? Like, what are you and your friends talking about?

SALEEM: Like, a question asked never.

FADEL: So they're asking the questions now and finding the answers.

GREENE: All right. That story and that reporting coming from our colleague Leila Fadel this morning. She's beginning a series. And, Leila, what else are we going to hear?

FADEL: This afternoon on All Things Considered, I'll tell you a story about Muslim community organizers on the South Side of Chicago. Tomorrow on Here And Now, a story of a community rebuilding after their mosque was burned down. And this weekend, LGBTQ Muslims creating a space where they can worship.

GREENE: All right. Look forward to hearing those. NPR's Leila Fadel. Leila, thanks.

FADEL: Thank you.

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