Resident Expert: Growing Up Muslim in America

A man looks over his shoulder at a group of Muslim teenagers at a bowling alley in San Francisco, California.

NYU Abu Dhabi Assistant Professor of Social Research and Public Policy John O'Brien spent three and a half years conducting ethnographic fieldwork with a group of young Muslim friends who grew up together in post-9/11 America. In his upcoming book,  he explores questions of cultural difference and discrimination faced by young American Muslims.

By looking at the ordinary lives of Muslim youth, his research asks the critical question: Is there something about religious Islam that makes it fundamentally incompatible with Western culture?

O'Brien says: "So much of their life is centered around normal teenage problems. These are normal kids with everyday concerns, like 'I want a girlfriend, I want to be cool, am I gonna go to college?'"

So how does discrimination factor into everyday life?

My research took place prior to this latest wave of public anti-Muslim rhetoric in the US, so the reality on the ground may well be different these days. But when I hung out with these young men, they didn't spend most of their time talking about politics, discrimination, or Islamophobia. Instead, they talked about music, girls, dating — what most people would consider “regular” teenage issues. As practicing Muslim teenagers they did face an additional layer of complexity, which involved balancing expectations of religious propriety with these typical adolescent concerns. But it was the management of these everyday cultural tensions like how to date while Muslim, for example, that occupied the majority of their attention.


These young men simply don't see a need to choose between being American and Muslim. They are already both of these things from the start. I think the problem comes with other people's expectations.

John O'Brien, NYUAD sociologist

Discrimination tended to enter the picture in the immediate aftermath of a terrorist attack linked with Islamic extremism. During these times, they faced increased harassment because of the perception that most or all Muslims support such attacks. This perception of Muslims used to be something primarily promoted by right-wing fringe groups but now mainstream politicians seem to have gotten into the game.

Do Muslims in the US sometimes feel compelled to act more American?

I think some Muslims do at certain times, and of course, acting “American” can mean many different things, from displaying an American flag after a terrorist attack to embracing urban American hip hop culture and music. But I learned that the key to these young people’s ability to feel both Muslim and American, in a way that worked for them, was flexibility — on the part of their parents, community leaders, peers, and even in their own heads. It was crucial that their parents were somewhat open to different ways of being Muslim, and this is an issue that Muslim communities in the US are talking more about these days. There are also different ideas about what it means to be American. We need to be open about both of these kinds of flexibility. Kids growing up Muslim in the US don't necessarily want to be either Muslim or American. They are already both, and they seem to do best when the people around them work to understand that and give them space to be both.

Is there a crisis of identity happening?

Well, here's the crux of the issue. Where many might expect to find some kind of identity “crisis,” I didn't see one, after spending literally thousands of hours with these kids. These young men simply don't see a need to choose between being American and Muslim. They are already both of these things from the start. I think the problem comes with other people's expectations. When your parents say, "If you watch this TV show you're not really Muslim" or if your friends say, "If you practice this religion you're not really American," then these two identities are experienced as in tension. But if all parties maintain a level of openness about what it means to be a Muslim and what it means to be American, then these combined identities are made more possible. And these young people are very creative in finding ways to do both.

They don't want to apologize for people and events that they feel have nothing to do with them. Kids living normal lives as Muslims is not going to be a headline.

John O'Brien
How will stereotypes be broken?

Ideally, everyone needs to be working on this at all levels of society. But one important arena is in informal social settings. Studies show that non-Muslims who know Muslim people personally are less likely to have Islamophobic ideas or resort to stereotypes. People who don't have contact with Muslims can be more easily convinced by someone like Donald Trump that all or most Muslims are potential terrorists, and that we should therefore ban them from entering the US. If non-Muslims are exposed to enough different Muslim people, voices, and representations, then it will be increasingly difficult to stereotype Muslims or reduce Islam to one simple depiction.

What's louder in the US: A collective voice for a peaceful Islam or anti-Muslim sentiment?

That depends in large part on whose voice you are listening for or able to hear. In many ways, the media in the US is structured so that extreme voices are more easily amplified. Islamophobic voices are louder, especially when people in a position of power like Donald Trump use their media exposure to sow fear. Interestingly, it's similar to what leaders on the other extremist side do, like those in ISIS, or Osama Bin Laden. Non-extreme voices are the ones you don't hear. For example, the leadership of the mosque I studied said they regularly put out statements against Al Qaeda that weren't picked up by media outlets because it wasn't considered exciting enough to be newsworthy. And then they'd see Bin Laden put out periodic statements that would be captured on every news channel. In contrast, kids living relatively normal lives as Muslims in America is not going to be a headline anytime soon.