the hours after the killing of Osama bin Laden, raucous scenes of celebration
could be observed outside the White House and in Lower Manhattan, but also
throughout the country on several college campuses. This struck many
commentators in the media as curious; how could young men and women who were
children on 9/11 feel so strongly about terrorist attacks that they could not
have possibly comprehended at the time they occurred?
it was that the news of bin Laden’s death spread quickly through social media
sites, and this wired generation was the most likely to be checking status
updates on Facebook or trending topics on Twitter late on a Sunday night, and
was therefore primed to join in on the excitement.
it was also keenly observed that developmental psychology might offer some
insight into the effect of 9/11 and Osama bin Laden on the lives of these
emerging adults, and why those emotions ran so deep.
Greatest Generation stood in Depression-era bread lines as children. The early Baby
Boomers ducked underneath their school desks in air raid drills. These were, no
doubt, formative experiences and harsh lessons for children to learn about the potential
hazards of a dangerous and changing world. Similarly, America’s current
generation of young adults grew up in the shadow of 9/11 and can hardly
remember a time when their country was not fighting at least one war in the
Muslim World. Osama bin Laden, understandably so, was the personification of
the evil associated with this decade of violence and a real life bogeyman for
American children who watched the events of 9/11 in confusion and horror.
today’s young adult American Muslims – the vast majority of whom were born and
raised in the United States – the emotional toll of 9/11 and its aftermath has
been especially distressing and complex. Their sense of security was shattered
not just as Americans but also as Muslims. Over the past decade, reports have
been plentiful of American Muslim children and adolescents being bullied at
school and witnessing their parents become victims of discrimination. They have
seen their community’s loyalty to the United States questioned, their religious
institutions come under suspicion, and their otherness exploited for political
gain. Some of them have older siblings in the United States Armed Forces while
others fear for the safety of extended family members who are civilians in war
is against these backdrops that this next generation of American Muslims has
been tasked with the important developmental undertakings of identity
formation, self-esteem building, and making sense of the world around them.
Academic studies and national surveys of this group have produced results that might
at first seem contradictory. Some findings paint a picture of a community in
crisis. This population reports higher levels of depression and discomfort than
their peers, and are even likely to feel unsafe walking alone at night in their
neighborhoods. They also perceive there to be a lack of Muslim and/or
culturally competent mental health professionals to whom they can turn for
help, and feel that their parents’ generation is out of touch with their
changing emotional needs.
findings, however, portray a community up to the challenge. This younger
generation, generally speaking, is increasingly studious, religious, and
politically involved. High school Muslim girls are playing varsity basketball
while wearing headscarves, Muslim college students are advocating for and
utilizing chaplaincy services, and young adult American Muslims are becoming
further integrated across lines of race and class.
Muslims, who were haunted by bin Laden as youngsters, are nonetheless taking an
active and healthy approach to embracing cohesive identities as both American
and Muslim while finding support from within their social circles.
recently concluded major study of American-born Muslim college students, to be
published by the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding in the coming
months, sheds greater light on the subject. Its results suggested that
depression, environmental stress, anxiety, social pressures, and family
conflict are all present at disturbing levels for this population. Nonetheless,
this group reported an impressive level of openness to seeking professional
mental health services, and their attitudes in this respect held true regardless
of race, gender, or religiousness – a unique finding for any community.
despite the host of stressors that they have faced over the past decade and
continue to face today, these young American Muslims have developed an
impressive array of approaches to coping. They appear apt to turn to their
faith for guidance and inspiration, to turn to their peers for comfort and
support, and to look inward for strength and focus. Consistent with Islam’s
prohibition of substance abuse, this group is especially unlikely to use drugs
or alcohol as a means of coping.
the coming decades, this generation will inherit the challenge of being the
public face of Islam in America. Their attitudes and experiences have afforded
them unique perspectives as they embrace this role. This emerging community
appears to be diverse yet united, stressed yet coping, and religious yet
unabashedly American. That, in the end, might be something truly worth
Herzig is a post-doctoral fellow in Clinical Psychology in the Boston area and
is a Research Fellow at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding