Ten Years Later, Young Adult American Muslims Learning to Cope

A Publication of the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding

Ten Years Later, Young Adult American Muslims Learning to Cope

In 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?

Perhaps 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.

However, 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.

The 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.

For 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 zones.

It 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.

Other 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.

Young 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.

A 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.

Further, 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.

In 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 celebrating.

Dr. 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.

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