November Issue 2014

By | Society | Published 10 years ago

I suppose we were meant to believe it was inevitable — the shift to a religious identity for many young people of Pakistani origin living in the West.

A March 2014 PEW research survey found that millennials (ages 18-33) in the United States were the least religious of all generations. According to the survey, 29 per cent were not affiliated with any religion — a number that illustrates “the highest levels of religious disaffiliation recorded for any generation in the last quarter-century.”

Growing up in a liberal Pakistani household, one Canadian woman in her 20s describes herself as a recent convert to Islam after having been “extremely averse” to it earlier in life. She remembers that the questions she used to have about Islam were “insufficiently answered,” mainly by young people growing up whom she found to be “overly conservative,” especially when it came to such things as women’s rights.  She now describes herself as a Sufi, who is rediscovering her roots and is not attached to any institution or group.

The same may not have been the case for a large number of South Asian Muslims in North America, particularly of Pakistani origin, who like many other immigrants from Muslim-majority countries became the targets of Islamist recruiting efforts beginning as early as the 1960s.

In her 2011 book, A Quiet Revolution: The Veil’s Resurgence from the Middle East to America, Leila Ahmed outlines how Islamist-inspired institutions have flourished in the past few decades in Canada and the United States, and become the dominant and authoritative strand of Sunni Islam. As a result, the majority of immigrants from Muslim countries who had no connection to Islamism in their countries of origin, currently have “no voice within the public conversation on Islam in America,” Ahmed writes.

But even for the others, it was not a simple, one-way street. According to Ahmed, the variant of a non-secular Islam as it developed in North America was in some ways different from the one practiced by Islamists in Muslim-majority  countries. Significant changes are being made as “a rising generation of American-born and/or American-raised Muslims, shaped to some degree by Islamism, begins to emerge into the foreground of Islamic activism and to take over the reins of power,” writes Ahmed.

According to Ahmed, the most progressive and liberal Islamists, many of them women, have turned Islamism into a quest for social justice. This activism was closely in line with western perspectives on gender equality, feminism and human rights. Included in it were the “demands for equal space (for women) physically within Muslim religious institutions, and the beginnings of a demand for equal rights (for women) to leadership in religious institutions,” Ahmed writes.

It’s quite a task to dig into the past and ask these young Muslims who they were before, why they changed and who they are now. Most describe the change as positive, something they remember fondly. It opened their lives to many more Islamic cultures — even when that meant that their own heritage took a back seat.

For one 30-year-old Canadian woman of Pakistani origin, who went to university in Mississauga during the early 2000s, the shift meant a change of “crew.” She found the Pakistan Students’ Association (PSA) to be too cultural and full of “too much Bollywood/bhangra,” in stark contrast to people she met at the Muslim Students’ Association (MSA), who she found to be more “helpful and honest.”


“I think it was more the conduct of people in the MSA than the religious structure that impacted me,” she remembers. “I still fondly recall MSA Ramadan iftars, because of the inclusiveness and sense of community one would feel.

“I grew up listening to Vital Signs, but as I made friends with people from other cultures I started appreciating their music too, for example, Indonesian nasheeds and mainstream pop.”

Of her Pakistani roots, “the ethnic clothing was the first thing to go,” much to the dismay of her mother. At university, Islam allowed her to move away from her culture and be a Muslim first. In fact, it helped her assert her Canadian identity more, by adopting  western attire with a hijab. “I felt like a Muslim rather than a Pakistani,” she says.

The role of the MSA in anchoring the lives of many Muslim students in a more Islamic way of life in colleges across Canada and the United States has been immense. Founded in 1963 by various Islamist exiles, especially those from Egypt who were fleeing persecution during the Nasser era, the MSA formed the Islamic Society of North America in 1981, which is the largest Islamic institution in North America.

Another woman of Pakistani-origin in her 30s, who grew up in Canada in the mid to late 1990s, says that she became more religious despite growing up in a family that was not. According to her, the MSA at her university played a “pivotal role” in guiding the transition. In a recent trip to Pakistan, she noticed the lack of opportunity for women to pray in mosques in comparison to what she describes as “the liberties Muslim women have in Canada. To be honest, I don’t feel like a Pakistani but rather a Canadian-Muslim,” she says.

Looking back at her university days, she feels that many young Muslims were “shielded” by friends who thought and acted like them, and therefore never got out of the “MSA bubble.” She remembers how some women who did not cover their heads did not feel comfortable attending some MSA events.

Even as a woman wearing hijab, she feels that in those days there was a lot of discussion on how a woman wearing hijab should act and behave. “I’m going to be who I am,” she asserts, and says that she does not like the ‘you have to think like us and act like us, if you want to hang out with us’ attitude.

Commenting on her recent trip to Pakistan, she says that if it weren’t for her transition earlier in life, she would not be as strong, independent and career-driven —qualities she is proud of.

Did the rise of Islamism in the West, during the late 20th and early 21st centuries, change many young Muslims living there, or was it the other way around? Will the majority non-Islamist and secular Muslim population in North America have a say in any public discussion about Islam in the future? Is the experience of Islam for today’s youth living in the West any different from that of the previous generation? How much of it has simply been an echo from the past? Or is the turn to a religious identity by these young people simply illustrative of the old adage: “The more things change, the more they remain the same”?

This article was originally published in Newsline’s November 2014 issue.