Assimilate or Integrate? A Closer Look at South Asian Muslim Youth in New York City

How odd; media articles fail to agree on whether certain South Asian Muslim youth are American or not. I noticed these discrepancies when I try to find out more information about the lives of Syed Hashmi, Junaid Babar or Uzair Paracha. Some publications such as the New York Post or the Daily Times refer to them as Pakistani or foreign-born; other media refer to them as Queens-born and raised. Few refer to them as New Yorkers or as Americans. I still don't know much about them or how American they really were. For some Syed Hashmi and others evoke certain ideas of what South Asian Muslim youth in New York City might be – outsiders, fascists, criminals, or perhaps something else entirely. South Asian Muslim youth (SAMY) in New York City are unique; their identity and civic engagement distinguish them from popular conceptions created by the media and by the film industry. Unfortunately, SAMY are increasingly typecast as intransigent members of civil society, poorly integrated, though not yet cast in the same mold as European Muslim youth who represent what's wrong with multiculturalism. But that doesn't stop politicians and media institutions from questioning SAMY's nationalities, citizenship and their allegiance to the United States.

SAMY in America may never adhere to the expectations of those who advocate for assimilation. However, SAMY should in no way be understood as "enemies within". They instead should be understood in the socioeconomic and cultural context – and their multiple identities and civic commitments should be recognized. They are the new generation or the offspring of a more recent wave of post-1965 immigration and redefine what it is to be Muslim, South Asian, and as American while becoming contributors to New York's civil society.

I say this from the point of view of a youth center in Queens. I'm also a researcher for the Muslim youth in New York City Public schools, a project based at Teachers College. This essay relies on my experience traveling throughout three boroughs for the past two years and interacting with SAMY. It is also based on the observations and thoughts generated from working at South Asian Youth Action! (SAYA!) in Elmhurst, Queens. I do not intend for it to be an academic article but a personal account of what I have seen and lived in the past two years. It also relies largely on interaction with and on the voices of South Asian youth – their writings, projects, performances.

To assimilate, or to integrate?

As a researcher and youth worker, I often wonder if SAMY would change the minds of advocates of assimilation if they only had the chance to meet. Congressman Tom Tancredo (R-CO), congenial, polite and respectful of his WNYC host Brian Lehrer, argues that immigrants should assimilate – immigrants should leave allegiances and languages behind. They should pledge allegiance to the United States of America and speak English! As I listened to his discussion, I began to imagine an interaction between Mr. Tancredo and youth with whom I interact regularly - some of whom are New York City born-and-raised and exemplify what it means to be a New Yorker and an American. In effect, Mr. Tancredo and other advocates of assimilation reject young people's complex identities and therefore deny youth and adults part of what makes them unique. Advocates of assimilation ostensibly expect youth to fit into American society as a mechanical component fits into a machine. In "A Conservative Statement on Immigration Reform," 33 signatories including Presidential hopeful Steve Forbes agreed, "conservatives must stand strong in favor of assimilation. New immigrants need to learn English, U.S. history and the values that have made this country great." While I wouldn't dispute immigrants civic obligations, I would caution such approaches to understanding and accommodating immigrants - particularly the first generation of Americans born to parents who have come to settle in New York. It would be excruciatingly difficult to force youth to discard parts of their identity, and there will be high costs associated with policies that ignore or suppress their identities or socioeconomic contexts. Instead, the integration of SAMY should be recognized; it's a two-way interaction through which society and individuals influence each other. The integration of SAMY is a work-in-progress in which nonprofit organizations and state education systems accommodate their needs, interests, and perspectives. It's a process that SAMY are undergoing right now as they grow up simultaneously American, South Asian, and Muslim and contribute mightily to the diversity of New York City.

Identity, citizenship

Some SAMY perceive themselves as different or outside the mainstream. Some distinguish between themselves and the mainstream "American", which signifies their understanding of American mainstream as Anglo-American. Many identify themselves as hybrid or hyphenated and maintain one identity which manifests itself different. A quick look at MySpace would confirm that. MySpace illustrates how SAMY associate with contacts - all of whom they have something different in common with – classmates, family, friends, and others. MySpace allows SAMY to express themselves through a mini-bio that includes their faith and their interests. These electronic self-portraits often contain cultural connections – a link to a Bhangra or hip-hop MySpace, links to Muslim and non-Muslim friends, and a décor that may or may not reflect their cultural attachments. These self-portraits are their perceived mirror-images of their normal non-electronic lives – in their accents, their style of dress, and involvement in multiple socio-cultural spheres: secular American public space and cultural, family, community or even electronic space. One South Asian Muslim who is now an adult explains: "I don't try to hide it," but goes on to point out that he doesn't feel the need "to run down the street screaming, "I'm Muslim!" While few would deny the role that their faith plays in their lives, many also articulate their attachment to their ethnic identity, to Congressman Tancredo's chagrin. Furthermore, some take their American and non-religious identity for granted. "I'm completely bilingual, read and write and think in both languages, Bengali and in English…my father brought me up with a cultural appreciation of my heritage.  And I was completely an American." 

SAMY identity is also shaped by the resources and opportunities available to them. Unsurprisingly, the way they understand themselves has something to do with their social interaction. The racial segregation in high school and in college forces them to choose where they belong. This is in turn invariably reinforces their identity and their sense of belonging in one group or another. One young woman explains that each of the floors (10 in all!) of her specialized high school in Manhattan played host to distinct ethnic or social groups. Lunchrooms and student lounges featured cliques-- white, Hispanic, Asian, and black. The impact on identity is not clear but high schools appear to give students resources and opportunities to find their own group or clique. Discussing student life on the American college campus one student explains that on "campus… everything's segregated, between groups, so you associate yourself with Muslims." Integration is impeded by the current social structures of high schools. Perhaps integration (or even assimilation) might be easier if education policies responded to segregation in today's schools.

Civic and Cultural Engagement

Though assimilationists may not approve, New York City's South Asian Muslim youth are socially and civically engaged - but not only as Americans. They are also involved through cultural and faith groups - as Muslims, and as South Asians. They are grassroots organizers, they are volunteering on their own initiative, and often channel their energy through public school such as environmental care at Coney Island's beaches, through cultural organizations, through nonprofit organizations, and through religious institutions such as food and clothing and even voter registration drives. One youth explained that his first major contribution as an American came as a volunteer project with his Queens-based mosque community in a project to help New York's homeless. Some examples of the individual civic engagement of youth included teaching and working at hospitals. Some SAMY depend on SAYA! to find internships. Some successes have included summer internships with two Manhattan nonprofit organizations. SAYA!'s programming also affords opportunities for youth to do community service together, making it a vehicle for civic engagement for youth. Beyond service, some SAMY are actively engaged in the performing arts. This past year featured three dramatic performances of SAYA! youth (representing all faiths) including at the Julia Miles Theatre in Manhattan. I wasn't surprised that they dramatized scenes from their lives at home and at school. They managed to portray how much pressure they have from home to achieve and to conform to expectations as well as to conform to social expectations at school.

But civic engagement and social service is not all SAMY are busy doing. I often find youth running home from SAYA! because their parents expect them to attend ethnic or social meetings. While engaged in civil society, they remain loyal to family, cultural, or religious obligations such as religious instruction and weddings. Youth at SAYA! present multitudes of examples of "multicultural citizenship" - a form of citizenship which recognizes and legitimizes the right and need of citizens to maintain commitments both to their cultural communities and to the national civic culture. Furthermore, SAMY that become young professionals and college students also are involved in bringing diversity to New York City. They are well known bloggers, some become acclaimed artists, and others create and participate in sports leagues and manage public events for members of New York City's civil society. Thus, SAMY become young participants and contributors in New York's civil society while maintaining responsibilities and activity in their cultural or religious communities.

Though SAMY represent new modes of integration into American society, there are barriers that impede their ability to be American. As a youth worker I know that youth become American when they have the resources and opportunities to do so. The youth I serve in Queens negotiate the complex landscape that is the NYC Department of Education, the process of high school and then college admissions, and language problems. They along with their parents or guardians learn about the Department of Education's rules and regulations, SATs, the college application process, internships and various other American institutional and social and cultural aspects together - and are not always fully informed. I also observe single parent families whose mothers struggle to understand the general education system and norms and trends and in particular New York's unique educational bureaucracy. It turns out that integration is not very easy after all.

The barriers to integration only grow. According to data from InsideSchools.org, schools like Newtown High school in Queens with a higher population of immigrant and first generation American youth, face "terrible overcrowding. The lack of individual attention means some students get lost." Poor education services make integration impossible, let alone assimilation. Anecdotal evidence from youth illustrates the violence and discrimination that occurs in high schools in New York. Some South Asian Muslim youth in New York City face police questioning at school or are asked for their passport. Others have their hijabs torn off in the subways. They face deportation or have family members who are deported or detained. A documentary by Teresa Thanjan reveals how one SAMY was nearly deported and another dealt with her detained father who was later deported. The New York Times also documented another SAMY who was literally kidnapped from her home. She was not charged but only deported to Bangladesh. Many students are perfectly capable of achieving academic success and all SAMY are capable of becoming American. I've only presented a few examples of obstacles that SAMY face in doing so.

SAMY most certainly think of themselves as American but it would be a mistake to force them to lose other aspects of their identity that in fact bring diversity to American society.

In Sammy and Rosie Get Laid (1987), Hanif Kureishi speaks to the issue of assimilation through two of the central characters – as machines and civil servants flatten a caravan community to make room for expensive housing in the background. Rafi Rahman, an immigrant from Pakistan and played by the venerable Shashi Kapoor explains to Danny, a Black resident of the community, that he has just come from Pakistan – recently decolonized and still experiencing the legacy of British colonization. Gesturing to the destruction of his own home and community, Danny quickly replies that he is experiencing his own form of colonization – that which is internal. For South Asian Muslim youth in America, to become part of American social fabric, the social fabric is going to have to accept and recognize SAMY and the attributes, perspectives, and challenges that they face. For America to expect SAMY to become assimilated is to hope SAMY lose integral characteristics of who they are – is mutually detrimental for SAMY and for New York's civil society and for American society. It is also to ignore their particular challenges and experiences that they bring. To assimilate SAMY is to force them to lose agency – to be part of the American machine – to function as "citizens" rather than as agents of change. To assimilate SAMY is to lose to valuable social and cultural and political assets that they bring such as international perspectives, culture, language, and a commitment to becoming a part of American society. The social integrity of American society therefore in part depends on respecting the integrity of SAMY identity, needs, and perspectives.

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