Research during the past decade shows that Muslim youth are indeed thriving
By Madiha Tahseen
The existential questions faced during adolescence by all youth, which become particularly important for Muslim American youth as they come of age in a heated sociopolitical environment, are “Who am I?” and “Where do I belong?”
The questions “What helps Muslim youth thrive as they try to answer these questions and become the best version of themselves?” “What promotes their healthy well-being and successful thriving?” have been of interest to the author for the past decade. These were dealt with in her dissertation study (conducted during 2013 through 2020) with Charissa Cheah, and Merve Balkaya-Ince, and The Family & Youth Institute (FYI).
Although Muslim Americans are a heterogeneous group with varying backgrounds and experiences, the study focuses on immigrant-origin Muslim American youth (i.e., first or second-generation South Asian and Arabs) aged 14-22 years.
What does Muslim youth’s well-being and mental health look like?
Muslim youth are experiencing mental health challenges, such as anxiety, mood disorders, eating disorders, adjustment disorders and suicidal ideation (A. Basit & M. Hamid, “Mental health issues of Muslim Americans” The Journal of IMA, 42(3), 106–110). However, Muslim youth also thrive and engage with their societies. Some of the factors impacting their mental health are shown in FYI’s Muslim Youth Mental Health Fact Sheet.
What helps Muslim youth thrive and promotes their well-being?
The study, aimed at understanding the factors that promote youth’s well-being and thriving, focused on those identities that blossom during adolescence and their parents’ role during this stage. Various studies on high schoolers and college students consistently find that Muslim youth endorse dual identities, which indicates a strong sense of belonging to both Muslim and American cultures. Some of these are listed in the “References” section at the end of this article. Such a dual identity was associated with the highest level of well-being. In other words, youth who feel like they belong in their Muslim (mosque, friends, social circles) and American communities (school, non-Muslim friends, social circles) have greater well-being.
Religious identity is protective. Interestingly, religious identity is protective for religious minority youth, similar to what others have found. A higher level of Muslim identity was related to less externalizing problems (e.g., smoking, drinking; Balkaya et al., 2019). Experiencing discrimination does not significantly impact youth’s Muslim identity (Balkaya et al., 2019). In fact, a strong religious identity empowers them to be more engaged with their societies, especially in the face of discrimination.
For instance, one of our studies revealed that Muslim youth who identify strongly with their religion in their daily lives are more likely to be civic-minded and engage in civic behaviors, such as volunteering, belonging to or donating money to nonprofit organizations and expressing their opinions on political issues (Balkaya-Ince, Cheah & Tahseen, 2020). These findings directly contradict all public narratives about how being actively Muslim pulls youth away from being American or contributing to American society.
American identity is protective, too. In fact, youth who have a strong sense of religious identity may heighten their American identity to counter any Islam-based discrimination they experience. American identity refers to how youth believe they connect and belong to this country’s mainstream culture, such as being with their non-Muslim friends or engaging in “American” extracurricular activities.
When youth experience personal discrimination and believe the U.S. to be an Islamophobic culture, we found that they respond by increasing their American identity, which protects them from engaging in risky behaviors. In other words, they express greater pride in being American and endorse American cultural beliefs and activities.
Motivated to reduce the unfair treatment of all stigmatized Muslims, they may use their American identity as an empowering strategy and to reaffirm that Muslims do indeed belong to the American tapestry. In sum, this body of work shows that Muslim youth’s identities are complicated and should be treated as such in intervention and prevention programs.
Supportive Muslim parents empower their children to have a stronger Muslim identity, engage in civic behaviors, and, ultimately, have greater well-being (Balkaya et al., 2019). Parents’ religious socialization efforts positively shape their children’s religious identity and religiosity, especially their day-to-day feelings about their religious group. These include talking to children about religion, engaging in religious practices together, encouraging friendships with other Muslim children and engaging in social activities with Muslims. .
Youth who received positive messages about Islam from their mothers had (1) more favorable attitudes about their religious group and (2) stronger beliefs that belonging to the Muslim group was an important part of their self-image daily (Balkaya-Ince et al., 2020). Parents can also protect youth from the adverse effects of discrimination. In one study, we found that their mothers’ supportive conversations strengthened youth’s identities and well-being when they faced discrimination.
This research for the past decade shows that Muslim youth are indeed thriving. Healthy identities with multiple groups serve as protective factors for youth when they experience discrimination. Parents play a crucial role in socializing youth and strengthening their identities.
However, not all Muslim youth are the same. They differ in individual characteristics, cultural backgrounds, generation levels, socioeconomic status and the different environments within which they reside. We must consider the interaction among these factors to accurately understand their experiences. Finally, American Muslim youth comprise many underserved subgroups that require special attention: young women, African American or Black youth, converts, and refugee youth. For more information on the needs of these subgroups, please see The FYI’s State of Muslim American Youth report.
Balkaya-Ince, M., Cheah, C. S. L., Kiang, L., & Tahseen, M. (2020). Exploring daily mediating pathways of religious identity in the associations between maternal religious socialization and Muslim American adolescents’ civic engagement. Developmental Psychology, 56(8), 1446–1457.
Balkaya, M., Cheah, C. S. L., & Tahseen, M. (2019). The role of religious discrimination and Islamophobia in Muslim-American adolescents’ religious and national identities and adjustment. Journal of Social Issues, Special Issue: To Be Both (and More): Immigration and Identity Multiplicity, 75, 538-567.
Tahseen, M., & Cheah, C. S. L. (2018). Who Am I? The social identities of Muslim-American adolescents. American Journal of Islamic Social Sciences, 35(1), 31-54).
Madiha Tahseen, Ph.D. (Univ. of Maryland, Baltimore County) is a research director and a community educator at The Family and Youth Institute. She researches, among other topics, individual and group identity development, parenting, acculturation and risk/protective factors of Muslim adolescents’ healthy development. A Muslim American community organizer for more than a decade, she is also an executive board member of Stones To Bridges, an anonymous online platform that helps Muslim youth address their emotional, social and behavioral needs. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
[Adapted with permission from author’s article published as an AEMS post on “Human Development Matters,” a IIIT blog <iiit.org/blog/>, in June 2022.]
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