The media often tells us that the label “American-Muslim” is contradictory, while in some khutbas you hear the claim that the word “American” shouldn’t even be in the equation. Brother Omer Bajwa, the coordinator of Muslim life at Yale University, tells a different story. Brother Omer spoke to the MPSN fellows on June 11, explaining how college students and youth can balance both an American and Muslim identity.
Bajwa acknowledged that in this current climate, American Muslims do face a big challenge—they oftentimes have to defend their faith, and at the same time prove they are not “anti-American.” This is why Bajwa, who received his MS in Communication, emphasized the importance of Muslim involvement in a diverse array of fields. He said that Muslims need to participate in the law, government and the media in order to take hold of their narrative. Moreover, he told the fellows that we need to look at the history of other communities that have also faced negative stereotypes, like the Jewish American community and the Japanese American community, in order to learn how to break down commonly-held perceptions about our own community.
But Bajwa also emphasized the importance of local community involvement. He said that most Americans have never even met a Muslim and this is why our day-to-day interactions with others are integral for building a sense of mutual understanding. He said that we should get to know our neighbors, and become involved in issues that affect Americans as a whole and not just the Muslim community. We should volunteer at local clinics, and participate in the debates about health care and poverty, because these issues affect everyone.
It is often difficult to navigate being Muslim and American, but this speaker made it clear that having a dual identity is entirely possible. Bajwa’s own experiences also reflect a perfect model of this balance. He was born in Pakistan and emigrated to the United States at the age of three. After earning his Graduate Certificate in Islamic Chaplaincy from Hartford Seminary, he has been heavily involved in religious service and social activism for the past nine years. Bajwa serves as an exemplary model for American Muslim youth and his advice for the fellows about navigating the layers of an American Muslim identity was integral.