Sink or Swim?

It only took close to one year to bring MOOZ-lum to Calgary for our viewing pleasure! Having received amazing reviews across North American cities where it has been screened, it was the turn of the "New Heart of the Old West".

I purposely didn't watch the trailer or read its synopsis, since I wanted to go in not knowing anything and gauging my reaction post-movie experience! I have to give full props to the director, Qasim Basir, for writing and directing a movie with this topic. For those who haven't seen the movie, I won't give the storyline away, because you need to watch it for yourselves. It's out on DVD on July 12th, and you can pre-order at www.amazon.ca! How's that for a pitch?!

What I will say about the movie is that it highlighted common struggles facing today's Muslim youth being raised in the west. However, it was quite conservative in portraying those struggles, doing well to skim the surface of the complications that arise when Muslim youth try to define their identity.

But then again, it's not solely Muslim youth facing these struggles, it's ALL youth! I think the Muslim community sometimes treats Islam as too much of a shield without educating their children about struggles they may face. How else can youth be prepared to face these struggles if all they hear from their parents is "NO beta, that's haram!"??? Teens in general don't do well with absolute answers, they need support generating and understanding consequences for their actions. They need to be told that feeling disjointed about their identity is common among many teens regardless of religion, and that there are ways to explore ones personality and identity without crossing the line.

Back to the movie, it is based loosely on Qasim Basir's experiences growing up as a Muslim in the United States. If it wasn't easy back then, it certainly isn't easy now. But I wonder how often Muslim youth hear the statement 'we know it's tough trying to be Muslim in the West, we know you're going through struggles, and we're here to support you'. Validation of one's views and experiences are so VERY powerful, but I don't know how often it happens.

Kudos go out to Qasim for showing the struggles youth face when they go from a secluded Islamic environment to the greater world. In the movie, Tariq (the main character) goes from an Islamic Madrassa (boarding school) to a University away from home. He went from being sheltered to totally exposed. I've heard many parents bring up the concern that while their family lives in Canada, their children's worlds are entirely Islamic in nature, and they therefore have no exposure to the life that is around them. So what happens when youth leave that sheltered environment? There is no set answer because each teen is different, but one can extrapolate on any number of outcomes.

Ok, so I'm going to throw in a neurological analogy, since it may help you understand what I'm getting at. Many neuropsychologists have tried to understand how our brain adapts depending on the environment we're exposed to. Mice are often used in trials since their brain chemistry and structure closely mimics that of humans. There have been experiments done where some mice are placed in extremely enriching and complex environments, whereas other mice are placed in simple and basic ones (i.e. mazes are used in this experiment). After some time, both mice are placed in a NEW very complex maze and they are timed to see how long they can get to the center where the cheese is! The results are obvious, in that the mouse placed in the complex and enriched environment outdoes the mouse who grew up in the simple and basic environment.

But there's more! Researchers took samples of their DNA and looked at its expression and actually found that the genes of the complex environment mouse were much more diversified and complex than the simple and basic environment mouse. Which means that the environments we are placed in impact us not only neurologically, but also at the level of genetic expression. Which means that we pass that on to our children too. So in essence, by having more complex and diversified experiences as a child, you're not only setting yourself up for success in the future, but potentially also your children.

Ok, so back to the topic at hand! Children and youth need to be exposed to many different environments, situations, people, experiences, etc etc etc. Not that I'm saying you let them go and do whatever they want, there are limits! What I am saying is that it's better to encourage your child from a younger age to explore the world outside of the Islamic one since you are setting them up to be better able to deal with and handle this world by themselves in the future. Being over-protective will backfire, not only in that your child/teen may rebel, but also in that they will grow up with the same narrow-minded views on the world, and the way they communicate will be absolute and they will have little room to accept different perspectives.

It would be VERY interesting to follow children through their school years up to the age of 18, and even beyond, and compare Islamic-only environment children with children who have experiences in Islamic and Canadian environments. Very interesting indeed!

To wrap-up, I never went to an Islamic school, and am the product of public education. My Islamic knowledge comes from my home, since growing up in a small town in the UK, we didn't even have a Mosque! But my parents adapted to the situation. Now I look around and I see SO MANY amazing programs and weekend seminars for not only children and youth, but adults too.

So the question then becomes: is it best to surround your child with Islamic-only experiences? Or do we surround them with Islamic experiences in the context of Canadian society, so that they are able to APPLY what they LEARN in every situation they encounter?

Because it's one thing to think that it would be easy to tread water if you're ever drowning. But it's another to actually know how to swim if you ever needed to.

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