Muslim Immigrants Weigh Risks of Sending Children ‘Home’

Muslim Immigrants Weigh Risks of Sending Children ‘Home’

Hasan Zillur Rahim

Editor’s Note: For immigrant parents, sending children to the old country for schooling or religious training can be tempting. After the London bombings, writes PNS contributor Hasan Zillur Rahim, Muslim parents must remain alert and involved in the lives of their young children.

SAN JOSE, Calif.—A new challenge confronting Muslims living in the West is this: How can we ensure that our young and vulnerable children are able to resist the lure of fanaticism and suicide martyrdom?

As an American Muslim, I draw a critical lesson from the anguish and disbelief expressed by the families of the alleged London suicide bombers: Only I, as the parent of two daughters and a son, can really know what’s going on in the mind of my child. I’m the guardian of my child—and of the country I have chosen to be our home.

Although we can never decipher everything that lurks in the minds our offspring, we must be alert to any tell-tale signs of extremism. If my son, for instance, were to display a sudden obsession with religion to the exclusion of almost everything else that used to interest him, I would be concerned. If he were to turn his back on his multicultural friends and started associating with secretive Muslims, a red flag would go up in my mind. If denigrating other religions and dissatisfaction with governments that he deemed godless became part of his talk, I would know and realize I had to act.

As an immigrant parent, I, like many of my peers, sometimes think nostalgically of sending my children to the old country for schooling and religious training. Now I weigh the risks.

Three of the alleged London bombers had visited, or were sent to, the country of their parents—Pakistan—for religious and spiritual training. Immigrant parents are registering this news in a deeply personal way.

I’ve sometimes been uneasy with the value system and quality of American public schools, and have considered encouraging my children to study in the more rigorous and stricter high schools of the old country. I also know of Muslim children who were sent by their parents to study in religious schools in the subcontinent and the Middle East to become scholars and “hafiz” (one who has memorized the Quran) so that they could become imams of Islamic centers in America upon their return.

But when the visit to the old country for “religious training” is only for a few weeks or months and is shrouded in mystery, I now know it ought to sound alarms.

To gain perspective, I spoke with Imam Tahir Anwar, 27, of South Bay Islamic Association (SBIA) of San Jose. At the tender age of 14, Anwar’s immigrant parents sent him from San Jose to a religious school in India to become an Islamic scholar.

“Why so early?” I asked him.

“Because it is easy to memorize the Quran when you are young,” he explained.

Anwar studied in India for seven years and returned to San Jose in 1999 to become the imam of SBIA. As a young imam, he is particularly liked by the Muslim youths of the Bay Area. I asked him what he thought happened to the London bombers.

“There is no doubt that they lived double lives,” said Anwar. “They had a public life and a private life, and the two were not integrated. They had become zealots in private but presented amiable faces in public.”

According to Anwar, there had to be some tell-tale signs—an unguarded comment, or secret comings and goings—that should have alerted those nearest to them, particularly the parents and those who worked with them.

“The larger issue,” Anwar explained, “is that we Muslims must integrate our lives to the society around us. We cannot live dual lives. We are a part of this society. I may have received my schooling in another country, but I violate my religion if as a Muslim, I nurture goals that can harm America. America is my home.”

Some Muslim parents in America are frustrated when they see their children tempted to join gangs or experiment with drugs or drop out of school. Would they be justified in shipping them off to the old country for education as well as moral and spiritual cleansing?

“No,” said Anwar. According to him, if parents want to send their children to a distant land, it must be for a definite goal and not as an escape from the society they were brought up in. Teenagers will always pose challenges in a permissive society, in which temptations beckon from every corner. They could become irreligious, disrespectful, self-indulgent, lazy, materialistic, with no drive to excel in any field. But to think that different, conservative societies will magically transform difficult children into a wholesome version of their parents is to live in a fool’s paradise.

When Muslim parents are alert, responsible and take an active interest in the affairs of their growing children, and when Muslim scholars and imams emphasize the compassionate and forgiving nature of Islam, one can legitimately hope that the lure of fanaticism among vulnerable Muslims will disappear.

Rahim writes on Islamic issues and has been an editor of Iqra, a national Islamic magazine.

originally published by Pacific News Service, Jul 20, 2005 at and reprinted in TAM with permission of the author.