In a brightly lit room, a group of about 80 people from Northeastern University and the surrounding Fenway neighborhood listened attentively to three young Muslim professionals talk about their personal struggles and failures during an event hosted by the Islamic Society of Northeastern University.
The panel discussion was titled Refugee Camps, Typewriters, and Make-Up: The Millennial Muslim. It featured Wajahat Ali, a television host/anchor in Al Jazeera’s The Stream, a show devoted to community and civic journalism. Dr. Sarah Kureshi, a physician and human rights advocate for refugee and minority groups focusing on public health issues, and Haroon Moghul, a columnist and writer for various online publications including Al Arabiya News, an Arab news site, also joined the discussion.
“We wanted to bring in speakers that people could relate to,” said Tala Alghusain, co-president of the Islamic Society of Northeastern. “Whether they were human rights activists or whether they were working with Al Jazeera or Al Arabiya, we just wanted people who did represent Islam, but also that represented politics in the Middle East.”
The 2 ½ hour meeting directed itself toward identifying the millennial Muslim and the challenges this generation must deal with in defining their identity as individuals and as Muslims.
“I think they really helped us understand that we can open up to each other,” said Alghusain.
Wajahat Ali, the first speaker, set the mood by revealing his personal struggles after graduating from college. He talked about how he had to embrace failure to find his passion in writing.
Ali talked about how his childhood as an oddball and sick child set him up for the challenges in his late 20s. Ali spoke how at 26, he found himself with a failed law career, five dollars in his pocket, and a family to care for as his parents had gone bankrupt. He stressed the internal conflict he faced at defying the prescribed guidelines of success – which included becoming a doctor and finding a wife by age 30- that had been passed down generation after generation in his family in order to do what he wanted to do.
“Had it not been for my acceptance that I was a failure, and that I would have to chart my own path,” said Ali, “I don’t think I would have embraced my definition of success.”
Ali’s main point was to encourage the millennial generation to figure out their own definitions of success, and to stray from the idea that success is defined by the occupation, wealth or culture you come from.
Dr. Sarah Kureshi followed, focusing on how she became involved with refugee camps and human rights. Kureshi talked about how she chose medicine as her career because it served as the perfect medium to combine her skills and passions, rather than to become a doctor for the name or respect it would bring. Kureshi said that as a teenager in a small town in Florida, she faced discrimination from professors, and was only treated with respect when they realized she was the daughter of a well-known doctor. She said that those experiences disgusted her, and made her want to break free of labels.
¨I wasn´t interested in any of those labels,¨ said Kureshi. ¨I wanted to do thing I wanted to do because I was passionate it about them and not because it pleased other people.¨
Kureshi told about how her first experience with refugees in Burma gave her a purpose, and she discovered her path through public health and community service. Kureshi´s main message was to urge the millennial generation to explore their skills and then to apply them to help the community.
Haroon Moghul continued the conversation by talking about his biggest fear and the importance of understanding your fears. Moghul told how his first girlfriend made him realize that his greatest fear was how unstable life was. However, Moghul said that his love for writing and his career as a writer made him overcome this fear.
As the discussion proceeded, the concept of a professional Muslim - which refers to a trend in Muslims who grew up during 9/11 to create an identity as advocates for the positive and human side of Islam - was popular. Moghul stated that in the process of becoming a professional Muslim many people in this generation had lost track of themselves as individuals.
¨We have lost sight of the human being,¨ said Moghul,¨ and we are forced by our communities to be a cardboard perfect cut-out of a Muslim.¨
Ali and Kureshi said that the millennial generation had to move away from this idea of presenting themselves as perfect. Instead, they encouraged them to accept the imperfections in their culture, attitudes, and to some extent religious ideas.
¨I think the next phase of being a professional Muslim is for our generation to push things forward, ¨ said Ali, ¨and really addressing the human component of being an individual who happens to be a Muslim.¨
Some of the other topics discussed during the meeting included:
- The role of women in Islam
- The concept of atheism
- The flexibility of the Qur'an
- Political conflicts in Egypt and Turkey
¨They promote the human experience," said Alam about the talk. ¨They show us that whatever religion we are, whether Muslim, Catholic, Jewish or Buddhist, we are all human, we all struggle together.¨
Joshua Frank, who was one of the few non-Muslim attendees and is Jewish, agreed with Alam. Frank said that he enjoyed the humanity and connectivity that the speakers displayed.
¨I think they just enable people to understand that communities are very similar,¨ said Frank, ¨and that is a beautiful thing.¨
The event, organized by the Islamic Society of Northeastern University, is part of a larger series called Islam 360° that aims to cover Islam from different angles outside religion.
This article is being published under an arrangement between the Boston Globe and the Boston University News Service.