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The Talk: Should I Tell My Son He’s Muslim?

“My son doesn’t even know he is Muslim. When does ‘ignorance is bliss’ as a parenting philosophy stray into denial of what should be a proud sense of personal identity?“

March 20, 2017

My 4-year-old became a big fan of “Donald Trunk” during the election campaign. I did nothing to sway his view, seeing no need to complicate my son’s affinity for the man with the funny name. It’s only as President Trump has taken executive action against Muslims in recent months that I have begun to question my silence around the topic.

With Muslims being detained at airports and local mosques experiencing incidents of vandalism and even arson, is it possible that my son — the grandchild of four Muslim immigrants to this country and the bearer of a very Arabic name — could face teasing or bullying?

If he does, a major flaw in my parenting will be revealed: My son doesn’t even know he is Muslim.

I am not alone in my struggle to communicate in an age-appropriate manner to my child about the hatred in the world — especially when that hatred may be directed at him. But when does “ignorance is bliss” as a parenting choice stray into denial of what should be a proud sense of personal identity?

My son doesn’t even know he is Muslim.

My son is young enough that concepts of identity have felt a bit too complicated to relay — my husband and I do not attend a mosque where such a conversation would naturally surface. My son celebrates Eid with the family and sees relatives praying from time to time, but he doesn’t realize that any of those activities mark him and his family as minority in America — a very targeted one at this particular moment in time.

The Trump presidency has ushered in a wave of anti-Muslim hostility and hate crimes not unlike after 9/11. The travel ban — though it was limited to a set number of countries and non-citizens — has put even American citizens with Muslim backgrounds on edge. Asra Ghori, a speech therapist in Mount Baker, Wash., says her husband packed a contact list for lawyers at Microsoft, where he works, in case he was detained on a recent family trip to Mexico.

“It just makes me angry that I have to worry that we might get detained while our kids are there,” says Ghori, whose boys are ages 4 and 6. The children know that they are Muslim, but experience this primarily as a cultural and nonreligious identity.

Ghori says the current political climate and the surging antagonism towards Muslims has sparked some surprising conversations with her husband. They never expected to send their children to religious schools, but they are now considering sending them to an Islamic Sunday school.

“Our older son isn’t in a very diverse school and my husband and I feel like we can’t be really good at teaching him about Islam,” she explains. “The election has made me want my sons to be secure in who they are in their Muslim identity.”

Todd Snider of South Seattle has been reading a book about Martin Luther King Jr. to his 4-year-old daughter, using it to talk to her about discrimination and the power of protesting. He is not Muslim, but his wife Zahra Alavi and children are.

“I feel bad that I may be opening my 4-year-old up to the evils of the world,” he says. “We have talked about whether Trump likes Muslims. I try to explain it as honestly as I can.”

Recently, the couple visited a local preschool as a possible option for their daughter. While Snider openly inquired how the school would address any religious bullying, Alavi shied away from admitting she and the kids are Muslim when asked about meal restrictions.

I want my daughter to be safe. So how much do I want to arm her and how much do I want to just help her cope?

“I have a certain amount of trepidation and fear as a Muslim and I don’t want to bring my kids any sort of unnecessary attention,” Alavi says. “I want my daughter to be safe. So how much do I want to arm her and how much do I want to just help her cope?”

A mom of three in Issaquah, who asked that she not be named, says that she and her husband still haven’t decided whether to raise their children Muslim, in the manner they were raised. However, the current sense that Muslim Americans are facing prejudice has encouraged her to have conversations with her eldest son, who is 5.

“Even if we don’t actively practice religion or pass that along to our kids, we’re going to be categorized that way anyway,” she says. “We feel more compelled to carve out our own place in the community that we are going to be part of anyway, without choice.”

Personally, I am still grappling with how to talk to my son about his cultural and religious identities without making him feel different than his friends. He is no less American than any of them and the fear of making him feel less so stops me from having an explicit conversation.

The challenge with labels is that they seek to define what can feel very personal: What’s Muslim to me is different than what is Muslim to other parents, and the same goes with being American.

We all have something to learn from my preschooler’s attitude: Yes, we’re all different. Isn’t that great?

Rather than apply labels, we are choosing to share our stories and traditions. My husband has taught our son to cup his hands and say ameen after their nightly thanks to God and I talk about his grandparents’ journeys from Pakistan to make a new life here. My son uses the occasional Urdu word — gari for car, pani for water — and he is mesmerized by the hip-swaying magic of Bollywood music. He requested his grandmother’s biryani for his birthday dinner and has started a wish-list of toys for Eid.

What strikes me is that he doesn’t feel conflicted at all about how all of that fits into his larger sense of identity. Perhaps filling him with pride about his heritage is one way to fortify him against future oppression. We all have something to learn from my preschooler’s attitude: Yes, we’re all different. Isn’t that great?


How to talk to your kids about identity

Huma Din, a Redmond-based licensed marriage and family therapist whose clients are primarily Muslim, says many parents are expressing concerns about how their children are absorbing the current political discourse. She recommends that parents not try to force their own emotions on kids, as that can indirectly coach kids to follow those emotions. Here are her tips for parents having these conversations with their kids. 

Set politics aside and focus instead on talking to children about their identity.

“That conversation is something we lack in this generation,” she says, suggesting that parents begin by simply inquiring how their children’s school day went. Check in to see if they had a good day and, if not, ask why. The conversation can help model a type of open dialogue that becomes crucial as kids get older.

Ask open-ended questions.

“By asking these open-ended questions, it encourages other open-ended questions,” Din says. She never told her 4-year-old daughter explicitly that she is Muslim, but it came up in conversation around why the family doesn’t celebrate Christmas. When it did, Din used it as an opportunity to talk about what it means if someone is Christian versus Muslim.

Allow space for children to explore identity and — as they grow — to redefine it.

Identity goes beyond religion, of course. It’s valuable to help your child identify what makes him or her unique. Din helps her daughter identify traits about herself — that she is a preschooler, her mom’s daughter, a big sister, a friend — to help create a sense of identity.

“It shouldn’t be too taboo to question those identities,” Din says. “You have to create a safe space to talk about it.”


Top image: By DVIDSHUB (1st Air Cav, kids celebrate freedom) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


Ambreen Ali

Ambreen Ali is a freelance writer and mother of two based in Seattle. She worked as a congressional reporter for five years at CQ Roll Call, has covered the White House for Bloomberg and written about politics for The Seattle Times and Seattle Post-Intelligencer. She is also an editor of digital media news for SmartBrief.

More stories by Ambreen Ali

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Awesome article, Ambreen.,So proud of you!

Ambreen, so well said. Found this on my twitter feed via Asma Khaled. 

Ambreen, what is your race? Your race and your religion may be related but are separate. Tell your son what his race is. Don't confuse the two.