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Moving with the Beat

Spring 2012 | By Amy Patterson Neubert. Photo by Cori Smyrnis.

Following the 9/11 attacks, many Muslims in America hung patriotic signs or flags on their homes and businesses to show their support for the United States. It was a move, in part, to ensure personal safety, as some Americans were having difficulty distinguishing between terrorism and Islam.

For the past 10 years, the children in these Muslim families have lived with people taking an interest — because of curiosity or scrutiny — in their religion and lifestyle. Today, these young adults represent a new generation of what it means to be Muslim in the United States.

"Because of the discourse from the war on terror, there is often a perception of Us versus Them," says Su’ad Abdul Khabeer, assistant professor of anthropology and African American studies.

Abdul Khabeer was working abroad most of the year following 9/11, but when she returned, she found the rhetoric about Muslims jarring. This observation inspired her to study young Muslims in America to get beyond the rhetoric. She doesn’t focus on 9/11 per se, but is interested in how U.S. Muslims, themselves, define what it means to be Muslim and American. She found that a number of young American Muslims were defining their identities through hip-hop and were inspired by some of the popular artists, such as Lupe Fiasco (shown above) and Mos Def, who are Muslim.

"Hip-hop is important to young Muslims, because it helps them understand being Muslim," she says. "I examine a concept I call Muslim Cool. It's a way of thinking about and being an American Muslim, by challenging two norms — one is what people call the white American mainstream and the other is the ethnoreligious norms or the dominant customs of Arab and South Asian American Muslim communities. Some say to be Muslim you have to be a certain way, but as hip-hop shows, there is more than one way to be a believer."

Abdul Khabeer's work in Muslim Cool also focuses on head scarves worn by women practicing Islam.

"Style matters and the stylistic choices have meaning because even how a woman wears a head scarf is a statement," she says. "For example, a scarf wrapped in a bun resonates more with African Americans and hip-hop culture."

Abdul Khabeer isn't the only one who recognizes the power of fashion and music to shape cultures and identities. In the future, she plans to study the collaboration between the U.S. Department of State and the hip-hop cultural envoys it is sending to Muslim-majority countries.

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