Young American Muslim men live under a permanent cloud of suspicion

shaving razor

“So, when I’m going to the airport, I just try to make sure that my beard is shaved.” 

Salem is a Qatari-American and a practicing Muslim. He’s 21-years-old.  

“I’m groomed. I’m looking nice and stuff. You know, try to be cool…so that people have this perception that I’m cool…” 

Salem came to America when he was a child and knows that his fellow Americans see him as their killer-in-waiting. He’s philosophical about it.   

“I am not going to blame the people for thinking that way, they have been trained to think that way, that you know, a guy with a beard who is a Muslim, he is a terrorist and stuff like that…I mean, [9/11] had a really big impact on lots of people, and see, if I grow this beard, I don’t want my friends or my coworkers or my colleagues or whatever to think that I am one of them.”  

Across the US, young men, faithful to the ancient religion of Islam, know that who they are arouses fear and engenders awkward moments. 

How do innocent men live under a permanent cloud of suspicion?  

Social scientist Dr. Pooya SD Naderi interviewed 26 young Muslims living in the US heartland about their American experience. Most were either second generation or “1.5,” meaning they came to the US when they were children (somewhere between early childhood and teenage years) and have living memory of their birthplace. They are religious or are active in student Muslim associations.  

The time was 2011–2012: Obama was President, the US troop “surge” in Iraq was only five years ago, and America still had a massive military presence in Afghanistan.  

Handshake Deal 

For the pious Muslim-American, what some view as innocuous contact is, for them, an uncomfortable social situation.  

Let’s sit down with Hani, a 20-year-old American and a devout Muslim, and listen to him explain: 

“I mean shaking hands is not allowed in Islam—a Muslim man cannot shake hands with a woman,” Hani said.  

“But when somebody, like an American lady or another Muslim lady comes in and wants to greet you and say hello, just to introduce herself, if I tell her that, ‘Hey, I cannot shake hands with you,’ that’s insulting [to] her.” 

“So you must go ahead and do it.” 

Hani sits back slightly. “I do not approach,” he said.  

“I do my best not to get physically involved with them, be it a handshake or whatever. If they approach me with a handshake, yes I go ahead and do that, but I do not do it myself…I mean, I have to, kind of, make sure they know I am a nice guy. That I’m not being sexist and stuff.” 

There is a hierarchy of transgressions. Shaking hands with women is, to them, troublesome, but they do not consider it to be a betrayal of faith. Rather, it’s awkward theatre. They shake hands to not be seen as a violent villain or retrograde chauvinist.  

Not on Board 

Young men like Salem and Hani handle suspicion by partially hiding what others consider suspicious. It is ridiculous to them, and it is a source of anguish.  

But some of these men, like 21-year-old Ahmed, a Palestinian-American and member of a Muslim student association, take a dim view of hiding-in-plain-sight.  

“To me, I see that in airports and, in my opinion, I just don’t respect that because, first of all, those people [e.g., jihadists responsible for 9/11], none of them had a beard. Second of all, it’s a red dot on your name, regardless, even if you come naked…” 

Ahmed bemoans the idea of Muslims in America changing their looks to fit in. “It shows two things, you are either hiding something, that’s why you are trying to fool us,” Ahmed says, “or you are not strong. You don’t have strength. That you are not proud of what you believe in. And either way, it’s a negative thing. It’s a bad thing.”  

Innocent until 

Many Americans judge innocent men to be guilty on looks alone. Like Orthodox Jews, devout Muslims’ choice of clothes and facial hair, and their pious-yet-out-of-step beliefs about contact with women, are social chasms.  

But their life goals are not radical. It’s just that these young men voice their middle-of-the-road American Dream values – merit through hard work, raise a family – from inside their personal hideout.  

“I mean, I’m not al-Qa’ida. I’m not here establishing Sharia Law…” says Omar, a 20-year-old US citizen whose family came from Pakistan. “I want to get my degree and go to a prestigious law school and after that I want to work, work, work, and reap the benefits of my labor.” 

“I am pretty sure that’s what you want too.” 



This was written by Josh Dubrow based on Pooya SD Naderi’s “Non-threatening Muslim men: Stigma management and religious observance in America,” published in Qualitative Sociology 41, no. 1 (2018): 41-62. Pooya interviewed women, too, but in this piece, I focus on the men. 

“So, when I’m going to the airport…” pp. 47 – 48 

The interviewees were age 18 to 28, living in the Midwest. He interviewed them on college campuses, mosques, their homes, or in coffee shops or restaurants. (pp. 43 – 45) 

“I mean shaking hands…” p. 50. 

“To me, I see that in airports …” p. 49. Many of the young men Dr. Naderi interviewed shaved their beard to side-step trouble (p. 49). 

The interviewed young Muslim men and women view the 9/11 terrorists as lecherous death-cult cowards who lusted for “72 virgins” in the afterlife. “That’s not how I have been taught, how I learned to be a Muslim, to be a man,” said Omar, a 20-year-old American, and second generation whose family came from Pakistan.  “I didn’t learn to kill people and get these women… They were definitely trying to show their power, but ultimately I don’t feel—I feel they just humiliated our religion. They used the name of Islam and humiliated the religion” (pp. 52-53). 

“I mean, I’m not al-Qa’ida…” p. 54.

Copyright Occam’s Press 2021: Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs CC BY-NC-ND






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