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The Challenges of Visiting Muslim countries

by Samana Siddiqui

If you think taking the kids to see relatives and to experience a Muslim culture in Cairo or Karachi is simply a pleasant visit "back home", think again warns Shahina Siddiqui.

"To me, going back home is Jihad al-Nafs (struggle of the soul)," says the Winnipeg, Manitoba native. She came from Pakistan to Canada in the 1970s.

During the summer, a number of young Muslims from North America visit Muslim countries (usually the birthplace of their parents). While such visits are one way to maintain ties with relatives back home, they also pose a number of challenges.

Am I not in a Muslim country?

Many youth and parents have a hard time dealing with the fact that there is virtually no Muslim country that is the true embodiment of Islam.

"Many, many children go to Muslim societies thinking they're going to find the ideal Islam, but it's totally the opposite," says Siddiqui. Such was the case for Maria Ahmed, whose parents are from Sudan.

"I went through a culture shock because most of the things we consider unIslamic were done in their everyday life. It was normal for them," she says. Ahmed was brought up in Montreal, Canada.

She recalls attending a wedding in Sudan where men and women were mixing freely and even dancing together. "As a child growing up in Canada you think that these are non-Muslims that's why they're doing non-Islamic things," says Ahmed. "Once you go over there [a Muslim country] you can't tell your child these are non-Muslims. "

Parents sometimes fuel the culture shock

Seeing the discrepancy between Muslims' behavior and Islamic ideals often leads to youths' disillusionment. Some may completely reject their parents' culture or country of origin and refuse to go back. This is why parents must prepare their kids in advance for the trip.

"Parents have to sit with their children and talk to them [about] what to expect over there," says Mohamed Rida Beshir. He and his wife Dr. Ikram Beshir authored the book Meeting The Challenge Of Parenting In The West: An Islamic perspective (Amana Publications, 1998). "This way you can reduce some of the shock that children [feel]," he says.

Don't send the kids to visit alone

It's not uncommon to see parents sending their children to visit relatives alone back home. This is not a good idea. Kids need somebody along on the trip who understands where the youth is coming from and can explain things.This is the role of parents.

Siddiqui gave the example of her son's reaction to one of her relatives' household servants during a visit to Pakistan when he was six. Her son could not understand why this servant would not sit at the same table and eat with them during meals, and why his cousins laughed when he called the man "uncle".

How to prepare the kids for the visit


Beshir and Siddiqui recommend some steps for preparing your kids for a visit back home.

1. Be clear about why you are going, and have a strategic plan in place for the entire trip.

Many parents take their kids back home for the wrong reasons: either to to remain culturally associated or to be reconditioned by having the influence of North American society reduced.

Instead, use the visit as an opportunity to strengthen family ties and to experience aspects of Islam in a Muslim majority environment (i.e. hearing the call to prayer five times a day, having Fridays off, etc.) .

2. Give the youth cultural sensitivity training

Parents have to educate youth about the dos and don'ts of acceptable behavior in the country they are visiting. However, this does not mean throwing away Islamic principles. Children must maintain their Islam. If they pray, wear Hijab, etc. they must continue to do so.

3. Prepare them to deal with the fact that everything they do will be questioned

Whether it's praying in a manner different from the dominating school of thought in the country to wearing Hijab in front of relatives who others consider "brothers" to the girl wearing Hijab, help kids come up with Islam-based, truthful and polite responses to challenges to their Islamic practices.

4. Arrange a visit with practicing Muslims in the country

"It makes them feel they can [live] Islam anywhere," Beshir notes of this experience. Doing this also allows youth to realize that those who practice Islam in Muslim societies do not necessarily have it any easier than those struggling to do the same in North America.

Like Muslims in North America, Muslims in most of the Muslim world may also face ridicule and hardship in trying to practice Islam. While the thought is depressing, it does give North American Muslim youth strength, says Beshir.

5. Prepare them to deal with Eastern stereotypes of Western Muslims

"Because I'm from Canada, people over there [in Egypt] don't expect much of an Islamic attitude from us. They think we don't know anything [about Islam]," says Dalya Aglan, 16, who has attended a full-time Muslim school in Montreal, Canada and visited Egypt over 11 times. "Just because I'm from Canada doesn't mean I totally forgot my religion."

Stereotypes are a hurdle which youth need to be ready to deal with before a visit back home. Being polite and patient with these perceptions, and showing otherwise is the key and parents need to help their children deal with this in the best way.


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Your Comments

Muslima, Khartoum - wrote on 3/28/2010 4:42:03 AM
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Comment: I agree that you will find some in-Islamic things going on 'back home', but you will also find great Islamic things! No extremely obscene things going on in public, perhaps a better public dress code, the azan 5 time a day etc. As concerns Sudan; I have also been to the famous Sudanese weddings, and you should very carefully note that not all weddings are the same. Some people ask the men and women to dance separately, and others don't bother, and others don't dance at all. More popular is the at-home parties, so that the women can party and have a great time one night and the next night is the men's turn. You should also note that when the men and women are sitting together at the wedding, the Sudanese keep extensive family trees, and these people are probably all closely related, and this is why there are so many tables, each for a separate close family.


Muslimah, West Coast, U.S. - wrote on 6/29/2006 11:11:04 AM
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Comment: al salam alaikum- This article was really good. I think that making sure children understand that going 'back home' isn't going to be an Islamic utopia is important. I think many parents put on rose-colored glasses when talking about their country of origin. Especially when they think that putting their children in an 'Islamic environment' is going to solve all their problems. Actually it's just a new set of problems to deal with. Two positives of going 'back home' though- good food, and learning more of the language. Usually people are very hospitable too.


AmoonA, california - wrote on 11/4/2004 7:59:48 PM
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Comment: The artical was great.. i hae heard so much about whats back home.. but when I visited palestine and Egypt i had not seen any of it because I was around family and in an Area with Islamic Values. I was surprized to see so many muslims wearing hijabs because before i had gone my parents and everyone had told me "it may not be what u expect" so i thought it was gona be real bad. but there are parts that did have bad things and and places that didn't have nything bad .. :)


colleen, - wrote on 7/14/2004 10:37:26 PM
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Comment: A much needed article with many truths stated in a very polite and positive manner!


Emraan, Toronto - wrote on 6/14/2004 5:11:11 PM
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Comment: Good article but focuses exclusively on the negatives of going back home - many experience positives as well: no lewd magazines in public shops, halal meat all around, call of adhan from minarets 5 times a day and Juma holidays,......! Also would have been more useful to try to analyze WHY some people "back home" developed the stereo-typical mind-set. Try and visit a nightclub in the West on a Saturday night and see how many young Muslim men and women openly drink, and beyond! Many say they felt "trapped" back home as they could not commit all these vices "back home" and now they feel liberated! And such people also go back home and air their twisted views to the local population of Muslim brothers and sisters and aggrandize their "freedom to commit sins". So I guess the article could have been made more analytic by mentioning the need to try to sincerely reach out to other strands of Muslim youth in the West as well - not just the stronger ones. But informative article, no doubt.


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