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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