When I interviewed Mr. Shalabi, an award-winning charter school principal for our MAP (Muslims for American Progress) research study at ISPU (the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding), he shared with me an interesting finding from his dissertation research.
Entitled “The Identity Crisis of Arab American Students in American Public Schools”, he shared that students who tried to fit in by completely shedding their cultural and religious identity were prone to low self-esteem, which translated into poor academic performance. Similarly, students who clung to their own culture and resisted any integration were isolated and were equally prone to low self-esteem which therefore limited their academic progress. Only those students who were able to blend both cultures – remaining proud of their own heritage but able and willing to assimilate selected aspects of their new culture – had the best self-esteem and academic progress.
This issue of religion versus culture is an important one in the Muslim experience today. This issue affects not only American or Western Muslims, but Muslims throughout the world. We struggle to reconcile our culture – or cultures – with our religion. Sometimes when push comes to shove, we deny or distance ourselves from one or the other. Oftentimes it’s difficult to tell which is which.
The one thing we know for sure is that Islam is a universal religion meant for all times and places – but our cultural baggage may not be. We may be holding on to certain aspects of our culture, assuming these are an integral part of Islam when in fact they may not be. This is not to say that we should disown our culture. Our language, our history, and our heritage – even our clothing and cuisine – each represents a vital part of who we are, and we should be proud to own that. But should we ever put our culture ahead of our obedience to God? Or does faith come first?