Growing up in Bensonhurst, Norhan Basuni always enjoyed an abundance of freedom.
Her parents emigrated from Egypt before she was born. Though they raised her to observe Islam and her ancestral culture, they gave her the independence to explore their adopted home and make her own decisions.
She chose to play varsity softball in high school. She chose to study criminal justice and anthropology at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. And she chose to resist the temptations of American society and devote herself to Islam.
In fact, the 20-year-old came to practice the faith even more devoutly than her parents. On a scale from one to 10, 10 being very devout and one being secular, she said her parents were a 10.
“I feel like, I myself might be a little big stronger than they are, religion wise,” said Basuni, a case worker at the Arab American Association of New York.
“So if I had to rate myself, I would say I’m a 15 or something,” she added, laughing.
Basuni stands out as a first-generation Arab American in Brooklyn who swims against the secular current. She said that many young people in her community share the same dedication to putting faith at the center of their lives.
Sheik Tamer Selim, imam of the Muslim American Society Youth Center in Bensonhurst, estimates that 20 to 30 percent of young Muslims in the Brooklyn Arab community practice their religion devoutly.
Seeking ‘True Islam’
“The other 70 percent, they are still Muslims, and they respect their culture and their religion,” Selim said. “But they are very into the American way more than the Islamic way.”
Basuni began her independent exploration of Islam after September 11, 2001.
“That’s when I paid the most attention because I didn’t understand it,” she said. “I never wanted to be put in that position where someone said something about my religion and I can’t defend it because I don’t know anything, like I’m just Muslim by name and not by knowledge.”
Other young Muslims in Brooklyn share Basuni’s desire to educate the larger public about what they see as “true Islam.”
Aber Kawas, 17, and her sister Magdolyn, 19, who live in Bensonhurst, said teaching others about Islam is an important part of their religious practice.
“When we’re walking down the street, people stare at you, they curse at you. They look at you in the wrong way, and you want to change that,” said Aber, who goes by Abby. “So we’re, all of us together, trying to change Muslim perception in America.”
Their mother, Manal Kawas, didn’t expect her American-born daughters to follow her example and wear the full hijab – the traditional head covering – or pray five times a day.
“They keep it and they do it very [much] more than me,” said Kawas, a Palestinian who immigrated to the U.S. from Jordan. “They keep their hijab, they wear abaya, they participate in the prayer. They wake me up in the fajr prayer at 4 o’clock [in the morning], say ‘Ma you have to.’ But I sleep and say, ‘No no no.’”
Khalid Fallous, an 18-year-old senior at Fort Hamilton High School in Bay Ridge, prays five times daily and frequently attends services at local mosques. Fallous, who plans to study business at John Jay College in the fall, was born in Palestine but spent his early childhood in Saudi Arabia before his family moved to the U.S. seven years ago.
Like the Kawas sisters, Fallous said that his immigrant parents do not practice their religion as devoutly as he now does. But their early lessons have stayed with him, he said.
“Without my parents, I wouldn’t be the person I am today,” Fallous said. “Since I was young, my mom sent me to a school that taught me Arabic, taught me the Qu’ran, taught me basics about religion, and she really influenced me a lot. Her and my dad.”
Basketball and Prayers
When a friend, Fadi Ebrhem, converted from his Syrian parents’ Christian faith to Islam, Fallous gained a deeper appreciation for his own religion. Now Fallous and Ebrhem, who goes by Fred, often pray together.
Whether they’re heading to the mosque or to play a pick-up game of basketball in the park, the two friends look like many other Brooklyn teenagers in their baggy jeans and T-shirts.
Unlike many of their peers, however, the two young men follow Islam’s prohibitions on drinking alcohol and dating.
“Your parents can teach you all they want, but at the end of the day it matters what you choose,” Fallous said. “It matters if you want to implement what they taught you. So they taught me it, and I’m implementing it.”