Harvard Educational Review
  1. Muslim American Youth

    Understanding Hyphenated Identities through Multiple Methods

    Selcuk R. Sirin and Michelle Fine

    New York: New York University Press, 2008. 243 pp. $23.00.

    Muslim American Youth: Understanding Hyphenated Identities through Multiple Methods is a rich and provocative look at how first- and second-generation youth construct their identities as both Muslim and American. The metaphor of the hyphen works powerfully throughout to represent the “psychological hinge where identities cast ‘in tension’ are at once joined and separated” (195). Coauthors Sirin, a Turkish Muslim, and Fine, the Jewish daughter of Polish immigrants, use an ambitious array of mixed methods to produce a deeply layered view of young people busily engaged in the “psychological labor of ‘working the hyphen’” (115).

    Though the study deviates from Fine’s career-long tradition of participatory action research (PAR), the book strongly foregrounds the voices of youth. Lengthy quotations drawn from focus groups and open-ended survey responses are interwoven with quantitative results. Six interludes between chapters introduce Aisha, Sahar, Yeliz, Ayyad, Taliya, and Masood—young people diverse in age, gender, country of origin, and personality—who we meet through in-depth life histories. Striking visual images pepper the book’s pages through identity maps the youth draw in response to the question of how they see themselves as Muslim Americans. Patrice, a twenty-two-year-old African American, builds the word Muslim from tiny American flags and American from Islamic crescent moons and stars. Muhammad, a fourteen-year-old Arab American, draws a large face split down its center with the word American on one side and Muslim on the other; the American side cries “tears for racism” (84).

    The study itself is an attempt to “work the methodological hyphen” (200) between quantitative and qualitative ways of knowing. Redefining triangulation, the authors seek not just validation but places where “data sets diverge” (201). In their case, focus groups uncovered patterned gender differences not evident in the survey findings. Sirin and Fine report that while young Muslim American women tend to respond to discrimination by “engaging” and “educating,” men more often “recoil” and “retreat.” They note that the current political context, which casts Muslim women as oppressed and men as terrorists to be feared, offers each sex different possible responses to discriminatory treatment. Still, the authors find that youth of both sexes use a variety of coping strategies in response to stress and racism—most often relying heavily on spirituality, supportive friendships, and engagement in political action.

    Sirin and Fine further find that those youth most actively engaged in the Muslim community are also those most engaged in mainstream U.S. society. With a small number of exceptions, youth do not perceive inherent conflict between Muslim and American identities; rather, they generally see “the current conflict as induced by political leaders rather than inherent in religious or cultural practices” (130). Overwhelmingly, most youth in the study seem to desire and develop integrated selves (fusing facets of each culture), with a smaller, mostly male group developing parallel selves (treating Muslim and American as separate, but not mutually exclusive, domains of identity).

    The book’s only shortcomings are the consequence of an attempt to do too much. The authors draw from various disciplines—history, sociology, anthropology, political science—to inform the primarily psychological study. Critical race, feminist, and postcolonial theories support their analyses. They bring a current and historic lens, foregrounding the impact of 9/11 on the “moral exclusion” of Muslim Americans while situating it in the historic “American tradition” (70) of denying full citizenship rights. They attend to “culture and identity, surveillance and discrimination, coping and resilience, community and individual, gender roles and family roles, local and global politics” (15). This more-is-more approach sometimes leaves the reader wishing for less. Provocative findings are sometimes glossed over, including, for example, the question of why more males than females develop parallel selves, or how these young people negotiate their highly critical, yet deeply patriotic, approaches to civic engagement.

    Still, this work complexly and richly captures the diversity in the lived identities of Muslim American youth, highlighting the power and potential of mixed methodologies in studying the phenomenon of life on the hyphen. As they write, “The hyphen may feel alive, like a vibrant, liminal zone for trying on new freedoms. Or it may choke, like a wall of constricted and scrutinized movement . . . [This work] agitates for a thick understanding of how these selves coexist, how they make peace and struggle in the same body” (195). Sirin and Fine contribute brilliantly to a sadly scant body of literature on Muslim American youth while simultaneously constructing a theory of hyphenated selves to inform our studies of other marked groups of youth citizens.

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    Book Notes

    My Most Excellent Year
    Steven Kluger

    Malcolm Gladwell

    Muslim American Youth
    Selcuk R. Sirin and Michelle Fine

    Charles R. Smith Jr.

    Teach Freedom
    Charles Payne and Carol Sills Strickland