A common source of parent and educator angst is the youth’s lack of adherence to religious practices like prayer, appropriate gender segregation and proper adab. In some circles, people voice concerns over the increasing number of Muslim youth dating Muslim and non-Muslim peers, engaging in premarital sex, and experimenting with alcohol and drugs. Other Muslim adults are simply concerned with ensuring that there are adequate opportunities for the youth to become the best individuals and Muslims that they can be.

Concerns over positive youth development are not specific to Muslims; worries about the youth’s potential to become involved in idle or risky behaviors, or their disenfranchisement from society, have led to organized action. Several youth and community organizations were established to mediate young people’s transition from childhood to adulthood and to prepare them for adult roles and responsibilities during this era. This included the establishment of parks and summer camps in the late 1800s and the Boys Club Federation of America (now known as the Boys and Girls Clubs of America), which was formed in 1906. Thus, for more than 100 years, youth programs have been identified as an ideal space where they can be engaged in positive, productive activities that lead to their overall wellbeing, while simultaneously preventing their engagement in at-risk behaviors—most of which occur in the after-school hours when parents are not yet home from work. One youth program in particular holds much promise in addressing the problems alluded to above, in particular as it strives to reach out to Muslim youth who attend public schools. Since its start in Houston a decade ago, the Muslim Interscholastic Tournament (MIST) has experienced steady growth in terms of the host regions and attendees. Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, Houston, New York and Toronto are among the more than dozen host cities. Research has shown that children who do not engage in after-school programs are approximately three times more likely to engage in at-risk behaviors, such as drug use, alcohol consumption and sexual activity. Thus, research studies on successful youth programs have been vigorously supported by nonprofit and government institutions, which have recognized the potential they hold. What makes MIST so unique is that it caters to interests and skills that span far beyond the religious domain, while maintaining an Islamic theme that makes the entire program cohesive. Comprised of more than 30 competitions that span from Math Olympics to Quranic Memorization to Short Film, MIST allows youth to reflect on their emerging Muslim American identities in a manner that is unique from other youth programs. “You have so many ways you can participate, and so many ways you can portray Islam,” one 2007 participant in the Atlanta competition said. “They have an art competition where you can use your art skills to portray something Islamic or you can use photography to get rid of stereotypes.”

In the past 10 years, MIST has consisted primarily of parallel weekend-long regional tournaments held at various colleges and universities throughout North America in the spring semester. Regional winners have then convened in select cities each summer to compete in national-level tournaments. Winners of the regional and national competitions leave with trophies, awards, scholarships, and often a sense of unity, brotherhood, sisterhood and renewed purpose.

The best part about MIST, for an 11th grade participant in the areas of basketball, prepared essay, math bowl and digital art, was “just seeing so many Muslims come together and be on an equal level. I literally felt like we were all blood related.”

However, MIST has thus far been limited in its ability to actively engage participants in a set curriculum that supports holistic, positive youth development on a consistent basis throughout the year. Ideally, MIST is meant to provide purpose and direction to high school Muslim Student Associations by encouraging them to use their weekly meetings as a space to prepare for their competitions. Yet, more often than not, the MIST experience is limited to the month immediately preceding the tournament, and the weekend tournament itself. MIST regional tournaments have, however, been successful in attracting youth who might otherwise not attend mosque events, thereby forging a bridge with Muslim youth who may lack other avenues for cultivating their religious identity development. By hosting its tournaments in a college or university setting, MIST is able to have this impact. In addition, MIST has gained a reputation for being a space where topics that are otherwise taboo to discuss in other settings, particularly within the mosque, are acceptable and encouraged to discuss. At the 2011 MIST Chicago regional tournament, volunteers and organizers were able to connect with youth who were struggling with boyfriend/girlfriend relationships that they recognized were Islamically unacceptable. They sought the advice of the young professionals who were organizers, judges, or volunteers and simultaneously role models. Many maintained contact with MIST leaders long after they met, establishing the foundation for potentially long-term mentoring relationships.

In addition, several young males resonated with a talk given by a former gang member who discussed the perils of loyalty in relation to gang life, and how Islam provides a better alternative to belonging than what can be offered in gang or other youth based cliques. These youth, many of whom were struggling with bullying in their own schools, felt that the speaker gave them practical tips on how to effectively deal with the concerns that were part of their daily lives. MIST is only one example of how the community can begin to address some of the problems faced in assisting youth develop a positive Muslim American identity, while also reaching out to youth who otherwise feel disenfranchised from the mosque community. Yet, in order to be more successful in having a lasting impact toward this end, the community must begin to think outside of the box.

Muslim tweens, teens, and young adults are inundated with several challenges, which in addition to those described above also include pornography addiction, alcohol consumption and substance abuse. These are challenges that face youth who outwardly identify as Muslim, attend full-time Islamic schools and religious events, to those who are less likely to display their religious identity to non-Muslim peers and shun the mosque. In addition to youth programs that focus specifically on Islam and Muslim American identity development, it may also be necessary for the Muslim community to develop programs that remove the outward focus from Islam to focus more on cultivating positive, holistic development with Muslim youth at a generic, developmental level. Specifically, these programs can be focused on sports activities, book clubs, or the arts. By taking the focus off of Islam, while giving them a place to belong and be themselves, the youth may be more willing to share their personal concerns with the program supervisors. After establishing positive rapport with the youth, adults can discern how and when to introduce Islamic concepts, practices and teachings that can help them cope with and transform their present situation. Even simple mentorship programs, requiring few human and capital resources, can begin to tackle these concerns. The key to success, based on research on effective youth programs, is that these programs meet consistently and regularly, have a focus that is specifically of interest to the youth they are targeting, and have adults that are trusting and respected by the youth themselves.

Shaza Khan, a curriculum developer at Noorart, served as regional director of MIST Chicago. Republished with permission from ISNA.

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