She looked the part of a fine arts major, with the gold spangle in her nostril, the streak of purple in her jet-black hair, and her bespoke clothing. Her diminutive form and high voice gave no hint of the feisty energy that would pour forth whenever she spoke up in the weekly meetings of the Student Interfaith Council at the University of Southern California. Born to Pakistani immigrant parents, she didn't fit anybody's stereotype of a Muslim woman.
When she showed up in my office at the start of her second year, she was wearing the hijab. She found herself going deeper than ever with her religion during the summer. She told me of profound mystical moments she experienced while doing the five daily prayers. She put on the hijab to reflect this new seriousness about her faith. But it was not just any Muslim woman's headscarf. "Some of the other Muslim girls give me a hard time, Jim," she told me. "They think my scarf isn't modest enough." The one she wore was a bold blue with golden threads and tassels that matched her nostril pin. "But I ask them, where in the Koran does it say anything about what hijab should look like?"
At the University of Southern California, we see a lot of women in hijab. They usually conform to the style that prevails in the countries of their origin. But this young woman's hometown is Portland, Oregon. In a country where the term Muslim covers a multitude of cultures and sects, there is no one way to cover one's hair, nor is there an automatic assumption that one will. She made up her own way.
American-born Muslim young people, growing up post 9/11, are more marked as just-plain-Muslims than they are as Ismaili or Sunni or Shia or Ahmadjyya or Sufi Muslims. Or Turkish or Syrian or Jordanian or Saudi Muslims. They've been thrust into a wide realm of choice by historical circumstance. There's no one way to do their faith, and for some this opens the door to creative expressions of their religion.
And there's no better place to witness this creativity than on our campus, where our office hosts nearly 90 student clubs of all the well-known faiths of the world, as well as of more obscure religions. Our University Religious Center has a dedicated Muslim prayer space. (And new wudu facilities for washing before prayer, in both the women's and men's bathrooms, by the way.) In most mosques or masjids, men bow to pray in front and women pray behind them, out of modesty (at least for the women). In our prayer room, the students decided to have the women on the left and the men on the right, separated by a removable screen. This caught the attention of a reporter for Al Jazeera who did a story about it that was read around the world. On the walls of the prayer space are phrases in beautiful calligraphy in Arabic: "Praise be to Allah", "Glory be to Allah". The fine arts student painted them in a form of calligraphy that she invented herself.
"Second gen" Muslims are writing Islam in their own fonts. Give it a few more generations, and we'll see fully-flowered, uniquely American expressions of Islam that will influence the faith around the globe.
The same sort of thing is happening with second-gen's of other world religions in America. There is a self-deprecating category we hear about a lot at USC: "ABCDs" - American-Born Confused Desis. (A Desi is anyone with roots in South Asia.) They have their feet planted in two very different cultures, and they have no one single way of resolving the differences. At our Diwali celebrations on campus, where many hundreds of Indian-born and ABCD students gather, there is always a dissonance between the reverent chanting of the Lakshmi puja and the spirited Bollywood dancing that follows. ABCDs of Hindu upbringing get to sort out for themselves how, or whether, to be Hindu. They can go to the Bhakti student club and chant ecstatically to the deities. Or they can go to the Yoga and Service club, a westernized form of ashtanga breathing practice led by Indian-Americans. Or they can go to the Hindu Student Organization's Vedic study group, led by an orange-robed elderly white monk from the Vedanta community in Hollywood. Or join the classical Indian dance group on campus. Or bag the religion thing altogether and just spend a lot of time at Manas Restaurant up the street off campus, eating tandoori and dahl while doing homework.
Some ABCDs are re-appropriating the culturally appropriated Hindu organizations founded by white people in America. After the 1965 immigration reform that ended blatant racism against Asians, Indians were able to emigrate to the US. For many of them, the nearest Hindu temple was led by earnest white members of the Hare Krishna sect, which became well-known in the West after the George Harrison of the Beatles became infatuated with its guru, Swami Prabhupada. Over time, many Hare Krishna communities shifted leadership from white people to ABCDs. The ISKCON Hare Krishna temple in Culver City, not far from our campus, reflects this demographic shift. White men with little pony tails swinging at the back of their shaved heads, wearing white flowing dhotis, spin joyfully while chanting next to second-gen Indian Americans in standard office attire.
At USC, we have around 10,000 international students. We have almost 50 evangelical Christian clubs, many of them working hard to convert these foreign students to the faith. To use a biblical phrase, the harvest is ripe among the Chinese. But hardly so among our Indian students, for whom study in America is often a welcome respite from the deep piety of their homeland. The Chinese have a religion deficit, but the Indians run a surplus. This trend among Chinese has been going on for decades, evidenced strongly on West Coast university campuses. Most Chinese who converted to evangelical Christianity did so when they moved to the US. But that is changing. The faith has spread rapidly in China, resulting in a substantial number of immigrants who are already converted. About half of our nearly fifty evangelical Christian clubs cater primarily to Asians or Asian Americans. An increasing number of these clubs have roots in Taiwan or mainland China. They are manifestations of indigenous Chinese Christian sects that have developed independently of evangelical churches in America. Evangelical, charismatic, and Pentecostal Christianity are coming full-circle, brought by immigrants to America in substantially different forms than the ones that American missionaries spread around the globe. Second-gen Chinese American Christians face an increasingly complex set of choices. Some of them lack the zeal for the faith that their parents had, perhaps because they don't have the same social or spiritual needs. They have already crossed the bridge that evangelical faith provided their parents to move between Chinese and American culture. Other American-born Chinese with evangelical roots are still committed to the faith, but don't want to worship in Mandarin or Cantonese. They are looking for fellowships and churches that are less culture-specific. What will happen to the religiosity of third- and fourth-gen Chinese Americans as they become much more acculturated and accepted as "real" Americans?
A similar story applies to our Korean and Korean American students. New expressions of Christianity, some of them controversial among evangelicals in the US, continue to proliferate in Korea and plant congregations in America. An example would be Lee Man-Hee's huge Shincheonji church and its related organizations in Korea, which have a growing presence in the US. We notice that this group has appeal among some second-gen Korean Americans who yearn for a fresh way to express their Korean and Christian identities.
Lacking nostalgia for a country where they never lived and maybe never visited, stereotyped by Americans lacking nuanced understanding of their parents' faith traditions, second-gen young people often hold multiple identities. In one context, religion marks them most; in another, ethnicity; in another, something else. No wonder, then, that there is no one way for them to negotiate the role and shape of faith in their lives!
(This piece will appear in the November 2014 edition of The Interfaith Observer e-magazine)