The real faces of Muslim youth in New York

Published: February 13, 2017
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In a world where politicised images of American Muslims are continually being depicted as a plagued foreign diaspora, photographer Mark Bennington took the initiative to present Muslims in a more positive light.

In a new photo series entitled ‘America 2.0’, Bennington sets out to tell the stories of young Muslim adults in New York City. According to Bennington, these young Muslims are imperative to the next generation whose stories needed to be heard.

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“As a photographer, and as someone whose signature style is emotive portraiture, I decided to not only immerse myself in understanding “the other side” of Muslim life in America but moreover capture the joy and harmony of it,” Bennington said of his inspiration behind the series.

“There is no doubt that the election season played an important role in kick-starting this project. Now more than ever, we, as the American public, are faced with images and propaganda of “the other” – be it Muslims, Mexican immigrants, the African-American community, the LGBTQ community, the list goes on,” he said.

The basis for the project was to capture Muslim youth just being ‘themselves’. Without maintaining all the focus on their Muslim identity or faith, Bennington thought it vital to substantiate each photograph with a story or narrative of who each subject was. “My focus was less on their Muslim identity or faith and more on their experiences of being young adults in NYC,” he explained.

The project aims to represent America’s next generation, providing a snapshot into the stories of socially conscious, high networked youth who are simultaneously bearing the brunt of past socio-political failures and carrying the mantle for the country’s future.

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“Through this project, I wanted to discover for myself, a middle-aged white guy from Northern California, the other side of the Muslim narrative – the side that speaks of everyday experiences, rites of passage, universal friendships and all-embracing faith,” Bennington explained, adding that “I asked them about their high school experiences, their network of friends, sports, dating, favorite bands, fashion.”

And what Bennington found was quite remarkable. “They are vivacious, earnest, informed youths eager to participate in their American democracy. And they are so much more than the label ‘Muslim’; they are ambitious bloggers, rebels, students, singers, and CEOs. In short, through this project, I want to modestly change the discourse of difference into one of inclusivity.”

Here we look at 17 stories of young Muslims and their experiences in New York City.

Hanan, 24, NYU Dental student: “€œI have a pretty positive personality — my nickname is Happy Panda. I try not to think too much, because sometimes I have a tendency to do just that. I always tell everybody, there’€™s not just two parties [so] why don’t you break the system a little bit? So I’m going to vote for any other random person on the list and not just go for a Republican or Democrat, cause honestly they are both horrible people — one is fake and the other one is pretty ‘out there’€™ and blunt and his mind set is pretty bad, and hers is conniving. Sometimes I’€™m surprised at people, at who they’re voting for but I don’t push my views on anyone else.”

Joshua, 28, college counselor at a high school in Queens: “I was born in the Bronx, but grew up in Queens. My Mother is from Puerto Rico, my Father is from Bangladesh. I was a typical kid, a Nicks fan- those were the glory days! I grew up with a lot of Eastern European kids, the area had a lot of Albanians, Romanians and [also] Nigerians. I grew up with all these different cultures… I think that’s really been a huge part of why I’m able to just adapt, [and] learn about other cultures, going [through life] with an open mind. One thing that I really appreciate about Islam… and it’s something that is not always practiced in the community, I’ll be honest about it… there is this thing where you are supposed to, no matter who your neighbor is, no matter who lives in your community, whether they’re Muslim or not Muslim, from your country or not… you’re supposed to respect them. Islam is about community. I think a lot of people that came here – like the Bangladeshi community for example – they stuck together because they were not that many Bangladeshi people in New York City, especially in the 80s. My father was different, he married a Puerto Rican woman, he lived in the Bronx, he lived in Astoria, and was exposed to different cultures. But I’ve seen how people even in my own family, they come here and they have a hard time interacting with other cultures, other people. They just feel [more] comfortable dealing with people from their own community. I identify as being a Muslim, but there are just certain things like this ‘closed mindedness’ that happens in the community sometimes that I can’t really identify with. To be honest, I’m not the most religious Muslim, but I’m still Muslim nonetheless. And this is my experience.”

Mosammet, 17, Brooklyn Tech High School: “We are a nation of immigrants. I do not accept someone who calls my fellow brothers and sisters of colour ‘murderers and thieves’. I do not accept someone who utilises fear mongering to turn half the country against the rest. I will not stand my mother or my sisters being forced to remove their hijab and I will not stand my father and brother being called ‘terrorists.’ I LOVE LIFE, but as an American citizen, I have never been so disappointed in America.”

Khadidja, 22, grad student of Product Management at Devry University: “I was born in Ivory Coast, West Africa and moved here when I was 14. I was a freshman in high school. At first, it was hard to make friends because of the language barrier. I mostly stuck to myself in the ESL class trying to understand what everyone was saying. After a while I picking it up (English) and could communicate with people – make friends. I still have the same friends from high school today- they’re mostly from different countries in Africa, but none of them are Muslim. When people meet me, they don’t think I’m Muslim because I don’t always wear the hijab; I have my hair out and I’m dressed like everybody else, plus I’m black so they don’t assume I’m Muslim. I did wear the hijab from age 9 to 12 and people used to tell me, ‘You’re too young,’ so I stopped. Now I just cover my head sometimes when I have a bad hair day! I don’t consider it a hijab because that’s quite a different thing really… it’s a different mindset.”

Jiniya, 20, student of advertising and psychology at The City College of New York: “I want to be a creative director in an ad agency. That’s what I want to do in the future. I want to change the message through advertising. The status quo. Change the way people are represented, the way women are represented… change the negative portrayal, the objectification of women, the false narrative. To just, shake it up. I guess I want Muslims to be portrayed like more normal… like looking at the media, I can’t understand why we are always portrayed as either the good or the bad, the moderate or the extremists. Why can’t I be normal? Why do I have to be labeled as Muslim?… Why is my headscarf the first thing that you recognize about me? Why can’t we just be people?… I identify mostly as a feminist and yes, I am also very religious. I guess people see that as clashing… because a lot of people think that because it’s religion you should be strict- ‘can’t do this, you can’t do that’… But the thing is, in religion no one is controlling you. You have your own choice. And I think that is what feminism stands for. You’re making your own choices, and you’re standing up for what’s right. That is what feminism is!”

Jenan, 25, brand manager at a law firm and creator of the blog MissMuslim.com: “As a Muslim woman there were a lot of things that we were told we cannot talk about… Things that were seen as inappropriate like dating, going to college, traveling on your own, starting your own career… the stereotypical notion that you grow up, you get married, you have children, and that’s your life — you don’€™t have sex before marriage, etc. I appreciate my religion and it is a huge part of my identity, but, I think I have found a really good balance between my American identity and my Arab Muslim identity. Plus with this blog, I found that there are [many] girls who are at the same level of religiosity as I am and it’s so nice to connect with them.”

Hany, 27, General Manager at Cairo Dental in Queens: “€œTo be honest, I was for Trump. I’m excited about him. I love his passion to change the country because it needs a lot of changing. If I were him, I would let in visitors but put a tracking device on them because so many immigrants overstay and don’t pay tax. Believe in the magic!”

Hagar, 22, Health and Science major at New Jersey City University: “My dad watches the news like 24/7. He watches Al Jazeera. He’s from Egypt. I think it’€s important to vote, but our options this year are — we didn’t have much choice! I’d have preferred not to vote but I don’€t think that’€s a better option either. I wanted Bernie, he just seemed kind of down to earth unlike the other two.”

Abdelrazaq, 25, NYU Dental student: “I believe my individual vote for the President doesn’t matter. New York State is a blue state and is going to Hillary no matter who I select. I’m of the opinion that voting for local positions is more important, and that the Muslim community like any minority community should show up and vote, not in the hopes of determining the winner, but to show our presence. We are part of this country, part of this community — a large part — and voting is a way for us to show those who run for governmental positions that ‘Hey, we are here. We matter, we carry weight and you can’t make a political career out of marginalizing us and communities like us because you will not succeed.’”

Syeda, 21, Math & Physics major at Hunter College: “I’d love to teach. It’™s been my dream for the past couple of years to open a school actually, for [young] kids. I feel there is this huge stigma towards math and physics or just math and science. Especially in math! Where a lot of kids feel like they can’€™t do it and the steer away from it because they don’€™t think they are capable of doing it. For starters, to give kids earlier exposure to things like fundamental concepts. I took chemistry when I was in high school, in 10th grade, and that’s when I learned what an atom was. That is something I could have easily learned when I was a kid. When I was in bio I learned what a cell was, when I was in physics I learned what vectors were and it wasn’€™t till I went to college that I really learnt what all that meant. I think the older we get the more we question things, the more we need rationales to explain things. But as kids, we’€™re willing to just take things and run with it and let our imaginations play.”

Makinoon, 17, Student at Brooklyn Tech High School: “Sometimes, you kind of feel scared with all this Islamophobia going on. Like, what if my friends, not close friends, but acquaintances turn their back on me just because I’€™m a Muslim? There was a time when I actually thought about not following my faith because of social pressure. But, I identify as Muslim and want to show that Islam is a beautiful religion.”

Najwa, 16, Miraj Islamic High School: “My all time favorite subject is science! Learning about the different elements that make us think or act in certain ways fascinate me, that’s the main reason why I want to study medicine once I graduate.”

Anika, 21, student in International Business/Finance, Accounting, Economics & Fashion, works at Marymount Manhattan college as an SAT coordinator: “When I was a kid I wanted to be a medical scientist. My fiancee is studying at Harvard Law, we’re getting court married in December but having the official wedding next year. I believe in [my] religion — I pray my five prayers a day and understand my existence. So I would say, in that spectrum I’m fairly religious. If you fit with that realm of thinking in terms of whatever has been ordained for the religion — whether it’€™s praying five times or believing in one God, if you can accept those two things, then yeah, you can consider yourself religious. But, in terms of truly believing your existence, that would be another question to ask.”

Mohammed, 22, Environmental engineering major at City College of New York: “I’m trying to push myself into doing things that I’m not really comfortable with- like getting my photo taken!! I’€™m not really a social person, but I’m pushing myself to getting involved socially.”

Helda, 29, full time student at Rutgers University majoring in Public Health and works full time as a Healthcare coordinator: “€œSo you have Muslim religion and Muslim culture. The thing with our religion and culture is that they are so intertwined. People mistake a lot of culture things to be religious and they’€™re not.”

Shahid & Hanzalah, 18 & 20, College students (Information Security & Android Development): “€œSo, we met initially back in Brooklyn Tech High School at the MIST Club (Muslim Interscholastic Tournament — a state/national-level tournament where Muslim high school students compete in 40 different competitions ranging from debate and improv, to spoken word). We were talking about software engineering and complaining about teachers, term projects, etc. At first I was thinking, ‘Ahhh, a mini me! I’€™ll take him under my wing!’€™, but then the more we hung out, the more it became clear that I was usually the one who needed more help between the two of us. Nowadays, Shahid is the kind of guy I’€™ll message at 2 a.m. with some strange insomnia induced epiphany, and he’€™ll take two seconds to tell me the massively obvious hole in my logic and tell me to go to sleep. I’m amazed we’€™ve known each other for so many years because in many ways it still feels like we only recently met — there’s a timelessness to it and honestly, it feels more like family.”

Jannah, 19, student at Hunter Community College: “I did wear a hijab a long time ago when I was little, but people would tell me to take it off because I was too young (pre-puberty) Now I’ve just have gotten used to not wearing it. But, I still try to dress as modest as I can. Modest means not showing too much skin, no cleavage, not too tight… if it’s hot though, it’s a different story. I’€™ll wear a tank top but it would show too much. I won’€™t wear very short shorts… In my house, of course, I wear whatever I want.”

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