(NEW YORK) — Growing up in Arizona in the 1970s, Jihad Turk, now a Muslim scholar, doesn’t remember many other kids who shared his Palestinian-American identity.
“There wasn’t a lot of diversity. You were either Black, white or Mexican,” said Turk. “So people just assumed I was Mexican.”
Jihad, a traditional Muslim name, was always shortened to “Jay” while he was growing up. It was even printed that way in his youth soccer league program — until the day Turk’s father attended a game. His father saw the roster and corrected it — passing out the amended version to parents at the next game.
An embarrassed Turk protested.
“He goes, ‘No, your name has a great meaning and I chose it for a reason,'” Turk remembered his father replying. “[He said], ‘It means the struggle to do the right thing. And it might be unusual or unfamiliar for people, but it’s worth that extra effort.'”
Decades later, Turk has devoted himself to educating people on his faith. He spent years studying Islam, first independently at home in America, and later in Saudi Arabia and Iran. The lack of centers for higher study of Islam in the U.S. forced him overseas.
“There wasn’t really any institution. There wasn’t really any pathway to really growing my faith,” Turk recalled. “And so people who wanted to do that had to go to Syria, had to go to Egypt, had to go to Islamic University in Medina [Saudi Arabia] or Malaysia or Pakistan or somewhere else.”
But he found a disconnect between the narrow version of the religion as it was often taught in other countries, and the way in which he had been raised. The faith, he found, was always presented in the context of its culture — a practice Turk found not only foreign, but contradictory to the roots of his religion.
“Islam came, quite frankly, as a feminist movement, empowering women in ways that was uncomfortable for the people of their time,” Turk said. “In fact, culture trumps religion. And even though they nominally adopted Islam, as a culture, they disregard Islam when it comes to important cultural practices.
“Whatever is just traditionally done, or historically done, they just kind of lump it all under religion.”
Today, Turk is working to fix that in America. He has established and now runs Bayan Claremont — the first graduate school for Islamic study in the United States. The goal is to educate the next generation of Muslim scholars and religious leaders, who can serve their communities in the same spirit of cultural pluralism in which they were raised, rather than with an imported, foreign education.
“I have four kids, my oldest is 16,” said Turk. “It’s an important part of what I’m doing as a Muslim parent, my wife and I. You know, how to have a well-adjusted American-Muslim identity, and what role community plays.”
Muslim-Americans comprise less than 1 percent of the U.S. population. And the communities, like Christian and Jewish communities, are diverse. There are disagreements over interpretation, tradition and the rights of women. Turk believes the faith will grow to fit the community it serves.
“In order for Islam to be sustained in the United States, and be meaningful and have a positive impact; and be meaningful to young people, to be passed from generation to generation, it has to be relevant, it has to be relevant to them,” he said. “You can’t just be in a bubble, right? You have to want to be part of the fabric of the community in which you live.”
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