Anyone who's been around Muslim teens between the ages of 10 – 17 will recognize a disconcerting and disappointing trend: youthful apathy. Selfishness, self-centredness, and almost total obliviousness to the world around them. And despite the self-absorption, there is still a lack of proper sense of self and strong identity.
It can be understood, perhaps, in that these are formative years in which children and adolescents are struggling with a huge input of information from the world around them that they can't quite figure out what to do with. These years are recognized as the most difficult years for parents, and for the children too; but for Muslim parents struggling to raise their children upon Islam here in the West, the problems are compounded.
Many concerned parents complain about how their children prefer to remain with unIslamic influences and ignore the parents' attempts to sway them towards coming to the masjid and being involved with other Muslims. Time and time again I hear the same advice being reiterated, but unfortunately the problems persist. After a while, I wondered if another approach was needed – something deeper and more long-term than one-off youth programs or conferences. Perhaps we need to re-analyse the causes of youthful misguidance, and come up with a more detailed method of reaching out to them.
Here I hope to present my own rudimentary theory of the reasons as to why so many of our younger teens, even those who come from relatively practicing Muslim households, become utterly disinterested in Islam and get sucked into the kaafir lifestyle. From there, inshā'Allāh we can work harder towards bringing back our lost boys and girls to the straight path.
It's All About You
We're always wondering what we can do to draw our youth back to the masjid, back to Islam, to engage them and involve them and above all, keep them safe. In order to do this, we need to look at the other side first – what is it about the non-Muslim lifestyle that attracts the kids so much? A lot of the time, it's the attention that they receive – in a culture that celebrates and promotes individualism to an unhealthy extreme, narcissistic youth are dazzled by how it's all about them. Sure, other factors are involved, such as how the culture appeals to all those budding desires, but when you get down to it, it's mostly about the attention.
That's where we need to start. We need to give our youth attention too, and indulge their narcissism… to a certain point. And above all, in a constructive way.
We complain about our kids having an identity crisis. To be frank, most of these kids don't even know who they are… forget about who they are as Muslims, they don't even know their own personalities. Much of the time they're just swept up in the latest trends and follow the fickle crowd without thinking about whether they actually like the items they're wasting their money on, or the activities that they throw themselves into just because it's what the cool kids do.
We have to help our youth know themselves. Once they know themselves, once they're confident in themselves and have an idea of their own potential, of what they want to do with that potential, then they will be more solidly grounded and have a better foundation upon which to build their futures.
To be a strong Muslim, one must be a strong person; the key to being a strong person is knowing who you are at your very core, being able to identify your own characteristics and values which will remain unchanged no matter what situation you're put in.
A solid Islamic upbringing from infanthood (as described in this ongoing series) goes a long way in building this kind of strong character, and as always is the first thing that parents must be aware of. However, for those who perhaps were not as Islamically practicing during their childrens' early childhood, and now wish to change their parenting styles and their children for the better, then there are other ways that they can encourage their children to develop and strengthen their invidual characters.
It is now that we combine the teens' desire for attention with the goal of helping them find themselves. Either at home or in a youth group/ workshop environment, our youth need to be invited away from all the clamouring, glamorous outside influences and given the space and time to focus on themselves, on who they are. Have them look deep within themselves, that space where they keep their deepest thoughts and desires, their hopes and fears, their darkest secrets. That space where they as individuals exist on a level where nothing and no one else can reach them except themselves. What do they find in that space?
Remember that soul-searching and personal development isn't something that can be over and done with in a few hours, a day, or even a couple weeks. It is in fact a life-long endeavour – but it is something which must be fostered from a young age, so that there is a solid sense of self that can be analysed and improved constantly.
Castles in the Air
If you ask a five year old, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” you're likely to get a long list that includes astronaut, cowboy (or cowgirl), firefighter, teacher, or even farmer. Ask the same question to a preteen or young teen, and you're more likely to be answered with a blank expression, a careless shrug, and a muttered, “I dunno.”
This particular phenomenon in our youth is a distinct lack of vision. Stemming from the problem of not knowing themselves, our young Muslim teens tend to stumble through school and these important years of their lives in a confused daze. They rarely have a tangible idea of what they want to do with their lives; in this era of technology-centred activities, few of them recognize that they have other talents and skills which can be developed and used for the benefit of mankind.
We need to help our youth open their eyes and realize that there is more to themselves, and to life, than their shallow routine of chasing after the current fad. Teens have to realize that adolescence isn't playtime; it's the stepping-stone towards full-blown maturity and the rest of their lives. So what are they going to do with those lives?
Here is where we need to foster and encourage life visions. What life visions do these youth have? Do they think they'll be able to achieve that 'ultimate end'? If so, how? If not, how come? How can they achieve those dreams of theirs?
Let's encourage our youth to open their hearts, minds, and eyes, and make their imaginations go wild. Let them build castles in the air!
Tools of the Trade
Life visions are pretty big dreams and it can be easy to become discouraged about them. So, break the “big dream” into a series of smaller, practical long- and short-term goals that can be steadily achieved and implemented. Accomplishing each 'small' goal becomes a stepping stone towards the final vision. As Muslims, our goal is Jannah; reaching that destination, however, requires a lot of work in a lot of different areas and in a lot of different ways.
Every goal of life is reached by utilizing skills and talents; discovering, developing, and strengthening them for maximum benefit. Now that our youth have an idea of what they want to do with their lives, they should also be able to recognize which skills they'll need to reach those goals. It's time for them to do a bit more soul-searching – or rather, talent-searching. What are their talents? What are they good at? What do they love to do? At this present time, how do they utilize those skills? How can they develop and improve these abilities? In the long term, how can they use these skill sets to reach their goals?
Another important point to remember is what the old proverb says: “Idle hands/minds are the devil's workshop.” Too much free time causes our youth to seek out activities to stave off boredom, and these activities tend to be of the dodgy not-very-halaal kind.
One way of killing two birds with one stone is to enlist these youth in serious activities at the masājid; that is, coming up with ways to give the teens a chance to practice their skills in a work-like environment that benefits both the youth, and the masājid themselves. However, make it something serious – actually pay the youth for their work, instead of doing it on a volunteer basis, as that gives the tasks the appearance of a chore rather than attracting the teens. Not only will the youth learn the basics of business and apprenticeship, but it gives them a far better environment to work in than the usual options of fast food and retail.
Strong and Free
In a nutshell, the above is part of what I perceive to be a rough guide/ method to dealing with the problem of lost, apathetic, confused Muslim teens who are sucked into a culture of shallowness, vanity, and selfishness. We have a group of kids who have so much potential, who could be the next great leaders of this Ummah, if only we could unplug them from their iPods, unhook them from their video games, and drag them away from the latest sales at the mall.
Our youth can be – and will be, inshā'Allāh – strong and free, secure in their identities as Muslims and their own unique personalities. In their submission to Allāh, they will be empowered to becoming the next generation of movers and shakers, those who will improve the state of this Ummah in every field.
We just need to guide them away from the distractions of this dunyah and engage their hearts, minds, and souls… all we have to do is give them the time and attention that they crave, and that they need so that they may become the kind of glorious personalities they have the potential to be. It will be, and is, a long, hard road for parents, the youth, and those of us who have dedicated our lives for the sake of Allāh to strengthen this Ummah; but inshā'Allāh the payoff in both this world and the Hereafter will be worth every agonizing moment of it.
May Allāh guide our lost boys and girls, and guide us all, to the Straight Path; to that which is best for us all in this world and in the Hereafter; and to that which is most pleasing and beloved to Him, āmīn.