Being American Muslims: A Conversation

“Responsible parenting means responsibility towards thinking about community and the world in a pluralistic fashion and teaching your children to think that way.”

It was that very thought from Dr. Sana Tayyen on raising her children that led her to accept Fr. James Heft’s invitation to speak as part of the Institute for Advanced Catholic Studies Tom and Julie Condon Fall Lecture Series in a presentation titled “Being American Muslims: A Conversation”. Dr. Tayyen’s initial reservations about sharing her Muslim faith during the Oct. 11th lecture concerned more than just herself. She would be sharing the stage at USC’s Caruso Catholic Center with her 17-year-old son, Ahmed Srass, a high school senior.

“I’d never shared a stage with my son, so I had to digest the idea,” Dr. Tayyen said.

Ahmed shared none of her concerns. Ahmed, co-founder and president of the Troy High School Muslim Student Association, agreed on the spot in hopes of achieving intergenerational understanding of different faiths.

“Not that there aren’t issues within our own generation, but for the most part, here where we live, there is an openness and an understanding of our differences,” Ahmed said. “I think it’s mostly the older generation that doesn’t understand us.”

Ahmed’s enthusiasm for the idea quickly rubbed off on his mother, who is a visiting scholar at USC and a lecturer at the University of Redlands.

“As I think about this, I am very thankful to Father Heft,” Dr. Tayyen said. “The multiple generational perspective on growing up Muslim in the United States, I think, is important.  I can see why he wanted to do this. It’s one thing to be an immigrant and be Muslim. It’s another thing to be born in the U.S. to immigrant parents and maintain your religious identity. And it’s quite another thing to be born to a Muslim American who herself was born and raised in the U.S. as the daughter of immigrant Muslim parents and be raised by that daughter with a Muslim identity, a third generation Muslim like Ahmed.  I think this is a very important phenomenon that says something about the nature of Islam in America which can give us insight into lots of things.”

Father Heft, who is both the founder of USC’s Institute for Advanced Catholic Studies and a professor or religion at USC, focuses much of his academic work on interreligious dialogue. He both organized and moderated Wednesday’s event.

“Being religious on campus, no matter what that religion may be, bears consequences,” Father Heft said. “I wear my collar to class, and my hope is that after the first day, my students, many of whom are here tonight, say, ‘Well, he may be a priest, but at least he has a brain.’”

Those in attendance included IACS board members, professors, graduate students, undergraduates, high school students and many in the local Catholic community. After both Dr. Tayyen and her son spoke, the event was opened to audience questions for nearly an hour.

“Interreligious dialogue is important for a multitude of reasons,” Father Heft said. “When the media covers violence and scandal and a religion seems to be at fault, one can get the impression that the religion does no good. Interreligious dialogue helps correct that impression. Secondly, in a secular age, such as we have now in the U.S., the general knowledge about religions is weak. As a consequence, uninformed people are more easily led to distorted views. Religion in our society is typically privatized. When it comes to public expression, there is often controversy or even an explosion of passion. Hopefully, events like tonight help make it easier for us all to understand and respect other religions, something we need in a culture prone to polarization.”