Migration and Millennial Muslims: Second Generation Nigerian Muslims in the United States
Ezekiel Olagoke Monday, 13 June 2011
"It is a peculiar sensation, this double consciousness, this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of the world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his twoness, an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder."
—W.E.B. Du Bois
Children of immigrants commonly struggle with the demands of a bicultural heritage. This can be seen clearly in the case of second generation Nigerian Muslims in the United States, who face identity challenges at multiple levels: they adhere to Islamic faith, they have an African racial background, and they retain some cultural features of their immigrant heritage. They live in communities that are often wary of both foreigners and Muslims—especially after 9/11. To gain insight into their experience, I interviewed 20 Nigerian Muslims who were born in the United States between 1988 and 1994; they are part of the "millennial" generation. These young people often feel alienated from other Americans, even as they embrace America as their birthplace.
Recent events have fueled prejudice against Nigerian Muslims in the U.S., including the "underwear bomber" incident involving a Nigerian national on his way to the United States in December 2009. In March 2011, Peter King, the chairman of the Homeland Security Committee in the US House of Representatives, decided to hold a hearing on the radicalization of Muslims in the United States. For most of the young people I interviewed, this national whipping of fears and intimidation confirmed their suspicion that regardless of professed allegiance to the United States, they will always be viewed as enemies of the country of their birth. One interviewee told me, "This is not a good time to be a Nigerian in America."
The Immigrant Experience
Several push and pull factors influenced the parents of second generation Nigerian Muslims to emigrate from Nigeria to the United States. The 1965 Immigration Act allowed immigrants from Third World countries to come to the United States on the basis of their skills and professions rather than on the basis of their national origins. Many Nigerians took advantage of this Act (and the subsequent liberalization of immigration policies through lottery and student exchange programs) to pursue a better life through education and professional development in the United States. Nigeria's deteriorating economy, post-independence political uncertainty, and socio-economic instability prompted many Nigerians to leave the country.
Many studies of second generation immigrants focus on Hispanic and Asian children—or on the numerous African Christian communities—but the African Muslim experience in America is relatively under-studied. Their experience is complex, as they encounter stigma for their religion as well as their race. The struggle is often internal. Linda Beck reports, "West African Muslims in New York are considered and consider themselves to be foreign, not only in terms of their immigration status but also in socio-cultural terms, as African and Muslim."
I am a Nigerian, and my cultural and intellectual pilgrimage included exposure to Islam, Christianity, and African traditional religions. From the age of 11 until I was 16, I was a student at Islamic High School, Orita Bashorun, Ibadan, Nigeria. Even though I am not a Muslim, this prism partly prompted my desire to examine the struggles of young Nigerian Muslims in the United States.
Between 2007 and 2010, I conducted a series of meetings, interviews, and focus groups with young Nigerian-Americans who live in or near Denver. I had an especially insightful conversation in July 2010 when I attended the Muslim Students Association's Africa Night, an annual celebration for graduates from colleges around the Denver area. A good number of students in this organization are from a Nigerian background, and I spoke with half a dozen who are Muslim.
The young people I interviewed shared varied accounts of Islamophobic and racist behavior, including name calling. Common phrases included, "Go back to Africa," "Mohammedans," "Black Muslims," and other derogatory ethnic slurs. These students explained how, on their university campuses, others often stared when they wore African dress or caps that suggested a Muslim association. It is not uncommon for men to wear traditional attire to the mosque for Friday prayers and during the month of Ramadan. Women tend to wear traditional attire more often than men. Women who wear Muslim-identifiable dress like hijab do so for a number of reasons: out of respect for the Islamic code of conduct and dress, to establish an identity that sets them apart from the other women, and/or to follow the examples of their mothers and older Muslim women. Those who do not wear hijab expressed support and appreciation of those who do, and opined that people should respect other's choices in a free society like the United States. One of the women said somebody tried to remove her veil during the anti-Islamic fervor after 9/11. While she felt saddened by the incident, others noted that at least the incident was not more harmful.
One outspoken individual stated that after the underwear bomber incident in December 2009, he no longer introduced himself as a Nigerian to Americans. He continued:
"I rarely open my mouth in public nowadays, even asking questions in class. People who know that my parents grew up in Nigeria now see me differently. I even shorten my name now ... I simply say, ‘I am Ed,' instead of the Muslim name given to me at birth. It is not easy being an African youth, [and] it is more problematic being a Nigerian. I wish people will get to know me before drawing conclusions."
Others I interviewed expressed similar sentiments, underscoring that they are wary to befriend people, simply because of the stigma associated with their names, their religion, and their parents' place of origin. Asked how they address these struggles, one of them remarked, "The purpose of the Africa Night and the Muslim Student Association on campus is to deal with some of the issues we are dealing with. It seems America now looks at us as enemies. We have to come together to face our problems. Sometimes our parents do not understand the things we go through, but we have to stick together to make sense of our life here."
Surprisingly, Nigerian Muslims also experience discrimination from non-Nigerian or Arab Muslims. Interviewees noted that some forms of ethnic conflict persist as different groups purport to be more oppressed than others in America. Several Nigerians' parents came to the United States via North African countries, where they were seen as black Africans vis-à-vis the Arab/black African conflicts in places like Sudan, with a history of ethnic strife. These students tend to view Muslims from the northern part of the continent with a perspective colored by the prejudices or discrimination suffered by their parents in North African countries. Recent events have accentuated this, as many Nigerians in America have followed the situation in Darfur, and as the recent conflict in Libya forced a large number of Nigerians to leave the country. One Nigerian American remarked, "We all thought that Gadhafi was for a United Africa, but recent repatriation of Nigerians back to their country gives a lie to Gadafi's effort to a United Africa."
Responding to Alienation
The tensions surrounding these students' identity as black, foreign, and Muslim have generally prompted several responses. First, it has spurred them to pursue spiritual renewal. When asked about their spiritual identity and practice, they unanimously stated that before 9/11 they had not taken their Islamic faith very seriously, but now the Qur'an, Prophet Muhammad, and the Muslim community have a different meaning to them. Their mosque attendance increased and their participation in salat (prayer) and zakat (almsgiving) improved considerably. They also renewed their commitment to abstain from alcohol and premarital sex. Looking ahead, one interviewee indicated, "I know I am going to marry a Muslim, even if I have to marry one from Africa. My faith is now very important to me, I am Muslim first, Muslim last, and Muslim forever." Another pointed out the importance of associating with fellow Africans or people from the Middle East who are Muslims. He attended a national gathering of the Muslim Student Association and is a regular subscriber to Al Ittihad.
Second, while these students are proud to be Muslim, they are also involved in ethnic and cultural organizations. For example, it is not unusual for them to belong to pan-ethnic or Yoruba, Hausa, or Edo ethnic organizations, helping recent Muslim and non-Muslim immigrants settle in the United States. In addition, some young people join their parents' Nigerian high-school alumni organizations in the United States, contributing computers, medical equipment, and even volunteers to help in parts of Nigeria.
Finally, despite what these young Muslims experience, they are dedicated to making sense of their American identity as well as their religious identity. Those who are students are usually committed to earning good grades so that they can have good jobs, and they aspire to help their local communities and those who are less privileged. Many of these young people possess a strong work ethic; it is not unusual for them to have two jobs and still be taking classes.
These Muslim Nigerian-Americans do not reject the opportunities available to them in the United States; they regard America as the greatest nation on earth. But they face a constant struggle with the antagonistic tenor of religious debate in the public sphere. From every indication, these young people are prepared to live, to learn, and to leave a legacy in the United States, the land of their birth. Their adaptation to the changing Muslim milieu in the US, especially after 9/11, will continue to be part of the mosaic of cultures, religions, and "tales of faith." It is important for people of goodwill from all political and religious spectrums to help these young people not only to live out their dreams, but also to provide a better legacy for the common good.
 W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk: Essays and Sketches (New York: Fawcett, 1961), 16–17.
 "King Opens Committee on Homeland Security Hearing on Radicalization," The House Committee on Homeland Security, press release, 10 March, 2011, http://homeland.house.gov/press-release/king-opens-committee-homeland-security-hearing-radicalization (accessed 5 May, 2011).
 Z. Magubane, Postmodernism, Postcoloniality and African Studies (Asmara, Eritrea: Africa World Press, 2003).
 H.R.F. Ebaugh and J.S. Chafetz, Religion and the New Immigrants: Continuities and Adaptations in Immigrant Congregations (Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press, 2000). See also: A. Olagoke, "Pan Africanism and the New Diaspora: African Christians in the United States," (Ph.D. Diss., University of Denver/Iliff School of Theology, 2002), 267.
 P.F.K. Portes, "Exceptional Outcomes: Achievement in Education and Employment among Children of Immigrants," The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 620 (2008), 301.
 J.K. Olupona and R. Gemignani, African Immigrant Religions in America (New York: New York University Press, 2007). See especially the chapter by Linda Beck, "West African Muslims in America: When are Muslims Not Muslims?" 183.
 I am not alone in claiming triple heritage. See A. Mazrui, The Africans: A Triple Heritage (Boston: Little, Brown, 1986). Mazrui notes the indelible impact of triple heritage, growing up in Kenya as a Muslim. Lamin Sanneh also alludes to his upbringing, especially in L.O. Sanneh, Encountering the West: Christianity and the Global Cultural Process: The African Dimension (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1993).
 Interview conducted July 28, 2010; the interviewees preferred to remain anonymous. (Additional interviews took place in my home in Denver; at Starbucks, Denver; Atlanta Bread, Aurora, CO; International Market, Denver; and outside the Denver Mosque. More recently, I conducted follow up interviews in Denver from May 10 through May 14, 2011 at Starbucks, Golden, CO, and Aurora Public library.
 In a May 12, 2011 interview at the International Market, Denver, a Nigerian provided additional explanation for the upsurge in religious experience of these young students. The interviewee said the current Muslim student population in the colleges and universities around the downtown area of Denver is over 500, and a larger portion of them belong to the Muslim Student Association than did before 9/11. This increase is due not just to the growing pains of adolescence, but also to other factors: the search for the meaning of life, the religious nature of African societies imbued by immigrant children's parents, and a search for deeper Islamic/Muslim identity because of their names and African Islamic heritage.
 This is a publication of the Muslim Students Association, which was formed on January 1, 1963 by a group of Muslims at the University of Illinois. Not long after, a bi-yearly publication of Al Ittihad began, and new MSA chapters were formed.
 Some of the Muslim schools in Nigeria that parents attended include: Islamic High School in Ibadan, Isabatudeen Girls Grammar School in Ibadan, and Ahmaddiyah College in Lagos, among others. Other ethnic-related organizations include Egbe Omo Oduduwa, Egba Descendants, and Ibadan indigenes. For more on the intersection between religion and ethnicity in Nigeria, see David Laitin, Hegemony and Culture: Politics and Change among the Yoruba (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1986).
 See V.Y. Mudimbe, Tales of Faith: Religion as Political Performance in Central Africa (Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Athlone Press, 1997).