Voices of the Next Generation: Maryem Abdullah

Thinking on the future of interfaith, the Parliament of the World's Religions invited several interns to share on the topic of the next generation of the movement and living out the vision of those pioneers celebrated this important anniversary year. On November 16, 2013, four young adults spoke their hearts and minds to a welcoming crowd of 180 Parliament supporters.

The following interview reflects the vision of Parliament intern in communications and outreach, Maryem Abdullah, a student in the Honors College at University of Illinois-Chicago (UIC) and premier student leader of the UIC Model United Nations. 

What do you consider to be your identity as an young adult joining the Interfaith movement?  

Personally, I identify as a Muslim-American. I was born and raised in Chicago, and so the United States is all I know, and which is why I identify as such. I do hold my Arab heritage close and it will always be a part of me. While I love the fact that I am Arab, I have a hard time [personally] identifying as such because of where I grew up and what surrounded me as a child and young adult. Above all that, however, Islam is near and dear to my heart. No matter where I am, how long I've lived there, and with whom I surround myself, I will always have my Muslim identity.

What are some common misconceptions of young Muslim and Arab women you encounter- having grown up in the United States?

Something I face often is the misconception that all Arabs are Muslims and all Muslims are Arab. However, they are not the same or, in my opinion, even similar. Being Arab or from the Middle East is a culture and Islam is a religion. While the two can coincide, they do not have much of a relation to one another.

What is the role of religion in your life?

Having a sense of religion helps me with difficulties I face on a day-to-day basis, and I am thankful to my parents who raised me in a household that incorporated religion in most aspects of my life. While I will be the first to admit that I am no model Muslim, my relationship with the God I believe in is the most important thing to me. I don’t think that the black and white version of a faith is what defines a person—their spirituality and connection with their God is what matters. It is a shame that these misconceptions and prejudices leads people to commit hateful crimes against those who look, speak, or dress a certain way. While it saddens me to see such hate in the world, it lifts my spirits to know that the interfaith movement is widespread and that there is hope to end hate and intolerance.

How does being both Muslim and American inform your perspective of the Interfaith movement?

I think the combination of being American and Muslim has helped me become more optimistic about the interfaith movement. I think the interfaith movement will have more of an impact because this generation is more inclusive. Generations only become more tolerant, so it fosters a positive place for the coming together of various faiths, religions, and cultures. In my opinion, we are less clingy to traditional views, and more open to new people, traditions, and ideas. I believe the younger generation sees the world through a different lens than those who raised us. Our previous generation paved the pathway for change, and with the current generation’s open-mindedness, I think greatness can happen.

What evidence of change and greatness do you see happening?

I have my mother to largely thank for my understanding of how much a group of people can impact a community. She was one of the five founding partners of an all female Muslim law firm. At the time I was in 9th grade and I couldn’t care less about anyone’s accomplishments but mine, but now that I’m older and my professional dreams have evolved from an actress to a lawyer, I have come to realize and appreciate all that she has done to further the tolerance of the Muslim community, and for women around the world.

What is your hope for the future of the interfaith movement?

As a member of a generation that is incredibly open and honest, I am happy to see a strong stance against hate and intolerance.

Who embodies the hope of a stronger interfaith movement to you?

I think Malala Yousafzai, a 15-year-old who stood up for the educational rights of women and was consequently shot by the Taliban, is an amazing example of sticking up for what you believe in, despite the hurdles that may come your way. Malala, along with countless other young women working towards common goals, teaches us what we’re up against- and how strong we can be if we come together for a common cause. We have a long way to go with countless bumps ahead of us, but I’m confident that the interfaith movement will lead to a hate-free and more tolerant world.

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