Semsudin Imamovic commutes over 200 miles from New York City each week to serve as the Imam for the Bosnian Islamic Association Mosque in Utica. His job is difficult – he is the religious leader for a growing number of Muslims – but he works hard to communicate his knowledge of Islam to the Bosnian faithful. To him, Utica is a good place to grow up Muslim.
“When I look at Utica and New York City, it is much harder in New York to keep the children around the mosque and around Muslims,” Imamovic said. “In Utica it is easier.”
As the Imam, the important task of teaching the Islamic faith to nearly 100 Bosnian children who range in age from six years old to teenagers and twenty-somethings, falls to him. And the task hasn’t been easy.
“Today, it is very hard to work with the youth,” Imamovic said, pausing for a moment and searching for another way to phrase it. “It is very hard to build the religion.”
The difficulty of keeping religion alive in young people is part of the reason why the Bosnian Islamic Association of Utica has taken the step of building a youth center in the mosque, as part of an effort to bring Islam to the children on their terms. The community leaders hope that by coupling religious education with recreational activities like PlayStation video games, the children will be more receptive to learning about Islam. In many ways, granting this liberty is, in a broader sense, a way for the mosque leaders to resist the whirlwind of secular influences, anti-Islamist attitudes and American cultural norms that parents see as stifling their children’s religiosity and dissolving their community. But, for some more traditional parents, elements of this youth center challenge the mosque’s ethos. With this in mind, leaders in the community are seeking other solutions to further organize the Bosnian youth and ultimately preserve the cohesion in their community.
The Court Street mosque, which opened in 2009 in a former Methodist church, was built by the Bosnian Islamic Association of Utica to support the large community of Bosnian immigrants who wanted to learn and pray in their native language. The mosque became an icon of Utica’s tolerance, and was featured in The New York Times and National Public Radio’s “State of the Re:Union” at a time when the rest of the country was bitterly divided over the construction of the “Ground Zero” Islamic cultural center in Manhattan.
As religious groups go, the Bosnian Islamic Association of Utica is liberal in its attitudes toward other faiths. Mustafa Andelija, the secretary of the Bosnian Islamic Association of Utica, speaks openly about his belief that, fundamentally, all religions teach the same form of morality.
“If you follow religion, it’s the same thing,” Andelija said. “You can believe in different gods, but [religion] teaches that there are good things and bad things. If everyone followed their religion, there would be peace in the world.”
Andelija is a strong supporter of the youth center. He feels that providing these games during religious education classes will help draw children back to the mosque and away from other corrupting influences in Utica. He hopes to get input from the young adults on what sort of activities they would enjoy. He tells a story about his six-year-old nephew’s birthday party, during which the children suddenly stopped and began praying.
“I was really, really surprised,” Andelija said. “You already did one good thing when you see something like that.”
In an Islamic studies class attended by Bosnian teenagers, relaxed attitudes are on display. The youths casually work through the theme of “jealousy” in terms of social justice and personal responsibility in Islam, and read passages assigned to them in the Qu’ran. During the breaks, the teens were more interested in asking a visitor questions about applying to colleges (what grade point average they need, how difficult the applications are) than talking about religion.
It is this ambivalence toward religion in the youth that Bosnian Islamic Association board members are most concerned about. They feel that they lose control of their younger members as the youth grow older and become more independent, often questioning Islam’s teachings on how they should behave.
Imamovic explains that the collision between Islam’s moral code and the teenage years is particularly difficult, since when the youth become more autonomous, the religion requires that they take on more responsibilities.
“[Islam] is a religion that regulates the complete life,” Imammovic said. “It’s not one aspect of your life, it’s the complete life for how should you go to sleep, how should you go to the restroom, how you should eat, how you should dress: everything from the very small details to big things. This is Islam, and that means a lot of responsibility.”
Daily activities, like contact between men and women, are regulated in Islam. Unmarried men and women are not supposed to have any bodily contact, and activities like praying and religious classes are divided by gender.
“You can’t, if you’re in class, hug a girl if you’re a male,” Imamovic said. “You can’t shake hands with a girl. It’s hard for them. They [Islamic youth] are living in a completely different world.”
However, there are deeper undercurrents that are pulling youth away from Islam. As Imamovic explained, many Bosnians immigrated after the Bosnian War in the 1990s to Utica, where the Mohawk Valley Resource Center for Refugees is located, and now make up nearly ten percent of the city’s population. These Bosnians grew up under Yugoslavia’ communist regime, which marginalized those who practiced religion and shut them out from high-paying government jobs. The adults carry this irreligious attitude and an ignorance of the Islamic practices with them, which concerns many of the mosque leaders. They feel that some parents can be ‘part-time Muslims’ who fail to provide a proper religious role model for their children.
“[The parents] grew up in this time, and it’s still in their mind,” Imamovic said. “They think their children should be the same: if you go on the way of religion, you can’t have progress in this community.”
At the same time, Bosnian youth are increasingly finding role models in American culture and media. Armin Hajder is a Muslim who works in the Municipal Housing department in Utica and is the father of three children ages 17, 11 and seven. He is an active member of the mosque and loves talking about Islamic theology and has sought to become more involved with teaching the children about Islam. He feels that celebrities and characters on the Internet and American cartoons are usurping of the place of Mohammad and Islam in youth.
“Now these days, if you ask kids about any popular singer or soccer player, they know everything about them,” Hajder said. “And these are the role models for them. It’s hard to tell them that Mohammad should be our role model. These kids don’t know him. The kids are watching all the popular kids on television, and now you’re teaching them about Allah existing and behaving in the right way; it’s really difficult.”
Many of the intersections between secular culture and the Bosnian youth occur at public schools in Utica. The children are forced outside their community’s bubble and often find themselves at odds with the practices of other children. Particularly in the post-9/11 era, these differences can feel insurmountable to children when coupled with bullying and anti-Islamic sentiments.
“You have a child eight or nine years old, and when he comes to his class, everybody is saying Muslims are terrorists and violent. He is not scared,” Imamovic said. “But a child can be ashamed because he is a part of this community, and then he has an aversion to the mosque, to his community. I know many of [these] kids, they say ‘I’m American, I’m American, I’m American.'”
The structure and curriculum of schools themselves can also be obstacles for the religious leaders. Imamovic and some parents feel that secularism in public schools fails to leave room for dialogue with their children about the place of religion, leading teenagers to stray from the mosque.
“Many sociologists, they are teaching [children] in the school that religion was in one part in the history and then science came and science replaced the religion,” Imamovic said. “Society is built on this thinking that religion is in the past.”
Difficulties in the Utica public schools have led many in the mosque to consider joining an effort to establish a charter school in the area. Though the school would not be Bosnian- or mosque-sponsored, and would be a collaboration with other Utica residents and their children, many feel that the school would give the Bosnian youth a chance to grow closer outside the mosque.
As for the youth center, the disagreements over what to include are unresolved. In a parents’ meeting on February 11, some parents expressed the conviction that the mosque should be reserved for prayer, and that adding a PlayStation would be inappropriate. Imamovic and other Bosnian Islamic Association of Utica board members disagreed, and they are still in talks over a final decision.
However, the internal debate is far less significant than what it responds to for Bosnian Muslims in Utica. This is a community that has been uprooted and replanted in a foreign country that can be hostile to differences and cold to its own impositions. Their effort to draw their youth back to Islam is part of the broader narrative of the immigrant community trying to draw itself back together after it has begun to settle among others. Building the youth center would involve adopting some unconventional elements in their community-building, but to some, even that effort falls short. The bigger leap, participating in the charter school and therefore bringing more organization and familiarity to Bosnian children, may tip the scales in preserving in the youth a sense of their identity within the community.
Contact Nate Lynch at [email protected]