Young Americans find meaning in Islam

Scholars researching Islam and psychological analysis of Gen-Z say progressives being drawn to Islam is a rebellion of sorts against Western establishment and culture

Smadar Shiloni|
On the face of it, the events of October 7th struck a hard blow to Muslims in the United States. Suspicion and Islamophobia have risen, and life has become harder for them. However, something else has also happened: With American adherents to other faiths wanting to know more about the ideology that motivated the attacks becoming curious and interested in Islam, the Quran has become a bestseller.
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“In some ways, September 11th was the greatest worldwide advertisement for Islam” explains Elad Ben David, expert on Islam in the United States. To strengthen the Muslim community and reduce hostility, many Muslims leaders went to great lengths to denounce the attack and brand Islam as a peace seeking religion rather than one that lives by the sword. In the years following September 11th, Muslim preachers found emerging social media to be the perfect platform to spread Islam. In flawless English, they present Islam in a positive, topical and peace-loving manner.
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An Instagram post promoting Islam An Instagram post promoting Islam
An Instagram post promoting Islam An Instagram post promoting Islam
An Instagram post promoting Islam An Instagram post promoting Islam
(Photo: Screenshot )
In recent weeks, TikTok has been flooded with young (mainly female) Americans bursting into joyous readings of the Quran, so excited about its content that some have taken on the faith of the Prophet Mohammed (known as “reverting” to Islam). Israel’s military activity in Gaza following October 7th along with images showing Gaza’s civilian suffering, boosted American interest in the Quran and Islam. This time around, Islam found it’s perfect target audience: Young, progressive, Gen Z-ers who have found a springboard for their worldviews in the Quarn and its accompanying literature. And they’ve boarded the bus.
A young African American woman named Megan Rice is a case in point: A month ago, she uploaded a TikTok post expressing admiration for the faith and resilience of the Palestinian people. Respondents advised her to read the Quran to understand the source of this faith and resilience. Rice wasted no time. She started reading surahs (chapters of the Quran) and hadiths (interpretations). She then set up the “World Religion Book Club”, where users with no background can learn the Quran with her. Within weeks, Rice donned a hijab and “reverted” to Islam.
She’s not alone. Rice is part of a fast-growing TikTok trend of Gen Z-ers discovering Quran and Islam and finding it expresses all the things they believe in. This includes progressive values of freedom, socialism, social solidarity and the opposition to a greedy and exploitative world. They also view it as an effective vehicle for incitement against the establishment and rebelling against everything previous generations had to offer. For Israelis, who know Islam through Middle Eastern spectacles, this invariably appears ridiculous: Last week, in a video that went viral, LGBT content creator Aurora Bird tells her viewers about the epiphany she experienced reading the Quran for the first time. So, what Quranic content has caused masses to fall in love with Islam? What has made this progressive generation ideal end users of a religion that we perceive and violent and repressive?
The American trend of joining Islam (in tandem with a converse trend of young people born into religion abandoning it) is nothing new. “We Israelis are exposed mainly to what goes on here in the Middle East, and we don’t see the broader picture of Islam very much“ explains Ben David, who also serves as a research associate at the Forum of Regional Thinking. “After the September 11th attacks, the Muslim message to the American public was toned down, Americanizing Islam, adapting it to life in a western secular country.”
Leading Muslim preachers began wearing western clothing and stressing American patriotism. They encouraged believers to become more involved in and contribute to the community, as an integral part of the imperatives of Islam. They highlighted the advantages of living in a country such as America – liberty , economic opportunities, freedom of religion etc. Some Muslim scholars even claimed that only in a place such as the United States, with religious freedom, democracy and a constitution, can Islam flourish.
How do you explain the discord between how we perceive Islam and how these young people understand Islam?
“Islam is far from monolithic. It’s easy to portray it as such in our part of the world. In places like Afghanistan where the Taliban are in charge, Islam oppresses women. Some Muslim women in Middle Eastern Arab society, do not have the same advantages as Muslim women in American or Western society. In the Middle East, I think Arab culture, rather than religion, plays a greater role. This is less noticeable in America because the melting pot means that the culture of the country of origin is less relevant to second and third generations. Their focus is more on Islam as a religion, and less on Arab culture. And most Muslims in America are not ethnically Arab.”
Is the violent side of Islam present or talked about in these interpretations?
“There are verses in the Quran than can be interpreted in an extremist way, like al-Qaida and ISIS have done. This is one of the challenges of modern Islam – how to dissociate ourselves from verses that apparently justify killing. Preachers in the United States try to interpret them in more moderate and pragmatic ways, distancing young people from these ideas. At the end of the day, it depends on context. 1000 years ago, when Islam conducted wars, it was about belonging. But today, mainly in western countries which have the rule of law and where we don’t have caliphates with the authority of declaring jihad, it’s less relevant.”
The trend of reading the Quran on social media almost always involves identifying with the Palestinians. Do modern Muslims also talk about Hamas’s activities?
“I’ve heard sheikhs and imams talking about what happened. I’m disappointed that they haven’t unequivocally condemned it, but they always say – and they’ve said in previous attacks – that the killing of civilians clearly contradicts Islam. The late leading cleric, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, passed a ruling justifying acts of terror against Israel. Most Muslim preachers in the United States and in the West don’t regard this ruling as relevant today, and they clearly state that terror attacks contradict the laws of Islam. In Israel, we’re more exposed to the Islam of Hamas and Hezbollah who, it’s important to remember, are marginal. Most American Muslims are hardly touched by acts of terror. In a survey conducted last decade, only one per cent supported suicide attacks against civilians, so I think the vast majority distance themselves from the doctrines of these organizations.”
But Jihad – Holy War – is an idea present in Islam
“True, but this applies to situations where you’re attacked - cases of self-defense. I heard a preacher in the United States say that he believes that violent jihad was applicable during the second world war to stop Hitler. They don’t say they’re pacifists, but they do stress context. I think preachers in the United States would take a rather dim view of any American wanting to become Muslim in light of Bin Laden’s letter. They have vehemently condemned Bin Laden’s actions. The last thing they want is a rotten apple spreading support of terror, ruining the impression they’re trying to create.”
“What lies behind the progressive enchantment with the Quran isn’t easy to understand, and definitely not through Israeli eyes. Young TikTok users offer rather hazy explanations, like ‘Connect to the heart’ and mentioning the Quranic commandment for Muslim men to ‘pay their wives’ bills and give them stipends’. They also point out that as a man cannot treat all his wives justly and equally, a man will have to make do with only a few wives. Some show up with some personal tragedy or another relating to their children, explaining that they’ve found comfort, empathy and tolerance in Islam – in sharp contrast to the spartan Christian environment in which they were raised. For Dr. Liraz Margalit, who researches behavioral science in the digital age and is the owner of a company specializing in decision making, the answer is not embedded in the actual content of Islam, but rather in what practicing it represents for them at the present time.
“This generation, and I know it sounds terrible, is concerned mainly with what’s on the surface” she explains. “They’re guided by what will put them on the map, justify their existence and allot them a sense of being alive. Many young progressives, even at Ivy League schools, come out to demonstrate about the conflict with Hamas. It turns out that lots of them can’t find Israel on a map, and don’t know what ‘From the river to the sea’ means. They claim that Israel discriminates, but they don’t know in what way. All we managed to get out of them was that there a different colored vehicle license plates. So, why is this discrimination? They mumble and go quiet. There’s a huge desire to be part of something big.”
When people took to the streets over the climate crisis during Greta Thunberg’s peak, or when they were against Trump, observers concluded that this generation is very ideological and value-oriented. But when you get down to the nitty-gritty and ask them what they know about the climate crisis, about carbon emissions, or about Trump’s political views – they have no idea.” She continues “I don’t mean to say they’re all superficial. They’re in search of meaning. It’s not the same. Going out to demonstrate and being part of something big, a tribe or a community is something they’re lacking.”
It’s a deadly combination of a thirst for belonging, a subconscious emotional drive, and their propensity for superficiality
“They don’t want to dig deep. The part of our brain known as the prefrontal cortex is the most flexible area. Other parts of the brain grow as they do, but this part is very much influenced by our surroundings. So, when you grow up with a mobile phone, browsing, acquiring your knowledge from click-bait, you actually lose your knowledge. People don’t read more than headlines and they don’t want to because this is how they’ve grown up and nothing else interests them. They’ll remember a few key words and repeat them – and these are this generation’s influencers. “
Does this superficiality allow them to bridge gaps like that between Islam’s treatment of LGBT and their generation’s support of LGBT?
“Yes. They see no contradiction. It works well for them because information at odds with what they currently believe, doesn’t go in. They don’t beat themselves up with facts like this. We’re really in a world in which the truth has absolutely no importance. What’s important is what serves my needs right now. They use up one emotional coupon and carry on. “
Dr. Liraz says the trend of reading the Quran is part of a process that’s been on social media for years. “The Quran is a kind of attention-seeking provocation. The same goes of the traditional dress and the Arabic words they incorporate into their videos. In the responses to these posts, you see women writing that women have no status in Islam and that, unlike in other religions, they have no place. Women have a certain place in Judaism, while in Islam, a woman is completely under the control of her father or some other man. There’s nothing rational about what’s going on. There’s an ongoing need to create meaning to being unique.”
So, it’s just a way of separating themselves from the previous generation? Being anti what’s going on now?
“Yes. It’s about rebelling against the establishment. They very much want to be different. They don’t want to follow the trodden path. It doesn’t matter against what or whom. This generation was raised with all opportunities open to them and it’s paralyzing because they need to choose something perfect. And as there is no such thing, they yearn for something certain and absolute. How can you possibly know who you are when everything is open to you? We conducted a study that showed that one of this generation’s main characteristics is its inability to commit to anything important. Undergraduate drop-out rate is at an all-time high. A relatively high percentage are not interested in committing to children or a family. Ironically, and I know I sound like I’m 200 years old, but having a framework and a clear path is very liberating. “
Despite taking place in the seventh century in a country far away the story of the Prophet Mohammed, whose divine revelations make up the Quran, strike a chord with American Gen Z-ers. A small community in Mecca gathered around him. In his prophecies, later recorded in surahs, the prophet stressed that he was saying nothing new, but was rather continuing the path of Abraham, whose main message was the belief in one God. At the time, when Muslims were a small and persecuted community in a city of idol worshipers, they focused on a message of peace, moderation, brotherhood and modesty while advocating charity, helping the poor and preserving the natural environment.
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מתפללים באל-אקצא
מתפללים באל-אקצא
Muslims pray in Jerusalem during the holy month of Ramadan
Things changed when the prophet and the community were expelled from Mecca and moved to Medina. Prof. Livnat Holtzman, expert in Islamic theology in the Department of Arabic at Bar Ilan University, explains that the Prophet Mohammed was expelled for his platform on a single god – an idea unacceptable to Arabs at the time.
“In Medina, Islam turns into a warring religion” she explains. “The community had to support itself. This took the form of acts of, murder, theft and pillage. At the time, Jews lived in Medina alongside Arabs with no defined religion. However, when the prophet arrived and took over the city, he drew up a contract with the city’s Arabs and tried to impose Islam on the Jews - initially by persuasion, and when that didn’t work, by force. There were three Jewish tribes living in the city. He expelled two and slaughtered the third. This is the message. If you don’t accept me by the word, you’ll accept me by the sword. “
What the Quran does have in some instances - and it’s used liberally - is egalitarian language

So, the progressive content drawing in young progressives, is the very early version of the Quran that later changed?
“The Quran itself is written in very difficult Arabic. We know this because even Mohammed’s friends asked him what he means by certain verses. So, when a young American talks about what he read in the Quaran, chances are he has a rather partial and nuanced picture. For the most part, the Quran is made up of very enigmatic surahs, only understood via hadiths. Basically, you can find whatever you want in there. You can’t read the Quran on its own, but only with accompanying interpretations – the books of hadiths.”
“Like any ancient text, you can find a great deal of beautiful things that might correspond to your own worldview. But the moment you go down this path, you’ll find yourself in Jihadism and fundamentalism – further ideologies that have nothing to do with the Quran. “
What about consumerism, feminism and socialism?
“The idea of being against the accumulation of wealth is deeply rooted in hadith. A saying, not taken from the Quran, reads: “He who drinks in a vessel (made) of gold or silver has, in fact, swallowed in his stomach fire from Hell.” A preacher might take this and say that it’s not just about silver and gold, but anything extravagant. I don’t see anyone in Saudi Arabi changing the gold handles in their bathrooms because of this, but this is the teaching.”
“As for feminism, we must remember that the Quran developed in a society that was largely, but not completely, patriarchal. Before the advent of Islam, some women had multiple husbands. Before Islam a strong woman with her own money, may have her husband go elsewhere and, in the meantime, a different man might enter the home - and that was fine. Polygamy. The Quran specifies that, for a man to treat his wives justly and equally, he may only have up to four wives (although the prophet himself had nine at the same time).
What the Quran does have in some instances - and it’s used liberally - is egalitarian language. This is truly unusual. It’s in neither the Old nor the New Testament. In the women’s surah, we have the Creation story, that’s very similar to that in Judaism. However, unlike in the Biblical account where the woman is created out of the man’s rib, in the Quran man and woman are created together. There’s another verse, actually in a surah justifying murdering those opposing you (from which Hamas’s slogans are taken), that says that believers should protect one another. But there’s another verse in the same surah that says that a man may beat a rebellious wife.”
One puzzling aspect is the development of LGBT groups such as Queers for Palestine. “Homosexuals and adulterous women are executed in Muslim countries” explains Prof. Holtzman, “but it’s not in the text of the Quran, but rather cultures that the Quran has reached kept up their ancient traditions. In no place in the Quran does it say that men having sex with other men is forbidden and punishable by death. It’s not written in the Quran – unlike drinking wine that is defined as a sin. A western queer person reading the Quran won’t find it, but later legal sages were very strict on the matter.”
There are three verses in the women’s sura that address promiscuity, lesbianism and homosexuality. When a woman commits an act of lesbianism and there are witnesses, the woman is locked up inside the home either until she dies or Allah shows her the path - i.e., she changes her ways, and then it’s okay. Two men committing such an act should be tortured and they must change their ways. If they correct their ways, they will be forgiven. “
“Most Muslim reverts from western countries, or anywhere in the world, have very little if any knowledge of the religion” concludes Dr. Ben David. “The motifs of identifying with the weak and social justice activity is now very prominent in Islam in the United States. There are Quranic verses calling to free slaves and feed family members, orphans and the poor, and Muslims instruct giving food to the poor, orphans and to prisoners of war, expecting no reward. “
“In Islam, there are sources supporting social justice along socialist lines. So, it should come as no surprise that these young American progressives, with their robust support for the Palestinians, will connect with ideas about identifying with the weak, opposing the establishment and the desire to make the world a more just place. The ‘conqueror and occupied’ dichotomy is very clear. This was very visible after the killing of George Floyd, when some of these progressives felt they should atone for the sin of the white treatment of Afro-Americans. “
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הפגנה נגד ישראל במהלך עצרת בגבעת הקפיטול  וושינגטון ארה"ב
הפגנה נגד ישראל במהלך עצרת בגבעת הקפיטול  וושינגטון ארה"ב
Pro Palestine demonstrators in Washington
( צילום: Jim Lo Scalzo / EPA)
Scholars researching Islam and psychological analysis of Gen-Z, conclude that progressives being drawn to Islam is a rebellion of sorts against Western establishment and culture. This generation has lost faith in the establishment. Unlike previous generations, to fill the vacuum, they must define their identity in a world with no borders. “They have no choice but to shape themselves on opposition”, explains Dr. Margalit. “This generation, raised in an unstable and somewhat lonely manner – with no tribe, no family and no values - is desperately searching for something to believe in. They need means to frame their identity.”
“Being white and privileged in America is the worst thing possible. These people are oppressors. From the moment the Arabs managed to brand themselves as victims, it’s a no-brainer – they’re on the side of the oppressed. The feeling of guilt exists because they were raised as part of the apparatus of the oppressor, and they must now repent for their sins. They want to belong to the right side of history, even if it includes justifying horrific acts of murder and terrorism.”
Abduction of Jewish babies in Yemen was justified by the intent to save him from being corrupted
And if rebelling against the establishment is so seductive for Generation Z, the story of Islam is a classic myth. “It’s the story of people who detach themselves from their own ethnic communities and form a new community. There is no greater act of rebellion than this“ explains Prof. Holtzman. “The message of Islam was that the two central religions had corrupted the monotheistic message and now Islam is returning directly to the correct religion. In hadith, they went further saying that every baby is born Muslim and if the baby has the misfortune to be born to Jewish or Christian parents, they will corrupt him. This is the how the abduction of Jewish babies in Yemen was justified - to save them from Judaism. You must be careful not to rebel against your new community, because the punishment for that is death.”
It’s strange, because most of the new fans of Islam talk about warmth, a forgiving god, a faith the very opposite of the rigidity of Christianity.
“True. There’s a great feeling of family and community in Islam. In the West, mainly in the United States, they don’t have the sense of family we have. At 18, you go off to college in a different state. Christianity is harsh and dogmatic. Then, someone gives you a big hug and invites you to an Iftar meal over Ramadan. Jews are very good at this too – but we don’t have those petro-dollars. This whole mechanism is funded by the Saudis who finance clubs and associations in the United States. Judaism isn’t a missionary religion. It’s very hard to convert to Judaism. It’s very easy to become a Muslim. “
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