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Ramadan Reflection Day 21: The Need For Third Spaces

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Imam Khalid Latif is blogging his reflections during the month of Ramadan, featured daily on HuffPost Religion. For a complete record of his previous posts, click over to the Islamic Center at New York University or visit his author page, and to follow along with the rest of his reflections, sign up for an author e-mail alert above, visit his Facebook page or follow him on Twitter.

It's always nice to see good friends; the kind of people with whom, even if you haven't spoken for a long time, it doesn't feel strange when you do see each other again. You just pick up right where you left off. One of the highlights of my trip to Abu Dhabi was being able to spend time in the company of such people, namely my friends Ali Hashmi, Angela Migally, and Sahal Kango. And of course my wife Priya :)

As we get older, it becomes difficult to deal with life at times. I would argue that this happens because we begin to interact more with people who don't understand us, less with those that do, and begin to forget who we actually are. Sahal, Priya and I just came from eating halal hamburgers at Fuddruckers, and over dinner Sahal said a few profound things about how life changes substantially once you're in the workforce.

To understand why it's interesting that something profound came out of Sahal's mouth, please watch this Youtube clip taken by my friend Mohsin Memon of him from the first time he rode a roller coaster.

In case you can't tell, Sahal is the one saying, "Oh my God" over and over. Please also note that the videos that Youtube suggests which are similar are of small children and their first time on a roller coaster.

Sahal began to speak about the tough transition that he had post-undergrad in not only finding people who understood him in general, but in specific understood him in the way that he practices his faith. Despite working and living in a predominantly Muslim country, Sahal, like many others, began to find it hard to practice Islam after graduating from college. He spoke about how much more he valued the time he had as undergraduate, as there was so much more opportunity to do things for others and how now it was hard to find people to relate to. I would argue that it's not there is an absence of such individuals, but more the absence of spaces in which one can meet such individuals.

A lot of Muslims in the United States have a hard time finding a good group of friends as they get older. In the workplace, we feel the need to hide who we are as the prevalent understanding is that people won't accept us if we outwardly expressed our Islam. The conversations that take place in the professional world focused on drinking, sex, and making money begin to weigh us down, and we become heavy on the inside as many times we are the only Muslims in our office. We decide to not pray our prayers on time, to work on our holidays, and slowly begin to give up on many things that make us who we are. Things then get even more heavy when we realize that the local mosque is just as hard to fit into as the workplace environment. We are not able to forge relationships, let alone those with any depth, because no one really seems to be thinking about us or the demographic that we represent. The end result is this large, silent majority of Muslims who find themselves in a very lonely place, and the Muslim community finds itself deprived of the resources, talent, and presence each of those individuals can uniquely bring.

One summer ago, we were building out a program at our center for our alums and other professionals that live and work in the NYC area. We collected preliminary data for this program by interviewing Muslims aged 23 and older who live or work in New York City. Interviewees were asked a series of questions concerning their social, spiritual and professional growth. The interviewees were diverse in terms of their age, gender, ethnicity, culture and socioeconomic background. From an hour to upwards of three hours, we heard personal narrative after personal narrative from each individual. The only thing that seemed to be common with each one? They all felt alone at times and found it hard to meet people who were like-minded to them.

Many of our counterpart religious communities have programs specifically oriented towards young professionals, recent college grads, married couples and singles, and much more. Our mosques do not have such programs and it might be that they should, but it also could be that they shouldn't. A strong need exists for the creation of unique spaces, that are neither religious or secular, but somewhere in the middle. My friend Usama Canon has started such a space in California called the Ta'leef Collective, which is really remarkable.

Ta'leef Collective also strives to reengage the growing number of disenfranchised and often marginalized Muslim young adults.....Because we recognize the importance of these groups, and the intersection between them, Ta'leef Collective offers a model tailored specifically for them.

Here Usama explains why there is a need for these "Third Places"

REFLECTIONS with Usama Canon | "The Third Place" from Mustafa Davis on Vimeo.

A professional organization by itself won't fill the void that people are feeling. A regular space is needed for continuous growth, something that can't be fulfilled through monthly or bi-monthly meetings and gatherings. From the data that we collected last summer, our center launched what we call "IC Professionals." We started another program the year before for converts in our community called "IC Conver(t)sations" and this year we are hoping to build what we are calling the "IC Women's Initiative. Through these programs, and future ones to come, our hope is to provide an entry point into a community that has multiple entry points so that a diverse population seeking a space for spiritual, personal, and professional growth can do so without forgoing who they are. From this, we hope to engage a population that is largely unengaged, but is uniquely poised to help build the institutions that the Muslim community is in need of. Our free clinics, domestic violence shelters, advocacy groups, and much more can be shaped and nurtured by this silent majority. It is our collective loss that we are not engaging them.

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