MIDWOOD – In a country where the president spews anti-Muslim rhetoric, and in a world where many Muslim-majority countries did not join the United Nations’ call to end the mass detention of Uighur Muslims in China, a group called Young Muslims is forming bonds of brotherhood and working to unite everyone together despite it all.
Young Muslims (YM) is a youth organization that started in the early 90s. There are two wings: one for men and one for women, further divided into local groups called NeighborNets. A NeighborNet is comprised of many young men who are looking to learn Islamic principles and act upon them. The main concept, however, is – brotherhood.
In Brooklyn, YM meets inside Masjid Quba. The Mosque, located at 1323 Foster Avenue, sits between a 99 Cents and Grocery/Halal Meat shop. The Brooklyn NeighborNet has about 55 young men from ages 13 to 25. They all stay connected through a group chat, and every Saturday at 3:30 p.m. they meet at the Mosque for an hour for a halaqah (a gathering studying Islam). Afterward, they hang out. It’s as simple as that.
Ahmad Sleiman, 20, is the Brooklyn NeighborNet’s coordinator. His friends call him Suli. He’s in his last year at Brooklyn College and is majoring in Finance. On this particular day, he was rocking a Young Muslims shirt and a necklace with a Palestine pendant. Along with him, sat his 18-year-old friend Muhammad Zeb. Zeb is an incoming freshman at Brooklyn College and sat in a baseball hat.
Sleiman got involved with YM about two years ago. But it wasn’t until last year that he really became passionate about the group.
“I went to an Islamic school. I know that a lot of people don’t have that privilege. They don’t have that Islamic influence on a daily basis,” Sleiman said. “So I was like, let me try to give back a bit. Let me try to inform them of things that I might know and they might not.”
“Allah is going to ask me, ‘What did you do with your blessings as a person? How did you spread Islam?'” he said. “I’m going to have to answer Him. At least I did YM. That’s the bare minimum for me; trying to spread the blessings I’ve had and helping others.”
As the NeighborNet coordinator, Sleiman’s role consists of structuring the program. Every Saturday, he’ll get together with his team to decide on a topic to discuss. He’d then structure out the activities they’d do on that day. On a bigger scale, he interacts with other coordinators to coordinate activities and events. It’s all about building bonds, he said.
Zeb plays an advisory role. He became a part of YM about a year ago. He, along with a few other young men, give Sleiman different perspectives on how to interact with the other guys. For Zeb, being a part of YM was one of his greatest decisions.
“It’s a sense of belonging for me,” he said. “I get to learn a lot of things about Islam from YM. It’s improving me as a person and as a Muslim.”
Zeb doesn’t have a brother. But now, he feels like he has many.
“There are people here I can look up to. There are people that help me out with my resume, my schoolwork, and if I need life help,” he said. “For younger people, if they need help, I can guide them. Brotherhood, for me, is a special bond I never had growing up. Essentially YM gave me that.”
Sleiman stressed the point that YM is not a clique. It’s just a group of young men with different perspectives and personalities uniting together for a greater cause. For him, being a Muslim is all about uniting people.
“We often complain about our countries back home. We talk about why they don’t unite. For example, when Muslim-majority countries were silent in the UN when asked to help the Muslims in China,” he said. “If we’re not uniting among ourselves at a local level, what gives us the right to complain about others on a global level?”
“The more people we unite, the stronger that we are,” he said.
Zeb agrees. To him, being a Muslim is “constantly improving yourself for the sake of Allah.”
“It’s about getting that knowledge, whether it’s from the Sunnah (the way of the Prophet) or from the Quran, and implementing it and passing that on,” he said. “When you implement it, it not only improves you as a person, but it influences those around you.”
Zeb believes being a Muslim is a constant battle with fighting off personal desires and improving yourself. He said it’s harder doing that in this country.
“I feel like if it wasn’t for YM, I wouldn’t be the person I am today,” he said.
Sleiman stressed the point that all Muslims are different. They are people with all sorts of different personalities and ways of thinking– and that is what makes YM so great, he said.
“YM is that bridge. When you meet different Muslims, not only do you better yourself, but you understand where they are coming from,” Sleiman said. “And when you understand where they are coming from, you know what to bond on.”
Zeb agreed with his friend and said YM caters to all the different kinds of Muslims.
“We want guys to feel a part of something and open about themselves and express themselves as much as they want,” he said. “YM does that, and we’re constantly improving on doing that.”
The core members of YM are also constantly working on improving their own knowledge. This Saturday, YM will not be meeting. The core team will be having an extensive study circle where a teacher will be teaching them about Islam– things they might not have known.
“Before we help others out, we make sure we’re helping ourselves out,” Sleiman said. “That way, we could pass down the knowledge.”
How does YM differ from other Islamic groups?
Sleiman: “What I’ve noticed in Islamic circles is that it’s kind of a clique. People just try to hang out with each other and they ignore others. That’s something I really want to destroy at YM.”
Zeb: “It’s not like Sunday school where you’re paying for it, you come in, and you leave. It’s not like a contract you have to sign and you have to be there. It’s not like we’re pressuring you. We value those who want to be a part of it.”
In March, a white supremacist shot and murdered 49 Muslims inside two mosques in New Zealand. The massacre took place during Jummah, a holy day for Muslims. The day after, the halaqah at Masjid Quba was emotional, Sleiman said.
“What we really stressed at YM was that even if Muslims were killed, Allah is the best of planners,” Sleiman said. “It was very tragic and we want to emphasize self-defense and make sure they take prayers seriously. Like when the imam is telling you to pray as if it is your last prayer.”
Though there was fear among Muslims over the world after the massacre, YM stayed put and did not back down.
“If you’re doing it for the sake of Allah, why wouldn’t you continue doing it?” Zeb said. “It’s like in a boxing ring. No matter how many times you fall down, you still have to get up and fight. As a Muslim, that translates to being a better person and a stronger Muslim.”
Sleiman believes that if they stopped YM after the attack, then he would consider himself and other YM leaders to be hypocrites.
“If we’re telling these guys on a daily basis to be proud to be a Muslim and don’t succumb to the pressure of society, and then we as YM succumb to the pressure, that’s essentially us being hypocrites,” he said. “By overcoming the pressure of society and those that try to put us down on a daily basis, we’re not only talking the talk, but we’re walking the walk.”
Both Zeb and Sleiman hope there can be other NeighborNets in Brooklyn as well. For example, they’d like to see one in Bay Ridge. They also plan on opening their own youth center one day. Sleiman believes that can “help unify the Muslim youth community not only in Brooklyn but in New York.”
Currently, the young leaders at YM want their members to take part in stuff happening around the community. For example, they volunteered at the Borough Hall iftar and the Gaza 5k run in Prospect Park.
“It’s not just so much as attending halaqah and chilling with your guys. It’s also about being a vital part of your community,” Sleiman said. “If non-Muslims see Muslims participating in these types of things, if they have a negative perception of Muslims, it might change through action.”
Zeb stressed the idea that YM is more than just a community group. He said, “We’re trying to constantly improve ourselves. We just want to bring the Muslim youth together.”
Sleiman agreed and said unity is what it is all about– whether it’s between Muslims and non-Muslims or between Muslims and other Muslims.
“We are imperfect Muslim individuals that are aware we are imperfect and despite that imperfectness, we’re making an effort to help our community,” he said, pausing to ask if that made sense. “We’re just trying to help other imperfect individuals without judging each other.”