Challenges facing Muslim families in North America
By Wahida Chishti Valiante

The challenges and moral dilemmas facing Muslim families requires an understanding of the shifts in ideological, social, religious and political forces that are shaping the structure and function of families in North America. Families are not static or monolithic; each family is unique, yet it is a 'microcosm' of the society at large and is reflective of religious, social and political values. The challenge facing the Muslim family is to not only maintain its Islamic identity, but to initiate change in the social and political spheres in light of the principles of the noble Qur'an.

To achieve these goals requires active participation of Muslims in the political, social, economic and religious aspects of society. Failing this, Muslims will either be segregated or assimilated. Both processes are undesirable since they lead to the loss of self-identity, which is built on religious and social values acquired from one's family and strengthened through constant interaction with the larger society.

Over the past three decades, the North American society has undergone a rapid social, political and religious transformation, resulting in high divorce rates, separation, single parent families and common-law relationships. There are same sex couples, childless couples, and increasing numbers of women are choosing to work outside the house.

These changes are reflected in the parameters of the society's functioning on the psychological and emotional planes. The 'Rate of depression has been doubling in some industrial countries roughly every ten years. Suicide is the third most common cause of death among young adults in North America, after car wrecks and homicides. Fifteen percent of Americans have had a clinical anxiety disorder. And, pathological, even murderous alienation is a hall mark of our time,' reported Time magazine on August 28, 1995 (p.38).

The paucity of research on the health of Muslim families makes it difficult to provide specific statistical evidence. However data collected from different sources including this writer's personal practice as a family counsellor over the last 18 years, indicates that Muslim families are also experiencing social and personal problems like the rest of the North American society. There is marked increase in divorce rates, separation, domestic violence, child abuse, elder abuse, intergenerational conflict, and teenage pregnancies.

The tendency among young married couples is to opt for separation and divorce, rather than work through differences and disagreements when there is tension or conflict in marriage. Barring violence or psychological abuse in the family, seeking solutions through negotiations is the Islamic norm. Marriage requires collaboration, commitment, and above all a sense of responsibility towards oneself, one's partner, family, and the society.

In addition, a significant number of young Muslims are marrying outside the community. One of the major hurdles for young Muslims to find someone to marry from within the diverse Muslim community is the question of ethnicity and culture. Cultural and racial diversity instead of being a positive factor, as the Qur'an tells us (49:13), is becoming a dividing factor, since every Muslim group wants to preserve its own ethnic and culture purity. This limits the pool of young-- male and female-- to chose from.

Also, increasing numbers of young Muslim parents, both the father and the mother, are choosing to work outside the house, primarily for economic reasons, and are relegating the care and nurturing of their children to daycare centers and elderly parents. Both arrangements are inherently insufficient because daycare by its very nature lacks individualized emotional, spiritual, and intellectual care the child needs. Also, the social environment of daycare is predisposed to producing conformity through the process of socialization and leaves very little room for developing an independent religious or social identity.

Although more equipped to provide emotional, spiritual and nurturing environment, grandparents, too, lack the physical vigor to cope with the demands of growing children. In numerous instances, language is also a barrier putting both under undue stress.

The above social trends in Muslim families point to various degrees of assimilation, or adaptation to existing societal values. This has serious implications for the future of the Muslim family. In Islam, family is central to creating a stable society and ultimately civilization itself. Therefore, if family as a social system fails to provide sound religious and social values for the total physical and psychological growth of a human being, then society will suffer greatly as is evident from the malaise afflicting western society.

North America has made much progress in science, technology, psychology, medicine, human sciences, as well as in the standard of living. It insists its social, political, and economic values are the only viable option to achieve human equality, financial prosperity, and peace and justice. Yet it finds it exceedingly difficult to provide its own citizens the peace of mind and a healthy social environment in which parents can raise their children without the fear of random violence in schools, homes or in the streets.

According to social scientists, the American society is becoming increasingly violent, aggressive, self destructive, narcissistic and uncaring towards those who are less fortunate, including members of the immediate family.

The Qur'an, which Allah says was revealed to the Prophet, upon whom be peace 'in order that you might lead mankind out of the depth of darkness into light,' (15:1), provides numerous examples of what happens to nations, peoples and individuals who exceed the limits prescribed by Allah. 'Have they not travelled in the earth and seen how evil was the end of those who were before them? And they were stronger than they in power' (35:34).

The recent sexual scandal of US president Bill Clinton is reflective of the moral decay of the American society, yet like Clinton, America is arrogant, consumed by its power and glory. It has unleashed misery and despair in many parts of the world through its policies. Muslims make up a sizable minority in North America so the question is: should they not be concerned about the state of the family and society, and the rest of humanity; or they feel they have no responsibility beyond themselves?

Malek Bennabi in his book, Islam in History and Society, says that corruption and colonization of people can only take place when human beings are in a state of moral and psychological decay. 'Moral paralysis results in intellectual paralysis: when one ceases to perfect oneself morally, one also ceases to modify the conditions of one's life and is reinforced by moral, social and political paralysis.'

Unfortunately, Muslims in North America and the Ummah in general seem to fit Bennabi's description, since their apathy and inactivity indicates that they may be suffering from political, social and moral paralyses. It is easy to blame others for the present predicament of Muslims worldwide, but to hold others responsible for ones own weaknesses and shortcomings contradicts the Qur'anic injunction of personal responsibility. 'God does not change the condition of a people until they change that which is in their souls' (13:11).

If Muslim families are to survive the current social and structural changes in North America, they must actively initiate social changes in the society in which they live. Humanity is told that as a vicegerent of Allah (2:30), it is under moral obligation to reform its own thinking and behaviour in order to create a just and morally balanced self and society (3:110).

The challenge in the next millennium for Muslim families is not from the external environment; it is from within. Islam has a lot to offer to the ongoing debate on the future and status of the family. The practical implications of the answers found in the Qur'an for those who advocate stability of the family and society are immense.

Wahida Chishti Valiante is a psychotherapist, specializing in Family counselling. She has made numerous presentations on treatment of families from an Islamic perspective to academic institutions and professionals both in Canada and the US.

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