Career Choices of American Muslims
“So, what did you study?” a family acquaintance inquires.
“I finished my bachelors in psychology and masters in social work. I’m a social worker now,” I reply.
“Oh,” the woman responds. A look of sheer disappointment falls across her face. “Why didn’t you become a doctor? You’re smart enough to become a doctor!”
Those of us who have chosen “non-traditional” careers – basically any career outside of medicine, engineering, and more recently business and law – can probably recall similar encounters. Many of the elders in our community continue to propagate the idea of a career hierarchy; medicine is considered the ultimate ideal, followed by engineering, law, and then business. While these are noble professions, they are by no means the only ones available to our community. We are a people of diversity; God created and endowed each person with unique characteristics, talents, and skills to be utilized in varying professional fields.
Unfortunately, many parents continue to espouse the idea that certain careers are best, sometimes forcing their children to major in subjects they have no interest in or are beyond their capabilities. Most parents are well intentioned, hoping to ensure a positive future for their children. They may have faced many hardships and want a better life for their offspring. Some parents are living their dreams through their children, as they may not had the chance to complete their own education. Still, there are parents who insist on specific professions solely for prestige among their social circle. Regardless of the reason, when children are pressured into certain careers, the consequences can be detrimental to their relationship with their families, as well as their self-confidence. Pressure may lead to resentment, depression, shame, and low self-esteem.
In my counseling experience, I have worked with students who were struggling to reconcile their parents’ expectations with their personal career goals. Some of those students were torn between obeying and pleasing their parents and wanting a satisfying career. I remember one student in particular, who was depressed because she continuously failed her science courses. She was not the least interested in the subject matter, but she faced a lot of pressure from her family to become a doctor.
In contrast, students who pursue a profession of their choice are more likely to excel in their work. When their careers match their interests, they will reap the emotional rewards and be better contributors to society. Our youth should be encouraged to consider from the plethora of professional fields available.
A study conducted by Cornell University in 2002 found that American Muslims were underrepresented in law, journalism, and entertainment, while they tended to pursue careers in medicine and engineering. We know that there is a huge career disparity in our community. The good news is that after 9/11, there has been an increase in the number of students choosing alternative career paths. Muslims have learned the hard way how important it is to change the negative perception of our community and play a more active role in society. We must be more involved in the political and social issues impacting the world today. It is an obligation in our faith to serve our communities and be of benefit to the societies we live in. The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) came as a mercy to all of humanity. If we restrict ourselves to certain occupations, we are doing a disservice to the human race.
Think for a moment about the array of professions it takes to build a community. We need educators, entrepreneurs, artists, social workers, psychologists, academics, chaplains, politicians, journalists, researchers, attorneys, and many more.
If you had a mental health problem, who would you talk to? How will our non-profit organizations and institutions function without managing directors? Who will advocate on behalf of Muslims? Who will research American Muslim issues? All of these careers serve our communities and are equal in the eyes of Allah. As long as career choices are within the bounds of Islam and are pursued with the intention to serve Allah and His creation, they will be rewarded. A career today is much more than just a financial pursuit; it is a lifestyle and an opportunity to gain entry into paradise. Having the ability to choose how best to serve others and gain the reward of Allah is invaluable.
Amal Killawi is a clinical social worker who provides counseling and conducts research.
Reprinted from The CommUnity Journal.