What's up, Jihad?" Shamez Hemani was waiting in line to try out the shotguns at the National Scout Jamboree earlier this month when, he says, a white kid behind him asked that question. Shamez, 14, and four fellow scouts--all sons of Pakistani immigrants and members of all-Muslim Troop 797 in Houston--stood frozen for a couple of seconds. "Then we asked him what he said," Shamez says. "We were like, 'Do you know what it means?' And he was like, 'No.' He apologized. After you talk to them, you realize that it's not intentional--just ignorance." Not that it makes such jibes easier to take. "But the pressure is something you have to live with," Shamez says, "if you want to change the way people think about you."
Most people probably think of the Boy Scouts of America as a Christian group--and not a particularly inclusive one, a reputation earned in part through its efforts to keep out gays, atheists and agnostics. But the Scouts insists it is open and diverse, especially in matters of faith. The Boy Scout oath includes a pledge to "do my best to do my duty to God and my country" but doesn't specify which god. There are Jewish, Hindu, Mormon and Baha'i scouts. There are Muslim scouts too, and for at least 20 years there have been all-Muslim troops in the U.S. Like boys in most other troops, Muslim scouts camp and plan badge-earning activities together, but over the past four years, those boys have also had to negotiate a different kind of obstacle course, one for which there is no official award. "We're just average American boys doing average American activities," says Troop 797 scout Rehman Muhammad, 13. "But after Sept. 11, we also have to be ambassadors of our faith."
Both Muslim scouts in non-Muslim troops and those in the growing number of troops sponsored by Islamic schools and mosques say negative comments from other kids about Islam are routine. "Someone called me Saddam yesterday," says Omar Abbasi, 13, of Totowa, N.J., the only Muslim in his troop. Salman Mukhi, 13, of Troop 797 says that on the bus to the jamboree, some non-Muslims "copied us when we prayed and were sort of jeering at us. It wasn't serious. We explained to them that they shouldn't do that. But sometimes it's just easier to hang out with each other."
There are now all-Muslim scout packs and troops in at least 22 states, involving more than 2,000 scouts and leaders. They can be found in big cities like Chicago and Atlanta, centers of the Arab-American community such as Dearborn, Mich., and smaller towns like Pottsville, Pa., and Rochester, Minn. Khadija Fuad started a troop last fall at the Islamic School of Louisville, Ky., even though her son Hussein also belongs to what she describes as a "very inclusive" troop at a Baptist church. "I wanted to get more people involved," she says of the new all-Muslim troop. "I thought we could concentrate on Islamic issues and do things our own way."
In addition to the merit badges that all scouts can earn in such areas as cooking and plumbing, Muslim scouts can pursue special emblems by studying Islamic history and theology and performing faith-related community service. When the National Islamic Committee on Scouting began awarding emblems about 15 years ago, it gave out two or three a year; now it averages 75 to 80.