The Muslim Youth Camp of California: An Inside Look at Young Muslims in the US
Founded in 1961, the Muslim Youth Camp of California was the nation’s first sleepaway camp of its kind, an early experiment that mixed Islamic studies and rustic Americana. With a history stretching from Presidents John F. Kennedy to Donald Trump, the camp has helped shape the identities of thousands of Muslim children, many of whom grew up to become civic leaders.
Not long ago, Muslim campers mostly wanted guidance for dealing with tensions between their all-American sensibilities and their foreign-born parents’ rules imported from “back home,” such as no attending sleepovers or going to prom. Today, the kids ask darker questions. Even the youngest campers understand that much of the country — perhaps including the President — refuses to see them as fellow Americans.
Like every US Muslim institution these days, the Muslim Youth Camp of California is in flux, with organizers fighting through a climate of fear to preserve a five-decade legacy of molding strong and unapologetic American Muslims.
Security measures introduced at the camp follow the deepening of anti-Muslim sentiment over time. In the 1990s, organizers recalled skinheads harassing the camp, leading to the formation of safety patrols that year. After the 9/11 attacks, camp leaders received an emailed threat vowing to “come after the children with knives,” so they stopped announcing the camp’s address. This year, they changed campgrounds for the first time in a decade, moving north from Southern California, partly as a precaution amid a spike in anti-Muslim hate crimes. There’s a relaxed atmosphere at the new site, but adults stay on alert, partially blocking the driveway and keeping an eye on the door at the main lodge.
The campers are mainly first- or second-generation children of immigrants from the Middle East and South Asia, who soak up a week of camaraderie with other Muslims before they go back to being “the only” among predominantly Christian and Jewish classmates. Organizers aim for a balance between protecting that happy refuge of s’mores and songs, and providing confessional space for the deep anxieties that run from the third-graders to the college students.
The theme of the camp changes each year, and reflects the main concerns of American Muslims in any given era. In the 1960s, there was a preoccupation with “Islam and modernity;” after 9/11, worries over extremism and surveillance. Last year’s theme was a verse from the Qur’an that reads, “With every hardship, there is ease” — a soothing reminder during a presidential race that brought relentless attacks on Islam.
Though all the activities are coed, there’s a “no-touching” rule, meaning boys and girls are discouraged from any physical contact, including handshakes and high-fives. Yet, even under the close supervision of counselors and relatives, romances have blossomed, resulting in several marriages over the years.