Young people walked away from a popular video game console and large flat screen TV.
Similarly, a nearby ping-pong table gained little of their attention.
Even the enticing aroma of fresh-baked pizza on a Friday night did not distract the group of youth from listening intently to Abdur-Rahman Taleb as he discussed Islamic teachings on love.
Taleb, the Islamic Society of Greater Oklahoma City's new youth director, said while activities like ping-pong and video games are fun aspects of the small-group gatherings he leads, Islamic studies will always be the key ingredient.
“I'm responsible for developing young people through programs that will nurture every aspect of their lives so that they will become members of society who strive for God consciousness, social justice and who will convey Islam with utmost clarity,” Taleb said.
Several local Muslim leaders said Taleb's hiring is a sign of the times: the need for the youth director arose because of the growing metro Muslim population.
“This is the final brick in building the community,” Adam Soltani, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, Oklahoma chapter, said, noting that the Islamic Society now has an expanded mosque and a school complex. “The youth are the future and I think that's for any community — they want to hand the community over to young people at some point.”
Imad Enchassi, the Islamic Society's imam and president, shared similar sentiments.
“Our community in Oklahoma City is growing, the American Muslim community is growing and so are the challenges of raising well-balanced citizens in our nation,” Enchassi said.
Focusing on youths
Taleb, 24, said he was born and raised in Richardson, Texas. He said growing up he took part in MAS Youth, the Muslim American Society's thriving youth program that attracted Muslims from the large Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. Taleb said much of the programming he is developing for Oklahoma City area youths is a smaller-scale version of The Dallas area programs he participated in. He said he also visited a youth director in San Diego, Calif., to get other ideas for programs and activities.
Taleb said Enchassi initially asked him to consider the youth director post in Oklahoma City. He said he visited Oklahoma City in September 2012 and presented an Islamic sermon first at the society's Islamic school called Mercy School, 14001 N Harvey, and later at the society's mosque, 3815 N St. Clair. He said he was hired shortly afterward and his official start date was Nov. 1.
Taleb said he is responsible for an after-school youth program at Mercy School which includes tutoring and homework help as well as recreational activities like foosball, video games and basketball in the new youth center at the school complex. Taleb said another program gaining in popularity is Friday Night Lights, a weekly youth program that has been attracting between 40 and 50 young people each week.
On most Saturdays, Taleb offers Teen Talk, an interactive group discussion about relevant issues. In addition to the discussions, he said he and young adult volunteers have taken the youths on social outings to a local trampoline center, bowling and popular restaurants. The group held a Super Bowl watch party a few weeks ago and Oklahoma City Thunder watch parties are ongoing. Taleb said he also is leading the youth to participate in ongoing community service projects with the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma, Habitat for Humanity and other agencies.
He said an important part of the Friday and Saturday night gatherings is Halaqa, a traditional religious study circle or gathering.
Soltani said the priority for youth-oriented Halaqa will help ensure that participating young Muslims develop a strong identity in their Muslim faith. He said he grew up in Kansas in an interfaith family in which his father was Muslim and his mother was Roman Catholic. He said he lacked a Muslim identity and went through a lengthy process to try to discover who he was “and essentially not get lost in society.”
“That's one thing that happens to Muslim kids — some get lost because they have lots of challenges,” Soltani said. “Now they can bond with kids who are similar to them. They will learn how they can be a better Muslim, a better Oklahoman and a better American.”
Community's journey evolves
Enchassi said the evolution of the Islamic Society's youth program can be likened to a “journey” that started in the metro area several decades ago. He said the families that formed the Islamic Society decided to offer a youth program they called Sunday school at the mosque. When more Muslim families began participating in mosque activities, the society leaders started the Mercy School, he said.
Enchassi said the next step was the addition of a youth center which was completed at the end of 2012. He said the youth center was built to address the youths' recreational needs and to house the youth programs now being led by Taleb.
He said the youth director is meeting the Islamic Society's expectations with his interfaith bridge building efforts and the way he has quickly become respected and loved by youths who participate in various activities.
“It's a mindset and a way of life,” Enchassi said.
“We're trying to positively integrate our youth within the American society.”