Up until 9 years ago, we were largely invisible. Millions of Muslim-Americans had been quietly studying, working and living in communities across the US for decades and most of our fellow Americans paid marginal attention. Growing up in upstate New York, I might occasionally have been asked to give a presentation on Eid during school holiday specials, or classmates may have teased me about not eating the ham sandwiches in the school cafeteria, but for the most part, I went through the same struggles any kid does growing up, especially when navigating between two cultures which felt equally relevant to who I was and who I was becoming.
A Pew Center poll in 2007 confirmed that my experience in America was not unique. American Muslims are well-assimilated and in fact on average are better educated and have higher incomes than the average American. When I moved to France several years ago and witnessed the tensions surrounding Muslim populations there—tensions which are mirrored across Western Europe—I felt a sense of smug superiority. The American system, including birthright citizenship and a national identity based on ideals rather than ethnicity, had proven that immigrants and their children could participate in American life in a way that our fellow Muslims in Europe could only dream of. I had never considered myself as not American, or felt that there was a conflict between my American, Arab, Egyptian and Muslim identities. I never felt the need to choose allegiances, because in my mind all were compatible. Muslims Americans have widely expressed the same sentiments.
Our state of invisibility ended on September 11, 2001, when a small group of people claiming to act in the name of their version of Islam mounted a horrendous attack in the US, aiming to kill thousands and destroy symbols of American government and economic systems. Like all Americans, American Muslims were attacked that day as well, and suffered the same grief, shock, disbelief and anger that the rest of the country felt. And while some hate crimes did occur, most of us had our initial fears of backlash laid to rest due to the outpouring of support from our communities. But suddenly a new spotlight shone upon our religion, upon the policies and events related to some of our home countries, and upon us, who were no longer invisible. While many sought to understand—the “why do they hate us” soul-searching that was common in the months after the attack—others looked for someone to blame, and somewhere to place their very palpable and understandable fear and anger. And unfortunately, the administration at the time, despite their platitudes that “Islam is a religion of peace,” reinforced those feelings by cynically exploiting the basest fears of Americans, reminding us that we are constantly under color-coded threat, in order to advance their political interests and wage war on a country that had nothing to do with September 11.
Meanwhile, American Muslims were in a position we had never experienced before. The initial support we all experienced faded. Muslims-Americans who had traditionally voted Republican due to social and fiscal conservatism, began to turn left, politically, due to the Bush administration’s policies on Iraq, Guantanamo and the erosion of civil liberties which affected us disproportionately. Even so, we continued to live among our communities as we always had and the spotlight faded slightly over the years.
All that changed when a black man named Barack Hussein Obama was elected in 2008. A certain segment of American society began to feel mistrustful of someone they viewed as not like them. Fringe conspiracy theories questioning his birthplace and religion somehow found airtime in mainstream news outlets and a group of people aligned under the Tea Party banner protested that they wanted their country back, thus prompting the question, “from whom?” Because it is thankfully no longer acceptable to openly discriminate on the basis of race, the right’s rhetoric on Obama shifted to his “exoticism” so that white fears could focus on a more socially acceptable prejudice—that against Arabs and Muslims. A recent Pew center poll showed that a disturbing number of Americans feel “distrust” towards Muslims and that many believe that Obama is Muslim or “aren’t sure” what his religion is. Despite the fact that Obama’s policies are centrist, and have included scaling up the war in Afghanistan and continuing the Patriot Act, he has been viewed by this same segment as somehow more radically leftist than previous Democratic presidents. The resulting anger has found a convenient scapegoat in Muslims and Muslim-Americans
Suddenly, that harmonious co-existence of identities which had been the foundation of my American experience was being called into question by people with an agenda to perpetrate fear and mistrust for political ends. A coalition of right-wing bloggers and media personalities created fake controversies to rile up groups who are already feeling disaffected and angry over the economy. But in doing so, these same groups are calling into question the core values—not just freedom of speech and religion, but those which have made America uniquely able to absorb waves of immigration in a manner which has strengthened, not divided, the country. And for the first time, I am being asked to defend my religion and my place as an American, despite never having doubted this place before.
Perhaps this wave of anti-Muslim sentiment will pass once midterms are over. And perhaps debates over non-issues like an Islamic center in lower Manhattan or the rantings of a Florida pastor will open up a wider discussion on the role of religious diversity in American life. But for now, as a Muslim-American, I feel compelled to remind people that I am here, I am one of six million, and we are as committed to American values as the rest of our compatriots. And what better way to honor those values than to use these recent events as an opportunity for engagement rather than further division.