By SAMI H. ELMANSOURY
As American Muslims in a post–9/11 world, it has become our vocation to respectfully broaden the American landscape not only by showing ways with which our faith betters our actions, but that we are also the best and most involved citizens. I am a strong believer in our nation and in the many profound things that the United States has stood for. I am also a Muslim who appreciates his faith, and I recognize and will openly profess that I find no contradiction between my being an American with strong national pride, and my being a Muslim. I also know that there exists a proud American Muslim legacy that, despite the calls of the naysayers, can never be expunged from our national history.
While in college, I was told by some that a sense of Muslim community identity, “Ummah,” can only be preserved if one puts aside one’s national pride and values. But I never felt this to be an Islamic imperative—quite the contrary. The frank truth is that the Muslims of China, with history dating back to the earliest days of Islam, never shied away from being part of a greater Chinese culture, nor did those of India, Egypt, or Russia dispel their respective cultural heritages. So why would American Muslims shy away from rooting themselves in the United States as Americans? I recognized then, as I do today, that my views are shaped differently, in part, because I recall a different story. I find pride and seek solace in the legacy of men like my grandfather, Mohamed, an immigrant to the United States. In 1969, at the height of the Cold War, he offered his mind for the benefit of his country, and proudly served as a NASA engineer for the Apollo 11 mission. My grandfather and my family sat in the rows just behind President Lyndon Johnson as they watched the rocket take off carrying Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins to the Moon.
With a radiant smile, my grandfather frequently shows me his Apollo 11 certificate, signed by NASA’s director, as he reminds me of our journey and of what he left behind so that we may have the opportunity as Americans to live in greater comfort and human dignity in the most powerful country on Earth. My grandfather and his wife of nearly sixty years, my grandmother Madiha, both Muslims, are Americans, and continue to hold great pride in their legacy and in their adopted homeland. I realize that it is quintessentially American stories like theirs—stories of immigrant sacrifice followed by national contribution—that far too often go untold to American Muslim youth and to the public at large. I remind my Muslim coreligionists that individuals like my grandfather Mohamed, while being Muslim, are also deeply American at their core.
Yet the same fearmongering that today seeks to debase my grandfather Mohamed’s name and strip away his legacy has also attacked many American Muslim youth, causing them to ask: “Am I American enough, and what does that mean?” The fear and disconnect that ensue have caused many of them to repel an American identity. Too often I find myself having to stand up to Muslim youth and repeat: “Be proud, you have a legacy here.” And yet, I recognize that this sense of alienation admittedly plaguing many American Muslim youth in the present does not emerge from some pseudo–inherent evil within them or their faith practice—as fearmongering pundits would have one believe—but rather from a lack of connection to or rootedness in their country and its declared values, combined with potently adverse messaging pulling them away.
It is crucial to acknowledge that such adverse messaging, leading to either the creation or fostering of bigoted conditions within local American communities or within the halls of Congress, has an absolute role to play in the alienation process that can lead to social rejection and extremism. There is never an excuse for collective punishment of civilians for social grievances, whether due to disempowerment, government policy, or otherwise, and it is a common, unified mission for all people of reason to be unrelenting in the complex battle against the forces of extremism. Our American society at large simply cannot wish away American Muslim communities. They exist, they will continue to exist and to contribute positively to our fabric—and they are entitled to the same rights. We are not compelled, as Americans, to earn our rights. They are our rights, period.
But unfortunately, the disturbing use of faith–based and other ideological or violent supremacist extremism that can certainly manifest itself within any group of people, and in any country or culture, is undoubtedly being propagated by an increasingly vocal and dangerous group of Muslims today. Groups such as Daesh, al–Qaeda, Boko Haram, al–Shabaab, and a plethora of others, including nonviolent extremists, have posed a repeated ideological danger to coexistence and to the basic protection of human worth within Muslim–majority and minority communities. But these groups are not representative of my beliefs, and they are likely not representative of most others. It is therefore in the best interest of the Muslim community to unapologetically ramp up its efforts to quell the scourge of global extremism that veritably exacerbates the lingering climate of mistrust within society at large, regardless of sideline discussions on cause and blame.
American Muslims can stake their own claim to their new homeland and simultaneously humanize their coreligionists abroad by actively participating in political leadership, in entrepreneurship, and in various constructive industries, by producing legislation or scientific achievements that benefit society at large and artistic works that are worthy of the Oscars and Grammys. Whether from mosque pulpits in California or from living rooms in Michigan, American Muslim communities must encourage an acceleration of this shift to noninsular, positive, and above all, sincere high-profile participation and contribution. I have personally known the desire among Muslim families for understanding and mutual human dignity for themselves and for others, while in the broader community around them, I have seen the misunderstanding of many mainstream Muslim beliefs and traditions. Regardless of this challenge, I have witnessed the dominant nature of Muslim hospitality, humility, and graciousness toward others. To me, this very nature will always overshadow the extremist voice, regardless of how prevalent the latter may be in the media, or due to the brutality committed by a vocal few who adversely influence and impact Muslim communities and their neighbors, and who falsely claim to speak for Islam and Muslims.Today, I reflect upon the paradigm that has been created for American Muslims: it is often assumed that to be a practicing Muslim is inherently un–American. Yet my frustration with this absurd challenge drives me to be even more involved in my community, to present to both my neighbors and to my coreligionists the blatant fact that my faith values, when interpreted as such, neither contradict my sincere American pride nor my American culture. Because unlike many who have become radically absorbed into the misleading notion that being both American and a patriot can only be derived from the fear of what is different, my patriotism does not come from politics or apologies—it comes from our Sputnik moments. It is because of stories like that of my grandfather and my parents that I forbid myself to allow ignorance and prejudice to stifle my patriotism, to prevent me from cheering my country on when it is right or speaking up when it is wrong, or to offer me a sense of alienation in the only nation that I call home.
It is upon every American Muslim young person to discover or to forge their own legacy, and to wear that narrative with pride. Ask questions. Document your story—whether it involves tragedy or hope. Draw upon your talents. Connect with your countrymen. And love, appreciate, and give back to your greater American community. As for me, as just one American who also happens to be Muslim, I will work with every breath to have a profound, significant, and remarkably positive impact on my country and on my world, and to keep my family’s proud legacy alive. I will boldly defy those who seek to alienate me because of my faith, for neither fearmongers nor coreligionists can erase a story that stays alive through example. Neither can stifle the opportunity to find power and protection in this Constitution, one of the most incredible and ever-changing documents written by Man, for the ultimate uplifting of human worth and freedom. And neither can take away the distinguished difference that any young American can make, in the most diverse nationon Earth, as they build upon the courage that brought their families and their ancestors here, and as they discover the legacy that made them American.
I challenge my fellow Muslims to continue to rise up against those who incessantly defame us as they act in the name of our religion. To acknowledge that each individual, in spite of varying backgrounds, has a role to play at the very grass roots, and that organizations must step up and do more to usher in a new era in which Islam, as is so often said, is equated with justice and with peace in the global psyche. To ask, at long last, even the most controversial questions on the role of faith, progress, and the future. To be a people who help to alter the status quo with their hands, not just with their hearts, so that we may tell our children that we sought with our best efforts to defend and to advance global human dignity. While the task seems daunting for any one individual, the collective is more powerful than any force of depravity.
And I simultaneously challenge the naysayers among my countrymen to recognize that we are still one nation, and that no troublesome force can separate us from each other’s shared destiny.
To move forward together—we will have to.