The Pain-Streaked Optimism of an American Muslim
By Rajia Hassib
A mosque in Bowling Green, Ohio. September, 2004.Credit Photograph by Thomas Dworzak/Magnum
My daughter, with her usual teen-age intensity, comes home and tells me of a boy at school who made an ISIS joke, and of another boy who teasingly accused a girl of being a terrorist for loosely wrapping a scarf around her head. My daughter is especially mortified for a Muslim friend, who was within earshot and who, unlike her, wears a headscarf. I assure her that it’s O.K., that her friend probably didn’t hear him and that, even if she did, she may not have been that affected by his words. I know the girl, a levelheaded sophomore at my daughter’s public high school, kind and calm. I hope my words are true because, even as I speak them, I struggle to maintain my composure.
None of this is particularly new. Life as a Muslim in post-9/11 America is often an exercise in resilience. But I thought I had developed thicker skin by now, if only through repeated exposure to grief. I’ve been following news of terrorist attacks for years, and my reaction has always been the same: pain for the victims, anger with the terrorists, and fear of the inevitable backlash. The repetitiveness of these emotions is exhausting. Every time I hear of a new terrorist attack—Paris, San Bernardino—I feel like I’ve been through all of this before, several times too often. It’s like being stuck in a time loop in Dante’s Inferno, where Virgil guides me, again and again, through the seventh circle of Hell, home to the violent and the blasphemous. With each lull in terrorist activity, I hope that I may graduate to the next two circles and, eventually, hopefully, to Purgatory, but then something else happens and we’re back to circle seven.
But my daughter’s story brings me a fresh pain, for this time the wave of Islamophobia has been caused not only by terrorist attacks but also by the rhetoric of almost every Republican Presidential candidate. Now American Muslims are being vilified by their fellow Americans, and have to face the added pain of a rejection that stings of betrayal. I hear Donald Trump speak and I mumble that this should not be happening. Not here, not to me, and certainly not to my kids, who were born and raised here.
I came to the U.S. when I was twenty-three. My husband and I, both Egyptians, landed at J.F.K. with one suitcase each and two sets of dreams: his was to become an American-trained doctor, and mine was to become a writer. I think back on both of us, in our twenties, armed with the infinite optimism only immigrants can embrace. Everything seemed so simple. This was America. Here, if you had a dream you worked for it, and more often than not it came true.
It would be years before I would learn the term for what we were pursuing: the American Dream. By then, I was in my thirties, sitting in a college class, back at school to abandon my B.A. in architecture, earned in Egypt, in favor of a B.A., and then an M.A., in English. In college, I read “The Great Gatsby” and “Death of a Salesman,” and I came home to my husband one night and told him all about the American Dream’s potential for disillusionment, about the perils of pursuing a mirage or, worse, something that promises happiness without realizing that this particular happiness was not what one needed or wanted.
My husband looked at me as if I were being blasphemous. “The American Dream is true,” he claimed. “Just look at us.”
By then, he had finished his medical training and started his own practice. I was well on my way to earning both of my degrees in English, and it was only a few years before my first novel would be published. Both of our dreams did, indeed, come true, even my audacious one of publishing a novel in English when my native language was Arabic. Of course we both believed in the limitless possibilities of the American Dream.
Of course, we are both Muslims. When Trump speaks of a national registry for Muslims, of closing down mosques, of banning Muslim travel to the U.S., what I hear is this: “You are an outsider. You will remain an outsider. You will die an outsider. You will never be one of us.”
At some point, while I was earning my degrees and writing my novel, I became the Other. And here I had believed that I was a fully integrated, good American citizen, rejoicing in my achievements, thankful, every day, for what this country has given me. My American heart bleeds.
My Muslim heart is equally pained. Growing up in a liberal, not particularly religious household, I read the Qur’an on my own for the first time when I was twelve. I fell in love with the beautiful, soothing language, and with a God who, above all, promises mercy: who proclaims that taking one life equals the murder of all humanity, and that saving one life equals the saving of all. I have since reread the Qur’an about once every year, and as I grew older I also fell in love with the idea of a deity who communicates with people through words, who sends his worshippers a text and leaves them free to interpret it.
Free will, as Milton’s “Paradise Lost” has taught me, can be tricky. It can allow evil to happen, but it also shows a tremendous degree of respect for the human intellect. We are deemed intelligent enough to think independently. In fact, we are encouraged to do so; a quick search reveals that the command “strive to understand” is repeated in various forms in the Qur’an at least twenty-four times, including, in some instances, in the exasperated form of “Have you no sense?” The Qur’an reveals a God who assumes that we have an intellect and urges us to use it. He obviously takes a risk, but, more important, He respects our capacity for thought.
So when Mike Huckabee declares that Muslims leave Friday prayer as “uncorked animals” and that Islam “promotes the most murderous mayhem on the planet,” I am deeply pained. This Islamophobic rhetoric stings not only in its insult to my religion but also in the humiliating tone it takes when speaking of me and my fellow Muslims. If God has condescended to respect my capacity for thought, I would assume that Republican Presidential candidates would not find themselves above offering me the same courtesy. Instead, so many of them claim or imply that any Muslim can be brainwashed into becoming a terrorist, willfully ignoring the fact that if all 1.6 billion of us were as violent as they claimed the world would have ended a long time ago, and we would all have been having these conversations as we awaited our turn to be sorted into our eternal abodes in Heaven or Hell. That kind of rhetoric is unfair.
And yet, I cannot help but remain hopeful. You may assume that I’ve resorted to hopefulness as a means to self-preservation, and you would probably be right. As an immigrant, I do need to believe that the one decision that set the course of my entire life was the correct one. As a parent, I cling to the hope that my kids will not have to face religious persecution and discrimination, because believing otherwise would be unbearable. As a Muslim, I can testify that surviving in the U.S. under the current political conditions requires almost as much optimism as believing in the American Dream does.
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