By Mohammad Salama
In the wake of the Muslim Ban, I’ve struggled to find words adequate enough to express my dismay as a long-term resident of the US and someone of the Muslim faith whose intentions towards my chosen home are far from sinister. It is not that Muslims haven’t had their challenges in the United States even before 9/11. The uphill struggle Muslims and other minority groups continue to face in this country appears endless. Imagine having to go to work knowing that you must challenge or prove wrong misconceptions that daily tweets from the president’s office and a steady drip of Islamophobia from Fox News are helping to crystallise in the American population.
“We don’t want them here,” said the President decisively after signing the Ban. I thought the vapid ideology of “us vs them” and the Machiavellian clash of civilisations thesis of the Bush era, pitting Christianity or Europe against Islam, had long been exposed and defeated. I thought that after an incalculable loss of innocent lives as a result of belligerent policies we are heeding the lesson and on a sound track towards pluralism and inclusivity. I thought we agreed that invading Iraq had been a mistake, that accusing all Muslims of terrorism because of a wanted fugitive trained by the CIA to fight the Russians in the Cold War was the worst and most tragic generalisation in recent history.
The tidal wave of hate and racism
How does a Muslim living in the USA today feel about the Muslim Ban and President’s tweets? Defeated? Depressed? Indignant? Resigned? Or optimistic that the resistance is going to make some headway in pushing back against this tidal wave of hate? I say ‘hate’ because I cannot find any other explanation for the unprovoked suspension of seven Muslim countries. The hate part is what kept agonising me since I arrived here. It is almost as if there is an inherent tendency or a recessive autoimmune gene that makes America hate. Take a look at the last century: hate has managed to live with and through America’s presidential history from Theodore Roosevelt (1901-1908) to Donald Trump (2017-), from the Segregation Era (1900-1939) to anti-Semitism, from World War II to the horrific internment of Japanese-Americans, from the constant persecution of Black Americans to the Cold War, from the hatred of Russia and everything Russian to the hatred of Muslims. Hate is a tenacious virus that never dies but always metamorphoses and replicates itself as it finds new hosts to feed on. Hate is the enemy of America.
Don’t get me wrong. Hate is the enemy of our species. Racism for instance, is a human disease that knows no borders and can be found anywhere on earth. It is also the most difficult act of wickedness to acknowledge. Despite all this, the promise of living in a democratic society has rekindled in me the desire to persevere. My hope in democracy has never dwindled. I survived the Bush years by finding consolation in Reinhold Niebuhr’s beautiful words: “man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.” When I made the choice to immigrate and make America home, I left behind a hopeless despotic regime in a developing country and sought solace in a democratic system that does not know or understand hate or malice. But I also left behind my ailing parents—now deceased—my family, my familiar Arabic tongue, my childhood memories, my favourite beach and the feeling that I am not a foreigner. All in all, a rift that cannot really heal but that I managed to endure. These feelings were compounded by a creeping sense that someone will always reject me in my new home: a stare on the bus or at a restaurant, a joke in the workplace corridor. Regardless, I have learned to ignore and move on because, despite it all, the pleasure of the promise is much more rewarding than the dissatisfaction of the present.
The American Dream is for immigrants too
Hope has been and continues to be the principle that governs my life. When you have children, you see things differently: this is not about inheriting the earth from your fathers, but about borrowing it from your children. I hope that they will be alright, that they won’t have to change their last names to guarantee equal opportunities in education and work, that they will continue to live in a system that rejects hate and that will be kind and fair to all of them, that they will continue to live in a land where the rule of the people by the people and for the people governs through direct voting and electoral representatives. As someone who grew up and lived under shameless tyranny, the mere prospect of moving to America was my American Dream, just being here and living in a society that honours hard work and upholds the rule of law was its own reward.
I was all alone when I arrived at San Francisco Airport to resume my job after being barred from entry and forced to spend 90 days in Canada because of my religion back in 2006. I am not alone now. Last week, there were close to 2,000 people at SFO protesting the ban. People from all walks of life in the Bay Area gathered to support their Muslim fellow citizens, refugees, immigrants, students visa workers, who were detained and unable to enter the country. Protesters did not leave until the last detained Muslim person was released. There were public figures in the audience alongside youths and children. The energy was beautiful and contagious. People brought food and fruits and water for everyone to share. This peaceful gathering represented what is beautiful and humane about American democracy. The chants were mesmerising as people came together and formed one big heart. This is the spirit of America. I felt hopeful, grateful, and proud of everyone chanting beside me whether they were Jews, Christians, Muslims, atheists, agnostics, LGBTQ, white, black, Latinos, Asians: they all sing America!
Despite its divisive intent, the Muslim Ban has brought this nation together even closer than before, awakening shameful memories in our recent history that we never wish would come back and haunt us again. At stake is not the ostracization of Muslims, but also the expulsion of Hispanics, the demonization of Jewish Americans and the shunning of LGTBQ communities who now join with organisers of BLM and the Women’s March. These communities won’t allow themselves to be cornered, defined, dehumanized, or effaced by an alt-right ideology that is too afraid to face its fears head-on and actually look into the face of the “other” it so reviles. This unprovoked order has created nothing but disorder and turned the Muslim story into an American story. There is no question that it has to be an American story. From the moment one constitutional pillar is undercut, know that undermining the rest of it is not far from possible. That’s why an overwhelming and strong sense of resistance has to take place. It has to take place not out of bias or partisan discontent; it has to take place not out of intractability; it has to take place because in the face of contravention, those constitutional values are all we have to hold on to in order to steer us away from tyranny and injustice.
Mohammad Salama is an Associate Professor of Arabic, San Francisco State University.