Muslims can be Americans, treating them otherwise is un-American

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Fatima Nidali-Levens, center, claps alongside protesters at the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport on Sunday afternoon. The demonstration was held in solidarity with several occupations in airports across the country.
Photo Credit: Rachel Zein | Daily Texan Staff

On the 4th of July, I waved the flag, sang the Star-Spangled Banner, and enjoyed BBQ with my family. On the 5th, I learned 60 percent of Americans support a travel ban aimed at Muslims. As a Muslim, I was exasperated. Upon hearing the news, my mom said “Usmaan, you can’t attend your cousin’s wedding in Canada. Traveling alone at your age, with your name, in this time and climate isn’t safe.” As a fan of weddings, I was annoyed.

I didn’t know why I deserved the scrutiny. I watch the Super Bowl, make jokes at Canada’s expense, and watch all the Marvel movies, by my calculations I’m the perfect American. But the goalposts keep moving. The FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports Program documents that hate crimes against Muslims increased tenfold after 9/11, and has never gone down to pre-9/11 levels. A culture of pointed rhetoric has created a hostile environment that envelops Muslims.

For Islamophobia 101, look to the Texas Capitol. Last spring I had the opportunity to serve the in the House of Representatives as a legislative intern. I walked in the first day filled with the naive energy of a college freshman. My eyes absorbed every detail, drinking in the beauty of the state house. They settled on a large laminated page displayed on a mahogany bookshelf, the 10 Commandments with accompanying commentary.

I wasn’t fazed, I knew when I applied that the office was a member of the Christian, family-values conservative Freedom Caucus’s office. But what caught my eye was the 2nd Commandment commentary:

“Because of the massive influx of immigrants around the world, an abundance of world religions that worship idols has permeated our American culture. Political correctness harnesses the truth making it un-American to criticize anyone’s religion. For example, pastors have been subject to investigations (for possible hate speech) for speaking the truth about Islam and homosexuality.”

It was a shock to read this in my workplace, in a government office. It inspires fear and promotes the otherization of those who fall outside of narrowly defined criteria. Painting immigrants as degrading America, preaching ominous insinuations of “our American culture”, and presenting vague statements referencing “the truth about Islam and homosexuality” – as if both of harbored insidious secrets – cultivates an environment that condemns individual differences.

Hiding behind the right “to criticize anyone’s religion” is rich. Criticism is fine, it makes us strive for improvement. But dog-whistling to bigotry and creating targets out of identities is not. The worst part was that I knew the people who set the office décor. They were good people. They hired me! Yet to be part of “Team America, Heck Yeah!” I had to disavow my faith.

After 9/11, Osama Bin Laden became a perverted representation of Muslims. Until I was five I had the misfortune of sharing a first name with him. I didn’t really understand the significance of it at the time – the limits of my interests were Power Rangers and playgrounds. But after being ostracized on the latter, rejected by kids and their parents, my mom realized I was too young to experience Mean Girls-esque social rejection. One day she broke down crying and asked if I wanted to change my name. I did.

May 2nd, 2011. Osama Bin Laden was killed by Seal Team Six.

As a kid I thought “Osama” was the problem, that if Bin Laden were gone then it would all be over. Yet since then, a man has spit at my mom in a grocery store, my sister has read stories about a Muslim girl beaten outside of a mosque, and my dad hurries from the mosque lest it’s burned down.

May 3rd, 2011. “Hey, I heard they killed your dad last night”

As an American Muslim, I’ve learned to fit in I need to get friendly with the TSA, tread lightly, and listen to Spotify’s Hot Country playlist, but at every turn society rewards me with more suspicion. The President has laid siege to the Muslim community, and is the first administration in this millennia to forgo the annual celebration of Ramadan.

Peter Gottschalk, professor of religion at Wesleyan University, notes Islamophobia is a fear instilled by society. "I don't think anybody's naturally afraid of Muslims and Islam," Gottschalk says. The failure to understand and connect with those unlike ourselves is not unique to Islamophobia. Preying on this information gap will only make the unavoidable reconciliation so much more difficult.

The haze of fear is building barriers and barricades in places where we need to be building bridges. It’s asphyxiating America, a place where people of all races, castes, and creeds can come together to build something greater than the sum of their parts. The 4th of July is a day in which we honor our country’s fight for freedom and fairness — Muslims deserve to be a part of that too.

Hasan is a Finance and IRG sophomore from Plano. Follow him on Twitter @UzzieHasan.