Growing up as a first-generation Muslim immigrant kid, I assimilated exceedingly well into my American culture and never really imagined calling any other country my beginning, my home. I came here as a 6-year-old first-grader and grew up near Chicago’s infamously diverse stretch of land known as Devon. My childhood friends were populated with Russian, Greek, and Indian immigrants, also recent newcomers to the land of opportunity in the mid-’80s.
After the usual soul-searching expeditions for cultural identity during my angst-ridden teenage years, I settled comfortably into the role of a Muslim-lite Pakistani-American. The term Muslim-lite translated for me to mean that I would represent my faith with the subtle tact of the “hands-up-nothing-to-see-here” mannerism and downplay the differences. I failed to recognize the veil of complacency that slowly shrouded my bones.
But the Trump era and the erroneous portrayal of my religion’s beliefs left me no room to be a complacent Muslim any longer. Along with that, the rise of vile rhetoric against immigrants ran rampantly across all of America, and my patriotism grew in similar proportion, sometimes angry, sometimes hesitant but always defiant. I have just as much right to be a chest-thumping, flag-waving American, but much to my dismay, my allegiance gets drowned out in the midst of people whose idea to “Make America Great Again” necessitates the removal of people like me. You know that intense love that a birth mother feels for her child? Well, it’s powerful but different from the fierce love an adopted mother breathes. Now imagine that exquisite devotion and qualify it with the love this first-generation immigrant feels for her country.
I perceive the rise of Trumpism to have provided a catalyst for an entire population of privileged Muslim-Americans, not unlike myself, who awoke to their own dreaded version of Nazi-lite racism in 2016. Don’t believe me? Check up on how many hate crimes Muslim-Americans have endured lately. Or let me tell you about the time that our president considered enacting a Muslim registry. No big deal, right?
Or you can search for some of the videos from a few weeks ago when a hate group called ACT for America held rallies all over the nation and called it a “March Against Sharia.” An article in the Washington Post details how the Austin rally was completely shut down by anti-protestors who showed up in much larger numbers and were so disruptive that the speakers for the original rally had to cancel their speeches. There was a Texas Observer video linked in the article that shows the charged protest, and it left me feeling nauseous and scared.
How can I explain what it feels like to see those types of images and charged emotions because of the religion I practice in the land of religious freedom? Along with the sinking feeling of gratitude to the non-Muslims who showed up on my behalf? Or how the dreadful relief feels when the Seventh Circuit deals my country’s president yet another abdication over the travel ban for six Muslim countries?
If I must put a label on it, I suppose my identity is in the midst of a religious awakening. For example, on my Twitter profile, I have a picture of myself in a headscarf even thought I don’t wear the Muslim hijab. But I liked the picture and wanted every single person who saw it to know that I’m a Muslim-American and can exercise the freedoms afforded to me by my country without the fear of persecution — or maybe I needed to let myself know that.
And while I’ve been mulling over the transformation for a few months, it is now, during the month of Ramadan, that I am able to piece together this journey of identity. This distinction comes at a time when most of the 1.7 billion Muslims in the world are celebrating the holiest of times for us. The month of Ramadan is a spiritual period for Muslims where we must abstain from eating, drinking, having sex, telling lies, and losing our temper (to name just the major ones) from dawn until dusk. There’s no way to downplay this; fasting is a hard and painful process that requires a follower to withstand the hanger pains without the anger.
Look, my religious doctrine emphasizes endurance and patience especially when faced with an enemy or adversity. Ramadan is a way to strengthen this characteristic, and it’s hard not to see a path to follow with the troubling Muslim rhetoric playing out in American politics. As the month of Ramadan is coming to an end, I understand that I can no longer stay apathetic or go back “in the closet.” I am obliged to embrace my religious identity at the unlikeliest time possible and become a reluctant Muslim representative to every non-Muslim in my life. The Quran states, “Surely Allah is with the patient” (2:45) so I flex my puny muscles of endurance and venture out to exemplify the goodwill of my people who were never, ever really that different from non-Muslims to begin with.
My children and I make little parcels of blessing and gratitude in the form of gift baskets. For the first time in my life, I will deliver them to neighbors, friends, and co-workers who are all non-Muslim in an attempt to exhibit my family’s innocuousness.
Up until now, I’ve spent more than three decades in this country, celebrating Ramadan and Eid in a nonchalant, apathetic kind of way, not really engaging my non-Muslim friends and neighbors. But in this treacherous political climate, aside from constantly wringing my hands and watching the hair go gray, there’s no option left but to employ the famous Islamic hospitality embedded in me. I hope that some of my friends and neighbors are able to recognize the gesture for what it really is, a bid to see me as a reflection of my religion and not an exception.