By Shabina S. Khatri
Islam is a religion that was built on suffering. Our history is replete with stories of how much and how long the Prophet (SAW) and his companions struggled to establish a faith in what was, at the time, the most hostile place on earth. That’s one of the reasons why we love and respect the old-school Muslims so much – they suffered for us, and we are eternally grateful for it.
Struggle has also been the name of the game for immigrant Muslims in America. Our community, in fact, exists largely because so many of our members have been fortunate enough to fulfill the American dream. Many of these people – our elders – are quietly satisfied about their successes, and rightfully so.
But, as the old Chinese proverb goes, be careful what you wish for. Success has its pitfalls, and we seem to have fallen into some big black holes during these trying times. Today, one of our toughest challenges has been establishing unity not only within the American Muslim community, but also society at large.
It’s an interesting dilemma, this disconnect between American Muslim communities, and between the community and the general American public. What prompted this great divide is a cause of much debate, but I’d venture to guess that our deathly fear of assimilation has something to do with it.
Ironically, what causes “us,” as in the American Muslim population, from entering the fabric of America, is precisely why “they,” as in the general population, have kept a measured distance – it’s an arrogance thing. Says Newsweek columnist Anna Quindlen:
There’s never really anything new under the sun, or in the United States, and the notion that those who have been here awhile are inherently better than those who have just arrived still gets a lot of traction. It even holds sway among members of former immigrant groups reviled in their own time. The Irish and the Italians were the Mexicans and Chinese of a hundred years ago. But now many of them have convenient immigrant amnesia.
We immigrant Muslims suffer from amnesia, too. On the one hand, our success has blinded us from seeing that the American Muslim community is economically divided, that not all of us are highly educated, well-to-do professionals. Even if we aren’t explicitly discriminating against the Muslims who are not like us, our indifference toward these groups is comparable to the indifference that the American population feels toward us.
If this is getting too confusing, picture the Russian doll scenario. The biggest doll is the U.S. Inside of it you’ll find a medium-sized doll, which is the American Muslim community. Inside of that you’ll find at least two small dolls, and the working class Muslims, who are usually home-grown, and the highly educated Muslims, often immigrants and their descendents. Inside of the small immigrant doll, you’ll find one more tiny figure – the small, struggling individual who came to this country broke as a joke, but whose hard work Allah (SWT) has rewarded with wealth and success.
We as a comfortable community in the suburbs of Detroit seem to have forgotten how to empathize with that tiny suffering doll, even though we are less than three decades removed from him. And the big doll America seems to have forgotten how to empathize with all of its struggling smaller dolls, which is a big folly because the U.S. was built on the sweat and toil of these folks. Quindlen continues:
It might be useful for America’s newcomers to stage a version of the one-day strike trumpeted in the nascent days of the women’s movement. If those with a green card, those in the process of getting one and those who are just plain illegals didn’t show up for work on a single designated day, the third and fourth generations would get a terrifying taste of how the nation runs without them. Vegetables rotting on the vine, hotel sheets going unchanged, working parents with no child care, restaurants with no busboys.
Maybe that’s what it will take for our nation and for us to truly appreciate the working class and America’s newest residents. But what will it take for America to accept us? Every hospital in the country has at least one or two Muslims working in it. That success is a start, for sure. But we won’t truly be a part of this nation until we start giving of our own, until we coin Muslims who contribute more than they take, who pursue careers in public policy and public health and academia, who can shift the dialogue, respond to the rhetoric, who can represent so that our presence can be felt beyond the doctor’s office and engineer’s assembly line.
We need to be people that other people can relate to. We need to allow ourselves to be related to, by taking the time to chat with our neighbors and caring about issues that are bigger than ourselves, that affect our community but also extend beyond it. Fareed Zakaria, also of Newsweek, recently quoted a man from Singapore, who said:
“From where I sit, it’s not a flat world. It’s one of peaks and valleys. The good news for America is that the peaks are getting higher. But the valleys are getting deeper, and many of them are also in the United States.”
Stratification of wealth is a problem that has divided all of our dolls, a problem that we as a community must step up and face if we ever want to progress as an ummah, and progress as a population that is indigenous to the United States. We can do this by starting small – and accepting that we do indeed have a problem, and that our fear is a big part of the problem.
Once we’ve gotten past that, the progress can finally begin, inshAllah.