Wednesday, March 23, 2011

American enough?

Guest post by Hamid M. Khan

Hamid M. Khan is a Rule of Law Adviser with the U.S. Institute of Peace in Kabul, Afghanistan, and a fellow with the Truman National Security Project in Washington D.C.

(Ed. note: This is Hamid's fifth guest post at The Reaction. You can find his previous posts here (on Pakistan), here and here (on Obama's Cairo address), and here (on revolution in Iran). -- MJWS)


Recently, Rep. Peter King, with much fanfare and consternation, launched the House Committee on Homeland Security's hearings regarding "The Extent of Radicalization in the American Muslim Community and that Community's Response." While the fanfare for these most recent hearings has largely dissipated, given the past furor over the Islamic center in Manhattan, the approach of the tenth anniversary of 9/11, and, of course, the upcoming presidential campaign, it is unlikely this issue will die out, and American Muslims will likely have to stand up to answer questions about whether they are American enough.

Disheartening as it is, this ongoing inquisition represents nothing novel in our history. In fact, America's story is replete with chapters where politicians take pains to prod an entire polity to test whether they truly belong. Just ask African-Americans, the Irish, Italians, Jews, Catholics, or even the Japanese. More sadly perhaps is the fact that these same inquisitors will reflexively wrap themselves in the flag and swear an oath upon the Constitution, but fail to recognize them as living testimonials to a nation that has spent centuries, sometimes through great bloodshed, striving to recognize equality and unity despite diversity.

The blame, however, does not squarely rest with politicians. Another accomplice to the recent phobia rests with the media, which often fail to promote the stories of ordinary Muslims with as much effort as those extremists who sit on the fringes of both society and religion. Finally, American Muslims deserve some of the blame, not because they are somehow predisposed to extremist views (as if it were a pathogen only Muslims are susceptible to) but perhaps because we as a community have not shared our own unique experiences of being both American and Muslim with our friends, neighbors, and fellow citizens.

For example, what can be more American than being raised in rural Wyoming? Add to that biography an early childhood dedicated to watching cartoons, eating copious amounts of McDonald's, playing Nintendo, riding one's bike and considering Superman one's hero? How much would it matter if the same person happened to be the son of Pakistani immigrants and instead of going to Sunday school read the Qur'an, learned the five daily prayers, and did not eat pork? What would you think of this person if his classmates elected him twice as their high school class president or if he was a state champion in speech or a member of the National Honor Society? Would it still matter if he also fasted during Ramadan?

How would you would judge someone, who because of his parents' successes in United States, decided he would dedicate himself to a career in public service and, to that end, pursue degrees in politics and later earn a law degree? Would you consider this person an asset to the cause of America if Congress had awarded him a Truman Scholarship and he had worked in the United States House of Representatives, the United States Senate, or even the British House of Commons in London? What if I told you this person worked for a federal appeals court judge and later served as an assistant United States attorney? Is that proof enough, or does the fact that he drinks a Coke rather than a beer make him less American?

When 9/11 happened, like every other American, he witnessed the unspeakable horror as the Twin Towers fell, the Pentagon lay devastated, and the fields outside Shanksville, Pennsylvania were charred by the sacrifice of heroes. Rather than go on as usual, however, he openly challenged extremist positions under Islamic law, and in his spare time taught classes on the Islamic faith at two different universities and later turned away from a lucrative career in private practice for a full-time position teaching law to young students in Afghanistan so that they might avoid harboring a future al Qaeda in their homeland. Does it mean he is less American because he still offers alms to the poor because he sees it as a commandment from God?

Or is one sufficiently American if one were chosen to advise the U.S. Commander of Forces in Afghanistan about how an understanding of Islam and specifically Shari'a might be an advantage to winning hearts and minds to save American lives? How would you judge the same person if he decided to keep his wife and four young children behind in the United States to devote his energy, experience, and understanding of the Qur'an to help bring about peace to war-torn societies?

At the end of the day, there is no quaint definition of what it means to be an American. If our history has taught us anything, there are no set paths, only a shared set of values that are not often easily expressed. And even when they are, it is hard to imagine whether my experiences or the experiences of another could satisfy those who are so eager to declare whole groups of people as not one of us. In fact, these critics, at best, often only ask questions, but without listening to the answers. Perhaps it is in this fact that we find what is best about being American: that sometimes not answering these questions is enough.

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