This Is Personal Because This Is Our Home

Thursday, February 9, 2017 - 5:30 am

This Is Personal Because This Is Our Home

By now we have had a chance to talk about why it is in fact a Muslim ban, based on both Trump’s own words and the words of Trump’s circle. I wanted to take a minute and talk about why this Muslim ban is personal to me.

I was born in the United States, spent a few years overseas, and then returned to the States. I am both a citizen and an immigrant. One of my siblings was born in the United States, and some were born overseas. My parents became U.S. citizens. During our move back to the United States, we had to go through experiences where my siblings and my parents were separated based on the color of the passport we held. I remember looking at the color of our passports and wondering why my parents were not treated with the same dignity that I was simply because I had been born on this soil, and they on another soil.

My own life has been one where I have lived in different countries, loved and yearned and grown and lost in this country and beyond. We came back to live permanently in the United States when I was 15. I had to master English, and moved up through public school systems in the South to go to a great university. It was the love and care of amazing teachers, that along with my own parents’ love, propelled me forward. It changed not just my life, but my children’s lives. But I know what it’s like to be in this country as an immigrant, to be an outsider, to have worked my tail off, to “make it.” Yet I still know that it cannot be simply about the hard work and exertion of an individual, the proverbial “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps,” but that it also has to include a system and structure of safety nets, social institutions designed to provide support for all of us, starting with the most vulnerable.

The Muslim ban has been and continues to be very personal. I teach at a school that has at least 36 students from these countries on this list, students who are here legally on student visas. We live in an area where there are about a hundred Iranian students, the best and brightest students from Iran who have mastered the national tests there. In one case, the husband of the family was stranded in Finland, unable to return to the United States even though he had a valid visa. These students are all here legally, and they found themselves in a limbo where they don’t know whether upon leaving the U.S. for an academic conference abroad, or visiting sick family members in their countries, they will be allowed to re-enter the United States.

I have an 85 year old grandmother. Other than her sense of sarcasm, she does not pose a threat to anyone. And even with a green card, we have been unsure if she would be allowed to enter the United States. She may be barred from visiting her family in the United States, and now after Iran’s retaliation barring American citizens, we are barred from visiting our Iranian family. This is personal.

I have three amazing cousins in Switzerland. Their dad, my paternal uncle, is Iranian. Their mom was an amazing Swiss woman whom we lost to cancer. The children have been raised in Switzerland for most of their lives, and they are married there. One of my cousins is a leading world expert on bats. Yup, bats. He travels around the world to study bats in their natural habitat, and goes to nerdy bat expert conferences. His Swiss passport was confiscated by the American embassy because this cousin, a Swiss citizen, had been born in Iran. His Iranian place of birth negated his Swiss citizenship. This is where we are. This is personal.

It hits even closer to home for me. I have four children, and my youngest baby is nine years old, a great love of my life. We live across the street from a beautiful family, and my youngest daughter, L, loves to play with their daughter, R. They are best friends, and their play is angelic, enchanted, and the very stuff of childhood. Watching them play fills me with hope for all that is good and beautiful for humanity. With all of the Trump phenomena over the last 18 months, all of the bashing of Muslims, refugees, immigrants, Hispanics, this hits very close to home. Almost every single Muslim family that I know has a similar story.

My daughter came to me with tears in her eyes because she had heard that Trump would not allow Muslims in the country. She wanted to know if that meant we had to move, and that she would not get to play with her friend across the street anymore. Her question was not about the “United States of America,” something that is too big for her mind to understand, and too small for her soul. No, she simply wanted to know if she could continue to play with her best friend.

I did what any loving parent would do: I held her in my arms, wiped her tears, and told her that, no, we did not have to move. I told her that we would keep her safe, and we would do everything needed to make her feel safe. She was unsure, and said: “But he is president. And he said he wouldn’t let Muslims be here. We are Muslim. What’s going to happen to us? Can I keep playing with R?” I assured her that we are a nation of laws, and there are many people in America who are committed to her safety and well-being, and that there are so many people supporting her.

But what do I do when in my own heart, I am not sure? What do I do when I myself am full of doubts about what’s next? How can I promise her that she is safe when words like “Japanese internment camp” are being tossed around favorably? What will happen if (when?) there is another terrorist attack on American soil?

How I do make the plurality of people in the country who support Trump’s policies understand this? It’s not that I am merely intellectually opposed to Trump’s policies. It’s that my babies’ safety and peace of mind is at stake. And, yes, I am furious that the fear mongering of a few politicians makes so many of our babies feel unsafe, unwelcomed, and unwanted in their own country.

This is personal because it is about the United States of America.

So no, I don’t believe that it’s our task to make America great again. I have never bought into the notion of American exceptionalism, not when genocide of Native Americans and centuries of trans-Atlantic slavery and Jim Crow are woven into the DNA of our country. I never have believed, and I do not now believe, that America is the “greatest nation on Earth.” Not when 20 percent of our children live in poverty and not when the divide between the super-haves and the absolutely-have-nothings is greater than ever. Not when we are droning people on so many continents, and not when we now have this Muslim ban. So no, I don’t believe in the greatness of America. But I do believe that it is possible for us to be good. Goodness, kindness, justice, mercy. These are within our reach.

I don’t have delusions about us being the greatest nation on Earth. But I would like for us to be a good nation. And that is personal to me.

I would like to call an America home that is a good country. A just country. A fair country. A loving and kind country that puts the well-being of our babies, care for the most vulnerable of people as our highest priority. That is an America that I want to help build, for my own baby and other people’s babies.

As Langston Hughes said:

America was never America to me
….

And yet I swear this oath
America will be!

Yes, this is about Syrian refugees and Iranians and Iraqis, Yemenis and Somalis, Sudanese and Libyans. Yes, this is about Muslims and Hispanics and African Americans and Jews and women. It’s also about America. This America that will be, and must be.

This is personal to me.

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Contributor

is a columnist for On Being. His column appears every Thursday.

He is Director of Duke University’s Islamic Studies Center. He is the past Chair for the Study of Islam, and the current Chair for Islamic Mysticism Group at the American Academy of Religion. In 2009, he was recognized by the University of North Carolina for mentoring minority students in 2009, and won the Sitterson Teaching Award for Professor of the Year in April of 2010.

Omid is the editor of the volume Progressive Muslims: On Justice, Gender, and Pluralism, which offered an understanding of Islam rooted in social justice, gender equality, and religious and ethnic pluralism. His works Politics of Knowledge in Premodern Islam, dealing with medieval Islamic history and politics, and Voices of Islam: Voices of Change were published 2006. His last book, Memories of Muhammad, deals with the biography and legacy of the Prophet Muhammad. He has forthcoming volumes on the famed mystic Rumi, contemporary Islamic debates in Iran, and American Islam.

Omid has been among the most frequently sought speakers on Islam in popular media, appearing in The New York TimesNewsweekWashington Post, PBS, NPR, NBC, CNN and other international media. He leads an educational tour every summer to Turkey, to study the rich multiple religious traditions there. The trip is open to everyone, from every country. More information at Illuminated Tours.

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Reflections

  • Dortch Mann

    Dr. Safi’s columns have served as initial and on-going inspiration for a project that my daughter Haley Mann and I began after the election. It is called The Key is We. We are interviewing people and posting their answers on Instagram, Facebook, and soon, our website. The questions we ask are essentially about how each person creates meaning in their lives and about how connections with others fosters that sense of purpose. Thus, The Key is We. We are grateful to Dr. Safi for modeling a way for us to “Aspire to Inspire”.

  • Ruby Mendez

    Thank you for this beautiful peace, Omid.

  • Gabby

    My heart goes out to you, Dr. Safi, but more importantly, my energy is engaged and committed in a problem solving vein. As you have been open with your fears and what makes it personal, I will add mine.
    On the evening of the election as the results became increasingly certain, my never-interested-in-politics son called home from his first year in college to ask whether we would be interned and his friends deported.
    He is young, I am not, but I wonder often since November 9 whether I will end my life in a camp on home soil and how to live knowing that is possible.
    Today it’s a Muslim ban. Tomorrow who knows?
    Yes, it’s personal.

  • Amor Fati

    My heart goes out to everybody who is or will be affected by the changes that have been implemented since Mr. Trump’s inauguration. I am sure there will be many more in store for us. My heart is heavy looking into the future. So much hardship and suffering awaits us. What to do? I do not know. My husband is ill and can no longer adjust to different living arrangements. I am his caregiver. Our choices are limited. I pray for every one living in this beloved country. In one way or another we will all be affected. I will, however, put my hope and trust in God and continue to walk the path he is preparing for me.

  • Jan Martindale

    This touched me deeply. I am allowing the sadness to pass through so that I can base my thoughts and actions in love. Until I can’t. And then I persist in this process of raising my consciousness.
    Thank you for helping me clarify my beliefs about the America I want to build for your children and my grandchildren.

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  • LenMinNJ

    It is simply wrong for Dr. Safi to characterize it as an “Muslim ban”.

    There are fifty Muslim-majority nations in the world. Only seven are named in Mr. Trump’s executive order, and it was Mr. Obama who named them as hotbeds of anti-US terrorism.

  • Debra Burlingame

    Professor, were you upset when Barack Obama instituted a 6 month ban on all non-US travelers from Iraq after the arrest of two Iraqis planning a mass attack in Bolling Green, Kentucky? I suspect you didn’t even know about it. Because, well, that was Obama, and this is Trump. Were you upset during the Green Movement, when Iranians were being shot down in the streets by snipers because they dared to challenged the regime, and Obama said NOTHING to these brave young people? (He didn’t want to “meddle” in an election…but used US govt money to fund an organization that campaigned against Netanyahu in the last election?) Did you write a piece of outrage and sadness when he sent the regime $140 billion dollars in cash on wooden pallets? When he negotiated a deal to ensure their nuclear weapons system, the details of which have been kept secret from the American people? American Muslims have been a vital and welcome part of this country for decades without issue. There were some 200 Mosques in the five boroughs of New York City on the morning of 9/11. They were viewed no differently than any other of the thousands of religious entities in the city. What changed? Muslim terrorists using stealth and hiding among peaceful Muslim populations. We have to be very careful not to alienate, or demonize any member of society….and we need the help of our Muslim family members, friends, neighbors, co-workers. But we need to protect them, too, from the horrors of random Islamic terrorism. Yes, radical Islamic terrorism. Maybe Trump’s travel ban cast too wide a net, but it is arguably rational. It was meant to be temporary, until a better system of vetting could take place. I know of two Iraqi and one Afghanistani interpreters for the US military who were denied entry into the U.S., one under Bush and two under Obama. We agitated for their acceptance. We knew they and their families were in grave danger if they were not given safe haven here. But they were denied…and we were never told why. The U.S. press wasn’t interested in these stories.

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