I don’t remember how young I was the first time my father took me walking in the park. I know I was old enough to remember what he said. With the beat of each footstep, he’d recite a word, until our steps became verses and our miles became surahs. I used to whisper it back to him beneath the cover of the whistling trees above us. You see, I was embarrassed by the sound of Arabic. When someone approached us along the path, my voice grew softer and I called on the bristling bushes or the barking dog to take me beyond their gaze.
I don’t remember how young I was the first time I went to a mosque. Well, actually, it wasn’t a mosque — it was an Italian center that rented out its large banquet hall. Still, I loved visiting. Adjacent to the parking lot into which we entered were rows of tennis courts. At that age, I’d much rather be chasing a yellow ball than doing pretty much anything else. But instead of the white tennis outfits, I was dressed in what might be called a tunic of pale blue threading. And my prayer cap offered no brim for the sun. When we’d go for donuts after — and we always did — I was embarrassed by how I was dressed.
I don’t remember how young I was the first time someone mispronounced my name. I do remember wanting a different name. I wanted something that sounded American. When someone mistakenly inserted an “h” into my name, my wish was granted. I went from Ismael to Ishmael. With the addition of a single, usually silent consonant, I gained namesakes from the Bible and the American canon. I had a lineage, and I was not embarrassed anymore.
Unfortunately, I do remember when the president of the United States retweeted three videos from a proudly Islamophobic group in the United Kingdom. Two of these videos weren’t even captioned accurately — one of them didn’t have any Muslims in it. You’d think a group dedicated to hate would do a better job at it. But you shouldn’t expect much tech savviness from people stuck in the old days of Britannia.
What shocked me about the president’s actions was that it presented ordinary Muslims as a threat. This was beyond “radical Islamic terrorists” — the administration’s favorite tripartite. As White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders clarified to CBS: “Whether it’s a real video, the threat is real.” She followed that comment up with talk of “national security.” So did that threat include me?
This all sounded absurd to me. I was a minority in America — my faith seemed to signify weakness rather than power.
But then I would think of the string of attacks around the world: Lower Manhattan, Boston, Orlando, London and Nice. I understand the shadow hanging over us and the fear it creates. Even I can be afraid too.
Fear is a powerful motivator. When Martin Luther was famously caught in a thunderstorm, fear of death compelled him to beg St. Anne to spare his life so that he could devote it to God. If that sounds like an overreaction, remember Luther was in law school — those were tense times.
Fear has also been a political tool since the days nobles could prod peasants into battle by the end of a lance. Today, fear is the No. 1 asset of the current administration. You might say the business-minded Donald Trump has monopolized fear. Slowly, he injects it into the market, directing it towards one group or another.
When he retweeted the videos Nov. 29, he directed it towards Muslims. We are only 1 percent of the population in this country — hardly a powerful voting bloc. This makes us an easy target for abuse and suspicion as long as terrorism remains in recent memory.
Even though my faith feels energized the more people attack it, I’m not just a Muslim. Which Americans are just one thing? What Trump misunderstands is the durability of the old melting pot. America succeeds in incorporating difference. I seek no other home.
The park I walked in with my father loops around the football fields where I used to play, and it loops around the track that I used to run. It loops around the high school where several times my friends made me fall out of a chair laughing.
That Italian center wasn’t just for prayers — it became the site for summer cookouts and even my friend’s bar mitzvah.
And as for my name, well, I’ve met quite a few people who like it as is.
Even when I’m abroad, the heirloom I brought from home was a beat-up copy of Robert Frost — not a Quran. As a child, I thought he roamed near our property formulating his poetry. The New England of his imagination is but one gift America has given me. And I hope to give back to my country the gifts of my father’s faith, long after this president.
“Off the Beat” columns are written by Daily Cal staff members until the spring semester’s regular opinion writers have been selected. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter @dailycalopinion.