Politics for minority groups in the United States have always been different than politics for white Americans. It isn’t about choice or opinion so much as survival. You pick the candidate who makes your life the least difficult. Because you are different, you are put into a culturally isolated bubble that’s called upon to vote every four years but never sees the benefits.
If you stay in that bubble, you are demonized. They, the white majority, say, “How typical, these people never integrate.” Then when you have the gall to try and challenge the system designed to separate you and oppress you, they will say, “How dare you criticize the country that took you in?”
This happened to American citizens and U.S. Reps. Ilhan Omar, D-Minnesota, Rashida Tlaib, D-Michigan, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-New York, who were told by President Donald Trump to go back to their “shithole countries” — a quote he later denied — and fix them before criticizing how the United States operates. If you speak up, you get told to go back to your country; if you march, you’re called a thug; if you protest, it’s called a riot. What outlet do minority groups have to make their country better?
Even if you are a “model minority,” the second your background is inconvenient for the white majority in this country, you lose all the progress you’ve made in the blink of an eye.
Nobody knows this better than Muslim Americans. My parents came to this country in 1996. Like so many others they built up their lives, secured good jobs to support their families and made friends in this country that seemed to be overflowing with opportunities.
But then the September 11 attacks happened.
Every Muslim can tell you that just like historical time is divided between B.C. and A.D., there is before 9/11 and after 9/11. Overnight, it became unsafe to wear a hijab in public. It was time to shave your beard and avoid the mosque. People were scared, rightfully so, that the FBI was spying on them.
Our community had to camouflage ourselves in patriotism. I remember my dad would wear a red, white and blue tie every Fourth of July to make sure people knew, without a doubt, that he loved this country. I was pretty young at the time, so I didn’t understand why my parents were so scared all of the time. To me, it seemed confusing to worry about small things like not saying As-salaam Alaikum (A greeting that means “Peace be upon you”) too loudly or silencing the call to prayer on their phones before others heard. They would always say that it’s just the way things are. “Allah will understand; this country won’t.”
That was 20 years ago. And we, the children who grew up in this atmosphere of hate, are starting to stand up and say enough is enough.
With the rise of the internet and social media, a network of young Muslims across the country have realized that we’re not alone. In Facebook groups, we bond over awkward memories like bringing rice and chana masala to lunchtime instead of Lunchables. On Twitter, we share memes about explaining Islam to our non-Muslim friends — often with little success.
On this “Minternet,” we came to the common realization that, yeah, we’re different, and we love it. We saw the rise of role models who didn’t care if they were palatable to white Americans; people like Hasan Minhaj who also had those awkward experiences growing up and now completely embraces his background, and jokes about it, on a show that millions of people watch. This new acceptance of Muslim identity has totally redefined the way Muslims engage in politics.
It’s changed the way that I think about politics. For the longest time, I thought that things would just happen to me and that I’d just have to take it. Things like people calling me a terrorist as an insult or hearing the media and politicians condemn all Muslims as radical. Even issues that had nothing to do with my faith, like gun violence, felt insurmountable because none of the politicians cared what young Muslims like me had to say.
I’m done conforming. I’m done listening to what old white men tell me is possible. I’m done having people who don’t really care about me, who do nothing to understand my culture and who don’t try to fix the inherent problems in this country claim to represent me. And I don’t think I’m the only one.
It’s why we finally have politicians who lean into their Muslim backgrounds as a source of strength, instead of a weakness they need to hide. It’s powerful to see Omar, a young woman who came to this country at 8 years old as a Somalian refugee, wearing a hijab and fighting in Congress every day for people like me. We have people like Abdul El-Sayed, who holds a doctorate in public health from Oxford University, ran for governor of Michigan on a platform in favor of universal health care and is a Rhodes Scholar, doctor and the child of an Egyptian immigrant. And behind each of these incredible figures is a legion of Muslim organizers, activists and voters who have put their all into a fight for a more inclusive future.
So from my community to yours, I’d like to say As-salaam Alaikum (Peace be upon you) America.
Nishi Rahman writes the Thursday column on cultural and political diversity as a second-generation American. Contact him at [email protected]