We have birthright citizenship in this country. That means that when I was born on a wintry, late November night to Sudanese parents living in Michigan on student visas (go, Spartans!), I was granted automatic US citizenship. Days later, my parents had their first ever Thanksgiving meal with hospital staff and other new parents whose babies were in NICU.
Today, my family are naturalized American citizens.
My mom is a school teacher who has empowered hundreds of teenage girls in her 3-decade career as a high school teacher. My sister is a trained architect who now develops math curriculum for teachers in New York. I’m an interfaith educator working with communities in the US and Western Europe to promote religious pluralism. In my travels to Western Europe, I am often asked to talk about Muslim experiences in the United States and I am candid about the rights we enjoy as citizens, as well as the suspicion we endure from society. I share with them personal stories of my family as we go about our daily business.
We are normal people. We pay taxes and vote. We check in and share sweets with our neighbor, a WW2 veteran and widower (who owns a really sweet motorcycle). We exchange Diwali and Eid gifts with the Hindu family who lives next door. We patronize the library, exercise at the local Sportsplex, and shop at the mall 5 minutes down the street. We also pray at our local mosques, and base a lot of our community service through our local mosques (donating clothes for the homeless, participating in blood drives, volunteering at the Chicago Food Depository).
These last few days have been rough for American Muslims. After GOP Presidential candidate Donald Trump proposed to ban all entry to the US by Muslims – including US citizens – in addition to his earlier remarks that there should be a database registering all Muslims in the US, Muslims across the country have come to believe that it is now open season on our communities. Pig heads have been left at mosques, hijabi women have been harassed, and Islamophobia has spiked.
Thankfully, political leaders from both parties have come out strongly against Trump’s unconstitutional rhetoric. President Obama, in a speech about terrorism on Sunday, denounced Islamophobia and urged Americans to reject the politics of divisiveness, while calling out American Muslims to do more to root out the ideas that lead to radicalization. A White House spokesman said that Trump’s most recent statements should “disqualify” him from the presidential race. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan distanced the GOP from Trump’s proposal and added that, “Some of our best and biggest allies in this struggle and fight against radical Islam terror are Muslims.”
Here’s what concerns me about the narrative that Trump’s rhetoric is bad because it alienates Muslims who are “our biggest allies” against ISIS and terrorism: it is in fact a bad idea because it goes against the Constitution.
Since when is it constitutional that American citizens have different rights and responsibilities based on religion? Since when is it constitutional that American citizens abroad be denied re-entry to their own country based on their private religious convictions? Are my rights as an American citizen linked to whether or not I can help the government eliminate ISIS?
Because I don’t know how to do that. Fighting terrorism is not my area of expertise. I’m not a law enforcement official. I’m not an expert on violence prevention.
I write a lot about religious identity, especially as it affects Muslim minorities who are citizens of Western democracies. That’s what I know; that’s my area of expertise: semester after semester, I had to read Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations in my college courses. I studied French, shored up my Arabic, and researched post colonial migration to the West. I graduated with an International Relations degree, focusing on Global Security & Diplomacy, and then 9/11 happened.
Maintaining a global perspective, I began to work hyper-locally, building interfaith relationships in Chicago, working on health care accessibility and immigration reform. I was not alone. Over the last 15 years, American Muslims have continued their day jobs, raised their families, and increased their civic engagement exponentially. This year alone, American Muslims have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to serve refugees in Turkey, rebuild African American churches, and support the families of the San Bernardino shootings.
American Muslims are a value-added to our country not because of terrorism-related national security, but because – like most other citizens – we pay taxes, vote in elections, promote the common good, serve on juries, and contribute to the economy, higher education, modern culture, and sports programs. Singling out our community by linking the guarantee of our citizenship rights to national security is unacceptable.