The Good Muslim and the Unraveling of Her America
At a New York dinner party, guests look the writer directly in the eyes—and the scales begin to fall from them.
I am at dinner in a posh New York City home. As I study the elegant china, conversation turns to Syria. I express dismay at our nation’s inaction: first our refusal to contain the conflict, later our disengagement from the predictable calamity of displaced refugees, and finally our decision to deny American asylum to almost all Syrians. A dinner companion looks me in my Muslim eye: “Those people do not share our values of democracy.” He holds my gaze, overlooking my own Muslim-hood, or maybe meeting it dead on.
I was the only Muslim in the room—the first time I noticed an aloneness in my faith, the first time I felt divided by faith, the first time I felt separated from, not united by, American diversity. Opposite, another piped up: “Jewish refugees fleeing the Shoah were turned away by an American President… though the Jews were not terrorists…”, implying that Muslim Syrians most certainly were.
I fell silent. How had a quarter of a century in America brought me to this point? Surrounded by New York’s elite, I was merely the one “Good Muslim” people knew. I was the exception, the Good Muslim that proves the rule: all other Muslims are indeed “bad.”
As a naturalized American of just three months, the meaning of America and the responsibilities of all Americans among whom I would be assuming my rank had been weighing on my mind for the decades leading up to my citizenship. Could such derision represent the America I had been sheltered by, educated within, accepted among, nurtured by? Could this be the same America I had willfully, proudly proclaimed my own? Was this the America toward which I had journeyed these 25 years through five visas, and four punishing continental migrations?
One December day, I had held my hand to my heart in a completely novel and unfamiliar gesture. Facing the Star Spangled Banner I made my pledge of allegiance. There, in the Brooklyn Federal Courthouse, I was at last integrated, woven into the fabric of my adopted home, a small thread in the multicolor tapestry that is so uniquely yet definitively America.
Weeks later, I was sitting at a traffic light. I heard something rattling. I lowered the window to find the sound. Towering above, an American flag struggled to break free from its post. My eyes followed the billowing stripes and the so-many stars. Seeing the frays, the stains, the tears, with the wind picking up, I wondered how long the flag would hold.
Now at this dinner table, my America unravels. The fraying flag is our battle-worn banner, our country divides around us, separating Americans: black from white; native-born from naturalized; Muslim from Jew, Mexican from all of us, even Democrat from Democrat and Republican from Republican.
I shore up my failing spirits, remembering what Old Glory means to me. I recall being in Karachi’s Sultanabad neighborhood, where the unexpected glimpse of the Red White and Blue lifted my heart. Outside the U.S. consulate, sharp against the Pakistani sky, the American flag pulled at me. Ten thousand miles east, America’s magnetism tugged, urgent even here, on the soil of my forebears. Tears rising to their brim, my love became clear: My beacon would always be the banner of Betsy Ross.
I remember other far-flung flags too. I first stopped to look at the Stars and Stripes at the US Embassy in 1991 in London’s Grosvenor Square. Preternaturally motionless, like the gleaming Marine beside it, the both of them immobilized me in awe. I left the embassy that day with the first of many American visas, not knowing it would be 25 years before I could rightfully call their flag my own. Or the American flag at Iskan, the U.S. military base in Riyadh. Weekly, we escaped the realities of Saudi Arabia for an American breakfast on Fridays. That flag—and the waiter’s neat American cursive on the guest check—ensured that for a few hours, I was transported to the homeland I so wanted to make mine.
America’s flag, and America’s people have contained great meaning for me, long decades before my citizenship. Ours is a flag and ours is a people I have defended from judgment, ridicule, and hostility on three continents. Ours is a flag and ours are a people I have mourned for from Saudi Arabia where I watched the 9/11 attacks take thousands of New York lives and sicken the lives of those who went to rescue them. These American lives—our nation’s first responders—are now in my charge as I, an American Muslim, serve these brave Americans as their physician at the World Trade Center Monitoring Program.
America for me, the American Muslim, is unraveling. In an era of George Packer’s Unwinding, our nation is unraveling. If my America is fraying, yours is too; our America frays and unravels. Our fraying flag is torn apart by suspicions and retreats, by ignorance and isolations. Repairing the rents, mending the seams, will take each of us our utmost.
While I do despair, I don’t lose faith because I know you won’t fail me now. For just as this past quarter of a century, America and Americans have always shown me the way. In these moments of our unspooling, I ask each of you to show me—not the “Good Muslim,” but like millions of others, the Good-Enough-to-be-American-Muslim—the way to join with you in the warp and weft as we weave, ever brighter, the magnificent brocade that is America once more.