By Aymann Ismail
After Donald Trump signed his first executive order to ban refugees and immigrants from a number of Muslim-majority nations in January, I tweeted this photo of my dad riding the New York City Subway in a righteous afro and bell-bottoms. The point was to mock the notion that Muslims aren’t capable of assimilating in the West. This is a sentiment I hear more than any other about why people like me don’t belong in America—more than “vetting” dog whistles, more than fantasies about sleeper cells. It’s one that reportedly has prominent sway in the White House right now. According to the Los Angeles Times, two of Trump’s top advisers, Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller, “have pushed an ominous view of refugee and immigration flows, telling other policymakers that if large numbers of Muslims are allowed to enter the U.S., parts of American cities will begin to replicate marginalized immigrant neighborhoods in France, Germany and Belgium.” Trump has echoed this anti-assimilation view in his own public rhetoric, most infamously in his confused claims about an incident in Sweden that never occurred.
The message from the White House that Muslims are incapable of assimilating in America is finding a ready audience. Almost immediately after my tweet, comments rolled in about how my father was either an exception, or sure to later become murderous, or somehow connected to other offensive tropes. It seems unlikely a rational argument would break through to convince these people of anything they don’t already believe. But with Trump having released a new version of his travel ban on Monday, it feels worth at least considering the Muslim American assimilation experience and what it might say about newly admitted Muslim immigrants and refugees.
I’m a first-generation Egyptian-American Muslim. Growing up in an Egyptian-American Muslim community in Jersey City, New Jersey, I thought I was normal. My parents enrolled their four American-born kids in a private Muslim school that taught us Arabic and Islam. We played with other Muslim kids, and we ate Egyptian food at home. I didn’t know anyone that wasn’t Muslim. My exposure to American culture only came from Xena: Warrior Princess and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. (I had an older sister.)
Besides that, my entire world was Egyptian and Muslim. We lived in a bubble, but I felt safe in that bubble. It wasn’t until 9/11—when the threat of violent retaliation loomed around Muslim schools, the community began to dissolve, and many kids, myself included, were transferred out into public schools—that I even realized I was in a bubble at all. With the media increasingly focused on stigmatizing Islam, raising Muslim kids around other Muslims was probably the easiest way to protect their children from the politics that come with being a Muslim in the West. My parents made sure there were lots of kids just like me when I was growing up. I wasn’t conscious about the weight of my identity as a kid, and frankly, no child should shoulder that responsibility. I felt safe around so many other Aymanns.
My community was hardly “assimilated” at that point, but we were certainly American. We never celebrated Thanksgiving, but we played cowboys and Indians in the mosque’s rec area. We listened to hip-hop and had fantasies of being basketball stars like Michael Jordan. I don’t know what else we can expect from immigrant families. My family was a pretty typical example. Although assimilation is hard to quantify, Pew Research Center conducted interviews with thousands of American Muslims and concluded in 2007 that they are “highly assimilated into American society.” A 2011 study by Pew showed that Muslim Americans are more likely to be satisfied with the way things are going in the U.S. than the general public, and that 66 percent say that quality of life for Muslims is better here than in most Muslim-majority countries. Overall, these findings directly contradict Donald Trump’s invented perspective of Muslim life in America.
Now that I’m living on my own, I visit my parent on the weekends. One evening, I asked my mom what her biggest regret in life was. Without hesitating, she told me she wished she had never left Egypt. That she had raised her children back home. She said it with a sadness in her voice that told me this was something she’d been thinking about for a long time. I couldn’t understand how she could wish her children were back in a country in economic turmoil after its failed “Arab Spring” revolution. All of her kids went to college. Her daughter, my sister, graduated from Harvard. Twice!
But there are other things only a mother who’s lived in two different worlds can understand. In a place like Egypt, where family extended past blood, where neighbors were cousins and people felt connected to the ground they stood on, the beat of the city pumped through into your heart. In a place like Egypt, visiting family isn’t something you squeezed into the weekends in between work, it’s why you worked. It’s a world I never knew, and this kind of disconnection can haunt immigrants who come to America, even when they do it to improve their families’ lives.
This is true of immigrants from many Muslim-majority countries. In 2013, I shot portraits of Muslim immigrants working in New York halal trucks during Ramadan, a month of abstaining from food and drink from sunrise to sunset. Many repeated the same longing for a chance to celebrate Ramadan back in their native countries. “It has been nine years since I last celebrated Ramadan back home in Egypt,” Mohamed told me from inside his truck. “It is much easier to fast there where everyone is celebrating together and you are surrounded by faith and support.” I remember this big sigh he let out after giving me that statement. I imagine he didn’t realize the Ramadan experience he grew up with would be one of the things he’d sacrifice after coming to America.
So when trolls on Twitter tell me Muslims have trouble assimilating, I have complicated feelings even though I know they’re only advancing a narrow view of what America ought to be. I am about as assimilated as a Muslim can get: I have a Netflix account, I call it soccer not football, I’ve tried to get into baseball but just couldn’t stomach the endless innings. One of the things that makes America so great is that an American can look like anyone and anyone can be an American. My cousins back home nicknamed me Aymann Al-Amriki, the American. Even though my parents were born on an entirely different continent, they are Americans too. As an immigrant, the second you yourself decide you’re an American, you are one. It shouldn’t be more complicated than that.
The reality is that Muslims have always been here, and no matter what Donald Trump says, we are just as American as anyone else. The United States is my home and home to over 3 million other Muslims: That’s a lot of Muslim kids having grown up on Buffy, and baseball, and Netflix. The irony is that Trump’s ban will make it harder for the very assimilation its supporters claim is impossible by otherizing Muslims in their new countries. How can Muslims fully consider themselves to be American first if our leaders can’t?
Whenever Trump suggests there’s something inherently different about Islam, it drives its adherents to question the West’s secularism. It forces Muslims to assume a defensive position when discussing Islam even within our own communities. Rather than have difficult self-critical conversations about ourselves, we become hyperaware of the criticism and spend our energy arguing against it. This defensiveness happens to any population when it’s attacked, including to people on the far right.
Consider what happened one primary night last year when Van Jones had been critical of Trump’s antagonistic attitude toward American minorities: The conservative on the CNN panel in question, Jeffrey Lord, claimed that the Ku Klux Klan was actually leftist. That defensiveness is not dissimilar to the infamous episode between Ben Affleck and Bill Maher in 2014, when Affleck felt forced to deflect attention away from the real crimes of people who have acted in the name of a warped version of Islam in order to defend the broader group of billions of peaceful Muslims against Maher’s attacks.
It may be too late for Trump to earn the trust of the Muslim American community, but what his supporters can do if they don’t feel comfortable with my community is start by asking questions, not making accusations. My mother’s regret isn’t that we are disconnected from Egypt, it’s that America’s capitalist focus has made us disconnected from Egyptian family values. Perhaps we ought to look at the rest of the world, and see what good things we might take from them, and understand that American culture has always been nourished and grown on the basis of taking those good things that come with assimilated cultures.
Leaving aside clichés like America’s embrace of certain immigrant cuisine, art, and music, even Christmas was imported. When we reject these values in immigrant groups because of prejudice about religion or skin color, we are not just creating wedges but we are selling our history and our future short. Work ethic, human rights values, value of education have all been imported throughout America’s cultivation as a young nation. Many around the world still look to America as a place they want to come—and give everything they have to offer. We should ask ourselves what it is that made America great in the first place before we decide what we can do to make it better.
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