"That's my home." My heart whispered this thought 15 years ago while looking down at the streets of Pakistan. The plane had just left for New York from Lahore and I was glued to the window, teary eyed. If leaving my country was distressing, not knowing if I would ever return was agonizing. And all the agony was due to one single fact: I was an Ahmadi Muslim and Pakistan's constitution had shunned me as a second-class citizen.
Just two weeks later, I dragged my bones to watch the Fourth of July (1996) fireworks at the New Jersey Shore. Back then it was not "my celebration" so all I remember from that evening is loud music, a huge crowd, and a stranger who thanked me for making room so he could watch the fireworks.
On July 4, 2011 though, as an equal citizen of the United States, I am celebrating something I failed to appreciate 15 years ago: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."
The language and substance of our constitutions and declarations has a deep impact on our psyche.
To that end, much of Pakistan's tendency toward extremism is traceable to 1974, when an odious constitutional amendment declared millions of Ahmadis (a sect of Islam) as non-Muslims. A decade later, the state passed Ordinance XX to make it punishable by law for an Ahmadi Muslim to discuss his faith in public, identify his place of worship as a mosque, or even convey the Islamic greeting of peace. This constitutional amendment has also inflicted significant injury on Pakistan's Christian and Hindu minorities.
Pakistan's constitutional inequality not only classified millions as second grade citizens but it also poisoned the masses. Today, a ten-minute inflammatory sermon can make many feel obligated to kill a neighbor belonging to a minority group.
So it's natural for me to note how our US Constitution sweetens the American psyche towards the principles of equality, life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness championed in the Declaration of Independence. Even though more than 80 percent of Americans attest to an incomplete understanding of our Constitution (according to a 2011 Time Magazine poll), this document and the principles it establishes instill tolerance for "the different" in our minds.
Born Americans may not be able to name all the articles and clauses of the Constitution, but they've been taught its ethic for most of their lives. It is instilled in them. It allows passionate debates over sensitive issues like whether a woman has a right to abortion or not, whether children born to illegal immigrants are automatically eligible for US citizenship, whether same-sex couples should be allowed to marry, or whether a mosque should be built near ground zero - instead of applying duct tape over the lips of a minority position.
No wonder millions flock to the American shores. The United States accepts more legal immigrants every year than all other countries combined. In 2008, over a million people were naturalized as US citizens, mainly emigrating from Mexico, India and China.
Talk to Muslim Americans and you will hear just how valued, how precious, this tolerance is to them. Some would strongly disagree with the American foreign policy, and some would lament about a personal experience of discrimination. But in my experience, all would agree on one thing: that the United States provides them with more freedom, more security, more opportunity, and more peace than the country from which they emigrated.
Since that day on the Jersey shore, I have made it a habit to make room for my fellow citizens wherever I can. It's only my way to reciprocate to you, America, for you have made room for millions of immigrants like me and provided us the opportunity to live with equality, justice, and freedom.
I still get teary eyed thinking about my homeland; particularly with all the mayhem in the name of religion. But, whenever my plane takes off from the Baltimore-Washington Airport, I look down at the rooftops and my heart says, "That's my home, that's my home."
A version of this article previously appeared in the Christian Science Monitor on July 1st, 2011
Faheem Younus is an adjunct faculty member for religion and history at the Community Colleges of Baltimore County and a clinical associate professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. He can be reached at Faheem.Younus@Ahmadiyya.us