Two years ago, I attended a mock-government conference that changed my life. After spending months crafting legislation, running for the office of Senator in a mock election, and preparing myself to represent Maryland at the Girl's Nation civic program, I found myself standing before a group of empowered young women who had decided that I was fit to be their President and the representative of every branch of the National and State programs created by the American Legion Auxiliary. It made sense, then, that I would carry my "Presidential" gavel with care for the next two years, wear my American flag hijab with patriotism and hope, and dream of one day working for the State Department and enacting the change that I had seen come to life at Nation.
Yet last Monday, as I sat down to breakfast, I came to the frustrated conclusion that some would prefer that my hopes never be realized- in particular, those such as Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson.
Last week, in an interview on Meet the Press, Carson was quoted saying he "would not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation". The transcript of his comments depict a deep misunderstanding of what it means to be Muslim, and what the true tenets of Islam truly are. However, more concerning than Carson's belief that oppressing women and being intolerant are parts of a Muslim's daily routine is what came after these comments.
In the many interviews, news snippets, and question sessions that followed, Carson's clarifications only solidified his firm belief in an instituted concept of Othering that for years has plagued not only Muslims, but also Japanese Americans in the time of World War Two. At a campaign event in Michigan, Carson was quoted clarifying his statement by firmly stating, "We have an American culture and an American constitution, and anybody who occupies our White House should be living in a pattern that is consistent with our constitution and our culture."
Ben Carson's statement underscores the influence of the rhetoric of Othering in American politics- rhetoric that has existed since the founding of our country, when the idea of even heathen Muslims becoming a part of America was used to push for the separation of Church and State. According to those like Carson, being an American is possible by name through obtaining a green card- but true American behavior is incompatible with everything deemed "Other" that lies outside of the traditional American perspective in this country.
Politicians like Ben Carson aren't shooting blindly on this Othering rhetoric without any gains. Post-Islamophobic rant, Carson's ratings have risen in polls, and within 24 hours following the CNN debate in which his remarks were made, he raised over $1 million. He was seen reporting proudly to FOX news on Wednesday that "the money has been coming in so fast, it's hard to even keep up with it. " Carson is not alone. Donald Trump, Mike Huckabee, Ted Cruz, Sarah Palin, John McCain, Mitt Romney- past and present presidential hopefuls alike have been joining the move towards fear-mongering and othering rhetoric, knowing full well that the market for such comments is steadily growing.
We Muslims are left to deal with the aftermath of this distortion of our identities. We are stereotyped and generalized to be uniformly Arab, uniformly violent, and uniformly radical. We become incompatible with American values and American ideals.
Because of this, to be Muslim in America is to be a political symbol. To be Muslim in America is to choose between apologist and isolationist. To be Muslim in America is to allow the ignorance of a majority to paint a caricature of Islam, distort our beliefs as un-American, and command us to reject our seemingly incompatible religion. To be Muslim in America is to be either a sellout or a traitor. To be Muslim in America is to be a walking contradiction with no claim to patriotism or citizenship. It is to fall prey to the dichotomy constructed by political and media systems that benefit off of fear-mongering and Othering rhetoric.
These days, I can't walk outside with a hijab on my head without being politicized in some way. I can't call myself a feminist without a PhD student reaching out to conduct an interview, because somehow the "dichotomy" of my identities is interesting- as though the complexity of who I am and what I believe can be ground up and melded down to fit into two roughly hewn opposing labels. I can't wear an American flag hijab without it being seen as some sort of political contradiction. I can't be a young student in college with big dreams without those dreams crumbling under the lens of Islamophobic political rhetoric and media coverage. The freedom to define who I am and what I hope to be has been taken from me, as it was taken from Ahmed Muhammad and so many other young Muslim Americans.
It is time for change. It is time to demand an alteration in the way our political system is run. It is time to reclaim the ownership of our identities from the political institutions that benefit off of fear mongering and political rhetoric. It is time to reclaim our rights to both faith and patriotism.
I'm going to pursue my dreams in the hopes that some day soon, the world will not second-guess, doubt, or make judgments on my identity. I am going to own my complexity, my love of America, and my love of the religion that has been a guiding buoyancy in the toughest of times. I'm going to be unapologetically me, and I'll be damned if I don't prove Mr. Carson wrong.