Note: This article was initially published on my blog Stand & Stare
On Sunday I marched and protested at the Rally for No Muslim Ban. I made a sign. Turns out I make good signs and a lot of people liked and tweeted about it (thanks Full Frontal for the retweet!) A number of people at the rally and later asked me why, as a Muslim, I still believe and have faith in American exceptionalism. Below is my response to them
There is an Urdu saying: “Umeed pe duniya kayam hai,” which means, “The world sustains itself on hope.” It’s something I heard a lot growing up in Mumbai. You can see how important this notion of hope is to people who grow up in tiny homes, filled with 15–16 people, limited water supply, and brutal commutes to jobs that barely pay enough. Hope for a better tomorrow was all you had. I always believed the tougher your life, the more hope you needed. To me, hope always seemed a show of how little control you had of a certain situation. So the richer, more successful people did not hope, they expected. Expectation is a luxury. I always believed that the goal in life should be to turn as many of your hopes into expectations as possible.
An aside: We can talk about how having expectations, really, is privilege. And that is 100 percent true. When someone expects to be not profiled, that is a privilege; or when someone expects his opinion to be taken seriously, that is a privilege — but let’s leave that alone for now.
This distinction between hope and expectation is important. Let me explain why. I am an immigrant to these shores. I am also a Muslim. I grew up as a minority in India where I saw first hand the horrors of religious violence and what happens when a group of people is not afforded basic protection by its Government. I lived through the communal riots of ’92, where we had to ‘hide out’ because we were afraid of angry mobs coming to burn down our homes. I witnessed countless other horrific events in those days that made me question basic humanity and put a fear into me that I carry to this day. A fear that just by your name or the community you happen to be born into, you could be at risk. At risk of being brutalized and watching the same happen to your family. And the only response you have to this fear is hope. Hope that the institutions around you will do their best to make sure this does not happen and protect you. It is hope that is often times shattered. Yet hope is all people have.
As an immigrant, what makes America the shining city on the hill for me is that this is the only place I could dare to expect equal treatment and protection rather than just hope for it.
Not in America though. As an immigrant, what makes America the shining city on the hill for me is that this is the only place I could dare to expect equal treatment and protection rather than just hope for it. Now I know, this is not actually always the case here. Just read the report on police brutality against African Americans in Chicago. So I am not saying that American institutions treat every one equally no matter what their race, sex, etc. What I am saying is that this is the one place where expecting them to do so is not completely laughable.
My wife (who is a total badass by the way, works to prepare teachers to teach in high-poverty areas) is constantly showing me how some of the largest institutions in this country are not treating everyone equally. She sees the bias in public education (don’t get her started on Betsy Devos) and asks me how can I still have so much faith in American institutions?
I don’t think I have yet to give her a satisfactory answer. Maybe I expect more from America, because this notion of equality is built into its ideals. Now, trust me, I know that America has not always lived up to these ideals (far from it — and it continues to still fall short far too many times). But the fact that these ideals are there give every person who lives here a base level of expectation that they will be treated equally.
And I truly believe and expect that when push comes to shove (as it is now), a majority of Americans will stand up for these rights for others around them. It may sound like a terribly low (and naive) bar, but it is more than most places have. And this expectation — this ideal — is the one thing that gives me hope. I know this sounds so terribly naïve. I know that, but you have to understand that those of us who leave behind our homes and families to come here do so because we believe and expect that we may live with dignity. We buy into the notion of the shining city on a hill, because we believe in its people who are (for the most part) descendants of those who came here for the same reasons we did.
I may very well be delusional for still believing, that Americans will not let this turn into 1940s Germany for us, that the ideals of this nation will not let them cross the line.
And yes, that light does appear to be dimming. I used the word dignity earlier, and I felt slightly robbed of it on Saturday when the ban came out. It felt like: this again?
Another aside: Some people question the uproar caused by the ban. They point to the policies against foreigners by governments of Muslim countries (Jews being banned in various countries in the Middle East), and therefore, why should America be any different? To that I say, yes, I agree that these countries are awful in the way they treat outsiders. Forget outsiders — they are horrific in the way they treat their own: gay people, women, minorities, etc. No one can defend them, nor should they even try. But why would you even compare them to America? Since when does America try to emulate the worst in the world? America’s own today were yesterday’s refugees and immigrants. They were the people who in their own countries only had hope, hope that they would not be persecuted for who they were. They came to America to expect something different.
And while Saturday chipped away at my dignity, Sunday built back my faith. I went out with my wife and 1-year-old son and stood with the best America has to offer. The people who epitomize this notion of American exceptionalism for me. The people who speak up, even though they don’t have to (more on that here). The people who know that my rights are their rights and that I deserve to expect the same treatment as everyone else in this nation.
I don’t know what will happen in the coming months (weeks?). It seems like we are entering a period of darkness and despair. I find myself hoping slightly more and expecting slightly less. But I still believe in the notion of American exceptionalism and that this will not slip into despair and the light on the hill will not be extinguished.
But I realize that I may be in the minority when it comes to this belief in American exceptionalism. I may very well be delusional for still believing, that Americans will not let this turn into 1940s Germany for us, that the ideals of this nation will not let them cross the line. Many people pointed out my delusion when they saw the sign. They are feeling despair. I get it. To them, my expectations sound ridiculous. To them I can only offer the below. Words I wrote to check myself from slipping into despair. Words I read every time I feel like I am losing hope and the light is extinguishing.
The Company of Hope
The evening of anguish long, but it is only an evening.
Do not despair, my fellow traveler.
These difficulties shall not always be with us
These are just conquests for tomorrows’ yesterday.
Some day our caravan shall reach that new land, and kiss that new sky
But until then you and I are incomplete.
It is from this rubble of despondency
That we build a piece of that new land.
It is from this clay of neither rhyme nor melody
That we sculpt our sunset.
It is in this abyss of sorrow
That we raise the majesty of their marvel
Ours is always a solitary friendship
Nothing is shared; except the pulse of aspiration
And only in the damp shadows of dreams do you see me
You carried me when They first saw you
I carried you when no one else did
When the glare of the peak made you gaze down
I guided your glance through sheets of clouds wrapping their way up the mountain.
So sit back my friend, while your heart searches for the sunset, remember:
The treacherous path that hinders your every step will make their loyalty last longer
The dark that envelops your view will make the survey of conquest brighter
The wails of frustration that leap from your soul make the echoes of jubilation louder
Take my hand, my friend and shatter out of the warm embrace of inertia.
Each step you take hurries this evening closer to an end.
And once the sun sets on this night and your want for me melts into the morning of glory
Do not forget that this summit may one day seem like the shallow of yesterday
And I will emerge from the demise of content as our journey will begin anew.