I was on my way to the Detroit Metro Airport for my first trip to Syria and Egypt, my countries of origin. After a long drive and some exhaustive hours of hauling countless bags, we were finally in line for the security check. My family crossed through but I, a mere child at the time, was stopped. In my hand was a replica of a time capsule from the Dragon Ball Z series. The toy itself was comprised of a miniature ship within a transparent, plastic sphere. Inside the sphere was a piston attached to a platform for the miniscule ship, which if pressed launched the ship. My family and I watched as a mass of security guards gathered around in a circle anxiously examining the toy. And then came the moment of truth: One of the security guards pressed the piston and the ship launched from the sphere. On the hard, cold floor laid my shattered innocence. With a sigh of relief, they returned the broken toy without so much as an apology.
Many years have passed since then, but the harsh scrutiny Muslims face has not subsided. If anything, the flame of suspicion has grown considerably. I need not explain every Muslim's struggle in a post-9/11 era. The incident above, and the many to follow, left me perplexed and hurt, to say the least. I am grateful for my upbringing in the United States, and witnessing firsthand the corruption that laid Egypt and Syria to waste only strengthened my admiration for our core democratic values. Yet, my peers in middle school would often wonder if playing with me would be safe. Every encounter was an interrogation if anything. Questions such as "Are YOU a terrorist?" were all too common. How I despised the connotation of that word -- "you." I guess bearing the name Jihad -- an Arabic word meaning "to exert oneself" but erroneously taken to mean "holy crusade"-- did not help. I envisioned myself like any other kid growing up in the 90s. Recollections of Pokemon, Nickelodeon and birthday parties at Chuck E. Cheese still leave me nostalgic. So what is it that warrants this alienation?
Just two weeks ago some friends and I attended the third annual Muslim Ivy Conference at Yale University. This gathering emphasized community engagement and leadership development in hopes of contributing to a better America. When I returned to Princeton, my roommate informed me about the NYPD's unscrupulous surveillance of Muslim Student Associations across the Northeast, including those of Yale, UPenn and Rutgers. The surveillance extended from surveying emails to kindly accompanying students on white-water-rafting trips (a clearly suspicious activity). Why the NYPD felt it necessary to go well beyond their jurisdiction and violate the trust of normal college students, who just happened to be Muslim, is beyond me. The NYPD's antagonizing actions should concern all Americans on a number of grounds.
The NYPD's actions only serve to marginalize the Muslim community. Its exploits suggest to the general public that Muslims have yet to integrate into the fabric of American society and, henceforth, should be the subjects of harsh inquiry. What the NYPD fails to recognize is that this "us" and "they" attitude is counterproductive to a wish for healthy integration. Muslims in America have demonstrated an earnest willingness to eradicate any instances of homegrown terrorism. So why would the NYPD violate the trust of proponents of a safer America?
It may come as a surprise that Muslims have been a part of American culture for quite some time. As much as 20 percent of slaves brought into America were Muslims. Numerous artists, engineers and even Princeton alumni have been Muslims. The recent heinous acts of a few radicals should not undermine the extensive, positive presence of Muslims in America.
Not only do the NYPD's deeds unravel this nation's fabric, but they also serve as a disheartening reality for other minorities. The prevalence of unethical practices in regard to minority rights is no novel issue. The boundaries set forth by our civil liberties must be strictly adhered to unless we want a repetition of the estrangement of specific minority groups as we have seen in the past (African Americans, Catholics, Jews and other minorities can surely relate). The mistreatment of Muslims today may extend to Hindus, Sikhs (often ignorantly mistaken for Muslims) and potentially American citizens from any and all walks of life.
It is human nature to prefer the familiar and reject what we perceive as "foreign." Our understanding of who is an American is ever evolving. Much like how a child must balance assimilation and accommodation during development, America must evolve an understanding of what it is to be a citizen. The NYPD's actions demonstrate a lack of understanding of American progress and disregard for contributions made by Muslim-American workers and students. Cynthia Cherrey, the vice president for campus life at Princeton, has already assured the University's support for the Muslim community. Other universities expressed similar sentiments. I have spent most my life trying to prove I am an American, but there is no need to prove who I am, and no other American -- Muslim or otherwise -- should ever have to feel marginalized.
A version of this post originally appeared in The Daily Princetonian.