Since the September 11th attacks, the question of how it feels to be a Muslim in America has been analysed from many angles. With the rise of Trump, nationalism and anti-Muslim sentiment has taken centre-stage in US politics.The rate of attacks on Muslims on US soil has surpassed the levels recorded in 2001. I wanted to get deeper into the relationship Muslims have with the US, their personal experience living here, and how they perceive their identity and heritage.
I sat down with my friend and fellow UNT student Azmar, discussing the challenges of not only being a Muslim in the US but also being a Pakistani national. I wanted to hear more about an issue that is largely ignored or over-simplified, getting a deeper look at a minority group in the US that is much talked about, but very rarely talked to.
Azmar moved from Pakistan to the United States with his family in 2015. He spoke briefly about the desire for them to seek the prosperity and security of the US. He stated that his uncle sponsored his family’s visa application back in 1999, however 9/11 shifted the political landscape and visas from muslim countries were processed slower. Largely, the post 9-11 ramifications is analysed in the context of the subsequent US aggression abroad. However, Azmar’s family took just over 15 years to get their visa and had “stopped taking it seriously”, all but giving up on the prospect of coming.
Now in the States for four years, Azmar says that he himself has not experienced much Islamophobia. His mother, however, had been racially abused at the DMV. In an argument with an employee there, she was told, “if you guys are going to take our towers, then we’ll get you”. This blatant prejudice had not majorly discouraged him or his family from being Muslim or living in America generally, an example of the resilience instilled in him and his family which became obvious in the space of our conversation.
However, he made clear that his choice to dress in ‘western clothes’, the same clothes he wore back home in Pakistan, work as a protective mechanism for him against both stark and subtle racism. His concern was not about being attacked, it was a rather a more personal concern. Many of his friends he said, “have got uncomfortable with people” because of their choice to wear more Islamic dress. This was the most shocking part of the interview for me. This was my friend telling me that people he identified as friends would not accept him if he chose to express himself as more openly Muslim. They are accepting him, but not his identity, not really.
An unavoidable issue, unfortunately, is the rapid rise of President Donald Trump and his new brand of ‘American-First’ nationalism. He confirmed there had been an impact on him and his family’s view on their own security, but had more fear for the future than despair for the present. He referred to how Trump “gives voice” to a lot of people who are racist and radical on the fringe of the political sphere. Now, their views had become mainstreamed. His parents were “worried…but my family back home were way more worried”. His relatives in Pakistan saw Trump’s words and the news of his rise, and sincerely worried about the safety of them. Azmar played down some of the hysteria, arguing that things occasionally were overplayed in the media, however confirmed that he felt the average American citizen was clearly having their perception of immigrants shifting in a more negative direction.
The blame for this, he believes, is largely on the medias shoulders. Its tendency to label any muslim attacker (and only muslim attackers) as terrorists, was a particular example that riled him. He felt frustrated that the media was using its power to endanger his community, instead of leading from the front in educating the public on the issue. All many Americans know about the East, he argues, is Hollywood showing them big nosed, loud, aggressive terrorists. An ignorance, we both believe, that starts on the screen and can end in murderous attacks.
Lastly, I asked about the question of ‘dual loyalty’ and how he identifies now as a Pakistani national living in America. His first response was religious, telling me that the Quran states that he must defend the land he lives on, arguing that means it’s his “duty” to fight for the United States if circumstances meant it necessary. He made it clear that he spent most of his life in Pakistan, and therefore was “around 80% Pakistani”. He had made the US his home now though, accepting that as his present and likely future.
In my view, the lack of time we spend humanising those who have uprooted themselves, often to simply help their kids have a better life, is wholly damaging. The rise of nationalism in the US is creating an atmosphere of division and an intolerance of difference. This is not an original chapter in Western history, but Azmar’s concern of a shift against his community is demonstrated by the spike in attacks not seen since 9/11. The trend seems to be going against the liberal values America has publicly said it values so much, harking back to an uglier time in its history.