The President held a dinner at the White House last month in honor of Ramadan where he discussed the upcoming 10th anniversary of the September 11 attacks. This year, Ramadan is sandwiched between that anniversary and an epic moment in my personal life, my wedding. As I reflect on these important events, the connection between the two is strikingly obvious: they are both very American.
Our wedding was big, fat, and Pakistani. I had six outfits for three days, my groom and I participated in rituals that left our faces yellow with turmeric, my friends performed a hip-hop/Hindi dance medley, and we served possibly the entire variety of South Asian food in the DC tri-state area.
Image Credit: walknboston via Flickr
This might sound like a Bollywood movie, but if you delve deeper, the wedding was one that could only happen in the U.S. It was not because I wore a white sari instead of the traditional red or that we had an aisle for my father to walk me down. It was because I married outside my tight-knit faith-based community and it wasn’t a big deal.
In the beginning, our relationship did face challenges. Since my groom is Sunni and I am Shi’a, people close to us were afraid that one of us would have to give up our own unique practice of Islam for the other's. What was different about us seemed starker than what we shared. Even I began to question my ability to live a life across dual identities. But the reality was that I loved my partner partly because our differences opened my eyes to different perspectives of not just religion and community, but to who I wanted to be. He taught me that these differences were non-issues that could become assets. Time also made our loved ones come around to what they knew best and what they knew from their faith: tolerance, pluralism, and a belief in love. Our families had come to the U.S. hoping to be embraced by these very principles and we had thrived in an environment that allowed us to be whatever we wanted. It was never a question of either/or--not Pakistani or American, Muslim or patriotic. We were all of those at once.
It made sense that we could celebrate our mixed-marriage in the place that accepted diversity as strength. It was not always an easy road, but embracing diversity rarely is; it is a purposeful, intentional exercise. The story of my husband and me, just like the story of the U.S., is one that worked because of the values of honoring differences, trusting the other, and celebrating what we have in common. Seven years after we started dating, we stood together and were guided by officiants from each of our traditions who reminded us of the Qu’ranic verse that says, “O mankind! Lo! We have created you male and female, and have made you nations and tribes that ye may know one another.”
Days after my wedding, this verse echoed again in my mind as I visited my uncle and aunt at their hotel overlooking Ground Zero. The site is never easy to face, and for me, as an American Muslim, the emotions surrounding the events of September 11 are complex. Several commentators “remind” us that the hijackers were Muslim, some even reproaching the President for not mentioning this fact in his speech about 9/11 at the White House iftar last month. It is as if being Muslim makes us indifferent to - even responsible for - the tragedy since people who claim to profess our faith attacked this nation. Worse yet, there is an undertone that American Muslims are less American than others. Such super-imposed collective guilt is as ridiculous as saying that American Catholics were responsible for Timothy McVeigh’s 1995 bombing in Oklahoma City.
The 9/11 perpetrators attacked all Americans, irrespective of religion. So, why are Muslims held responsible for the actions of a group of extremists? The reality is Muslims, like other Americans, lost family, friends, and loved ones, too. I stood in the Student Union of Brown University watching, on TV, the black plume spill out of the towers when I remembered my cousin had just started his new job at the World Trade Center that week. Another relative happened to be traveling that day when he lost his entire team of partners and staff on a top floor of the first tower. Muslims reacted then as everyone else did to the bombings, mobilizing immediately as first responders, as firemen, as community volunteers, as interfaith leaders. We were also inspired to serve our nation. The Department of Defense reported in 2006 that at least 2,500 Muslim servicemen and women had deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq. Hundreds of Muslims, including myself, entered public service by working as civil servants at the Department of Defense, the Department of State, Department of Homeland Security, and even the White House.
Still, Muslims in the U.S. had to contend with severe backlash and discrimination. The South Asian American Leaders of Tomorrow issued a report shortly after 9/11 that documented 645 incidents of bias, including harassment, threats, and violence, against South Asian and Middle Eastern communities in the six days following 9/11. Similarly, a 2011 Gallup poll reported that 48% of American Muslims experienced religious or racial discrimination just in the past year.
We all want to understand why someone would want to attack our country. But, our strength and our resilience depend upon building our nation together, not chipping away at our unity. Drawing myopic conclusions based on religion alone benefits no one. The fact that 22% of Americans would not elect a Mormon as president, according to a recent Gallup poll, indicates that we have a long way to go in demystifying religion. If we continue to view the followers of minority religions as lacking in “Americanness” we will not be able to build a resilient foundation that can respond effectively to threats against our nation.
During Ramadan, Muslims are reminded to be solemn, to be disciplined, to reflect and to treat others with love and respect. These practices could not come at a better time as we approach the tenth anniversary of September 11. When I look at the trajectory of my long relationship with the man who is now my husband, I am grateful that both my country and my faith helped me turn way from fearing a loss of my identity as a Shi’a Imami Ismaili Muslim to embracing the positive differences that our union engenders. If we could all start from embracing opportunity rather than fear, then maybe we could look past religion and start using our differences – and similarities – as the assets they are.
Noor works for the federal government and is a Truman National Security Fellow. She has worked on U.S government outreach to foreign audiences, particularly in Muslim-majority countries, for five years.
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