Vol. 5 Num 590 Wed. January 25, 2006  

Muslims and America
Integration or isolation?

I once praised a client in a property purchase on his large down-payment. He explained that he had lived for years with roommates in a one-bedroom apartment, ate rice and lentils, lived on his tips and saved his salary for investments. He also sent money monthly to his family in Bangladesh. At his closing I could not resist asking how a Bangladeshi immigrant came to have the last name "Regan (sic)." When he became a US citizen, he was asked if he wanted to change his name. A fan of Ronald Reagan's, he changed his last name.

America and American-Muslims are at significant and interdependent crossroads. As a multicultural superpower, America must reconcile competing national interests. American-Muslims must resolve tensions between our religion and nationality. Both must integrate smoothly into the world and society.

The Muslim immigrant experience differs from that of other immigrants in a troubling way. Our religious heritage is seen as harder to accommodate than those of previous groups. 9/11 created a "see something, say something" climate in which the perception of Muslims has moved from being merely different to dangerous, and where Islamic names, dress, and organizations are deemed suspicious.

I am often asked whether I am a typical Muslim. Engaging Muslim neighbours, doctors, cab drivers, one finds that the silent majority share American values and hopes for a better life. I am not a "moderate" or "progressive" Muslim, but a simple Muslim who is a better American because Islam is moderate and progressive. My family history illustrates the promise of the American Dream and the reality of a changed world. My father, like many South Asians, came here in the 1970s to study engineering. To a man constantly reminding us that he landed "with $11 dollars in his pocket," a job offer from Bechtel began his American Dream. In time, my parents invested in real estate and profited from the stock market. They taught us hard work, financial responsibility, and appreciation of our culture. While my father helped build our town's first mosque, we also celebrated Hindu festivals with fellow Bengalis. When a girlfriend invited me to Easter services, he urged me to attend a synagogue as well since Islam encourages studying every religion. My mother stressed Islam's respect for all God's creations, love of learning and social justice.

Our parents valued education over a more lavish lifestyle. Now that their children have joined America's mainstream as a lawyer, a United States Air Force Captain, an investment banker, and a pre-med student, we face a different world than the one they tried to prepare us for. They could not protect us from an "either you are with us or against us" mentality where American-Muslims questioned if they belonged. They could not anticipate that my father's and his Air Force son's names would match ones on the "No-Fly list."

Although American-Muslims should not be expected to apologize for every bad act committed by Muslims, they can be expected to act responsibly. They are rightfully upset at Muslims being deported or profiled and should become organized and involved in the legislative process to address this. Many first generation Muslims felt "home" was their country of origin, and America was a temporary stop for education or work. This sentiment was a metaphor for their life, one foot in America, one foot back "home," rooted nowhere. Such thinking hampered institution building and the civic and political engagement of American-Muslims. Often these immigrants had left corrupt systems and disdained political activity. Despite cautionary advice from native, more politically seasoned Muslims, national Muslim organizations collectively endorsed Bush in the 2000 elections based on his expressed concerns about using secret evidence. They now face the disillusionment of having elected a president who rewarded them with the Patriot Act and Special Registration. Our growing numbers do not yet translate into commensurate influence; Muslim votes and issues are still taken for granted or ignored by leaders we elect. In the last presidential election when Muslim organizations requested a meeting with Kerry, he declined.

Muslims must engage with America, but America also has to engage with Muslims. At a time when America needs friends within its Muslim population and in the Muslim world, it is alienating both. Despite President Bush's insistence that the "War on Terror" was not a War on Islam, his rhetoric rings hollow. Similarly, in spite of continuous and repeated condemnations of terrorism by American-Muslims and organizations, they are not heard. The Bush Administration's domestic and foreign policies have had a disparate negative impact on American-Muslims and the Muslim world, which public diplomacy cannot ameliorate. One Muslim leader listed the causes of the Muslim world's anger as the invasion and occupation of Iraq, the Israeli/Palestinian conflict and America's support for undemocratic regimes. The US government should be forthright about its interests but act as a humble, honest broker. Not only our credibility, but our way of life depends on it.

Our legitimate security interests should balance civil rights. As a lawyer representing Muslim immigrants, I see a critical gap between policymakers' perceptions and grassroots reality which jeopardizes national security. At a meeting with NYPD Counterterrorism representatives when examples of "suspicious behaviours" were identified as including many men living together, keeping odd hours, and not socializing with neighbors, I pointed out most of my clients share such characteristics and none are terrorists. I wondered whether my client Mr. Regan would be considered "suspicious" for his frugal ways. Sending money abroad is now harder under new Treasury Department guidelines causing many banks to discontinue international money transfers. Unlike Ralph Lauren, born Ralph Lipschitz, Mr. Regan's name change may not hasten his assimilation, nor will his entrepreneurship guarantee his family prosperity.

The American Dream means the son of an immigrant house painter can go on to define American fashion. Eroding civil rights and misguided immigration policies are not only wrong -- they don't work. What American Dream will our children inherit? Will we uphold the Constitution, even as terrorism weakens our security? Will America welcome future engineers from Muslim countries and remain the world's innovator? Will Muslims embrace America as home and strengthen our great country? Or will both withdraw to a place of fear and isolation? These questions require soul-searching for all Americans; for American-Muslims they shape our existence and future. The fate of American-Muslims, America and the world is inexorably linked. There is no "us and them," we are all in this together.

Moushumi Khan is an attorney in private practice in New York focusing on civil rights issues in the Muslim and immigrant community.