I took the oath of allegiance Friday, realizing a 24-year dream of becoming an American citizen.
Though I had read the oath numerous times to prepare for the naturalization test, it wasn’t until the moment I recited it at the federal courthouse in Brooklyn that my voice faltered. My throat tightened as I recognized the palpable liberty with which America now embraced me.
In those short powerful moments I realized that at last I had become an American. I had also become a citizen at a time when Muslims in America are increasingly under pressure from rising xenophobic hostility and predatory Islamism.
The rhetoric in the United States has never been more hostile to America’s tiny Muslim population — about 1 percent of the U.S. adult population. The Paris terrorist attacks escalated mistrust of Muslims in the United States, with dozens of American governors reflexively refusing to accommodate Syrian refugees — a shocking conflation of the victims of Bashar Assad’s genocidal assault on his fellow citizens along with the Islamic State and other Islamist jihadists. In the rise of American animus toward Muslims after the shootings in San Bernardino, California, we again fuse the perpetrators with the wider Muslim community.
Dehumanizing Muslims not only alienates one of America’s most industrious migrant populations, but also chills the climate of cooperation among Muslim communities in the United States with the authorities charged with protecting us all. Without a doubt, Islamism (radical Islam) cannot be confronted, let alone defeated, without engaging Muslims like myself who are committed to oppose it.
The fear of Muslims many Americans feel — primed by extreme speech, the lingua franca of the GOP presidential campaign, particularly that of Donald Trump — is poised to dismantle our foundations as a noble liberal, secular democracy. Trump and his ilk fail to recall that in his authorship of the Declaration of Independence, Founding Father Thomas Jefferson studied the Quran to best envision a United States as a place where he imagined Muslims could find religious freedom and freedoms of all nature. Indiscriminate attacks on Muslims, including American Muslims, debase these sacrosanct American values.
All too often, Muslims are labeled a threat to liberal democracy, Islam is wrongly deemed incompatible with democracy, or as GOP White House hopeful Ben Carson notoriously claimed, Muslims are unfit to be president. The claims are egregiously ignorant and contemptible. However, they can be understood when examining the Muslim majority world through its uniform failure to adopt human rights, unambiguous denial of religious and individual freedoms, and widely embraced clerical interpretations of Islam in man-made Sharia law that deviate vastly from the spirit, and often the letter, of Islam.
Lacking a firm basis or an understanding of the alternative to Islamism — pluralist Islam — Islamism and its neo-fundamentalist orthodoxy emerge as victor in such casual judgment of Muslims. Through such myopic vantage, one might forgivably suggest that Islam is incompatible with democracy, or that Muslims are unfit for office, without realizing it is Islamism that is incompatible with democracy, not Islam itself.
Indulging fears undermines the stability of Muslims in America, and only adds fuel to the fire. It is Muslims in a secular, liberal, democratic America who can embody the values both of pluralistic Islam and of liberal democracy that guarantee free will in the pursuit of belief and the equal value of all peoples.
The Quran reveres as sacred, more than any other woman, Mary, the mother of Jesus, and values Moses as a brave and holy prophet, the Torah as a divine book that Muslims must believe in, and the Injeel (the Christian Gospel) as a sacred text that Muslims must accept as legitimate. Further, the Quran documents the right to multiple paths to God’s redemption and salvation through many faiths. In sum, Islam as documented in the Quran, embraces plurality of religions, the right to choose to believe or not and the equal value placed on individuals of all beliefs — precisely in line with American values.
Words build the houses we must live within. And if the anti-Muslim rhetoric in the United States is not reined in, malignant sentiments will not only lead to the figurative and perhaps literal incarceration of Muslims, as once they shamefully led to that of the Japanese, but also to the incarceration of ourselves as Americans as we increasingly divorce from our own legacy of American ideals. We will at that stage be poised to do precisely what the jihadists seek — the dismemberment of our own democracy by our own hand, and confirm for Islamists globally that in America, Muslims and democracy are under siege.
Qanta A. Ahmed is an attending physician at Winthrop University Hospital in Mineola. She is the author of “In the Land of Invisible Women: A Female Doctor’s Journey in the Saudi Kingdom.”