Muslim-Americans and the American Dream

June 17, 2010 by  


Editor’s note:  The TMO Foundation conducted a scholarship essay contest and TMO is now printing the essays of some of the entrants to the contest.

Hamdan Azhar-Photo This is the essay of Mr. Hamdan Azhar, who was disqualified because he is a student of biostatistics rather than journalism, despite his good writing.  He wrote on “Muslim Americans and the American Dream.”

My country, ‘tis of thee, Sweet land of liberty, Of thee I sing;

Land where my fathers died, Land of the pilgrims’ pride, From every mountainside

Let freedom ring!

Since its founding, America has attracted waves of immigrants with the promise of those same time-honored principles that lured the earliest settlers to this land: liberty, justice, and equality.

Yet our history is not just one of commitment to these noble values, but also one of failing to bring them into play for all.

Unfortunately, efforts to disenfranchise certain groups and deny them their share of the American dream have been all too common in the past. Irish and Italian-Americans were subjected to violent backlash and anti-immigrant hysteria at the turn of the 20th century. During World War II, Japanese-Americans were placed in internment camps. The election of a black president was possible due to the blood and sweat of generations of civil rights leaders who fought to eliminate the cancer of racism from our midst. The promise of America is one that we must all struggle to achieve and it is this struggle that has defined the Muslim-American experience.

Muslim-Americans are part of a diverse and hard-working community. Some are the children of immigrants who came to this nation in search of freedom and opportunity, while others are native to this land. What unites us is the same passion that inspired so many generations before – to partake in our share of the American dream.

In one of the first major studies of the Muslim-American community, the Pew Research Center reported that Muslims are well-integrated and active members of society, sharing the same hopes and dreams as other Americans. The report demonstrated what has become a defining fact of life for some 7 million Muslim-Americans — that there is no contradiction between being a Muslim and being an American.

Unfortunately, the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks saw Muslims confronting the same obstacles that earlier generations faced in their pursuit of the promise of America: racism, bigotry and prejudice. Hate crimes were perpetrated against those who were merely perceived to be Muslims, employees faced workplace discrimination, and innocent civilians were subjected to unfair and unreasonable treatment in dealings with law enforcement and government bodies.

In 2009, the Council on American-Islamic Relations processed over 3000 civil rights complaints, a number that has been rising every year since 9/11. Muslim-Americans have become the latest group to face obstacles in their quest for the American dream. But if history is to be any guide, they will not give up that dream so easily.

Freedom and justice are more than outdated words scrawled on wrinkled pieces of parchment. They encapsulate the struggles faced by an entire people on a daily basis. The Muslim-American struggle for acceptance is more than an ethnic struggle or a sectarian struggle; it is a fundamentally American struggle. History has demonstrated that by virtue of their circumstances, marginalized peoples often have a unique appreciation for the value of freedom and equality, and in times of crisis, it is they who remain standing in defense of justice. Indeed, true citizenship requires loyalty not to any person or ideology, but to the principles that make America great.

“My country, right or wrong” has become an unfortunate catchphrase of the false patriotism of this age. However, if one’s country is in the wrong, should one not strive to make it right? Speaking out against unfair and unjust government policies is the founding principle behind our democratic system of government and it should be applauded, not condemned. Thus, Muslim-Americans have spoken out against the Patriot Act and other attacks on civil liberties because they contradict everything this country stands for.

The American dream is an elusive dream, yes, and at times it seems to have been lost in the fog, never to be found again; perhaps, we think, it was just an illusion in our minds, but ah, what a dream it was, how many countless millions it inspired and how many gave their lives – fighting for the dream and fighting the dream, fighting to make it their own, to make it everything it could be and should be and ought to be – everything it will be, because this is our dream.

This is the “city upon a hill”, that shining beacon of liberty and justice, honor and fidelity, honesty and hard work – and as Muslims, we understand that dream because the values it represents are our own. But many of us have never seen that dream because our vision has been clogged with the blood and sweat of all those under the weight of that dream that has turned into a nightmare.

Yes, it is difficult to see that dream today, lost amidst war and oppression, imperialism and carpet bombs, red alerts and Guantanamo Bay, what happened to that dream, we scream, we get silence in reply, dream, what dream?, they say, wake up, time to meet reality, they who see with their eyes, blind to the light, oblivious to the dream, reality is what we make it and life is how we lead it, and so we choose to follow – our dreams.

Despite facing obstacles, we remain proud of our struggle to reclaim that American dream. By defending the rights of the vulnerable in society, by fighting against bigotry and promoting justice and equality for all, our values-based activism ensures that the promise of America is brought into reach for all.

The Qur’an reminds us that “Man can have nothing but what he strives for.” The American dream has been wrought in continuous struggle since this nation was founded and our time is no different. The promise of America is one we must all struggle to attain.

Will our “sweet land of liberty” remain nothing but words sung by children in elementary school? Or will our children grow up in an America that is true to its promise? The choice is ours.

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