I have something I want to share with you, which I have never explained to you before. When I was a young man, I made a decision that would change the course of my life and ultimately yours as well. The skeleton in the closet of our lives is that as a wide-eyed, peach-fuzz lipped, knuckleheaded, eighteen-year-old, in the middle of one brisk March night, I said the following words that would change who I was forever: “there is no god but Allah and Muhammad is his last prophet.”
It was long before the frenzied age of rampant Islamophobia and nearly a decade before hijacked airplanes would slice into our hearts, like rusty blades that leave wounded tissue gangrenous with infection, claiming thousands of American lives along with our innocence, in a cacophony of death. There was no Muslim “Kaiser Soze” (boogeyman) yet; Bin Laden was not in the public conscious and most people in our nation associated Islam with the eloquence and dignity of Muhammad Ali, and not the straggly bearded, turban clad foreign accents that terrorized us from faraway lands.
My two friends, the lanky and tall Abbas and the pudgy faced Osama, shouted “Allahu Akbar!” in unison to affirm the pledge I spoke that night that made me a Muslim, and the sound of their cry ricocheted through the air like a lost memory echoing in the back of my skull, for I too was a victim, spoon-fed imagery of explosive Middle Eastern tropes. The hidden truth is that in the eyes of America, my brown skin and my unique heritage already categorized me as “other” in the eyes of xenophobic America. America was already Islamophobic, it just hadn’t learned the vocabulary yet. I grew up through the hostage crisis, embassy bombings, plane hijackings, and the Gulf War; I’d been the victim of school yard bullying and the default Iranian, Arab, Libyan, and Iraqi in all those instances, and ostensibly a Muslim, because of my brown skin. The same lovely hued skin you have.
America had already considered me “the other” in many ways, long before I became one, and back then I always had a cowardly way to retreat from the otherness they asserted upon me. I could say with conviction that I wasn’t Muslim or an Arab, or anything else other than what I was. Or take it a step further, become strategic and grow to hate and then bully the Muslims around me. The venom inside me had burgeoned into racial and ethnic slurs that I found myself using under my breath, and eventually I’m loathe to admit, at the top of my lungs in order to distance myself from those who had distanced me from my identity as an American.
I became the bully that I despised by targeted the false-identity they ascribed to me, in others and challenging their othering with self-hate. In that clouded time, Chuck D and Lord Jamar cut through my mental fog and spoke directly to me through cassette tapes stuffed in Walkman’s while the Poor Righteous Teachers taught me like no other teacher had in school and collectively, these Hip-Hop artists introduced me to a man named Malcolm X. It was ultimately Malcolm who began the process of healing me, and by the time I met your uncle Abbas as an eighteen-year-old college kid, I was enamored with the discipline in the faith of Islam.
Abbas, now a successful surgeon, was the first practicing Muslim I had ever met, and in him, I saw a Muslim who was emblematic of what Islam taught, as manifest in the example set by Malcolm; in our friendship, I discovered the essence of Islam, is love. This was a far outcry from the Muslims I had met through Hollywood, showcased in the media, or those whom I’d previously interacted with. Our brotherhood helped introduce me to Islam, but my decision to become Muslim was a choice to become what the world already thought I was—it was ultimately a resolution to embrace my otherness.
From that day to this one, I have survived by living in the hyphen; as a Muslim-American, in a nation that devolved rapidly from President Bush making a distinction between American Muslims and those who committed the atrocities on 9/11, to a president calling for a Muslim registry and travel ban. The otherness I’d embraced in my youth now encircles me like the serpentine wrappings of the pariah I’ve become—but one I would have been regardless of my choice to become a Muslim or not. The Qur’an foresaw the test we’d face as Muslims in America when in Chapter 29, it states, “Do people think that they will be left alone on saying, ‘We believe,’ and that they will not be tested? We did test those before them, and God will certainly know those who are true from those who are false.”
The great secret that I have kept from you is that I didn’t choose this life for you—but that it was chosen for us, by the ignoramuses that have equated brownness with otherness and have hung hyphens around all of our necks. The fact is whether you choose Islam or not, you will be inextricably related to it, and you can deny it at every turn, join the bullies, or choose to follow this path and thereby control the hyphen. This is the test.
Whether you choose to wear a scarf on your head or not, you will be a default ambassador for Islam. You will be forced to explain it and its practices at every turn and stupid people will question your nationality because of it; they will question your loyalty and they will typecast you into the role of other, so they can define themselves as civilized citizens while they demonize you. This is your test.
What may seem like a vice grip akin to a being trapped between a rock, or in this case Iraq, and a hard place, is truly a special place to be, because like the Quranic promise of a test of faith, there is a test of what it means to be American too. Ostensibly America is just a promise. It is a dream deferred until it is tested and realized for those collecting on its promissory notes. For example, it takes a person like Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf to test the promise of the freedom of expression by sitting during the national anthem, just as it takes a conscientious objector like the late Muhammad Ali to test freedom of religion. It will take someone like you embracing the otherness they cursed you with in order to litmus test the promise of America for yourself, by walking this path, donning a scarf, and ultimately living in the hyphen, until America accepts you for what you are and who you choose to be. This is America’s test, not yours.