I am an American. I am just as American as all of you.
I was born on July 8th, 1996 in New York City, to a mother and father of Pakistani origins. From an early age, I was immersed in the culture of what it meant to be a citizen of the U.S. My parents, both witness to the atrocities committed during the 1971 war between Pakistan and Bangladesh, moved to the United States in 1994 to pursue a better life as practicing physicians (mom as a pediatrician and eventual neonatologist at North Shore- LIJ Medical Center, dad as an Anesthesiologist at Stony Brook University Hospital). When they first arrived here, they struggled to learn the nuances of English and navigate the cultural landscape that was New York. As time wore on, however, they secured their places as respected doctors who served a higher purpose, and I looked to them (and still do) as the role models I aspired to surpass in my future.
I was happy enough to grow under the care of a wonderful family and played with children from a multitude of backgrounds without regard for where they came from. In our naivete, we believed that we were all equal as any other Americans and that nothing could change that. I learned about the values of Islam at the behest of my mother and father and revealed in the kindness and respect for all humanity that the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) preached to all people, which I thought was exemplified by the rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. I loved (and still do love) the idea of a nation of immigrants coming together to pursue a better life for themselves and their families, and I took great pride in being a citizen of a country that was founded upon the basis of religious freedom and liberty for all, regardless of race, class or creed.
That fanciful vision came crashing down on September 11th, 2001. I was 5 years old when the Twin Towers fell, on a day that would forever alter the lives of Muslim Americans throughout the country. Suddenly I was scrutinized as a potential threat, subtly watched as if to ascertain whether or not I was one of the "good ones"–a euphemism reeking with disrespect towards my culture and heritage as a Pakistani American, as if my background was considered undesirable by American society. I still remember my parents sitting me down one day and telling me to be careful when walking down the street, to make sure that my phone had decent battery life at all times so that I could call when necessary, to come home as soon as possible before dark. I didn't know back then that these were warnings of a time to come; I had no concept of being anything less than an authentic American. Why then, I wondered, were my parents so concerned for me?
It didn't take long for me notice the changes-- where parents of kids I played with once opened me with open arms and made conversation with me as much as any other adolescent, they now picked up their kids from the park without deigning to acknowledge me, and even kids I used to play with originally now avoided me. As I grew older, I learned to accept this loneliness with indifference-- I had to learn how to be comfortable with myself. So many times throughout my teenage years, I felt torn between two worlds, between my identity as the son of Pakistani immigrants and my American citizenship. As images of Muslims and Islam pervaded Fox News and CNN as nothing but harbingers of death and destruction, I felt the tension in my chest tightening as I struggled with what I was and who I was meant to be–was I truly a Muslim-American, or an entity without an identity?
Could such a thing exist?
I was fortunate enough to have those thoughts quelled when I moved to Suffolk County on Long Island, NY, and interact with other Muslim kids at the famed Selden Masjid, the site of my spiritual reawakening. Interacting with others who knew my story and felt my pain as we worked together to bring good to our local community through acts of charity helped me to remember that Islam and America were intertwined in value–that the same love and compassion that my faith preached to all peoples was the same right guaranteed to all under the U.S. flag.
I learned to love my identity as a Muslim-American again, and my experiences at Stony Brook University as a member (and eventual E-Board member as Co-Head of Community Service) of the Muslim Students Association (MSA) showed me how important diversity within a body of people was-- the efforts consistently being made by interfaith leaders throughout campus to support the Seawolf community (inclusive of all backgrounds and faiths) and the wider Long Island/NY area through community service such as the MSA's annual Midnight Run demonstrated the power of working together for a common cause for all people.
As I consider the present era, with a President who now feels that the concept of birthright citizenship should not apply to all Americans, I cannot help but feel anger coursing through my veins that a man whose responsibility it is to stand for the rights for Americans worldwide would deem it prudent to strip citizens of his own country from their birthright. I cannot help but feel rage that an American administration led by a would-be tyrant could even begin to consider the idea that some of us are not as American as we seem, based on the color of our skin, the faith we practice, or the background that we possess. This is not what I stand for-- this is not what the Founding Fathers of this great nation fought and died for, and this is an insult to the memory of every man, woman, and child who gave their lives efforts in the service of this country, no matter their origins.
This is a clarion call to the down-trodden, to minorities of all distinctions, to those who have had their identities questioned in the spirit of this country–I stand alongside you. I stand for you. I stand for all citizens of this country.