Ash Meer is a filmmaker, animator, and designer. He shares his story of integration in America. Ash has a BA in Philosophy from Emory University. His first film, “Stages of Integration” premiered at the 1991 Asian American Film Festival and screened at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Neighborhood Film and Video, the Whitney Museum and the National Asian Pacific American Film Festival. He has also attended The Atlanta College of Art, American University, and the MFA Filmmaking program at Temple University.
I was born in the US. Being a Muslim in America has it’s challenges, but they’re no greater than the challenges faced by any of the new arrivals to these shores. From the Native Americans, to the African slaves, from the Pilgrims to the Irish, Italians and every other people; each group has faced prejudice and misunderstanding.
I can’t even imagine the trials the African-American community has suffered, and I would never compare my struggles with theirs. But we are a small minority in this country. In spite of how long Muslims have been in the United States, we have not been widespread enough, nor vociferous enough to become familiar.
Personally, I’ve always tried to integrate with the people around me, and for most of my life it has been easy. I was born here, I speak English and; with blue eyes and fair skin, I don’t stand out like people from other parts of the world. The differences I do have: a challenging ‘foreign’ name, a misunderstood faith, and cultural rituals, are not visible to the outside world. I can choose to expose them or keep them hidden, depending on how I feel they will be received. I suppose it’s like being Harry Potter in his muggle home, pretending that there is nothing unseen or different about yourself to be accepted.
It is only since my kids started school, that I’ve become much more aware of how precarious a position it is to be a bogeyman in this country. For the last several decades, while the Muslims in this country were occupied with their own lives and struggles; regressive, Saudi-funded Islamic movements grew across the third world. Overtime, these movements have come to affect our own lives as Muslims in this country. More recent Muslim immigrants are comfortable with a much more conservative form of Islam than we were brought up with. The imams that lead congregations in the many new mosques popping up, are products of a Islamic education system that has sexism, intolerance and rigidity at it’s heart. Unknowingly, the American Muslim community has allowed these clerics to become our spokespeople. We allow them to appear on television, struggling with the English language, making statements about our beliefs and practices that make us seem sexist and strict. Now we are suffering the consequences. Now, it is our children who are being painted with the same damning brush.
I find it sad that my kids, as American as Doritos and shopping malls, products of the diverse and tolerant society they grew up in; are grouped with people whose entire lives and experiences are unlike their own. Sure, we are Muslim, but does our faith define us? We are surrounded by Christians, Hindus, Jews and atheists who insist their faith is a personal issue, why can’t we have the same privilege? My kids play soccer on the weekends, they beg to go to McDonalds and Friendly’s, they dream of jobs at NASA and getting on American Idol. Sure, they only eat turkey bacon, and have never seen their parents getting drunk. They know that Almighty God is called Allah in Arabic, but they have about as much in common with the foreign Muslims on the evening news as they do with cavemen. In every way that matters, they are no different than their classmates.
So when they come home from school with stories of being called terrorists or tear-stained from cruel taunts; I have very conflicted feelings: Sympathetic of course, angry at the ignorance and cruelty of other kids, but also frightened that one day a taunt will go too far and instead of picking my kids up at the bus stop, I will be picking them at the hospital, the police station.. or the morgue. It stops my breath each time I think of it.
I love this country. Not just its stunning physical beauty or its opportunity. But the many good-hearted people who call it home. Ultimately, I do have faith that Americans, who have overcome so many internal conflicts, even a bloody civil war, will eventually meet enough Muslims to see we are not a monolith. We are their neighbors and their friends. Many of us believe as strongly in “We the people” as we do in “God is great.” My father worked for the US government and never felt the need to choose between his American and Muslim identities. My children shouldn’t have to either.
Like all Americans, I am an optimist. Things are getting better. There are more and more Muslims in this country every year. There are finally Muslim comedians and sports figures, painters and news reporters. The image of the scowling Muslim in a robe and a turban is being eclipsed by the real diversity of the Muslim community. I do have faith that my fellow Americans will eventually move past their current insecurity about my beliefs, but I can’t help worrying about my kids. They just want to be who they are, and they shouldn’t have to hide who that is just to feel accepted.