Moon Khan is an IT consultant and founding president of the Minority Leadership Alliance. In his story, which was originally published in the Chicago Tribune, he shares how he has learned to find pride in every aspect of his identity.
In the post-9/11 America, Muslims are seriously perplexed with their identity issue. Outside their community, the loyalty of Muslims is increasingly questioned, overtly or covertly. But when somebody asks me whether I am an American or a Muslim first, I feel that the person is either confused or has some kind of ulterior motive. This question generates the same annoyance in me as if somebody would ask whether I prefer my father or my mother, or my mother or my wife, or my liver or my kidney, or my hands or my feet.
To resolve the identity crisis, I have developed my own defense mechanism. In front of my house, an American flag unfurls on a large post, but my home also has a big placard, like a welcome logo, that reads Maashaa Allah, which means “May Allah defend you as he is the main Protector.” Sometimes I wear a tie that symbolizes the American flag. To manage the tie, I use a tiepin that has the Kalima, Muslims’ declaration of faith (“La Illaha Illallah Muhammad ur Rasool Ullah”), printed on it. In this way, I don’t experience any dichotomy in being an American and a Muslim, and more importantly, a human being.
I live at an equal distance from two full-time Islamic parochial schools. But my son goes to a public elementary school and, later in the day, goes to a mosque to study the holy Koran for an hour, and in the evening he also learns violin. He is a member of the Cub Scouts, where he proudly participates in the Pledge of Allegiance at each meeting. Recently, he was elected president of his school’s Student Council. (Just an update on my son. Later, he got elected President of his high school’s Muslim Students Association and National Honor Society. Now he studies at Howard University as a premed, Junior, student while serving as Secretary in his college’s students’ union and an inductee of Alpha Phi Alpha, a prestigious African Americans’ fraternity).
My son’s name is Shaan, a very popular Irish and African name. But when his first and middle names are combined, it means Glory of God in my native language, Urdu.
By being a U.S. resident, I am a citizen of a country that is not only big in size, wealth, and technological resources, but also the only country on Earth where a lot of universal scriptural values are implemented sincerely and not rhetorically.
Religious traditions are practiced without the fear of the vigilantes or edicts of a government. Here, one can enjoy a discrimination-free career, a chance to start a second life, a constitutional guarantee of equality before law, the right to vote, the freedom to practice any religion, or no religion at all. In fact, this country provides me more genuine sense of being a part of the virtual Muslim Ummah (one Muslim nation) than any country in the world.
Despite the alleged resurgence of the religion driven political movement in the Middle East, people over there identify themselves more being an Arab than a Muslim. They have special words to distinguish between Arab Muslims and non-Arab Muslims: Rafeeq and Siddeeq. Also, they are obsessed with ethnic pride. Syrians feel themselves superior to Yemenis. South Asian Muslims are frequently identified as Punjabis, Sindhis, Muhajirs, Pathans, Bengalis, Biharis and Hyderabadis. Similarly, the chasm between Shiites and Sunnis is well known. The ancient animosity between Turks and Kurds is as intense as the antagonism between Pashtuns and Pakhtuns. We know about the bitterness between Qataris and Iraqis. The rivalry between Iraq and Iran and between Iraq and Kuwait does not need any introduction here.
On the contrary, there is more understanding and respect among Muslims living in the United States than among Muslims overseas. Aside from the Hajj time in Mecca, when Muslims from the world over gather, America is the only place where one can meet Muslims from Algeria to Yemen and from China to Peru. Tiger Woods can be black as well as Asian. Muhammad Ali can be American, black, and Muslim. My son can identify himself as American, Asian, Indian, and Muslim too. I don’t see any problem in having several layers of identities.
Since my arrival here, I have structured my identity by stressing unity in diversity. Let me take you back to 1986. It was my first day in the United States, and at the Atlanta airport I asked a person named James Howard how to get to the University of Georgia campus. When Howard finished his orientation lecture, he asked me about my nationality. I replied, “I’m an Indian.” He said, in jest, “You cannot be right.” He advised me to call myself an “Asian Indian.” But it was very difficult for me. Until now, I had identified myself as an Indian, and a patriotic Indian. The next day, I was at the university’s admission office, filling out various forms. There, I was advised to declare myself as Asian. Later, my friends suggested that I go to the International Students Office, though I could not comprehend how a foreign student became an international student overnight. At ISO, I was advised to get in touch with the officers of the South Asian Students Association, who would help me find an ethnically suitable roommate. Since the people and governments of those countries don’t get along very well, I questioned how they could live together here.
To my surprise, I got accommodations in a building where students from more than two dozen countries were living together without any obvious signs of antagonism. It was a place where you could find salsa, gyros, rye bread, hummus, egg rolls, sausage, pizza, kubaide kabob, apple pie, pasta, and chutney. After all these journeys and detours, now I am an Indian by birth, an American by choice, and an Asian by legal classification. All these identities are part of my comprehensive ethnicity. Being an American Muslim, I hold the prestigious and honored dual nationality status, which means I am an American by choice and a citizen of the superpower, and a Muslim by faith and connected with 1 billion plus Muslims worldwide. Shouldn’t I be proud of who I am?