When I was a child, I had no idea what I was. My family didn’t have cable TV for a long time. Once we got it, I learned that we didn’t like taxes. Later, we didn’t like Bill Clinton, because we didn’t like taxes. The weather forecaster often said that it was hotter here than just about anywhere else. A child in peacetime, I didn’t know of anywhere but home.
First cruelties often come at school. Mine came just before Thanksgiving 1987. Turkey, pecan pie, and Blue Bell ice cream during the Cowboys game — our teacher said this treat had to do with some people called pilgrims and American Indians. She asked: Is anyone here Indian?
My hand shot up. I had heard this word. I was not sure what it meant, but I was eager to be recognized. “Not your kind of Indian,” the teacher said tersely. I did not know what kind of Indian I was, if not an American Indian.
It took me years to learn and to come to terms with this: I was a child of immigrants, I was Muslim, and I wasn’t any kind of Indian, since my mom was born in Karachi, Pakistan, my dad in Kashmir, and I in Irving, Texas.
I was some kind of American, but what kind? As I grew up, cable TV squawked about the Cold War’s end and a few short hotter wars, and meanwhile I read Chaim Potok’s The Chosen, about a Hasidic kid in New York struggling with tradition and family. Catcher in the Rye made no sense to me, but I devoured Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, about an African-American man traveling from the South to the North, lost without identity. In these books I tracked my own confusion, my search for self, in the riddles of other Americans’ experiences.
My search for identity was all-American, every-American, and it continues. My adopted hometown now is New York City, the reluctant Ground Zero of a long cultural war, fought mostly on cable TV, not on our streets. But its latest battle is centered on actual streets I know well: A cultural center for Muslims and those of other faiths, which will include two floors of Muslim prayer space, is to be built near the site of a horrifying attack on the city and the country I love.
Three-term New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg recently spoke out in defense of the cultural center and of religious freedom and tolerance, calling New York “the freest city in the world.” On 9/11, this city was attacked because “some murderous fanatics didn’t want us to enjoy the freedom to profess our own faiths, to speak our own minds, to follow our own dreams, and to live our own lives,” Bloomberg said. “We would betray our values — and play into our enemies’ hands — if we were to treat Muslims differently than anyone else.”
In 2007, my first year out of Columbia Law School, I worked two blocks from the Twin Towers site, near the location of the proposed cultural center. I turned down a $160,000 law-firm salary to take a one-year job for the U.S. government. I was proud to do public service.
I often wonder how kids like me are growing up now. Bloomberg’s voice is drowned out by cable TV pundits who hurl “Islam” and “Muslim” around like dirty words, with an unmistakable fear and disgust. If young Muslim Americans are told that Muslims hate Jews, will they ever turn to Chaim Potok to know themselves? If the 9/11 attacks come to be regarded as acts not of lunatics, but of people all too similar to themselves, will young Muslim Americans come to feel that being “the enemy” is their only possible role in this long, generation-spanning war? If our government hesitates to protect their freedom of worship, will young Muslim Americans grow up proud of their country’s ideals and eager to serve it?
Tainted by the tar of terrorists, associated with an epic enemy, Muslim American kids will know exactly who they are, at least according to others. Unlike me, they may not have the chance to grow up searching for and becoming their own version of American.
Former Fort Worth Weekly intern Naureen Shah is now a human rights lawyer.