Poison in the Melting Pot: How Islamophobia Threatens our National Identity

Pictured: Tmara and fellow members of the Middle Eastern Law Student Association
Pictured: Tmara and fellow members of the Middle Eastern Law Student Association

While the states have control over their welfare and assistance programs, refugee ac- ceptance and resettlement is a federal issue. Regardless, many states have resisted efforts to relocate Syrian refugees within their borders and publicized their intentions not to cooperate with the federal government’s efforts.

The Governor of Alabama, Robert Bentley, filed suit against the U.S. Department of State alleging that the federal government has not complied with the Refugee Act of 1980. The Department of Justice has filed a Motion to Dismiss. Flathead County in Montana has voted to submit a letter to the federal government stating their opposition to refugee resettlement in their county. The State of Indiana plans to appeal a federal ruling that requires Indiana to resume grant payments to a nonprofit contractor for resettlement of refugees. Indiana, like Alabama and Flathead County, cites the lack of thorough vetting of refugees for its opposition to resettlement.

The opposition to the federal government’s attempts to provide asylum to those fleeing civil war and oppression is unnecessary as the United States has an incredibly thorough vetting process for refugees. Refugees from the Middle East face even more vetting than those from other parts of the world. Various commissions, NGOs, and the executive branch come together to come up with a plan on how many refugees to allow in and from what country. They must then be recommended and file for refugee status while outside of the United States. If the application is accepted, they go through numerous security and background checks.

All of this takes around 18 months minimum. So is it really a safety concern? Or is it an irrational fear of the “other” which propels the policy decisions of the Governor Bentley and like-minded politicians?

The United States has a long history of fearing and discriminating against the “other.” A sociology term, here it is used to define groups of people whom the majority can impute broad generalizations, marginalize as outside of moral or ethical considerations, or who are deemed incapable of sharing mainstream values.

“Other” status has been bestowed on many in America’s history; including Native-Americans, Blacks, Irish, Catholics, Jews, Indians, and Latin-Americans. The majority of Americans have made little effort to understand “others” and as a result, marginalized groups have suffered countless indignities. These travesties are not fables of a distant time and a distant land, whose shortcomings and hardships have been transcended and rectified. The sting of otherness is something felt by many in America today. Those who suffer under the gaze of unearned scrutiny are people you know and love. They are people you work and go to school with. They are your peers. One of whom is Tmara, an American Muslim and 3L in her final semester at JMLS.

Growing up, Tmara never saw herself as different. Granted, she ate her PB&J’s with pita bread instead of sand- wich bread and brought her own marshmallows to bonfires (because most have gelatin made from pigs in them), but she never felt like there was disconnect. Aside from the awkward “pepperoni-is-made-from-pigs-which-means-its-pork” conversation before ordering pizza, she was no different from anyone else in her class.

Flash forward to September 11, 2001. It was a seemingly normal morning. Tmara dressed herself, walked to school, and sat down in class with her peers. Not long after their lesson had started, the principal spoke over the intercom and announced that there had been an attack on the United States. Tmara and her fellow students were silent. They felt awestruck and confused. Later that day, Tmara found her mother crying in the living room when she came home from school. Her mom was crying for their country, but she also cried out of fear. Not that there would be another terrorist attack, but fear of retribution against the family for crimes they did not commit. At the time, Tmara did not understand. They were American too. So what if the terrorists were Arab or Muslim? What did that have to do with Tmara and her family?

September 12, 2001. Tmara dressed herself, walked to school, and sat down with her peers. But again, this was far from a typical day. The mood had shifted and everyone sud- denly had an attitude towards her. They did not see her as one of them anymore, but as an outsider. Kids she had known since kindergarten were yelling at her and wearing sweaters on their heads like turbans to mock her. They threatened her “uncles” and her for what “they” did to “their” country, as if being Muslim and American were somehow incompatible. Tmara could not understand how all of a sudden she was the enemy of people she had so much in common with only one day prior.

A decade later, the situation has improved only marginally. To some, all Arabs were Muslims and all Muslims are terrorists. It does not matter how factually wrong this thinking is. Facts are impervious against this kind of ignorance.

On August 14, 2013, Tmara had recently arrived in Chicago and was ready to kick law school’s butt. She stopped into a convenience store on State Street to buy pencils and a woman approached her, a complete stranger. The woman marched up to Tmara, stopped just an inch away, and told her to get out of the way, even though she could have easily stepped around her. Confused, but attempting to be polite, Tmara moved aside to allow the rude stranger to pass. Rather than continue down the aisle though, the woman followed Tmara and raised her voice, “I haven’t forgotten 9/11! I would kill you if I had a gun on me! I know what you did! I haven’t forgotten!” Tmara backed away and remained silent. The woman, now screaming, continued, “Going to jail would be worth it! I wish I could kill you!” The woman made several addition- al threats and racial slurs until Tmara could not bear it any longer and left the store. During the incident, no one attempted to approach or speak to her or the attacker.

While instances of islamophobia are not always this hostile, they happen regularly. Even if it’s just a stare at a woman in a hijab, or a fearful glance, or avoidance of a beard- ed Middle Eastern man on the bus. If only non-Muslims who were so afraid of the “other” just took a chance to get to know the person they were staring at, they might experience an in- credible cross-cultural exchange. Chris, a 2L at JMLS, took that chance and had an amazing experience.

While Chris was an undergrad, he was randomly assigned to live with an Egyptian man named Omar. Omar had had the displeasure of being stabbed as a child simply because he was an Arab, but he never grew to resent his fellow Americans be- cause of it. Chris lived with Omar and his family for a month while they were both in between apartments. That particular month was the month of Ramadan. The family spoke a mixture of Arabic and English in their home. They went to work, came home, and acted as any other family. Chris participated in Ramadan because he wanted to immerse himself with his friend’s culture. Chris and the family fasted during the day; the family prayed while he did not. At sundown every night, the mother cooked a fantastic feast often consisting of dates to break their fast, soup, salad, and a main dish. Afterwards, they went out and smoked hookah or watched TV together. He truly felt like he was part of their family. Every Friday, they went to the community center. “Assalamo alaykum,” they greeted him as he entered. He watched them pray, and afterwards, they went into another room and shared a huge meal consisting of a dish from each family. The community was not only Egyptians; they were from Pakistan, Morocco, Syria, Palestine, Indonesia, Canada, and more. It was the friendliest and most welcoming experience in his life. Chris’s views changed a lot during that time. He had already learned to be more open, but the experience of living with that family changed his perception completely.

Islamophobia is scarier than anything the refugees can be accused of because instead of taking the time to get to know different cultures, as Chris did, we are allowing hostile situations, like what Tmara experienced, to occur against innocent individuals. Refugees are fleeing countries and coming to the United States for solace and instead of getting to know them, we are allowing islamophobic sentiments to gain traction and publicity. Rather than speak out when big-name politicians make comments about Muslims or refugees, so many fear the “other” and allow those words to become their own beliefs. The problem is that these beliefs are hurtful and dangerous.

Individuals seeking refuge are not responsible for the turmoil in their countries or ISIS. They simply want to add to the melting pot that we know and love as the United States of America.

By Tmara Abidalrahim and Chris Simmons

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