Editor’s Note: Imam Omar Suleiman is the founder and president of the Yaqeen Institute for Islamic Research and an adjunct professor of Islamic studies in the graduate liberal studies program at Southern Methodist University. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.
The last detainee at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport was Jesus. Not the one that Christians and Muslims revere, but a 33-year-old man named Issa (“Jesus,” in Arabic), who once was a military contractor for the US Army in his native Iraq.
Labeeb Ibrahim Issa had a broken pelvis due to an attack he had barely survived in Iraq, and was held for 15 hours waiting for the madness of the first iteration of the “Muslim ban” to end. He thought he would die from the pain, and members of his American family wondered if they would eventually receive him home in a stretcher.
I know, because I was there at the airport that day – January 29 – nearly a year ago.
Of all the detainees held over those few tumultuous days, this one evoked the most sympathy and shame. How could a handicapped man named after possibly the most famous refugee in history, who served this country in war, now be turned away from that same country in the name of “security”?
What does this say of the patriotism of the proud Donald Trump supporters who celebrated the ban? What does it say of the Christianity of certain evangelicals who laud the President and invoke Scripture while supposedly divinely sanctioning his despotism?
The summer before the travel ban was enacted, NBA Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who is Muslim, and a Gold Star Muslim family, Khizr and Ghazala Khan, took the stage of the Democratic National Convention, rebuking Trump for his open hostility and bigotry toward the Muslim community. While they stole the show and reminded Americans of the often unsung contributions of Muslims to this nation, the question begs to be asked – is this what it takes?
What if the last detainee at the Dallas-Fort Worth airport was some 19-year-old bearded Yemeni-American named Osama, as confused about his school and career goals as a 19-year-old white kid named John Smith? Would he be less deserving of decency and having his constitutional rights protected? If he were opposed to the war machine that has historically transcended party, would we still repudiate discriminatory policy against him with the same vigor? Or would we be hesitant and wait for someone more marketable in our “fight for justice”?
Do Muslims have a different threshold for American-ness, human-ness or patriotism than others? And if that is so, is that my problem or yours? Is it upon me to continue my arduous pursuit of your unreasonable approval?
I am not the first American to ask that question. In a documentary about his life, the late African-American writer James Baldwin said, “There are days, this is one of them, when you wonder what your role is in this country and what your future is in it. … I’m terrified at the moral apathy – the death of the heart – which is happening in my country. These people have deluded themselves for so long that they really don’t think I’m human.”
Since Baldwin’s day, a few things have changed. Muslims are now regularly dehumanized by people in power. And some things have not – African-Americans are still the most dehumanized group of people in this country.
And it all starts at the top.
In crude and plain terms, Trump has stereotyped Muslims as terrorists, Mexicans as rapists and African-Americans as thugs. But there’s also another, more insidious type of bigotry toward minorities afoot in this country.
Defending Muslim-Americans only within the context of national security feeds the same machine – and the same narrative – that targets them. “We can’t offend Muslims because they are on the front lines of the war on terror,” you sometimes hear from liberals in Washington and elsewhere. This line of reasoning is not only deeply problematic, it also gravely misses the point: If we are as American and human as you, we are unconditionally entitled to the exact same rights as you.
In our polarized politics, the liberal who limits calls of inclusivity to “liberal Muslims,” and the conservative who will not stand up for the “religious liberty” of a conservative Muslim both betray their own ideals. Frankly, more and more American Muslims are not willing to alter their identity to gain the half-hearted advocacy of any group that merely sees them as a political football. Just like other groups of Americans, we reserve the right to live in peace and be treated with justice just like everyone else, even by those who don’t particularly like our religion.
As one of the most famous Americans in history, Muhammad Ali, once said: “I am America. I am the part you won’t recognize. But get used to me. Black, confident, cocky; my name, not yours; my religion, not yours; my goals, my own; get used to me.”
Last January, thousands of people were driven to the airports across this nation sickened by a clear violation of our constitutional and moral values. For days they chanted things such as “Muslims are welcome here” and “This is what America looks like” while demanding the release of the detainees. The protesters recognized that it wasn’t simply the Muslim community under attack, but everything for which we, as Americans, claim to stand.
Different people were motivated by different things. Some of the protesters had Muslim friends and took the ban more personally. Others were driven by the egalitarian principles of American identity and the belief that a religious test for admission to this country was unconstitutional and unjust. But everyone who showed up left transformed.
In the middle of the protests, something unusual, but fitting, happened.
A practicing Muslim must pray five times a day at set times, and that task is often daunting when traveling through an American airport. We often try to scout interfaith chapels or empty boarding areas to find a corner and fulfill our religious duty without making a scene or drawing too much notice.
As thousands of Muslims descended on the Dallas-Fort Worth airport to protest Trump’s travel ban, quietly praying in a corner wasn’t going to happen. We had already caused a scene. We were the scene.
I told airport security officials that they could either make space for us, or we’d make space for ourselves. They graciously offered us a baggage claim area that they would secure. I announced on the megaphone that the Muslims and anyone who wanted to join or observe should head to the specified area.
Many of the protesters who were not Muslim reassuringly started to chant, “You pray! We stay!”
There we were in the baggage claim of one of the biggest airports in America, protected while praying. It was a moment that left tears in the eyes of many.
Meanwhile, Islamophobes tweeted that Muslims had taken over the airport. The New York Times included a photo of the praying in their photos of the year collection. The prayer wasn’t meant to be part of the protest, but it turned out to be its most captivating episode.
For those few moments, we got to be fully us, unashamed in our American-ness, unapologetic in our Islam and fully acknowledged in our humanity. And for those few moments, all of the protesters, of all faiths and backgrounds, were reminded that the promise of America is still worth fighting for.