A Patriotic American-Muslim - Happy 4th of July!
by Junaid M. Afeef
Three years ago I wrote an essay entitled “What’s there to celebrate this 4th of July?” It was a personal reflection of my life in America starting from childhood to adolescence and through young adulthood. My focus was on things that are wrong in our country – the torture, the bigotry and erosion of civil liberties.
Thankfully my outlook has changed. There is so much we need to celebrate this 4th of July. For me birthdays and anniversaries are a time to look back, to reflect and to plan for the future. That is precisely what I’m doing this 4th of July.
In looking back I see kindness triumphing over hate. Growing up in Hoffman Estates, Illinois in the 1970s my family was one of only a small handful of non-white, non-Christian families in the area and the only such family on our block. We endured racial epithets like “sand nigger” and “camel jockey” walking to Churchill Elementary School and during one particularly nasty week in 1979 we were bombarded with prank calls and our home was vandalized.
But the neighbors to our right and to our left were different. They were extremely kind. Both families were White, Christian, working class folks and they treated us to smiles, friendly waves and from time to time some small talk on the front lawn. It was nothing big but today, standing in the shoes of my parents, I understand the value of having good neighbors.
From elementary school I remember my 4th grade teacher, Ms. Mueller, and the kindness she showed me as I tried to adjust in my class. My most vivid childhood memories begin in the 4th grade. I was the only “Junaid” in my class (gasp!) and it made me feel awkward. It didn’t help that I was also the only non-white student in the class and that a classmate derisively referred to me as the “Puunjaaab”.
I began using a nickname and signing my homework with it. My father was concerned about this and I presume he spoke to Ms. Mueller about it.
One day Ms. Mueller sat down next to me in class and quietly whispered to me that I should be proud of my name. She related to me and said that her last name was not so common either and that we should both be proud to have unique names. I’m not sure if it was the message or just the kindness with which it was shared with me, but it is a memory that has stayed with me all my life.
Today I reflect back on these moments in my life as a father and as a community servant and I realize that every step of the way, even when it got really ugly (i.e. the Iran Hostage Crisis, the Beirut Marine-barracks bombings) there were always good people who reminded us through their deeds that, on balance, Americans are a welcoming and kind people and that America’s ideals of pluralism and equality and justice are truly valued and that America continues to strive to live up to these ideals.
There are few places in the world today where I can enjoy the freedom to raise my children to be good Muslims within a good Muslim community where they can see firsthand God’s commandment for the nations and tribes of mankind to come together to know one another being played out every day across the country.
Three years ago I was focused on combating Islamophobia and defending Muslims and Islam against the slanders of bigots and the crimes of criminals acting in the name of Islam. It was and is important to do this, but a single-minded focus on these negative events can be hazardous to one’s outlook.
This 4th of July and hopefully for many holidays to come I will use the anniversary of our independence to teach my kids about the freedoms they enjoy. I am going to point out the mosques, the churches, the synagogues, the Jain center, the Buddhist temple, the Shinto center and the Hindu temple right here in our local neighborhoods to illustrate the religious diversity and tolerance we enjoy. We will share meals and conversations with our neighbors and I will point out to my children in the quiet moments just before they doze off to sleep following a frenzied and hot day spent in the backyard that we are blessed to live in a community and in a country where people of all colors and religions and nationalities can be friends if they want to be.
Looking ahead on this 4th of July holiday I know that I’m going to have to do more as a community servant to insure that the lessons I want to teach my kids are real. The diversity, peace, tolerance, understanding – the common good in this world - doesn’t just happen. We need to work hard to make it a reality.
Happy 4th of July!
Junaid M. Afeef is Executive Director of The Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago
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