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A subject of others' suspicion

By Javeed Akhter,


I am a Muslim from South Asia by birth and choice, an American citizen by desire, and a physician by preference. I am a family man, a friend to many, a mentor to some. I fancy myself thoughtful. I like to read and write. In my dreams, I imagine that I am a recognized writer.


So how should I define myself?


Too often, it seems, I am defined solely as a Muslim-American, these other identities--husband and father, doctor, writer--submerged.


And as they are submerged there rises the uneasy question of loyalty: Can Muslims living in the U.S. still be loyal American citizens?


Daily, I have the distinct impression that those who are not close friends are suspicious of me simply because I am Muslim. This is most apparent in public places and, in particular, during air travel. Twice, my luggage has gone through a secondary search; the decision to search, officials told me, was random.


I worry how my neighbors on an airplane will react when they see me reading books with explicitly Muslim titles, no matter how benign the books.


This question of loyalty has taken on certain urgency ever since the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, and even more so in recent weeks with the pre-emption of the alleged terror plot in Britain and the arrests of several Arab-American men carrying a large number of cellular telephones in the Midwest.


Terror charges were filed against the men and then quickly dropped--suggesting that racial profiling, and not any crime, prompted the arrests.


My concern is not unfounded. A USA Today/Gallup poll published this month reported that 39 percent of respondents favored requiring Muslims, including U.S. citizens, to carry special identification.


More and more politicians are calling for racial profiling. They include Rep. Peter King, chairman of the Homeland Security Committee; U.S. Rep. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.); and John Faso, a New York Republican running for governor.


This concern is new. Growing up in India, I wasn't self-conscious about my identity. I was an Indian by birth, a Muslim by faith and, truth be told, a bit of a nerd. The city that I grew up in, Hyderabad, has a Muslim past, which is visible in the architecture, language, cuisine and the social behavior. For me, all of that made it a comfortable place in which to grow up and live.


The Muslim rulers of Hyderabad were feudal, and they had many faults. But they valued education and architecture, and they respected the differences of their Hindu subjects, who were the majority of the population. An example of this is the blend of Hindu and Muslim architecture in the Arts College of Osmania University, one of the city's premier buildings. My identities--Muslim and Indian--were as seamlessly merged as the Arts College architecture. I never questioned either identity, nor do I remember anyone questioning my identity or my loyalty. Muslims and Hindus, for the most part, have learned to live together.


Given that the U.S. has ongoing wars in Muslim countries and that Muslim militants in foreign lands are targeting the U.S., it is, perhaps, understandable that many Americans are anxious about Muslims' loyalty.


For Muslims loyalty is straightforward. Part of being a Muslim is to abide by covenants you take; the oath of allegiance may not be broken. This does not mean we support the policies of whoever is in the White House or in control of Congress. Dissent is part of American and Muslim traditions.


Muslims are not the only group that faced questions of loyalty. Thousands of innocent Japanese-Americans, for example, were interned in camps after Pearl Harbor because their loyalty to the U.S. was doubted.


If history is any guide, this anti-Muslim bias we are experiencing shall pass too. It may take a long time for the situation to normalize, but I am optimistic it will.


When I talk of my identity, I speak mostly from an immigrant experience. The issue of identity is different for the generation of Muslims born here. As a group, they relate only marginally with their parents' country of birth.


Many kids of Indian parents think cricket is an insect, not the most exciting sport in the world, that Indira Gandhi is a relative of Mahatma Gandhi, that Nehru is not Indira's father but someone a jacket was named for. They have no other national identity than being American.


Muslim-Americans have many identities but generally have a common thread running between them. This is the belief in the basic tenets of Islam: belief in one God and Prophet Muhammad as the final messenger of God, charity, fasting, prayers and the hajj pilgrimage for those who can afford it.


My different identities inform and reinforce each other. I am a man from South Asia. I spend most of my waking hours as a physician. And my behavior is influenced by my personal faith, my heritage and the nurturing qualities of the American society I live in. I am as loyal an American as any. But my identity is intensely personal, complex and dynamic. And it is nearly impossible to define. 



Javeed Akhter, a physician, is a founding member of the Chicago-based Muslim-American think tank The International Strategy and Policy Institute and author of the book "The Seven Phases of Prophet Muhammad's Life."

For more information, please contact the International Strategy and Policy Institute, P. O. Box 4792, Hinsdale, IL 60522-4792
p. 630.325.4528, e., w. 

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