The United States needs new immigrants to continually remind itself of its own values. That's the simple lesson I learned last week after a moment of despair.
On Monday, I watched the hilarious but depressing video of Rep. Louie Gohmert, a Texas Republican, rabidly defending his ludicrous claims that Middle Eastern women are coming to the U.S. to give birth to "terror babies" who will come back and bomb us in 20 years. On Tuesday, I saw a self-styled Christian on CNN arguing haughtily that we should not allow mosques to be built anywhere in the U.S. Then, of course, there was the ranting of Holy Warrior Newt Gingrich, the moral cowardice of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and the weak-kneed triangulation of President Obama. The contemptible political rhetoric aimed at Muslim Americans frightened me.
But that's before I chatted with three young Muslim American women who gave me back my faith. They reminded me that the U.S. is all about outsiders adhering to this country's first principles — including equality and freedom of religion — in their struggle to become insiders.
It's never been easy to become American. We may welcome the "tempest toss'd," but that doesn't mean they won't encounter a gantlet of exploiters and haters and a raucously free marketplace of ideas. What propels them forward is not only America's opportunities but the idealistic belief that despite the ugliness they may face, this country's ideals ultimately will triumph.
On Wednesday, I visited the tiny office of Al-Talib, the Muslim news magazine at UCLA. Three young women had agreed to talk with me, and though each of them had different stories and takes on life, they shared a fundamental resilience and optimism that impressed me. I had assumed that being Muslim in America these days was about as much fun as getting a pie in the face, but none of these women complained.
Each of them had encountered some form of overt prejudice. All of their families had had discussions about how "Muslim" one should be in public. They spoke of a "Muslimness" that had been thrust on them after 9/11 when they were only teenagers — preconceived notions about their beliefs that they felt obliged to struggle against. Nonetheless, they all professed that they'd been desensitized to a lot of the ugly rhetoric that was getting me down, and they saw the blow-up over the so-called ground zero mosque as simply reflective of tensions that have been seething for years.
Nursing student Neda Momeni, 22, whose parents came from Iran, started wearing a hijab a year ago. She says she considers the source of whatever nasty things are being said or inferred about Muslims. She also puts things in historical perspective. "Every ethnic group has its struggles," she said. "Look, it's not as bad as it was for Japanese Americans. Considering the past, we're pretty lucky. I've never been denied a job or anything."
Fowzia Shareen, 24, who just graduated with a degree in English, doesn't deny that she gets mad. The L.A.-born Bangladeshi American particularly resents the implication that her religion is somehow un-American, and she feels it's important to define for herself what it means to be Muslim. "If other people are going to give me names," she says, "I might as well as name myself."
The same goes for Afghanistan-born Sayeda Fazal, 22, who professes an unshakable belief in American pluralism. "I think people are offended by the mosque because they think 9/11 was caused by Islam. Muslims haven't done a good job of teaching people about their beliefs."
After some prodding, all three women confessed that having to combat negative assumptions about them does take a lot of energy. But they all seemed to feel that somehow it was their duty, both as Muslims and Americans. They were convinced that the less the public knows about Muslims, the more they will be demonized. In order to achieve greater understanding, they thought, Islam would have to become more, not less, visible in the United States.
Just as strongly though, they thought that America had to step up. They can cope with the gantlet, but they expect this nation to adhere to its promise and extend to them equal rights and more: all the comforts of home.
"I really believe American principles will win out," Shareen said. "Every time we've been at a moral impasse, we've gotten over it."
The "we" says it all. I drove home relieved.