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A Muslim in the Midwest

February 24, 2017

Farhat Haq

I had held on to hope and optimism in this grim political season until Friday, Jan. 27, when President Trump’s executive order with an Orwellian title –“Protecting the nation from foreign terrorist entry into the United States” – went into effect.

As I watched the anguish of families who were waiting to be reunited with their loved-ones – a daughter worried about her 81-year-old mother being detained for hours – a son wondering if his father had access to the blood-pressure medicine he needed, I broke down and sobbed for those stranded on airports around the nation.

I know viscerally what the experience of traveling for days and then going through customs and immigration feels like. Travelling with elderly parents and worrying about what long flights and crowded airports does to their bodies and spirit. The tiredness that seeps into your bones, the jet lag which leaves you loopy and disoriented, the emotional toll of leaving all that was familiar to enter into a new world, the worry about those who you left behind and the uncertain future facing you.

All those who were stopped at our international airports over the weekend of Jan. 27-29 traveled with documents that allowed them to enter the United States legally. There were refugees who had waited for two to three years to go through the most stringent background check; there were immigrants who, in some cases, may have waited for a decade for their turn; and there were permanent residents who had their homes, jobs and families in the United States.

How did this land of opportunity become a dystopian nightmare for these refugees and immigrants coming to our shores during the weekend of Jan. 27-29?

Since 9/11, I have been often asked if Muslims have faced discrimination in United States. I have defended my adopted homeland as a place where freedom of religion is practiced and where people are judged generally by their conduct rather than by their religion.

For the past two decades, I have lived in a small town in the heartland, the same “flyover country” where a majority of President Trump’s voters live. I am buffeted by two neighbors who are ideologically on the opposite side but who I would not hesitate to wake up in the middle of the night if I needed help.

One of my neighbors is an avid listener of talk-radio. Over the summer, as I sat on my side of the fence, I heard snippets of overheated anti-immigration rhetoric coming from his radio. But the same neighbor engages in acts of kindness toward my family, such as clearing our driveway after a snowstorm when we are out of town.

I have experienced the decency of my fellow Americans. Despite the constant barrage of rhetoric about radical Islam, I had felt safe in United States until this past weekend.

Watching the scenes of some visitors being detained – even though they had entered the country legally – I no longer felt that my citizenship afforded me the same protections other Americans expect. I started to panic about the future of my two sons in this country, the only home they have ever known.

But then the spontaneous outpouring of protest against the executive order around the country, dozens of lawyers hunched over their laptops for hours trying to help those detained, and the stay order from several judges renewed my faith in the basic decency of American people.

I know that we live in troubled times. The divisive rhetoric about extreme vetting might mean that my relatives may not be able to join us for an upcoming family wedding. Some of my best and brightest students now have to live with the threat of mass deportation because they are children of undocumented citizens. And my hardworking Syrian students who carry the daily burden of seeing their homeland destroyed by a vicious war now have the added burden of insecurity about their visa status.

But the weekend of Jan. 27-29 also restored my optimism about the future. I am betting on the strength of our constitution and political institutions to protect us from irresponsible political actions. I am betting on the decency of small-town folks like my neighbors who might listen to xenophobic talk radio but who are neighborly and kind.

Muslim Americans are part of the social fabric of this society, and we intend to stay right here adding to the strength and beauty of this country.

Farhat Haq is a political science professor at Monmouth (Ill.) College.

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