In my last two articles, I discussed the ideas of who Muslims should speak for and, in turn, who should speak for us. The writing and publications of these last two articles made me reflect on the coming together of the aforementioned minorities. I myself am extremely proud of my intersectional identity— American, Indian, and Muslim— and though the last two articles I wrote were extremely close to me due to their relevance in my life, the topic of this article is just as crucial: identity.
Identity is the one thing that gives people a sense of belonging. The way people dress, speak, eat, pray, and where they come from provides them with purpose and community. When immigrants come to America, they tend to concentrate themselves in certain areas because there are others just like them. People live in Chinatown, Little Italy, Devon Avenue; they buy houses next to temples and mosques because they want to live close to other people that think and act just like them. This gives them not only a sense of security with people similar to them, but also provides a connection to the places they’ve left behind. However, while immigrants see this collecting in groups as a good way to ease themselves into a new country with a completely way of life, the ‘natives’, or people who came before them tend to see these same communities as intruders in their way of life, and what they consider familiar. This often leads to resentment, alienation, and general xenophobia.
This same concept of comfort with the known vs the unknown can manifests itself especially true in times when a society goes through big upheavals, like industrial revolutions, a war, or a depression. It’s during such crises that societies start looking for something, or someone, to blame, and it is always easier to blame the unknown vs the known.
More often than not, those who are foreign, and different— minorities or immigrants— tend to be the scapegoats for such things. This phenomenon is not by any means recent. This happened during the Third Reich in Nazi Germany— the Jewish people were blamed for taking German jobs. We can see similar trends in America, where loss of jobs due to advances in technology are wrongly being blamed on immigrants. Demagogues almost always use this us-and-them technique to isolate group of people and mobilize societies to commit drastic and often radical acts. The “Muslim Travel ban”, the “Build a wall initiative” and the turning back of refugees are all consequences of the identity crisis felt by many Americans. Identity as a form of aggression is not limited to denying entry into the country. Identity as form of aggression translates to everyday acts of discrimination. For example, a woman and her friend were thrown out of a store in Chelsea for speaking Spanish (gothamist.com). American Airlines removed a seated passenger on the suspicion of being a terrorist after the woman seated next to him reported that he was scribbling something in Arabic. Turns out Guido Menzio, was an Ivy-League economist, and was writing a mathematical differential equation, which is crucial in advanced mathematics (washingtonpost.com).
The ideas of patriotism, nationalism, and pride in your heritage are all good, unless they become a means to divide society.
So how are societies created where different identities are celebrated and not punished?
Trevor Noah often talks about language, and it's role in identity and community in his book, Born a Crime. Growing up during Apartheid as a colored child born of white and black parents, he experienced a multitude of discrimination and hate-- and the one thing that allowed him to assimilate and to be accepted were the languages he knew. Being fluent in Afrikaans, Xhosa, English, and Swahili let others, no matter what community, treat him as one of their own. Everyone saw Trevor as a foreigner until they realized he could speak their language. By appearance, he was an “unknown” a part of “them” , but as soon as he spoke, he became “known”, a part of “us"— and accepted. Extrapolating beyond language, if we all learned to walk in each others footsteps, to allowed ourselves to live beyond the bubble of life we’ve created for ourselves, if we learn to open our doors to neighbors and acquaintances, then may be we can finally begin to be understand each other. For it is understanding each other that is the first step towards accepting each other and making this land of immigrants great again.