Of Thee I Sing
Special Representative to Muslim Communities
Op-Ed for the Times of India
July 4th is the day America celebrates its birth, the day we cast off our colonial status and declared our independence. Whether on grass, cement or soft dirt patches, Americans will participate in traditions that are distinctly American: BBQ, fruit pie, a ball game, a parade.
American flags will wave from nearly every home. Kids sticky with ice cream will run through water sprinklers. And we, whether black, brown or white, rich or poor, a newly immigrated family or one that has been here for generations, will take a moment to celebrate our freedom and collective birthday.
For me, this rite carries a special significance because my journey to America's shores began with my mom forty years ago this year to the day. Not planning to "stay," but excited and eager to visit, she arrived in Massachusetts and put down our bags. After deciding to emigrate, we've never left.
Trained as a doctor at Lady Harding in New Delhi, she knew the value of an education, and so put a heavy emphasis on academics, though she also emphasized belonging, giving back to your community, and reaching out with respect to those who may be different from you. These principles shaped the way I viewed and interacted with my new environment. Trips back to Srinagar each summer to visit my maternal grandfather created an understanding of heritage with which no time on Google Earth could
compete. Through this navigation, I learned how to be a proud American and to have pride in my roots. I learned how to practice my faith while respecting the faith of others.
That journey of mixing cultures, beliefs, and homelands is one that hundreds of millions of Americans have undergone before me. Belonging here in the United States means that I, like so many other immigrants before me and after me, have lived side-by-side with those who are different-yet we believe in the principles the Founding Fathers laid out in our nation's birthday over 225 years ago. From every land in the world, people have journeyed here, sharing our frustrations and anxieties as well as our remarkable history and achievements. In our country, except for some of the rituals of July 4th, there is no single cultural tradition. It is as American to order spaghetti as it is a samosa--both can be found on the same block in many cities and towns.
In my worktown of Washington, DC, churches, mosques, and temples of dozens of different faiths line the streets. A single subway car can contain people speaking in languages of a half-dozen countries. We celebrate our diversity.
Americans profoundly understand the immigrant narrative and the difficulties each wave endured because we have each done it. This narrative, over generations, has shaped our common identity and has built the foundation on which we stand. America offers all of us equal opportunity through its Constitution and transparency through its democracy. It also offers those who come to its shores the opportunity to realize a dream. Perhaps most importantly, the United States offers-it demands-that we participate. It gives us all the chance to take part, to fix what we don't like, and impact the outcome of things large and small. From grassroots activism to national campaigns, America's might is in its people.
When our country and our traditions were attacked on September 11, 2001, I knew it was time to serve my country. The men who attacked us did not represent my faith, they did not represent my history, and they did not represent that in which I believed. As an American, a Muslim, and a student of history, the words of President Thomas Jefferson, the man who wrote the Declaration that on July 4, 1776 declared us free, stood out to me: "No man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship or ministry or shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief, but all men shall be free to profess and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion. I know but one code of morality for men whether acting singly or collectively."
I came to Washington alongside many others who believed it was their patriotic duty to give back to a nation at a time of need. Since then, I have had the opportunity to represent the United States government on six of the seven continents, to stand up before others and explain what America means to me and why we celebrate our freedoms. Along the way, I have worked with hundreds of other Americans of every color, background, and belief system who felt similarly called to service. It has taught me much about our culture, our collective heritage, and our differences. Together, we have drawn upon each others' strengths,
filled in each other weaknesses, and worked together on a goal. This process has demanded of me a recognition of things I took for granted about the American experience that some others do not know: the strength of diversity, the privilege of choices, the acceptance of the other.
This Fourth of July as I reflect on the promise of our nation's story and the opportunities ahead for her, I will think about a journey I began as a baby in Srinagar forty years ago, and the many gifts my heritage has given me. I'm proud to be an American at the same time that I'm proud to be Indian and proud to be a Muslim. The beauty of July 4th to me has always been that, in the United States, I can celebrate all three together.
The author is Special Representative to Muslim Communities at the U.S. Department of State.