I THINK of myself first and foremost as an American. I’m proud of that identity because as an immigrant, it came to me through deep conviction and hard work, not the accident of birth.
I also think of myself as a husband, father, guy from India, journalist, New Yorker and (on my good days) an intellectual.
But in today’s political climate, I must embrace another identity. I am a Muslim. I am not a practising Muslim. The last time I was in a mosque, except as a tourist, was decades ago.
My wife is Christian, and we have not raised our children as Muslims. My views on faith are complicated — somewhere between deism and agnosticism. I am completely secular in my outlook.
Protesters rallying against Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump in New York. Labelling all Muslims as suspects only creates tension and division. AFP pic
But as I watch the way in which Republican candidates are dividing Americans, I realise that it’s important to acknowledge the religion into which I was born.
And, yet, that identity doesn’t fully represent me or my views.
I am appalled by Donald Trump’s bigotry and demagoguery not because I am a Muslim but because I am an American.
In his diaries from the 1930s, Victor Klemperer describes how he, a secular, thoroughly assimilated German Jew, despised Hitler.
But he tried to convince people that he did so as a German; that it was his German identity that made him see Nazism as a travesty. In the end, alas, he was seen solely as a Jew.
This is the real danger of Trump’s rhetoric: it forces people who want to assimilate, who see themselves as having multiple identities, into a single box.
The effects of his rhetoric have already poisoned the atmosphere. Muslim Americans are more fearful and will isolate themselves more.
The broader community will know them less and trust them less. A downward spiral of segregation will set in. The tragedy is that, unlike in Europe, Muslims in America are by and large well-assimilated.
I remember talking to a Moroccan immigrant in Norway last year who had a brother in New York. I asked him how their experiences differed.
He said, “Over here, I’ll always be a Muslim, or a Moroccan; but my brother is already an American.”
In an essay in Foreign Affairs, British writer Kenan Malik points out that in France, in the 1960s and 1970s, immigrants from North Africa were not seen as or called Muslims.
They were described as North Africans or Arabs. But that changed in recent decades.
He quotes a filmmaker who says, “What, in today’s France, unites the pious Algerian retired worker, the atheist French-Mauritanian director that I am, the Fulani Sufi bank employee from Mantes-la-Jolie, the social worker from Burgundy who has converted to Islam, and the agnostic male nurse who has never set foot in his grandparents’ home in Oujda?”
His answer: “We live within a society which thinks of us as Muslims.” Once you start labelling an entire people by characteristics like race and religion, and then see the whole group as suspect, tensions will build.
In a poignant article on Muslim American soldiers, The Washington Post interviewed Marine Gunnery Sergeant Emir Hadzic, a refugee from Bosnia, who explained how the brutal civil war between religious communities began in the Balkans in the 1990s.
“That’s what’s scary with [the] things that [Donald Trump is] saying,” Hadzic said. “I know how things work when you start whipping up mistrust between your neighbours and friends,... I’ve seen them turn on each other.”
I remain an optimist. Trump has taken the country by surprise.
People don’t quite know how to respond to the vague, unworkable proposals (“We have to do something!”), the phony statistics, the dark insinuations of conspiracies (“There's something we don't know,” he says about President Obama) and the naked appeals to people’s prejudices.
But this is not the 1930s. People from all sides of the spectrum are condemning Trump — though there are several Trump-Lites among the Republican candidates.
The country will not stay terrified.
Even after San Bernardino, the number of Americans killed by Islamic terrorists on US soil in the 14 years since 9/11 is 45 — an average of about three people a year.
The number killed in gun homicides this year alone will be around 11,000. In the end, America will reject this fear-mongering and demagoguery, as it has in the past.
But, we are going through an important test of political and moral character. I hope decades from now, people will look back and ask, “What did you do when Donald Trump proposed religious tests in America?”
'Follow or get out of the way'
We chatted briefly across the table, Donald Trump and me. We exchanged pleasantries, he nodded, then hunkered down and returned to the stack of books by his side.
For the record, the meeting was unlikely to mean anything to him. I was one of the hundreds in line at a bookshop in midtown Manhattan, if I recall correctly.
It was 1997, both Trump and I had more hair then, and he was peddling his book, The Art of the Comeback. It came almost a decade after his bestseller, The Art of the Deal, which introduced the brash young billionaire to the world.
Soon after, his business almost went under. But, he was the proverbial too-big-to-fail case and creditors made sure he could turn around his business.
That he did, and this boosted his reputation as an astute businessman, hence, the follow-up book. He was a staple of New York City’s celebrity-obsessed culture.
A sign in support of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. His pronouncements on the campaign trail have been divisive, but they appeal to many Americans.
The youngish billionaire epitomised the city’s in-your-face, make-no-apologies ethos.
His business, family, relationships, failures and successes, and highs and lows were — and I presume, still are — fodder for the masses.
Most things he did made news for the simple reason that he was an outspoken, successful billionaire who had an opinion on everything.
Because of his success, he felt that he either knew everything or was in a position to tell people off. One cannot really be faulted to suggest that he is an egomaniac.
His properties, for instance, all carry his name, in big, bold letters, and in gold, too. The world, it seems, revolves around him.
Trump was all mouth, too; ever willing to share his opinion — so assured of his, and dismissive of others. Thus, when he held the book signing, I decided to attend. I bought the book, met him and he obliged to say a few words.
No handshakes. He did not shake hands then, apparently because he was particular about the germs and stuff that could be passed on via handshakes. I am not sure how he is coping with the flesh pressing when campaigning these days.
Trump, to me, was a curiosity. I wanted to see what he looked like in person, if he was as obnoxious as the media made him out to be. I never thought much about what he did, since he must be fairly smart to be a billionaire.
Now, he is one of the leading Republican contenders as candidate for the United States presidential elections next year. One of his appeals, it seems, is his ability to say what he wants without being bothered by political correctness.
He is unlike a politician, hence, many find him refreshing. He is the straight-talking guy who says what he feels without fear of backlash. Immigrants are bad; Muslims are terrorist suspects; big governments are bad;
Democrats are weak and ruining the country; and other candidates are either incompetent, stupid or do not know what they are talking about.
Trump’s pronouncements on the campaign trail have been divisive. Governments the world over may condemn and fellow presidential aspirants may distance themselves, but they appeal to many Americans.
His campaign motto — or at least, what’s written on his red baseball cap — is “Make America Great Again”.
That’s a great line, I must say. It suggests that the country, under President Barack Obama, is on the wane, not getting the respect that the US deserves internationally and, domestically, things are in chaos.
He, on the other hand, will make the country great again. But, Trump’s America would not welcome me. He would presumably make me go through hoops and hurdles before I could get there.
I understand the fear of the Americans. Studies suggest that the fear of terrorism is nearing the level of that in 2001, when New York and Washington were attacked.
Trump, the astute politician, tapped into this fear and promised to make sure that the country was safer under his leadership. Thus, Muslims are potential terrorists.
Thus, the need for them to be treated differently, just as Mexicans are potential rapists and drug dealers. The thing about the US is that what it does has ramifications worldwide.
It wields great military, economic and diplomatic influence, and often always influences how other countries do things, too.
Nevertheless, it raises doubts on the US’ ability to lead the world if the president is a guy who believes that he could resolve issues by either out-bidding someone, muscling in, or demonising or calling them stupid.
He probably thinks he could just fire someone, as he did on his reality TV show.
President Trump, based on campaign rhetoric, would sit every other world leader down and tell them the way it is and how they should behave, and his constituents would roar.
He would come up with hare-brained ideas and expect them to be implemented, and the rest of the world would be asked to follow.
He does not care about issues or complaints, which he would describe as “whining”.
The US would be great again, let everyone be clear; Trump is, after all, the master of comebacks.
I have a soft spot for the US after spending time living and working there.
I admire its tradition of welcoming immigrants, from refugees to those in pursuit of the American Dream.
It is the world’s conscience and has always tried to do the right thing.
Of course, we have issues on matters, such as its stance on the Palestine-Israel situation, but it takes its role as a superpower seriously, lending support and assistance when needed.
Of course, it could be mean and nasty, too. But imagine, how would other 600-pound gorillas behave if they had the military might of Washington?
My main issue with Trump is that he is gaining traction; he seems to be a genuine candidate for the presidency. His strong showing could encourage other candidates to emulate him.
Win or lose, Trump may have changed the Republican party.
His stance is xenophobic, racist and thrives on divisiveness.
He encourages citizens to be suspicious of each other and cast suspicions on new entrants.
It is ironic for a country built by immigration.
He promotes recklessness, when he should know better.
Trump is jingoistic and chest-thumping — he does not subscribe to the “walk softly, but carry a big stick” attitude.
His message to the rest of the world would be “follow or get out of the way, I am coming through”.
My daughter told me a quote attributed to Trump that she read on the Internet — most likely fake, I told her, but funny, nevertheless.
He had allegedly said: “My forefathers did not come (to the US) to have migrants run things here.”
Trump’s US would probably be less welcoming of me, and it bothers him not a little bit, I think.
PS: I must confess, I have not read a word of The Art of the Comeback. The signed copy is still on the shelf, and that is unlikely to change any time soon.