It’s a question many Muslim Americans are asked nowadays; when others are trying to guage how patriotic we are as Americans.
Interestingly, I used to be asked this question in Pakistan as well: are you Pakistani first or Muslim first? And this was in a Muslim country. Yet, it has always made me uncomfortable, it forces you to feel that the two: religious and national identity, are somehow mutually exclusive.
A CNN survey found that 59% of Christians are more likely to describe themselves as Christian first and American second. It is 12% higher than a Pew Poll of American Muslim attitudes which found only 47% Muslims consider themselves Muslim first and American second. Another Pew Survey 62 percent of evangelical white Protestants similarly say they are Christians first and Americans second.
I wish the surveying organizations would also ask us if it is a fair question. I am pretty sure most Americans will respond with a resounding no.
I find the question unfair.
For a country which says “One nation under God” and “In God we trust” should not force a person to choose between his relationship with God over anything human like a country. God is God and a country is a country.
If I am comparing apples to apples, I would say, in matters of faith, I am Muslim first. And in matters of country, I am an American first.
It’s hardly a new question, nevertheless. Virtually every group that has not been White-Anglo-Saxon Protestant elite or subscribed to its attitudes and beliefs has had its loyalty to America questioned. It’s a sort of litmus test for Americanness that is considered laughable today - except when it comes to Muslims or probably Latinos.
Islam is not a nationality and America, one of the most religiously diverse countries on the planet, upholds the right to freedom of religion and belief. That means a person can be of any faith and be an American as well.
Normally on the Fourth of July, I fast to thank God for His blessings and reaffirm my personal resolve to do my best to take our country forward, striving to make it better for us at home and humanity abroad.
But in the meantime, I have tried to look back and find out how other groups of Americans have dealt with the “Are you … first, or American first?”
“For contrary to common newspaper usage, I am not the Catholic candidate for president. I am the Democratic Party's candidate for president, who happens also to be a Catholic. I do not speak for my church on public matters, and the church does not speak for me.
This is the kind of America I believe in, and this is the kind I fought for in the South Pacific, and the kind my brother died for in Europe. No one suggested then that we may have a ‘divided loyalty,’ that we did ‘not believe in liberty,’ or that we belonged to a disloyal group that threatened the ‘freedoms for which our forefathers died.’”
-John F. Kennedy speech, September 12, 1960, about his religion during the 1960 presidential campaign
It’s hard to think that anyone would question JFK’s patriotism.
Yet, Irish-Americans, Catholics in specific, were long subjected to discrimination and intolerance. It was primarily their religion that was the source, remnants of Protestant European prejudice that had been imported to America’s first 13 colonies and persisted throughout for centuries, even after they were given the right to practice their faith early in the nation’s history.
Fears of a Catholic America, takeover by large-sized Irish Catholic families, and hateful stereotypes of drunken, mean Irish men and high-breeding Irish women remained in place for centuries. This was perhaps why it was so easy to demonize JFK during his run for president in 1960. Bigots and fear-mongers called into question his patriotism and allegiance to America as an Irish Catholic, claiming he would take orders from the Pope in Rome instead of being devoted to his nation and his people. This prompted his above-mentioned September 12, 1960 speech.
After the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Japanese-Americans had their patriotism questioned as well. Actually, more than questioned, it was automatically assumed that they would be more loyal to Japan than to American - which was why they were ordered via Executive Order 9066 to be placed in interment camps “for their own safety”.
Most of those interned were born and raised in the United States and had never been to Japan.
According to a 1943 report published by the War Relocation Authority, which ran the camps, Japanese Americans were housed in "tarpaper-covered barracks of simple frame construction without plumbing or cooking facilities of any kind." These overcrowded accommodations were bleak and surrounded by barbed wire. President Roosevelt himself called them "concentration camps."
Those who survived were eventually released. By 1945, all of the camps had been shut down.
Michelle Obama made headlines during the 2008 presidential campaign when she said "for the first time in my adult life I am proud of my country because it feels like hope is finally making a comeback." White conservatives attacked her lack of “patriotism.”
Our nation’s first African-Americans did not arrive here of their own free will.
Perhaps this is why many African-Americans have mixed feelings over the issue of “patriotism” while they kept serving in the armed forces even at a time when back home in the U.S. their families were experiencing all kinds of racial discrimination, bigotry, and intolerance.
However, it was the civil rights struggle which resulted in people like Muhammad Ali being treated as an equal human being while the working poor rot in our prisons.
However the fact that President Obama gets 300% more death threats than President Bush did and that hate groups are active in record number in the country point out to the realities that for a fringe group accepting a black president is still not easy.
One Nation Under God
Thank God for the blessings you have given us in this life. We thank you for the best of America and we ask your forgiveness when our nation has wronged others while neglecting it’s working people, the undocumented, and the native Americans. We ask you to continue your blessings for us. We pray that You guide us in sharing more of Your blessings while we consume less.
Thank you Allah for the strengths and beauties of our nation.
We pray that You keep our country and our neighbors safe.
Please help our leaders use our tax money to save lives not take lives.
O God, help our country assist its poor and needy.
Ya Allah, protect our country from becoming unjust.
Help us, O God, make our country a welcoming nation again.
Ya Allah, keep us free.