Ever since I became a U.S. citizen, I’ve got a kick out of the fact that when re-entering this country (after visits to the UK), after presenting my passport, the immigration official commonly returns it to me, saying: “welcome back.”
Maybe this happens more often for travelers coming through laid-back Atlanta than somewhere like New York City, but it’s an endearing friendly touch where one otherwise confronts the cold face of bureaucracy and security.
Across the globe, crossing a border tends to be a dehumanizing experience when who we are is so sharply defined by a piece of paper.
As a dual national and British citizen, it’s frankly unimaginable that a representative of the government there would offer any kind of greeting.
Once back in the U.S., however, I would find it a bit disturbing if a fellow citizen wanted to reassure me that I’m welcome here, since, supposedly, we both share equal rights and an equal claim to American identity.
Even so, since I wasn’t born here and since I “have an accent” (to which I like to respond: who doesn’t?), it’s not difficult for me to understand why I might be viewed by some Americans as an outsider. Indeed, the term “naturalization” has always struck me as being an oxymoron. An innate attribute is either there or it isn’t — I don’t see how it can be inserted.
For that reason, I’m inclined to defer moderately to those Americans who feel like an American who was born in this country is in some sense more American than those of us who were born elsewhere.
That shouldn’t imply any discrimination in terms of status or rights — it’s simply an observation about depth of enculturation.
Which brings me to Muslim Americans, a large proportion of whom were indeed born in this country and have never lived anywhere else.
When someone such as Mark Zuckerberg reaches out to Muslims and says, “I want you to know that you are always welcome here,” I realize this kind of message is well-intended, but it isn’t deeply inclusive.
One American should never be so presumptuous as to tell another American that they are welcome here.
What is called for at this time is something much more radical. What is being contested is the meaning of solidarity.
Some Americans are saying that we now need to stand together to protect ourselves from foreign threats. This kind of unity divides humanity into two camps: Americans and non-Americans. And this division undercuts the very notion of humanity.
It becomes clear then, that the actual rift here is between those for whom their experience of being American is subordinate to their experience of being human, and those for whom their identity as Americans, trumps all others.
Is someone who gives such preeminence to national identity, really capable of any genuine expression of solidarity?
If you’re ability to empathize with another person depended on first knowing what kind of citizenship they held or which religion they practiced, how could such empathy be heartfelt?
I have to wonder whether those Americans who are afraid of Muslims are not also, to a lesser degree, afraid of each other?
Empathy is the core human recognition. It is the knowledge that your experience of pain is the same as mine; that love, joy, grief, and anger are universal emotions.
Where this knowledge is lacking, or where it gets buried beneath a rigid national identity, xenophobia and Islamophia are merely symptomatic of a degradation of an underlying sense of humanity.
Americans who do not see themselves as indivisibly part of humanity, should be less concerned about how they protect America than what they think it means to be human.
And since so many American-firsters describe themselves as Christians, they might begin a process of self-inquiry by reminding themselves that according to their own belief system, they are the descendants of a human lineage that traces back to a single source preceding all national identities.