The Right to Exist
War displaced my grandfather. It displaced my mother and father. It displaced my siblings. It displaced me.
Although the specific details of my family’s experiences are unique, the narrative has been the same for three generations: war, fear, then separation. Amid this difficulty, we have each asked each other and ourselves that most difficult question—what is the deeper meaning of our lives? How can we contextualize and try to give purpose to a series of violent events that is beyond comprehension on a personal level?
For Muslims, the answer is clear, though not simple. Our Prophet Muhammad teaches that life is meant to be a test. We are to meet our daily strivings as ambassadors to all of humanity, striving and bowing humbly before the great mysteries of this world while pursuing harmony with all creation and the Creator. We are taught to serve others not because we agree with their beliefs, but rather because our beliefs compel us to do so.
We are also taught that life’s tests come to us not as a series of isolated incidents, but in one continuous thread, incorporating events of the past and the seeming uncertainty of the future.
Like so many who have been displaced by war, I have committed myself to recreating my life and my identity. But the specter of a war who has come for three generations of my family has never left me and never allowed me to feel permanence in safety. Although they are U.S. citizens, the continuity of my family’s war story leads me to wonder if violence may one day also displace my children. These days, this is what keeps me up at night. And this is what calls me every morning to keep working.
To prevent another generation experiencing this same fate, members of my Somali and Muslim community throughout the U.S. continue to work tirelessly with both the public and private sectors to better integrate refugee/immigrant populations so that our successes further prove that open societies do work.
Through this work, we will continue to directly challenge the U.S.’s failing national security framework that relies on surveillance, arrest, imprisonment and now collective punishment (President Trump’s Muslim Ban) with a human security framework that emphasizes re-committing to the imperatives of refugee resettlement that was developed as a result of this nation’s failure at the Evian Conference of July 1938 to accept German Jews, a failure which empowered racism in Germany and directly led to the Final Solution.
Pursuing these reforms have led us to confront the most difficult questions of human rights, human needs, and human goodness, the kind demanded of human security practitioners by the likes of Martin Luther King Jr. in his Nobel lecture “The Quest for Peace and Justice” and Anthony Burgess in his novel “A Clockwork Orange.”
As I write this (while travelling back from an international trip) I am experiencing the real and disastrous impact of President’s new executive order banning Muslim refugees and others traveling to the U.S. from seven countries, including my own country of origin, Somalia.
As in so many previous eras, too many of us have once again retreated to homogeny of our traditional identities. When we do not embrace diversity, and separate ourselves from those we view as “other,” it becomes all too easy to advance forceful and simplistic narratives about other groups, including our own, that reduce individuals to degraded stereotypes. Emboldened, old and new bands of supremacists emerge in more forceful ways, eager to sound their diatribes of false righteousness as they march the rest of us toward the graveyard of pluralism.
As the political historian, Richard Hofstadter argued in “The Paranoid Style of American Politics,” these small bands of powerful voices attempt to reinforce structural antagonisms by constructing the false notion that they and others like them embody a collective consciousness of “True Good.” They weave narratives of historic persecution and humiliation perpetuated by a vast, demonic enemy. Ultimate triumph is only achievable through morally purifying actions that justify violence.
Hofstadter’s insights are not abstract. To me, they are personal.
After civil war erupted in Somalia following the Cold War, my family found refuge in a patchwork tent city in the neighboring country of Kenya. Months of relative peace disintegrated when local tribesman raided our destitute settlement with machetes. They slaughtered anyone in their way, setting fire to shelters and shouting, “Get out of my country, you blood-thirsty Somalis!”
We cowered in our shelter and prepared for heaven amid cries of children left behind by fleeing parents. I spent those moments of terror believing they were my last in this world.
But then something extraordinary happened. One of the young people my brother befriended from the local tribe, a boy named Salim, appeared in our doorway, and announced that he had convinced the attackers to spare our family. Years of paranoia and starvation conditioned us to a default of complete distrust. Salim’s announcement, we believed, was the last cruel gesture to manipulate us into inviting our own death with the misplaced courage to walk out through the door. But the pagan boy insisted he would protect us simply because we were good people, innocent people. And so he did—Salim stood guard while my family escaped what had seemed moments earlier like certain death.
Hours later, the Red Cross arrived. We stumbled out safely into a wasteland. I think I saw the sun.
Next, we spent several months undergoing extreme vetting in Nairobi. As we waited to be resettled, we lost the pillar of our family when my father passed away. Months later, the United States finally welcomed my mother and her children to rebuild our lives in this great country.
Two decades later, our utopia remains elusive, as it always has.
On November 6, 2016, President Trump told my son and daughters, natural born citizens of this country, that they roam this state without permission as Somalis. “Everybody’s talking about the disaster taking place in Minnesota,” he said. “You don’t even have the right to talk about it.”
If President Trump was to visit the diverse Somali community of my state of Minnesota, he would hear us talk about his issues, our issues, every day with a defiant freedom.
He would hear us talk about the challenges and blessings of our brothers and sisters who arrived as pioneers in this great state, not as hapless beneficiaries of the welfare system, but as driven members of the working class employed by the owners of industrial plants in rural townships.
Only decades later did a perceptive few understand that these manufacturing opportunities were only available to us immigrants because powerful anti-labor forces during the Reagan Era crushed the American Dream of these towns’ traditional union workers.
We walk across the line, known and unknown, now, as always.
Perhaps President Trump could join us in talking about the elusive politics of mutual prosperity of the discontent in those prairie fields.
He would hear us talk about the ways in which language can kill, carrying with it the lusting for power and assault of political rivals that justifies and conceals the true nature of violence. This is the violence that comes into being not by blade or bullet, but within the minds and speech of human beings whose lives we threaten not because of our own actions, but because of their own paranoid narratives of civilizational victimization.
And he would hear from those of us who did not vote for him talk about the new and terrible emotions we felt when we couldn’t tell our children whether his election meant we would have to move again.
Will we have to move again?
The answer, I hope, will depend not on the collapse, but the embrace of our country’s ongoing experiment in pluralism.
Pluralism means that we do not have to erase unique identities, but champion their distinct and unpredictable intermingling. After all, it’s these contrasts that create individuality and group identity in the first place.
Pluralism means undertaking the radical act of political humility, the kind that comes only when you have faced the most basic of terrors that remind us we are complex creatures built to endure.
Pluralism is the graceful recognition that although there are infinite degrees of variation within the ways we practice devotion to our values, identities, and goals that compete for abstract supremacy in the public and private spheres, their actual pursuit by individual human beings creates opportunities for aharmony of interests.But only so long as we grant participatory rights and practical freedoms to as wide and diverse a group of people as possible.
Pluralism is the value that allows me, an observant Muslim who holds tawhid (the Oneness of God) as the most fundamental profession of my faith, to reject privileging such religious essentialism in my social contract to this nation. My faith is strong because I embrace it willingly. It is strong without any need for public institutions to punish those who may embrace other faiths, or no faith at all. I believe that the best guarantee for my right and freedom to express my faith is to advocate for the same rights and freedoms of other groups of people to practice spiritual essentialism in their private lives, since we risk censorship, oppression, and, ultimately, annihilation if we do not enter contentious systems of mutual advocacy.
In this struggle, the lessons of Somalia’s collapse are not immaterial to the story of my beloved United States. That is because, in our common trial, it is my conviction that a boy named Salim who courageously defended devout Muslims can give us all the faith that the imperatives of pluralism are not only possible, but necessary for a more peaceful future for all.
HamseWarfa is an author, philanthropic leader and social entrepreneur. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.