Saturday, May 1, 2010

My name is Islam

Tuesday, April 20, 2010
VIEW: My name is Islam —Mahjabeen Islam
It seems to me that American vision will be forever jaundiced and my regular self will be painted and attired and then sneered and shouted at. And worse yet, my Pakistan has no place for me

Mine is a name that causes virtual whiplashes. I can hear them say “Dr Islam? Are you kidding me?!” The sophisticated ones bite their tongues; the bold ones, when I introduce myself, extend their hand and say, “Then I am Dr Christian!”

One would have expected tolerance and interfaith harmony to have plummeted post-9/11, with gradual improvement thereafter. But the tincture of time is not working here, quite the opposite; catalysed by the Great Recession, emotions are a-simmer and thin veneers fall fast.

I have partially borrowed the title of this article from the Bollywood production ‘My name is Khan’ in which megastar Shahrukh Khan does a terrific representation of Asperger’s syndrome. The refrain in the film is ‘My name is Khan and I am not a terrorist’ and not only is Asperger’s syndrome detailed accurately in the film, it successfully addresses issues such as home-grown terrorism and the steadily escalating antipathy toward anyone remotely resembling a Muslim.

And it resonated with me. For now, on an almost a daily basis, there is thinly veiled contempt, a poke or a jibe. Time was, even after 9/11, that people were pleasantly surprised that I was a Muslim. Expecting horns on my head, flowing robes or at least a headscarf, I know I evoked surprise for being so boringly average. But now I seem to be responsible for the Iraq fiasco, the Afghanistan invasion and of course the shooting at Fort Hood — to name only a few American and Muslim misadventures.

A 70-year old elderly white female, a patient of mine for the last 20 years, while checking out after her visit and planning her next appointment, wags her finger (I was standing right next to her) and says, “No fighting, no fighting, you stay in your country and I will stay in mine.” I know that somewhere along the genealogy line I am linked to Job. Not a word did I breathe; not for paucity of thought or fury.

How many people do I advertise to that I have lived in the US longer than my native Pakistan? What will it take to convince non-Muslim Americans that I do not spend my evenings and weekends participating in hot domestic-terrorism meetings? How many columns and events does it take to repeat that terrorism is roundly condemned by Islam, both the religion and little me?

Perhaps my patient has some room for misgivings — at least in her mind. Even before 9/11 I used to have copies of the Quran in my waiting room. After all, I figured if the Gideons can place Bibles in every hotel room, I certainly should try to enlighten with the message of the Quran. And of course after 9/11 it became required reading. Many Muslims and marketing gurus would consider it near-suicidal to have Islamic literature in a medical-office waiting room. And yet in my naïve activism-cum-spirituality I have this “He will provide for all living things” theory that perpetuates my risk-taking behaviours.

“I went to Vegas and noticed at the airports that there are not that many Arabs wearing Arabic clothes anymore, have you noticed?” asked my 76 year old black patient. I had not noticed, I said, there is a profusion in the mall when I go. “In the mall, but not at the airports!” he bellowed. “I guess they don't want to get arrested, flying while Muslim,” I tried to explain, illustrating with the imams that had gotten arrested for praying at Minneapolis airport. “So you are trying to shirk your religious duty because you are afraid?” his tone got strident, almost mocking. Well no, a group of South Asian and Arab-appearing men were arrested for praying in a Las Vegas parking lot with police radios saying that “objects were kissing the ground”. So damned if you pray and damned if you don't! Instead of healing I was, yet again, the defence attorney for all the Muslims of the world.

The other very favourite phrase is “why don't you go back to where you came from?” I haven't been told that to my face, not yet, in any case, but many Muslims have. To think that all that come to the US come for the American dream is nothing short of arrogant delusion. I for one came for post-graduate training and while I was tentative about staying or returning to Pakistan, years passed and I had dropped roots. Returning to my native Pakistan because the going got a little tough is unfortunately impracticable with American-born children.

And if roots were still pulled, what do physicians face in Pakistan? Especially the straight-laced, honest types, unaware of which palms to grease or what strings to pull — harassment, kidnapping or penury?

And who gets to measure my patriotism and decide that it is deficient? I live in a ritzy Republican neighbourhood; my contemporary home stands out among the wan and conservative beiges and browns. And if that and the intermittent string of brown guests were not bad enough, I was audacious to have been the sole supporter of Obama in the subdivision. The day that I took my yard sign out, my neighbour across the street glared so hard that if looks could kill, the sign and I would have evaporated. He ignored my cheery hello and responded with two McCain-Palin signs and American flags in every square inch of the yard it seemed. And only three days later, the Obama sign was crumpled and flattened — not something I could have relegated to the reckless wind.

I know that I put the casual observer’s brain a bit on overdrive. The English is accented but understandable, the persona regular but the name, oh the name! It seems to me though that the American vision will be forever jaundiced and my regular self will be painted and attired and then sneered and shouted at. And worse yet, my Pakistan has no place for me. Not alive in any case.

Mahjabeen Islam is a family physician, addictionist and freelance columnist with a practice in Toledo, Ohio. She can be reached at