01 Dec 2010

Beacon of Liberty

Tarnish on America’s Global Brand
by Sharjeel Kashmir


It’s a beautiful morning in Jersey City as I stretch after my regular jog in Liberty State Park. I marvel that this is my neighborhood and my view. In front of me, the Hudson River lies at the feet of the iconic New York skyline. To my right is the Statue of Liberty.

I look over at the World Financial Center where I work, and as always, what strikes me isn’t what I see but what I don’t see anymore. Even after nine years, the ghosts of the Twin Towers never seem to fade from the skyline in my mind. I am a Muslim, born in England, raised in Pakistan, but now a U.S. citizen and every bit as American as any of my fellow joggers or coworkers across the river. Somehow, though, people expect me to react differently to what happened. I don’t. The same ghosts haunt me.

As I stretch my muscles, my mind unreels a troubling movie. The planes hit the buildings in horrifying slow motion. A nation mourns. Families grieve. Even though it’s my movie, it always ends the same way. I feel helpless, powerless, and lost.

It’s a far cry from the way I felt twelve years ago when I first moved here. Back then, I felt welcomed. I was truly impressed that America gave me as an immigrant the same opportunities it did to its own citizens. Today, that is still largely the case, unless your name is Mohammad or if you choose to wear the hijab. Since 9/11, almost every Muslim in this country has a story. And it’s no longer one of welcome. It’s six-month-old Muslim babies on the “no fly” list. It’s searches and racial profiling at airport security. It’s suspicious looks from neighbors.

We experience this where we work and live. And then we turn on the nightly news and we see hatred, like the pastor in Florida who threatened to burn the Quran on the anniversary of 9/11. We see the sad irony of the Anti-Defamation League (a group formed to “secure justice and fair treatment to all”) opposing the Islamic center and mosque proposed near the former World Trade Center site. Anti-Muslim sentiments have been simmering below the surface since 9/11, and this debate has caused them to erupt.

Some people have clearly decided that 9/11 gives them the right to persecute Muslims. And as a result, we are all collectively paying for the sins of terrorists — a radical, crazy few who just happen to share the same religious background. By opposing the mosque in Manhattan, the critics are suggesting that religious freedom should be selectively applied. This doesn’t just hurt Muslims, it attacks the very fabric of what made America great. People all over the world dream of coming here and being treated fairly in the mythical “land of the free.” America built that global brand with blood, sweat, and sacrifices, and it is being tarnished with every act of intolerance.

I wish every American would realize that if they take away my freedoms, they risk their own. One day, they could easily end up on the other side of the next debate to curtail rights. And freedom lost is doubly difficult to regain.

The day before the World Trade Center bombings, America was my home; the next day I woke up a stranger in a strange land. I wish every American could understand that I am not the enemy. We want to be part of the solution. We want to build international bridges and help tolerance grow in America and around the world.

America became a beacon of liberty because it gave to every citizen the unalienable right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” It’s time to give that back to everyone, regardless of religion. At the end of my movie, I very much want to replace “power-less and lost” with “hopeful and optimistic.” I want the New York skyline to once more inspire dreams of the possible, not echoes of the past. I want to come home again.

— Sharjeel Kashmir (PLDA 4, 2007) works on banking strategy and financial derivatives in New York City, and with international microfinance institutions, helping them develop their corporate and governance strategies. He is also a photographer (www.sharjeelkashmir.com) and filmmaker. This article is an edited version of a CNN.com article that first appeared on August 11, 2010.

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