When East meets West
Two faith leaders discuss the immigrant experience in America
As anyone who’s traveled abroad can attest, there are some rather skewed perceptions floating around about the United States. Whether it’s visions of a country swathed in palm trees and beach-side mansions, or a profusion of gun-toting, immigrant-hating Bush clones, no stereotype of American life can ever represent the whole picture.
This is especially true post-9/11, when the War on Terror came to mean, for some, the War on Immigration. Suddenly, anyone wishing to enter the United States faced heightened restrictions, inquisition-level scrutiny and the possibility of racial discrimination; and none more so than those hailing from the Middle East.
To this day, Imam M.A. Azeez, leader of the Sacramento Area League of Associated Muslims Islamic center, still has to reassure his mother that he’s not being attacked or harassed by anti-Muslims. Born in “the great city of Alexandria” (Egypt, not Virginia), Azeez is committed to raising awareness around Islam and promoting “a true image” for the global community of how Muslims are treated in the United States.
Deacon Clark Goecker, director of the Newman Center, Catholic student community at UC Davis, found himself relating to the immigrant experience on a personal level when he first moved from Berkeley to Davis.
“I think it’s difficult for any group that immigrates to find the transition smooth,” he shared, noting that for him, entering a new faith community was more challenging than he had anticipated.
Our guests addressed the rocky question of assimilation for a Muslim who has left family and country to pursue the proverbial American dream.
I came to the United States from the Middle East to attend college, and have since married, started a family, and established a career. Two of my brothers are now attending college here, as well, but the rest of my family still lives in the Middle East. I want to bring them to the States so we can all be a family again, but I am wary of the way Americans treat Muslim immigrants, particularly the older generation. I don’t know if my sister and parents, and possibly my extended family, would be as resilient and adaptable to American culture. What can I do to ensure their smooth transition, or should I even try?
“There is an image that people who did not come to the U.S. have about the U.S.,” said Azeez. “It’s a very strong image that they gather from the media, particularly about how Muslims are being treated in the post-9/11 world. And there is an image that they think Americans are having about them. Both images are probably false.”
As SALAM’s full-time imam, Azeez has the privilege of leading “the most diverse mosque in the Sacramento area,” which also includes a full-time preschool and elementary school. Azeez himself boasts a diverse background: a doctorate, a bachelor’s degree in political science and sociology, a master’s in social sciences, and next he’ll be applying for a Ph.D. in history at UC Davis. While half of his family still lives in Egypt (including his concerned mother), he and his wife and two children settled in Sacramento two-and-a-half years ago, after he finishing graduate school at the University of Chicago.
“The first thing, in my personal opinion, is to advise this person to make sure that the family back home has a clear image of what the average American feels like. People are not hostile. There could be a general mood of negativity, but that doesn’t mean that every single individual would be hostile to every single Muslim.”
Conversation then turned to delays in the immigration process, symptoms of a policy that is, in Goecker’s words, “absolutely dysfunctional.”
Azeez gave examples of people who have lived here for 15 to 20 years, and, after five years of applications, still haven’t received word on green cards or naturalization.
“So even bringing the family over here has been increasingly difficult for people,” said Azeez, which “adds to the negative image” already circulating about the United States.
The scary part, he contended, is not that delays are happening because a person is Muslim, but that the process is in fact “so arbitrary and random. And people are suffering. They don’t know what to do. And they end up in a situation where they have to litigate. … This is the message you’re sending to the new immigrants, that the first thing they need to do to become Americans is to sue the federal government.”
Such obstacles only encourage people to immigrate to the United States illegally, Azeez said, since “the roads to legal immigration are almost blocked now.”
Goecker pointed out that immigrants from South America who are Catholic are finding the same sort of discrimination Muslims face, even within their community of faith.
“There’s a lot of tension,” Azeez agreed, referring to Muslim immigrants in his own community who are coming from cultures politically at odds with each other. “Russians and Chechens, Shiites and Sunnis from Iraq, Pakistanis and Indians. … They’re all the same people.”
It’s a beautiful thing, he continued, to see that within a few years of worshiping in the same mosque (since there aren’t many in Sacramento), “They are forced to work with each other, accept each other. … When you come in here and see the faith being practiced in different ways by different people coming from different backgrounds, you start learning more, and you start appreciating the diversity, and this is healthy for you. It makes you a better person.”
Azeez also advises people trying to dispel negative images of the United States to “talk to their family about the similarities between American values and Islamic values. … The emphasis on family, morality, freedom, loving your neighbor—the shared Jewish-Christian values that are built into the American tradition. … Usually this works, particularly if you sugarcoat it with the economic opportunities and bringing the family together, then people do not regret coming here.”
Goecker’s involvement with immigration issues has been primarily helping students in his community, and to some extent the Church, “really understand why the Church’s position is so strong with regard to reasonable, responsible immigration policies.”
Students who participate in the Newman Center’s annual house-building project in Tijuana “come back with a whole new set of eyes that understand the immigration issue from the Mexican side of the border,” Goecker said.
The Catholic Church as a whole, Goecker continued, has taken “a very, very strong position” regarding the potential immigration policies that, in his view, “aren’t very compassionate or reasonable.”
“Part of what we have to do is to educate part of the Catholic community as to why the Church has these views, why the Church is recommending or proposing a new immigration policy that is much more compassionate and understanding. … Even within our own faith communities there are biases one way or the other.”
Immigration, said Goecker, is “not just a political issue. It’s also a religious issue, a question of how do we want to treat others, and how do we want to be treated.”
How to go about resolving this dilemma is, as Goecker and Azeez agreed, “a work in progress.”