On a recent cross-continental flight I sat next to a man who was a supporter of Donald Trump. You can imagine the awkward position we were both in. Racist. Islamophobe. Misogynist. Those were a few of the adjectives that could have crossed my mind, while terrorist, anti-American, ISIS may have been on his. We both had to choose: tolerate each other for a few hours, passing the occasional disingenuous smile with meaningless pleasantries or address the elephant in the room and engage in a real conversation. We chose the latter.
During the course of our conversation, Steve and I realized the events of 9/11 were key in our current diverging dispositions. Steve was on a mid-level floor in the second tower just a few floors below from where the second airplane struck and he recounted to me the horrors he experienced on that day. He witnessed the jumpers, those so desperate to escape they threw themselves out of windows to their own peril. He passed lifeless bodies on the ground floor. It was real, it was painful and it was undeniably an experience that shaped him.
Those same events sent a ripple through time that would impact the lives of millions of Muslims in America. My family started receiving visits from FBI agents simply because our last name, Atiya, sounded similar to one of the hijacker's last name, Atta. I explained to him how I started to feel like a stranger in my own country, despite having grown up in upstate New York. We discussed the millions of Muslims living in America, who equally care about the security of this country and have had their lives upended as their religion became suspect.
The willingness to engage in conversation helped us see that we were two men impacted by a tragic event that led us to two different conclusions on matters, but here we were on an airplane having the confidence and courage to have a real conversation. We agreed on some issues and on others we did not, yet we focused on understanding each other’s views and opinions which was undeniably difficult at times.
In the past I would have taken the path of least resistance and simply written off Steve as being backwards. I would have dehumanized him by the mere fact that “he supports Trump” so no good could possibly come out of him. That would have been the easy choice. The tougher one would be to engage him in a way where my views would be challenged and my walls would need to come down. Admittedly, I was inspired by Van Jones of CNN to have this conversation. His recent series “The Messy Truth” centers around getting people with passionate political and personal differences to talk to each other, instead of at each other.
In observing the Muslim American social media sphere over the past two years we are in serious need of our own internal Messy Truth. In our fragile era, Muslim American leadership often seem more passionately divided on matters while incapable of having in-depth conversations on topics of divergence. Subjects like social issues, which scholars we like and which we don’t, and international politics have replaced the battle lines that we previously drew in the early 2000s. The topics might have changed but our overall attitude in how we approach them have not. There is an urgent need to foster the ability to have passionate disagreements on matters while understanding each other's worldly point of view. Life is not black and white, there is nuance in positions that we can take. If Steve and I were able to realize this and engage in conversation without writing each other off at the end, why can’t our Muslim leadership do the same?
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