Wajahat Ali on the ‘American nightmare’ and the ‘American dream’ of being a Muslim son of immigrants

Wajahat Ali’s new book is “Go Back to Where You Came From: And Other Helpful Recommendations on How to Become American.” MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Matt McClain

The son of Pakistani immigrants, popular author and speaker Wajahat Ali has published a memoir on the experience of becoming an accidental spokesman for all things Muslim. In his book, “Go Back to Where You Came From: And Other Helpful Recommendations on How to Become American,” he confronts a range of issues, including Islamophobia, white supremacy and chocolate hummus. Ali, who lives with his wife and three children in the D.C. area, traces his winding journey from lawyer to playwright to essayist to TV commentator to book writer. This interview has been condensed and edited.

Q: How do you think being an immigrant who is Muslim shapes a person’s experience than if they’re Christian or Jewish, another faith or no faith?

A: Unlike the other groups you mentioned, we will never be absorbed into Whiteness because most of us in this country are people of color. There are parallels with the other communities who have endured persecution, like Irish Catholics and Jews. There was an attitude that Catholics can’t be loyal, but most of them were able to be absorbed in the Whiteness and were able to be absorbed into the American narrative. Or Jews found a “Judeo-Christian” haven. There are often double standards placed on Muslims, which you don’t see with Catholics or Jews, where we’re asked to condemn violent acts by people we’ve never met.

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Q: How do you detangle whether people might be fearful of the theology of Islam or are they afraid of foreigners?

A: It’s all bigotry, and it’s intertwined. The first hate crime after 9/11 was against a brown-skinned Sikh man with a turban and a beard. (Balbir Singh Sodhi was a man who followed Sikhism, not Islam.) Was the attacker like, “Excuse me, Mr. Singh. Are you a Sunni or Shia? Do you pray five times?” Muslim becomes the villain; Muslim becomes the boogeyman. Muslim institutions, Muslim charities, Muslims must be surveilled. Those who are brown-skinned or wear a hijab or have a beard are seen as markers of radicalization. That’s how you see race, ethnicity, immigration gets tied up into Islamophobia. And the fear of this thing called Islam becomes a civilizational threat and must be eradicated.

Q: You write about being invited to speak and how you’re often introduced as a “Muslim journalist” not just a journalist. I imagine you’re not being invited to give your theological perspective, right? Are people interested in the religion of Islam?

A: Yeah, on a panel, no one usually says, “And next to him is someone who is Jewish, and someone who is Catholic.” What they’re mostly interested in is the moderate Muslim who condemns violent acts. I can give a brilliant, witty speech, and in some environments, the questions are like, “But do you support Hamas, Hezbollah or al-Qaeda? How can women wear the hijab? What about the burqa? Condemn extremism.” I would love to talk about faith. Let’s talk about why we do what we do.

Q: Do you think depictions of Muslims in popular entertainment are improving?

A: The bar was low for a long time. Before 9/11, there were scary and Brown Middle Eastern terrorists that Chuck Norris would kill. After 9/11, Islam was seen as a civilizational threat. Jack Bauer or characters in “Homeland” had to go fight this insidious threat. Then, in order to be sophisticated, what Hollywood did was, “Oh look, there is one shiny good Muslim who’s part of the law enforcement.” The utility of a Muslim American was whether a Muslim American was helping law enforcement kill ISIS and al-Qaeda. Twenty years later, you have a TV show like “Ramy,” and it’s, “Oh, here’s a character who’s interesting who just happens to be Muslim.” It’s getting better, but it’s trying to undo a thousand years of negative stories going back to the Crusades.

Q: A few years ago, you received flak for a brief clip on CNN where you joked in a Southern accent: ” ‘You elitists with your geography and your maps – and your spelling!’ ” How do you reflect back on that segment?

A: After that aired, there was an attitude of, “You guys have to take it all. But you always have to be kind to us.” We always have to be perfect, but they get to tell us to go back to where we come from, and then when we complain, we’re told to stop being so politically correct. I don’t play by the game. I’m sorry. I don’t. That was a throwaway, ridiculous live on-air segment. You see how society has a double standard for the conservatives and the rest of us, especially people of color? MAGA supporters can be as vicious, as cruel, as ugly, as ignorant as possible, and the rest of us just have to take it. And then we talk in a lighthearted, facetious way, and mainstream press says, you have to be really kind to them. But by the way, let them call you terrorists and do a Muslim ban. They just have economic anxiety.

Q: You often tweet in a lighthearted way about how Muslims and Jews should be allies and have similar enemies, etc. Where are Muslim-Jewish relations at in this country?

A: Muslims and Jews in America actually have positive relations. We are a community seen as invaders by Donald Trump’s MAGA. They see Jews as being the nerve center of the cabal that is bringing in Black folks to replace White Americans. Antisemitism in America is deeply intertwined with Islamophobia. The conspiracy theory is a replacement theory, which implicate the both of us as villains. You have significant divides on Israel and Palestine and perhaps in a few other issues. But at the very least, domestically, our fates are intertwined, and we have to work together. We’ve lived through the American nightmare and the American dream.

Q: You write about how, even in the face of immense difficulties, what it’s like to “invest in hope.” You write about navigating your daughter’s cancer diagnosis and a stranger’s liver donation. Can you talk about how your faith shaped that experience?

A: People who know me know that the faith fuels pretty much everything that I do, and it shapes and motivates me. Often, faith does give you a perspective. It gives you a story in which hopefully there’s a loving and rational creator, a God who has created you for a certain purpose.

When we had my daughter’s cancer, I used to imagine all the stories and narratives that could play out to emotionally prepare myself as a father. I imagined the possibility was, she died. There’s also the possibility of an anonymous donor and she gets a liver transplant, and that’s the story that I chose to invest in. In Islam, even if you see the danger coming around the corner, you’re supposed to plant a seed, have hope in the face of absolute horrors and chaos. Having hope is an act. You have to invest in it. Just like joy during a pandemic, you have to make the intention, and then you have to invest in it like almost exercising. That framework gave us hope that Inshallah, God willing, there’s still a chance. That helped us get through that crisis and in helping us get through this current crisis.

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