Muslim in Trump’s America: From Frying Pan to Fire

Daniel Younessi
Jan 24, 2017

On my train ride from work today, I overheard in a conversation that Donald Trump has placed a moratorium on immigration from several countries in the Muslim world. Like a staggering number of events in the past few days, this order marks a new era. The rules are different, and it’s been noticeable even in daily life. It’s rare for me to be late to the news, much less overhear it on the train. New York’s public spaces are rapidly politicizing, the sound of heated political discussion, angry chants and righteous fury emanate from every train car, coffee shop and bar. The same nice white ladies who once clutched their pearls at the idea of an in-the-flesh communist or anarchist now march shoulder-to-shoulder with them down America’s avenues. Many of my liberal friends, once irritated (at best) by my politics, now ask me about opportunities to organize. The lines between the social, the political and the personal are blurring.

There’s a particularly personal element to Trump’s order (this originally read ‘latest order,’ but who knows if it will be by the time this goes out). I am the child of immigrants and refugees from the Muslim world. My parents left their ‘homeland’ of Iran after their attempt to cast of the yoke of pro-Western authoritarianism left them lurching in the horrors of Shia Islamist authoritarianism. I put ‘homeland’ in quotes because Iran was not much a homeland for my family, as Kurds, the state had systematically curbed our access to our language, our culture, our literature and our political and religious attitudes. The failed revolution and the ensuing terror left them fleeing an ideology not dissimilar from ones that many of today’s refugees flee.

There are many living in America today who suffered tragedies similar to what my parents and grandparents survived. There are still the remnants of a generation of Holocaust survivors whom we have disappointed by allowing ethnic nationalism to rise up once again, within their lifetimes. There are survivors of Japanese internment who have lived to see the real possibility of another round of interments and detainments we will be forced to add to our history books. There are generations of African-American activists, young and old, who stand to see yet another struggle for black liberation be derailed by forces of reaction and white supremacy. There are millions of workers in this country for whom making America great again will mean losing the scrap of healthcare coverage they had, losing the right to organize and, in the end, losing their job to a machine. Clearly, history’s progress is not linear: it can be, and often is, reversed.

It is reversed when the lessons of history are forgotten or erased, when the efforts of people working in tandem for a better world are reduced to mere curiosities or data. When the decades-long struggle of the labor movement to keep children in school and to provide reasonable working hours and conditions are reduced to glib statements like “FDR did the New Deal.” It is reversed when we cede the credit and valor of our achievements to Great Men who did little more than put pen to paper long after the blood and sweat had been shed. It is reversed when we forget that the slave trade was carried out for profit, that the ‘Empire of Cotton’ was not the Confederacy but the United States. That the heart of our economics was once the intolerable cruelty of slavery, as it is now the intolerable cruelty of inequality. That very often, those people remain under that yoke. It is reversed when we forget that, ultimately, the dictator that my parents were forced, unsuccessfully, to help depose, was kept there by the CIA. Things might well get better — I like to think they will — but that’s up to us. Regardless, there’s no question that to make it better will require us to confront the uncomfortable truths of our own past and to regain the confidence and spirit of working collectively. It will require battling our egos, laying aside our comforts, and the committing to get through some very dark times indeed. It will require context and critical thought — to realize that, as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, the riot is the language of the unheard.

The new America I’ve been living in recently feels strangely familiar. Its nervous energy and barely-contained rage, its belligerent discussions and catchy chants, its visceral enjoyment of people being punched and, of course, its parade of executive orders, ethnonationalism, gaping social chasms and surreal alternative facts remind me of nowhere so much as the Middle East.

I guess it goes to show you — you can come home again. Even if you never had one.

Daniel is a political organizer, social media irritant, and PhD student in economics at the New School for Social Research