#ProudPatriot: The Patriotism of Immigrant Dissent

I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.— James Baldwin

On September 12th, 2001, my dad bought two American flags — one for our front porch and another to fix onto the back of his ’86 Volkswagen Rabbit truck. He also scooped up an armful of local newspapers to cut out the full-page flags printed by what seemed like every publication in the country. He isn’t the type of person you probably think of who waves flags on the back of his truck. He’s a Jordanian immigrant. He’s a Muslim. He’s an environmental engineer but not an overt environmentalist. He believes in American exceptionalism and military might, but bristles at a hawkish foreign policy that effectively decimated centuries of Arab identity, culture, and infrastructure. Privately, he ached for his homeland; publicly, he wore a flag pin on his lapel every day that year.

My father had always been infatuated with the idea of America. Only when he had children though was this infatuation transmuted into something more. After completing an education that he hoped would increase the likelihood of securing the American Dream, he and his wife packed up my sister and I and struck across the world to punch that ever-coveted golden ticket. When we arrived, however, we learned quickly that there was no such thing as a secure American Dream. His aspiration, his story — our narrative — is not any different than any other immigrant. And there is no love of America like an immigrant’s love of America.

Before 9/11, I don’t ever recall him externalizing his patriotism beyond a fervent belief and the occasional conversation. To be fair, I don’t remember many of my neighbors doing more than that either. This nouveau-patriotism my father had started exploring was clearly a direct response to a national tragedy, and in this way, it linked him to nearly every other American.

As an Arab-Muslim immigrant, though, it tied him to a Bush-era kind of patriotism that scapegoated people like him. Because of the way he looked and where he came from and the timing of it all, he felt like he couldn’t afford to criticize this place that offered him so much. A prolonged and enduring hush that lasted months fell on the mosque I grew up in when a brick was thrown through the window.

It was in the shadow of this that I developed my own sense of American patriotism.

In recent months, the American public has been thrust into a mode of resistance. Protest may be the new brunch, but protest has been a vital part of the American experiment since its inception. Civic disobedience has long been one of America’s better angels. It has historically been one of the few tools of the minority, of the disenfranchised and marginalized to make demands of justice, declarations of equality, and affirmations of existence. There is also an equally long-standing tradition of disbelieving, delegitimizing, or outright ignoring those calls for justice.

In the midst of the Civil Rights era, an overwhelming majority of Americans disapproved of the Black Protest movement tactics and efficacy. There are echoes of this disapproval among White Americans in today’s more visible #BlackLivesMatter movement. Criticism of present-day organizers — as it was 50 years ago — particularly centers around the efficacy of organizing tactics. As political polarization amplifies racial divides, the negative perceptions of protests from #BLM to #NoDAPL have excluded them from the mantle of patriotism.

One needs to look no further than the disconnect between the NFL and its #BLM-supporting players. Of course an organization that has spent hundreds of millions of dollars over decades making itself synonymous with the American flag-waving, armed service-flexing patriotism would produce fans that burned Colin Kaepernick’s jersey for his peaceful protest of that very symbol that they marketed into a saccharine, unnuanced kind of patriotism (that silenced my father into complicity).

“The Resistance,” as it presently stands, may then present a unique, ahistoric opportunity. Never before has a majority coalition of Americans so quickly stood together in protest against a singular presidency. From the position of the majority, we can then more forcibly make the claim — with reverence to the sacrifices of past protesters — that there is no more patriotic act than dissent.

I have to believe in American exceptionalism. It’s a necessity for me. If America isn’t exceptional, then my story, my family history, every Brown Immigrant who fought and lost, who fought and won was for nothing. The difference between my version of American exceptionalism and the conventional one, however, lies in the crucible of the immigrant narrative — an American Dream that promises that in no place on earth is a story like mine and countless other Brown Immigrants’ even possible.

But how do you love a country that wasn’t made for you? That, since its very inception, has actively tried to write you and others like you out of its narrative?

Through criticism and the power of self-reflection. Through an enduring faith in change that has steadied every immigrant and protester on their journey. Through generations of Americans and aspiring Americans declaring that their bodies are worthy of a place in this America — that their stories are one and the same.

Dissent in the civic sphere is inherently hopeful. It is — at its root — an acknowledgement of injustice. It is only in the persistent calling out of inequity and prejudice that we can fulfill that great American promise of a better change, of a moral arc that bends towards justice.

I believe in criticism out of love. I believe a tradition of protest and civic unrest. I believe in a present that can better shape the future. I believe in what we could be, that there is a higher ideal, and that we can still all rally around the great American idea.

I grew up watching entire communities silenced into complicity out of fear of not seeming patriotic. That brick didn’t just break a mosque’s window. My father’s flags weren’t just a display. Shouts of “La Migra! don’t just scatter people. There’s a hope and faith and fidelity in ourselves as much as the American idea that only endures if we commit to it every day.

There’s no zealot like a convert, so I love this country only in the way an immigrant can.

I am a #ProudPatriot.