I’m an African Muslim who grew up loving American culture. Now that I’m here, I love America, too

Allahu Akbar
Allahu Akbar
Image: Reuters/Shannon Stapleton
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I grew up listening to the sounds of 1990s hip hop, bobbing my head to Craig Mack, Tupac Shakur and Snoop Dogg. As I got older, my music tastes expanded. At university, at the urging of a friend, I was introduced to the lyricism of Miles Davis, the intensity of John Coltrane’s 20 minute solos and the coolness of Dave Brubeck. I read Ralph Ellison, wanted to write like Philip Roth, was moved by the plays of August Wilson and was inspired by the courage of Malcolm X.

The New Yorker made me want to become a journalist and I believe that the New York Times is the greatest cultural institution on earth. Woody Allen movies taught me that you can love art, literature and music while also be completely in love with the beautiful aesthetics of NBA basketball. Meanwhile, American politics, to me, remains the greatest reality show this side of the Atlantic.

All this is to say this young man from Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, is utterly enamored with the U.S. of A. My sensibility is so American that friends are sometimes shocked when they find out that I didn’t set foot in this great country until I was 29 years old.

My love for basketball is as American as apple pie.
My love for basketball is as American as apple pie.
Image: USA Today Sports/Kyle Terada

Here is the problem, though: America kind of struggles with who I am. Not the part about my being African. But the part of me that believes in Allah and the prophet Muhammad.

What I am trying to say is, sometimes, it ain’t quite easy being a Muslim in America.

For example, this is my third time in the US. Each time, as I step up to immigration, I get asked, quite politely, by customs agents, to visit a side room, where I have been made to wait, sometimes for close to three hours, before I have been allowed in.

Now, to tell you the truth, as annoying as this can be, I understand why this happens. I mean, who wants to make the mistake of being the one to let in the dude who commits another terrorist act against the homeland?

To be fair, if you Google my name, three of the first four results show this guy:

Google results when you search the name Omar Mohammed.
Google results when you search the name Omar Mohammed.
Image: Google

So all I am saying is, it doesn’t hurt to be sure that I am not that Mullah Omar.

Being a Muslim can be a full time job

I recently read about a young Muslim woman in Oklahoma who had been denied a job because she wore a hijab. The case reminded me once again why being a Muslim is never a walk in the park in these United States.

Samantha Elauf–yes, her name is Samantha–was told that her attire did not fit with the “classic East Coast collegiate style” dress code of Abercrombie & Fitch, her prospective employer. And for that reason, they declined to offer her employment.

Ms. Elauf’s experience does not come out of a vacuum. Last year, according to a Pew Research poll, Muslims were the least warmly liked of all religious groups in America.

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I mean, even the president, Barack Obama himself, has had tremendous difficulties just because his middle name is Hussein. 54% of Republicans apparently believe that ”deep down” Obama is a Muslim, even though he is a professed Christian. These folks don’t mean that to be a good thing. And that’s just because the man’s middle name is Islamic.

So imagine what it’s like for those of us who don’t live in the White House.

Then again, consider that the story doesn’t quite end there. In Barack Obama’s case, he was elected  to the presidency. Twice. I am just completing a journalism fellowship that allowed me to spend a year at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism, entirely on the largesse of the American public. It’s that largesse of spirit that, in my eyes, makes America great.

In Ms. Elauf’s case, she did not take her discrimination lying down. She took Abercrombie & Fitch to court. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court, where she won. “This is really easy,” Justice Antonin Scalia pronounced from the bench, as he announced the court’s agreement with Ms. Elauf that she was, indeed, justified in suing for religious discrimination.

And therein lies the reason for my love for this country. Embodied in this whole story is the worst and the best of America. There was abhorrent discrimination but the rule of law protected a Muslim’s right to be Muslim. There aren’t that many countries in the world where this is possible (in France, for example, it is illegal to wear a hijab in government institutions.) So, here is to you, America: I got nothing but love for ya!