When my parents decided to leave their war-ravaged homeland of Afghanistan in the 1980s, they had the option of migrating to a number of different countries, but sought one that they could make their “home.” You see, my father was a government official in the Afghan Education Ministry, before the Russian invasion and the subsequent takeover by the Taliban. He was tasked with modernizing the Afghan educational system while also ensuring that core, centuries-old Afghan values were preserved.
The assignment took him all over the world — from Australia to India to Malaysia and a host of other Muslim-majority countries. Yet no nation left a lasting impact on him until his visit to the United States in 1972.
During his extensive travels from coast to coast and many places in between, he established friendships he never imagined were possible with people of a different faith, culture and skin color. He marveled at the openness and welcoming nature of the American people and government. Little did he know then that in a matter of three decades, he and my mother would choose the U.S. as their adopted homeland, and that he would be buried in its soil.
As young children, we would ask him why he chose this country. He would calmly respond: “The acceptance of my faith that I received in my travels through this country, I would not be able to find anywhere else.”
He would tell us about the people who respected his religious practice of praying five times a day and created spaces for him to pray in. He would fondly recall how warm and open people were.
Yet today, I am afraid for my children. I am afraid that when they turn the TV on, or listen to the radio (which I now turn off when we are in the car), they will receive a very different message from the one my father shared with us. The message they hear today is of intolerance. Whether it be about an Islamic center in New York blocks from ground zero or a mosque in Temecula, their faith is being openly and viciously maligned, and they themselves are made to feel responsible for the attacks on 9/11.
My children were born here, and they consider themselves as wholly American, but I fear that the current discourse about their faith and their houses of worship will have a devastating effect on them.
My father knew something greater about America than what is spouted by Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich and the host of professional bigots who have built a cottage industry out of Muslim-baiting. He knew that the power of America is in its acceptance and openness.
Gingrich is right about one thing. There are no churches or synagogues in places such as Saudi Arabia. But that is precisely the reason so many Muslim immigrants like my father chose not to make a home there or in other similarly restrictive countries. He knew that his children would be better able to worship in a culture of freedom and openness.
I am secretly relieved that my father did not live long enough to see the current controversy surrounding the center in New York City. I am happy that his experience of his adopted homeland was one of friendship and acceptance. I am proud that his best friends, my godparents, are American Jews who loved my father and brought us to the U.S., hosting us in their home until we were able to settle in.
But I’m left wondering: What do I tell my 10-year old daughter, Hanan, and my 8-year-old son, Rayyan, when they ask me why fear-mongers in Tennessee, New York, Florida and California don’t want a mosque or Muslims as their neighbors?
Both for their sakes and my own, I will share with them their grandfather’s stories. I will encourage them to become active citizens who will ensure that the tolerance and openness their grandfather experienced decades ago in America will be cherished and maintained for others who yearn for it in the decades to come.
I will refuse to allow the voices of fear to minimize my father’s experiences and degrade the America he fell in love with. My children deserve better. We all do.
Haris Tarin, who grew up in the San Fernando Valley, is the director of the Washington office of the Muslim Public Affairs Council.