It was 1991. I was 21 when I first boarded the Staten Island Ferry, sailed past the Statue of Liberty, and set foot in Lower Manhattan. As I walked in the concrete canyons, passed the bronze bull in Wall Street, and saw the steam emerging from manholes just like in a Superman movie, I realized New York City would always be larger than life.
I was the only pedestrian who stopped to look as a fire engine careened around the corner, sirens screaming. A year later, after graduating medical school in England, I was a young intern at Staten Island University Hospital. Simply dialing a number on the phone marked with numbers for 911 or being in a emergency room surrounded by FDNY or NYPD uniforms summoned for me the extraordinary experience of realizing my dream: I was here, in New York—and I was choosing America as my home.
On Friday, at the federal courthouse in Brooklyn, I will finally raise my right hand and take the Oath of Allegiance to these United States, at last becoming a citizen. It’s been an almost 25-year journey, one that took me across three continents, through four medical subspecialties, and a full five immigration categories. Looking back, I wouldn’t change a thing. Every step on the way was worth it to become an American.
As a migrant, I truly comprehend the power of a U.S. medical education. I witnessed its incredible impact on the patients I treated thousands of miles away, sharing my education with innumerable doctors and students, each of whom was influenced by my American professors whole continents away. Acutely aware my actions reflected the United States—to many who knew it only as a caricature in hostile media or a remote and anonymous military superpower—I felt responsible for representing America to my best abilities.
The path of my U.S. citizenship was also a journey that took me from the comfort of my British upbringing to beyond the boundaries of democracy. It would be in Saudi Arabia—from where I watched the twin towers collapse—that I would finally understand the value of secular liberal democracy. It would be on Saudi soil, in the days immediately after that 9/11 attacks, that I would be first called to defend American ideals.
As much as I couldn’t imagine that the men and women in uniform rushing to the aid of others on 9/11 would be my patients under the Zadroga Act, patients I today attend at Winthrop University Hospital in Long Island, neither could I imagine that there could ever be a time that America’s gates could narrow, perhaps even close, for Muslims like me.
Donald Trump’s hateful rhetoric against Muslims has reached a crescendo. Recognizing the rhetoric as truly noxious, I called my immigration officer, telling him, “I can hardly believe I’m saying this, but with Donald Trump’s desire to put us in a database I need to get naturalized as soon as possible!” We shared a hollow laugh. I was only half-joking, realizing that my long faith in America, and its remarkable democracy, had been shaken. I told my family, “I’m hurrying to get my citizenship before someone decides to suspend naturalization for Muslims,” shame filling within me for even considering such blasphemy as possible.
So it was last night, while I was seeing patients—Americans who included law enforcement and World Trade Center first responders—that I heard Donald Trump’s announcement to ban all Muslims from entering the United States. My heart sank and inflamed simultaneously. While Trump remains a presidential candidate and not an elected politician, his words and the rapture with which they were met in the state of South Carolina (once briefly my home) confirmed my deepest fears.
In the space of months, we’ve heard American Muslims have been deemed unfit to run and hold political office; that American Muslims are suspect enough to warrant a separate database. American Muslims should “be ended,” as one Virginia university president put it; and now, in Trump’s view of Trump, be uniformly banned from entering U.S. territory. It is only a matter of time before arguments will be made that Muslims be stripped of citizenship and perhaps—as I was so chastised as I testified before Congress to support surveillance of Muslims to detect domestic radicalization—Muslims are actually interned in camps much as the American Japanese once were.
My fears are not only for Muslims in America, but much more for the sanctity of American democracy. It’s hard to explain the value of democracy to anyone who has never experienced life without it.
It was only when I lived in Saudi Arabia, where I relinquished my passport to authorities, and my car keys, donned an mandated abayya, acquiesced to the crushing lack of religious freedoms, yielded to the lack of private mail, accepted that all my shipments where opened, examined, censored, and often entirely impounded, gave up my freedom to read or watch movies without censorship, abandoned my right to assemble, and protest, and choose two years of my life to be dictated by the theocracy of the kingdom. Only after that extraordinary detour could I develop a passion to defend the foundations of America’s secular liberal democracy. My sheltered British childhood could never have prepared me for the precious values of American liberal democracy—unless I had given it all up to live in Saudi Arabia.
Surely, you argue, it is Islam that defines Saudi Arabia? That this is exactly what Donald Trump wants to exclude from America. Not so. Saudi Arabia imposes an austere and novel form of Islam—Wahhabism—birthed in the 17th century, over a millennia after Islam was revealed. But denying a religious group the right to be in one’s sovereign territory, even for work, let alone residency or vacation, holding as suspect an entire group of humanity without discrimination or distinction, effectively holding all Muslims collectively guilty for the actions of ISIS, intimidating a religious minority to appease a baying majority,—these are the lethal threats to our precious democracy that can destroy the freedoms that define and shelter all on these shores. And these are values very much in line with a theocratic state, not a democratic icon.
When I raise my hand to pledge allegiance to the United States, when I commit to defending the Constitution of the United States, when I swear to bear arms to defend these values, it is because I understand life without democracy, because I understand it is men, not ideas, who can dismantle it, and it is because, for me America will always remain embodied, like the Lady in the Bay, in liberty that rises high above the currents that would otherwise submerge all of us in the depths of our darkest fears. Only we Americans can save us from the Americans that would sink us.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Qanta A. Ahmed watched the twin towers fall from Riyadh. This Friday, she’s treating 9/11’s first responders—and taking the oath of American citizenship. She tweets @MissDiagnosis.