In fall 1999, my next-door neighbor asked me how I felt about my new place after having moved from Illinois to North Carolina two months earlier. I told Mrs. Tice that I loved it here, as the weather closely resembled that of Egypt at this time of year, while the smiling faces and caring gestures reminded me of home, where I was always among family and friends.
Things did not change much over the next 16 years. My appearance, with my Muslim attire, never got in the way of cheerful interactions, and my Egyptian accent did not get in the way of making friends and engaging with my community.
Several universities trusted my husband and me with student education, while school districts and sports teams relied on us as involved parents and active volunteers. We answered more questions about Islam than I can count and have participated in interfaith events and service activities with numerous churches and groups.
It comes as a great surprise to learn that a recent poll conducted in North Carolina by Public Policy Polling found that 72 percent of primary voters in North Carolina believed that a Muslim should not be allowed to be president, and that 40 percent of this group was also likely to say that Islam should be illegal.
Either things have changed too much too fast, or I have been really lucky to have been mainly surrounded by members of the 28 percent who invoke reason and reject ignorance and bigotry.
It is amazing how being a Muslim would not get in the way of being a cardiologist managing critical healthcare, a college professor guiding the intellectual development of a generation, an activist defending the disenfranchised of all backgrounds, but it may have a negative effect on presidential candidacy.
I wonder how such generalization could be validated and how people who think this way address the questions and concerns that their opinion raises.
Should there be any consideration for a Muslim candidate’s academic background? History of civic engagement and coalition building? Experience with the political process? Voting record and views on the issues? Are the 72 percent willing to risk losing a well-equipped leader who is dedicated to honor and serving his country and base their decision on the presidential candidate’s faith tradition?
If that is the case, I wonder which Islamic tenets cause this apprehension, and which credible sources revealed the risk to them. I also ask what happened to the separation of church and state, and whether neutrality toward religion stops at Islam.
What makes a Muslim presidential candidate any less American than a Presbyterian real estate tycoon who collects bibles and pledges to be the greatest representative of Christians if elected, or a Seventh Day Adventist neurosurgeon who attributes his success to faith and determination and proudly shares his favorite Bible verse?
The image of America that the 72 percent envision is not clear to me, but I am perfectly clear on the America that the rest of us know and want to maintain.
Our America continues to be a pluralistic society that accepts all — it is a place where individuals are valued on the merit of their contributions to society. In our America, political campaigns do not cause seasonal changes to guiding principles — it is a place where reason prevails to substantiate opinions and inform decisions.
In our America, individuals do not denounce faiths and traditions that are different from their own, and do not ask others to deny parts of their religious doctrine, redraft their religious text, or reject a portion of their guiding principles.
In our America, members of the electorate ensure credibility and accuracy of any information that they receive and are not fooled by politically-motivated comments and flashy media tactics. We reserve our right to check out sources and question wild claims, and we are constantly reminded how religious affiliation and personal integrity are not mutually exclusive, and that applies across the board.
Shereen Elgamal is a lecturer in Arabic in the Department of World Languages and Cultures at Elon University.