I'm a Muslim U.S. Marine, But Am I American Enough? | Opinion

I came to the United States from Pakistan at the age of six. After a long journey, I finally arrived in New York. But once inside the airport I was too frightened to step foot on the giant escalator—I'd never seen one before. I remember crying hysterically; my mother's hands full of bags in one and holding onto my younger sisters with the other. She couldn't help me. But then a woman approached. She smiled, gently took my little hand, and helped me to step on. Suddenly I felt everything was going to be okay. It was as if America was saying, "Welcome to your new home!"

This Thanksgiving, however, I think about that woman, the stranger who consoled a crying immigrant child from Pakistan. She didn't judge me for my brown skin or jet-black hair, nor did she take issue with me speaking Urdu, the only language I knew at the time. She only saw a child in need.

Lately, I've felt less at home in this country than I once did. For people who look like me or follow my Islamic faith, the United States has become a colder place. I no longer am sufficiently "American," according to the definition some use today. And this is after I've served my country faithfully and honorably as a proud U.S. Marine.

Despite the trials and tribulations of going through adolescence while acclimating to this rich cultural melting pot, or the "salad-bowl," as some of us call it, my one constant has always been that I belong in America.

It's why I didn't flinch for a second when I decided to join the Marines in October of 2000. As a Muslim, it was my duty to serve the country that I called home, and contrary to popular belief, my decision to don America's cloth aligned with the teachings of Islam and the Prophet Muhammad—that loyalty and dedication to the U.S., my place of residence, was a part of my faith.

Mansoor Shams2
I didn’t flinch for a second when I decided to join the Marines in 2000. Mansoor Shams

Not too long after my service began, 9/11 happened. Like every other American, I was in a state of shock. I couldn't believe what had taken place. As the news trickled in, those responsible for the attacks started being linked to the very country I was born in and the religion I belonged to. The faith that I hold near and dear to my heart was under attack with headlines like "Islamic Terrorists" and "Muslim Rage."

17 years have passed, but hate crimes against Muslims have remained at alarmingly high levels, increasing by 17 percent last year, according to the FBI's Hate Crime Statistics. Mosques and homes vandalized in the name of hate, while others have been attacked all because of who they are and what they believe. And since President Donald Trump has taken office, things have only gotten worse—hostilities towards immigrants continue to grow.

When people associate me and fellow American Muslims with "Islamic Extremists," or derisively label me as an "immigrant"—as if that's a bad thing—I cannot help but feel disheartened. Statements like "Islam hates us" really hurt. Who is the "us" in that statement? It can't possibly be me, and others like me, right?

Still, I try to rationalize the words of the president and try to give him the benefit of the doubt. Other times, I think the media can be a bit relentless on him. But that doesn't take away from the fact that words matter. They have a real-life impact and consequence on people like myself, and many others around the nation.

I took an oath to protect all of "us"—every white, brown, black, Christian, Jew, Muslim, Agnostic, Atheist—and yes, even the person who hates Islam but calls themselves an American. I served this country—I have medals, a uniform in my closet, and an honorable discharge hanging on my wall to prove it—and I will always continue to serve this country, and champion its ideals.

But in the process, I'll also continue to search hard for the spirit of kindness and compassion, like the woman at the airport, the stranger.

She didn't see evil or race that day many years ago; instead, she took the hand of a crying six-year-old Pakistani boy and welcomed me into the greatest nation in the world with open arms.

I doubt she remembers, but perhaps it was that simple welcoming gesture that ultimately led that young boy to one day raise his hand and swear to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States and become a United States Marine. Boy, am I missing her this Thanksgiving.

Mansoor Shams is a U.S. Marine Corps veteran, the founder of MuslimMarine.org and a leader in Veterans for American Ideals, a project of Human Rights First.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​