THE FLAGS WE WAVE & WON'T WAVE
KHALED A. BEYDOUN
Recently, I took an afternoon walk between work meetings. The stroll down Nona Street, one of the many picturesque thoroughfares in Dearborn, Michigan’s Historic District, sits between the city’s thriving Muslim American communities and its disparate white populations. It was a beautiful spring day, where the slight chill of winter was giving way to the warmth of the new season.
During the walk, I could not help but notice the number of Ukrainian flags draped from the homes of neighbors. Some neighbors I knew in passing, while others I never met. During the twenty minute trek, I counted 12 Ukrainian flags. I realized, shortly before reaching my home, that the number of blue and yellow flags outnumbered its American counterpart, despite being in one of the most blue-collar American cities in the land – a city that gave rise to the automobile, and only a handful of miles away, the Motown sound.
It was heartening, on one hand, that Americans with no immediate stake in a foreign war could get behind an accosted people, and so swiftly. The flags that waved in support of Ukraine in my neighborhood stood as lurid emblems of the global movement of solidarity for the Europeans struggling for self-determination. What happens at home, in the heart of the neighborhood, was part of a global phenomenon of compassion.
"I realized...that the number of blue and yellow flags outnumbered its American counterpart, despite being in one of the most blue-collar American cities in the land"
However, as an Arab and Muslim and American, with each standing as indelible cogs of an identity that political arms systematically took apart, the juxtapositions moved in front of me liked a wild wind. I was a refugee of war, and after 21 years, a survivor of the “War on Terror” that marked my faith and my skin as presumptive of terrorism.
Dearborn, Michigan is home to the most concentrated Muslim population in the U.S. per capita. It is a meeting point of distinct Muslim people and cultures, where Yemenis and Lebanese, Iraqis and Palestinians blend together to form an eclectic community that is like no other in the country, and perhaps, the world.
Dearborn is a place where Muslims from these nations found safe haven from war, and more specifically, wars fought in the name of indigeneity, anti-imperialism, independence, and self-determination These are the very principles the Ukrainian people are embodying on the frontlines, in real time, against a Russian regime bent on revitalizing its authoritarian past. These are the principles, I presume, that moved millions of Americans to get behind the Ukrainian people. These are the values, I believe, that inspired my neighbors to showcase the Ukrainian flag in front of their homes.
"The war in Ukraine provides a compelling case study of how the ideals of freedom and liberty are so indelibly galvanizing."
Principles and values are what define a people. They are, more than color or creed, faith or confession, the salient threads that bind human beings together. A nation unified by a core set of tenets will not only stand against the most formidable of threats, but also take to battle and surrender their lives for them.
The war in Ukraine provides a compelling case study of how the ideals of freedom and liberty are so indelibly galvanizing, so powerfully pulling, they will inspire the weakest within a society to take arms and the richest among them to surrender fortune for the front lines.
The U.S. finds itself on the other side of the divide. American society is banally politicized and polarized, divided along lines of race and religion, ideology and their deeply preyed upon intersections. Instead of rallying around principles and values, American society has manufactured new tribes of dogma. New titles like “anti-vaxxers” and “intersectional feminists,” among a litany of others, are worn like ideological flags to set individuals apart and affiliate themselves with specific camps.
These labels are so overpowering today that they eclipse other forms of identification, and even more ominously, supplant and stand in place of the very principles that undergird American society. As a critical race theorist and constitutional law professor, I can honestly submit to you that the latter has been more disfigured in the popular discourse than the former. Most Americans, including those peddling political dogmas and fanning the flags of polarization, know little about American constitutional principles, and even less about the spirit of their mission.
The search for unity, ironically enough, begins with a reading of the Constitution. And in fact, the First Amendment includes language that scoffs at the racial, religious, and ideological tribalism unfolding in the U.S.. Standing alongside freedom of speech, assembly, and media, the “religion clauses” of the First Amendment give flesh and bone to what being an “American” truly is. It reads simply yet sublimely that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
In short, neither federal nor state law can establish one religion as the faith of the land, nor prohibit a person’s right to profess their faith. This is more than a mandate for religious freedom, it is a mission to celebrate the rich array of religions that make up the American polity. It is a principle worth fighting for, placing flags in front of your homes and businesses for, and pinning emblems on lapels and laptops for. It is a tenet that provides a foundation for an array of other ideals, from due process and privacy, to equality and dignity, that richly color the content of the Constitution.
It does not surprise me that my neighbors, who are majority white, would never wave the flags of the Arab and Muslim residents of their very town. These people, like Ukrainians, have fought righteous wars and endured the trials of loss, refuge, and building anew. The romantic in me wishes they would. I wish a Palestinian or Kashmiri flag would wave alongside the Ukrainian blue and white, or the American red, white, and blue, signifying a solidarity that crosses racial, religious, and national divides.
I am hopeful those images become reality and perhaps even routine one day. I look forward to these future walks, which must begin with the first step of defining ourselves with ideals and values instead of dogmas and tribes. If we are able to move beyond the polarizing walls of ego and individuality, then the flags of principle will wave — and shorten the distances between our walks of life.
Khaled Ali Beydoun is a law professor at the Wayne State School of Law, and a scholar in residence at the Harvard Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society’s Initiative for a Representative First Amendment. He is the author of the critically acclaimed book, American Islamophobia: Understanding the Roots and Rise of Fear.