“America was never America to me…yet America will be!”: A Muslim American reflection on this 4th of July

On this 4th of July, like a lot of other families, we are preparing for our annual trek down to the downtown parade, getting our hot dogs and cheeseburgers ready to go on the grill, and watching the fireworks tonight.

In the midst of all that, we have a few prayer sessions to fit in.

The 4th of July is by now a fully American Muslim holiday, and like most American Muslims in the post-9/11 world, this holiday is another occasion to display and manifest our “American-ness.”   Time and again, we hear our national leaders display these types of statements: 

I am grateful for the opportunity to live the American dream and help fulfill that dream for all our nation’s citizens. On July 4th, I will join my fellow Americans of all beliefs and backgrounds to mark the courage the Founding Fathers showed in asserting liberty from a tyrannical British king. The next day, I will go back to defending American ideals, because that is what my faith compels me to do.

I both understand these sentiments, and am profoundly uncomfortable with having to “prove” my Americanness to anyone.    I wince in discomfort as I see many older American Muslims resort to clichés like (literally) wrapping themselves in the flag or talking about holding the Qur’an and the Constitution in equal esteem.      My discomfort is not about the flag, or my feelings towards the constitution.  It is rather the perceived need to demonstrate and prove one’s Americanness.   

I for one refuse to participate in the demonstration.    America for me is not a flag or a shirt to be paraded, it is as Dr. King demonstrated an unfinished dream, a dream as of yet unfulfilled.   

It is a flawed though noble dream, the dream that held all men to be equal, though it was unsure whether that equal rights extended to women, to African Americans, and to Native people.  

It is the unfinished dream that had at one point 4 or 5 million members of the KKK, even as it would see millions participate in the civil rights movement.     That tension between the lovely and the hideous is there in America, as it is in every civic and religious ideal.  

In some ways this living contradiction of America is best explained by some of our African American writers, who have experienced both the cruelty and the promise of America.  It is this ambivalent attitude towards America, not as mindless flag-waving, but as a commitment to realizing the promise and hope of America that is expressed by the man deemed by Dr. King as the “black bard of Harlem”, Langston Hughes.  Dr. King was very fond of recalling this poignant poem of Hughes to talk about the unfinished dream that is America:

Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me.)


Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed–
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.

(It never was America to me.)


O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.

(There's never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)


Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery's scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek–
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.


I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one's own greed!

I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean–
Hungry yet today despite the dream.
Beaten yet today–O, Pioneers!
I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.


Yet I'm the one who dreamt our basic dream
In the Old World while still a serf of kings,
Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,
That even yet its mighty daring sings
In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
That's made America the land it has become.
O, I'm the man who sailed those early seas
In search of what I meant to be my home–
For I'm the one who left dark Ireland's shore,
And Poland's plain, and England's grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa's strand I came
To build a “homeland of the free.”

The free?


Who said the free?  Not me?
Surely not me?  The millions on relief today?
The millions shot down when we strike?
The millions who have nothing for our pay?
For all the dreams we've dreamed
And all the songs we've sung
And all the hopes we've held
And all the flags we've hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay–
Except the dream that's almost dead today.

O, let America be America again–
The land that never has been yet–
And yet must be–the land where every man is free.
The land that's mine–the poor man's, Indian's, Negro's, ME–
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.


Sure, call me any ugly name you choose–
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people's lives,
We must take back our land again,

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath–
America will be!


Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain–
All, all the stretch of these great green states–
And make America again!

Yes, when there is Guantanamo Bay and drone attacks, America “was never America to me.”  
When we have tens of millions without healthcare, America was never America to me.  
When we have half of our children at or below the poverty line, America was never America to me.   
When we spend more on our military than the next twelve countries combined, America was never America to me.

And yet,
I swear this oath—
America will be!

For America to be the as of yet unfulfilled promise, it will take more than flag-waving and fireworks.  
It will take realizing the dream for all of those for whom America has been more a nightmare than a dream.   
Then America will be!

Somewhere between the hotdogs and the burgers today, is our resolute promise to make America be America—to all.

About the author

Omid Safi

Omid Safi is a Professor of Islamic Studies at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, specializing in contemporary Islamic thought and classical Islam. He is the past Chair for the Study of Islam, and the current Chair for Islamic Mysticism Group at the American Academy of Religion, the largest international organization devoted to the academic study of religion.

In 2009, he was recognized by the University of North Carolina for mentoring minority students in 2009, and won the Sitterson Teaching Award for Professor of the Year in April of 2010.

Omid is the editor of the volume "Progressive Muslims: On Justice, Gender, and Pluralism," which offered an understanding of Islam rooted in social justice, gender equality, and religious and ethnic pluralism. His works "Politics of Knowledge in Premodern Islam," dealing with medieval Islamic history and politics, and "Voices of Islam: Voices of Change" were published 2006.

His last book, "Memories of Muhammad," deals with the biography and legacy of the Prophet Muhammad. He has forthcoming volumes on the famed mystic Rumi, contemporary Islamic debates in Iran, and American Islam.

Omid has been among the most frequently sought speakers on Islam in popular media, appearing in The New York Times, Newsweek, Washington Post, PBS, NPR, NBC, CNN and other international media.