Laith Saud, 38, was born in Baghdad, Iraq, in 1978, and immigrated to Fort Wayne, Indiana, in 1979. Today he’s a visiting assistant professor of religion with a focus on Islamic studies at DePaul University, and the coauthor of An Introduction to Islam in the 21st Century. Here he describes how his hyphenated identity shifted his perception of America—and what he describes as its propaganda—during the first Gulf War, and what it’s been like to witness the rise of Islamophobia and xenophobia in the age of Donald Trump.
Growing up as a “third-culture kid” in the midwest during the Gulf War, it felt like you were on the margins of everything looking in. Coming to the U.S. as an immigrant child, you develop a critical view of tradition and culture on both sides of your identity, and for me, the Gulf War was the beginning of this divergence where I was forced to grow up faster than my American peers. I had to wrestle with the idea that I was both American and Iraqi during a time where my two identities were at war.
Looking back, I feel that 1990 marked a distinct shift from being a nonthreatening, exotic kid from the East that was seen through a white orientalist lens as this blended Muslim, Hindu, or Buddhist identity to that of a distinct Iraqi, Arab, Muslim enemy. It created a sense of discomfort and displacement because, up until that point, we had simply lived the conventional immigrant story of settling in a city, then seeking out the suburbs. All of a sudden we were adversaries in this nationalistic culture facing down Saddam Hussein.
There are certain memories that take me back to watching the narrative of the “evil Iraqi” play out in U.S. pop cultural and media coverage, whether it was T-shirts I’d see in the mall with slogans like “Iraqis suck” or sitting in the car with my mom on our drive to my new suburban school listening to patriotic songs playing on the radio making fun of Saddam Hussein.
As Iraqis, our whole family became more critical of everything. Dinner revolved around discussion on politics and current events in Iraq, and I was suddenly seeing my father [then president of the Islamic Center of Fort Wayne] do media and television interviews to speak out as a representative of Iraq. Politics became the focus of my own conversations with friends. I can recall being 12 years old and talking about the war with my Christian friend, Mike, from Jordan. We were just children, and suddenly geopolitics were shaping the destinies of our lives.
Ironically, I was put at the center of things as the sole Iraqi kid in an Indiana suburb. I was the only one who would speak up on behalf of innocent Iraqis to tell classmates they were wrong. This was a dialogue I felt compelled to engage in; I was the necessary counterargument. It was an environment that forced me to become acutely aware of U.S. propaganda and how easily Americans become susceptible to it. At 12 years old, I was able to see firsthand the intimate relationship between patriotism and killings, especially in reference to the Middle East.
I remember there was an assigned patriotism day where students were supposed to wear patriotic clothing. Instead, I wanted to wear an Iraqi flag to school, so I drew out an Iraqi flag on a white T-shirt. It was my official “fuck you” to America on behalf of all the dehumanized Iraqis in that conflict. My parents stopped me from wearing it, but it was a moment where I felt like I had aligned my own identity with other discriminated peoples.
I suppose it led me to where I am today, again, in discussions with students to better their understanding of a nuanced religion and region. Today I’m teaching at DePaul, and not a single Syrian kid comes into my class as a freshman unaware or lacking political consciousness. I see myself as a child in them. It’s the same process of trauma: these students, like me, were pulled into the tide of geopolitics while watching the country of their parents burn.
About a month ago, I was on Fox News to debate [anti-Islamic activist] Brigette Gabriel, and afterwards I got about two dozen hate tweets. All of them involved images of Christ in one form or another. There was an icon of Jesus anointing Trump, and another of a Crusader. One of these accounts sent me a picture of a woman bent over wiping herself with the page of the Quran.
I thought about how these individuals would be as violent as ISIS if you put them in a different social context, such as in Iraq or Syria. If your brain is already there, [and] you live in a society where there is no rule of law and violence everywhere, and you are susceptible to threats of violence, what separates them is environment—not ideology.
My hope is that the Trump presidency has provoked a more robust awareness among Americans about politics, and about what policies impact our lives. Beyond Trump, when we look at the Republican and Democratic parties, we were too complacent before. Hopefully this president will push that out of us.
But my real fear is that there is a fundamental change in our culture and our identity. In the past, however imagined, I had the idea that America was a diverse and hardworking country of immigrants. Now I feel that narrative has a fundamental crack. Cultural changes signaled by the Trump presidency and provoked by him are causing fissures in the American public. We are a divided country, and there is a serious chance of us not going back.
This interview was conducted as part of the storytelling project 90 Days, 90 Voices.