Leaving America: The Land I Want to Move To

Thursday, March 3, 2016 - 6:41am
Photo by GLG Fuster

Leaving America: The Land I Want to Move To

This is a question that comes up in almost every conversation I have these days. Almost every single Muslim friend of mine asks the same question. Many Hispanic friends. Quite a few gay/lesbian friends. Many progressive friends.

“Where would you move to?”

The tone is always the same. It is a hushed kind of fearful concern. It is a different tone now than it was a few months ago. Back when Trump was a walking Oompa-Loompa Orange joke with a bad hairpiece, it was almost a kind of wistful joke.

Haa haa haa. Look at us. We’re posting articles about most desirable places to live around the world. You know, like this list of best cities in the world and this piece on Norway being the best country to live in and this article on the 10 best places to live abroad. Sure, we would love to have a place with socialist policies of Scandinavian countries, Mediterranean weather, and Vancouver/Toronto cosmopolitanism.

My friends and I would have long, semi-serious conversations. Here are the places that many of my friends have suggested: Turkey? Love, love Turkey. Amazing, cosmopolitan history of Muslims, Jews, and Christians living side by side. Istanbul, truly one of the most gorgeous cities in the world. Problem: increasing authoritarian tendencies in the government.

Canada? Oh sweet, friendly neighbors to the north. So cosmopolitan. So polite. So much like America, but with a better socialist healthcare system. Fewer guns. Until recently, there was the problem of having a Prime Minister who was basically George W. Bush-lite (Steven Harper). But now he has been replaced by an amazing Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, who exudes class, cosmopolitanism, welcomes refugees, dances in South Asian parties, and for God’s sake, has great, great hair. But, it’s just so cold in most of Canada. And Vancouver, sweet beautiful Vancouver. Heavenly Vancouver where the mountains meet the ocean. How lovely you are. And how totally unaffordable, and how very gray. Sigh.

London? Gorgeous London. Truly one of the cosmopolitan cities of the world. So many Muslims. Great food. A heartbeat away from most of Europe. But again, so expensive, so gray. And there is that language barrier.

Dubai? One of the new crossroads of the world. Can get to almost anywhere from there. So much creativity and entrepreneurship. But, the whole society functions on the second-class status of South Asians and other immigrants, creating one of the most unjust and divided human societies. Rarely has the gap between the super-haves and the absolutely-have-nots been so great.

Malaysia? Lovely SE cosmopolitanism. Crossroads of so many cultures. But rising Saudi-influence means hostility towards Iranians and Shi‘a.

New Zealand? Truth be told, our Lord of the Rings fantasies lead us here. Wonderful reputation for organic life, very naturally beautiful setting. But to be so far away from family and loved ones…

Switzerland? Quite possibly the most beautiful place on Earth. But also quite expensive.

Scandinavia? Fulfills all of our socialist fantasies. A place where many politicians see Bernie Sanders as a good start, and would want him to link his socialist policies to a more full-throated critique of American militarism. But, even in this cold corner of paradise, there is a rising wave of anti-immigrant sentiments here. And did we mention cold?

The tone now is different. These days they are asking not so much, “Where would you move to?” It is more, “Where will you move to? Especially if Trump becomes president.”

Commuters on the Montreal subway during rush hour.

(Ames Lai / FlickrSome rights reserved.)

Yesterday, as I was picking up my daughter from school, I ran into an old friend, a lesbian mother of a child we have known for five years. My kids’ school, an amazing inclusive and progressive community, was started in the 1960s as a place for white kids and black kids to go to school together. In time, it also became a haven for the gay/lesbian community in our state. She said that she too has been thinking about moving somewhere. She was frightened and said, “I have never been politically active. I just wanted to raise my kids, but I am really scared now. We waited for decades to get rights and get married. Now, it could be gone, all gone.”

Yes, so much of this has to do with Trump’s bombastic language, directed against Hispanics, Muslims, immigrants, women, gays/lesbians, poor people. Everyone has a theory on what we are seeing. The Guardian says that this is the face of new global rightwing populism and neoliberalism unleashed. Noam Chomsky attributes it to decades-old fear and hatred rooted among white supremacists. Chomsky also went on to talk about the same social breakdown that we saw during the rise of Hitler. The Atlantic talked about the eight causes of Trumpism.

After Super Tuesday, and the apparent inevitability of Trump as the GOP candidate, and the brokenness of the Democratic Party where the so-called superdelegates could push the establishment candidate (Clinton) over the more revolutionary radical candidate (Sanders), the “We are moving to Canada” chorus is getting louder.

Many articles offered insight on how to take on this journey. The New York Daily News published a guide on how to make the decision on migrating out of the United States. Canadians themselves offered YouTube videos to the neighbors from the south:

A Canadian island even has put together a website inviting Americans to move there. A video from a Canadian Muslim, Sana Saeed of AJ+, offers a response, trying to pull back on the idealization of Canada. No matter, after Trump and Clinton’s success in the Super Tuesday primaries, the “how to move to Canada” Google searches trended.

This kind of fantasy, I realize, is itself rooted in a kind of privilege. To pretend that one can simply pack up and move somewhere implies having liquid assets, a transferrable skillset, and no obligations to those around us. Back in November, I had dinner with a dear friend, Jamillah Karim, an amazing African-American author, intellectual, and community leader. It was an intimate dinner among Muslim friends. I asked the question of “Where would you move to?” All of us talked about the countries that we would move to. Jamillah said, “Nowhere. We are not going anywhere.”

I asked if it was because African-Americans are less directly impacted by Trump’s anti-immigrant hysteria. She said no and that, in particular, hijab-wearing African-American women are frequently targeted by Islamophobic attacks. What she went on to say moved me to tears, even now writing these words. Professor Karim added:

“When immigrant Muslims or others talk about leaving the U.S., it is because what they are seeing around them shocks them. This is not the America that you have known. You don’t recognize this America. For us in the black America, America has always been violent. This is the America we have known, the America that we have grown up with.”

Yes, for many Americans, far too many Americans, America has always included slavery, Jim Crow, lynching, police shootings, surveillance, COINTELPRO, and more.

I also hear the plea of many of my fellow progressive friends, “Please do not leave us. Stay, resist, fight, organize, mobilize. What is needed is not any one candidate, but the need to create a mass movement to divorce politics from the corrosive effects of big money, address the vast income inequality, confront the structures and institutions that perpetuate white supremacy, and like Star Wars, openly admit that the Republic has become an Empire.”

No, let’s be honest. We are not going anywhere. It’s actually not about Canada, Australia, Turkey, or anywhere else. When people like me talk about “leaving America,” what we really want is to leave behind what we have become. We want to leave behind racism, leave behind income inequality, leave behind bigotry, leave behind anti-Semitism, leave behind Islamophobia, leave behind homophobia, leave behind sexism, leave behind American exceptionalism.

I go back and search what our elders, our upholders of prophetic wisdom have to tell us, have to teach us at these times. I go back to my old, dear beloved mentor Vincent Harding, whose gentle fierceness I miss so much these days. Vincent used to say, quoting Langston Hughes, that America was:

“A land that never has been yet.
And yet—must be.
The land where every man [read: human] is free.”

Make no mistake about it. We love America, the promise of a more perfect Union. We love America, provided it’s a realization that the American dream has never been for all of us — though it should be.

We love America, though like Langston Hughes we remember “America was never America to me,” yet:

“And yet I swear this oath
America will be!”

You know what country we want to leave behind? No, not America. We want to leave behind ‘Murica. We want to leave behind AmeriKKKa.

Do you know what country we really want to move to? We want to move to an America that has not yet been, though it will be.

As Uncle Vincent used to say, quoting an African proverb: We are all citizens of a country that does not yet exist.

Yes, that is the land I really want to move to. But to move there, we have to build it. If we build it, we will come.

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Omid Safi

is a columnist for On Being. His column appears every Thursday.

He is Director of Duke University's Islamic Studies Center. He is the past Chair for the Study of Islam, and the current Chair for Islamic Mysticism Group at the American Academy 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. He leads an educational tour every summer to Turkey, to study the rich multiple religious traditions there. The trip is open to everyone, from every country. More information at Illuminated Tours.

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32Reflections

Reflections

I'm afraid the sentiments in this article remind me of those of a battered woman who stays in her marriage because she sees her husband's "potential."

This is a very good description! Although I understand both sides, as a scarf wearing Canadian woman, the only safe option I see for me and my family is leaving this country to somewhere, anywhere, where I will feel safer.

"Hope is a thing with feathers...." Hope will not die

Thank you … thank you.

I enjoyed this article! As a white South African, I know what it feels like to suddenly be on probation in your own country, when you had nothing to do with apartheid... alas, we're still here, and the weather is still the best in the world, and we still have the most breathtaking scenery.... and we are still all responsible to attempt this long work called "acceptance, forgiveness, and, if possible, restitution", most days one step forward and two steps back...

Thank you Omid for these beautiful, wise words. Reading them, I can't help but imagine the family conversation among targeted groups in Germany in the 1930s, wondering where they could escape to. The ones who got out were lucky, and I would have wanted to be one of them rather than one of the ones left behind. That said, we DO HAVE the experience of Germany to tell us it CAN happen, and that it NEEDS TO BE fought against -- not to let a hate-filled, arrogant demagogue and the ideology that he/they espouse take hold of our nation. I am still so gob-smacked that so many Americans seem to find comfort in a leader like Trump (or Rubio or Cruz, lesser versions, same ideology). I truly hope we can save our country and make it ever better.

WE got us here because WE allowed it to happen. A leader will push us, either to dare to swim, or off the board into the deep end to drown. But we can not remain quietly beside the pool, basking lazily in our wooden deck chairs, and blame the leadership. We get what we deserve.

When Bush was running for president many liberals proclaimed that they would leave the country if he were to be elected. And yes, some did. Once again we are hearing many democrats threatening to jump ship. My question is, "Why do those belonging to the Democratic Party tend to run from what they find contrary to their beliefs?" I was taught to stand up and fight for what you believe in. Maybe this is part of America's problem; we now have a society that would rather take their ball and run versus playing the full game. I find this incredibly sad.

Please come to South Africa - great weather, complete and utter freedom of religion, crime is a problem but no worse than in the dodgy parts of the US. We have a cosmopolitan population in the main city environs and we hate the US and Israeli governments' policies. Come and visit in December when you have bitterly cold winter then we have our best summer holiday weather and excellent beach life.

As a person with a disability, I also want to leave behind this country's ableism.

We probably do not share the same political views. I am a Catholic and probably would be considered "conservative" (although I hate the label and would vote for Bernie in a heartbeat if he was pro-life). I can't stand Trump or Hillary and will vote third party if they are the candidates. Heck, I'll probably vote third party no matter who is the candidate. Then, I'm packing my bags for Europe.

Are you pro-life or anti-abortion? Two different things.

As a HRC supporter I object to coupling Trump with Hillary. I am a practicing RC - married gay man- and adore Hillary. There.

This is a very good article on American authoritarianism.

I consider Hannah Arendt one of the foremost scholars on totalitarianism. She described the conditions very accurately which make a country ripe for the takeover of a totalitarian regime. The US today scores quite high on her checklist... it has been a long time in the making...

Turkey has not always been a hospitable place with "Muslims, Jews, and Christians living side by side." Just ask any Armenian who has ancestors who lived there prior to 1915, as well as Greeks and Kurds. The Turks achieved their state by getting rid of people who were different from the majority. Trump may just be another Young Turk, though he is not young.

Mr. Crawley is exactly right. The beloved Mt. Ararat, formerly in Armenia and now within Turkish borders, is a reminder to Armenians of Turkish "hospitality."

Another meaning ful, inciteful article. Thank you, On Being for bringing these authors to us! Thank you, Omid!

I love this article about the Country that has yet to be. I however see everything that is being revealed in our, dare I say culture, today, is a call to awaken and move into a solid vision of the country that has always been within our consciousness. Even those far to the right have a vision of a country that is expressed out of their values. So, I can only become my own INNER ACTIVIST by knowing, feeling deeply and expressing without ceasing the country of my own conscience. This is a country, complex but compassionate, faltering but never failing to serve a higher good, a country that displays true heroism. This is not the heroism of war but the fierce courage each individual has to take the high road. This is a peaceful country in my mind and at the risk of sounding cliche', I am that peace. This peace in every heart is the birth of a nation of good.

Precisely.

i so wish you were right but i'm beginning to despair. of course, this is only anecdotal, but i've found that in the casual circle of my acquaintances there are those who rejoice at the momentum the donald has gained. when he first came on the scene i made the connection to hitler (scapegoatism, demagoguery, hate speech) but was reluctant to speak up because i am german. now i wish i had spoken up earlier. at this point i have to believe that a country who twice voted for a black man named barak would not let trump be elected.

Dear Omid Safi,
Reading the words of your friend Professor Karim moved also me to tears._
I was a child,living through WW2.
I lived 10 years under Russian ocupation.
We escaped,we survived.
I fell in love with an American
and came with him to this country in 1960......

Now, my heart aches,
and in your words:"what we really want is to leave behind what we have become."
And I am filled with hope,when I look at the young,my grandchildren,s generation.
It will be very hard work for all of us together!
I might not see it,but I dream about it!

In Langston Hughes words:America was:
" A land that never has been yet.
And yet_ must be.
The land where every man(read :human)
is free!"

To live without Hope is to Cease to live!" words by Fyodor Dotoevsky

With much gratitude for your wisdom,your sharing,your writing,your teaching!
I am blessed to hear your voice.

Okay, I am in tears. It hurts to drop into really FEELING the dissonance of what could be, and what is in the US. The impulse to run or move away is intense. When you frame it in the African proverb: " We are all citizens of a country that does not yet exist" it brings me to my core- my humanity. THIS is the dream of unity or connectedness, and of kindness. It makes me commit to doubling down my efforts in this direction....both in my interior world, and the world around me. Music is the medicine I choose to bring a literal experience of harmony across different voices. Aho.

Yes, of course. America depends on enough people's American Dream being fulfilled enough. There is nothing absolute about it, and everybody will always have something to complain about.
Let me tell you a story. I grew up as an expatriate of Denmark. On a trip back in the 1980s, after Denmark had begun to prosper as a modern welfare state, a neighbor of my father's in a nice, expensive suburb of Copenhagen, was at a get-together, talking about her cleaning woman. "And now she's taking a vacation. Going to the Costa del Sol, where I went on vacation a couple of years ago. Vacationing abroad, catching a plane, staying at a resort hotel! It makes me feel so desperate. Everything I've ever worked for is lost. I came from a good family, struggling to keep up, to lead a decent life with dignity, to be educated, have good taste and take deserved vacations in the best places. There is no point in anything any more - not if she can take the same plane to the same places where I can go. Who does she think she is?" This from a woman who lived in the welfare state of a social democratic government. But she remembers the white apron and uniform dress of her mother's maid, and she may have gone to a private girls' school (academically inferior to the local State school). The Danish peasants were only liberated in the late 18th century, and the population has remained stratified, in one way or another, to this day. It's hard to give up your social status even if you get it by unfairly lording over your neighbor in some way. It's hard for men to do housework if they have been brought up not to. It's hard for whites to give civil rights to "coloreds" who haven't had them. It's hard to make friends with your cleaning woman and think of her as your equal if you've never tried it. That's just one example of criteria whereby my Utopia might not be the same as your Utopia. If I need a cleaning woman to feel comfortable, what about the cleaning woman who wants a better job and to be equal to her former boss? Present-day Scandinavia may come as close as its possible to come - but apparently it's unraveling itself, and now that society is becoming less homogenous there, immigrants may begin to find their rights abrogated in many ways. What does your ideal America look like? How like the nearest urban African American's is it? the nearest homeless person's? prisoner's? What can we all agree on?

Powerful! Thank you.

I'm not moving. Why should I? I also think HRC is a progressive and would make a great president if the mostly white heterosexual male Berniacs would stop their bullying and overt misogyny.

(Aside from the name-calling, just because I'm tired of having to defend "Shillary") For the love of god, YES. This is the first time I've ever been disappointed in Mr. Safi, when he basically equates Trump and Clinton. Although I love the sentiment of the post, the naivety and immaturity of suggesting that the election of Clinton would be the same as the election of Trump tainted it for me.

I think Obama would agree. He always saw America as a place getting closer to what it was "meant" to be, constantly improving.

But I think the reality is that the political system is coming apart. States are starting to restrict voting rights to ensure that only the "right" people vote. The "improvement" America was supposed to be going through has resulted in a white backlash so strong it is giving us Donald Trump. Hillary Clinton, who I will be voting for, is better but has ultimately learned nothing when it comes to the difficult economic challenges people are facing.

My parents, grandparents, and great grandparents left their own countries for some very good reasons, so I don't have a lot of moral qualms about doing the same.

You can't fix a system that doesn't want to be fixed. That's ok! People have to make the best decisions for themselves. Even if those decisions are borne of privileges and advantages that others can't make themselves, there's no moral problem with that-- that is why revolutions are generally uprisings of the less privileged: they have no other way out and nothing to lose.

And that is also the moral conundrum of the privileged. The privileged are benefiting from a system that they may find morally repulsive. So it can be argued that the moral thing to do is to opt out by leaving, lest you become so entrenched in the system that you refuse to fight against it.

I admit that to a degree this is the left wing version of "going galt", but if you were a well off person in the ante-bellum south and realized that your profession, wealth, and income in many ways depended on the continuing existence of slavery, even indirectly, wouldn't you say that the moral thing to do would be to leave?

Thank you Omid for this article and all of your writings - they really push me to reflect on my views and my life. I'm saddened when I think about some of the things that have happened and are likely to happen in our country. Humor is one of the ways that I cope with these feelings and I admit that I've joked about moving to Canada or somewhere else. X-) But, I realize that this isn't a joking matter. :-/ I feel that we all have the opportunity and responsibility to do what we can to work together to help all of us to move toward a better union. I'm encouraged that many of us are waking up to the reality of the situations and hopeful that we can make progress. I feel that with a mixture of awareness and acceptance of the realities and our responsibilities, a recognition of our need to cooperate, love and empathy for all others, a foundation of principles and ethics and gratitude for what we do have, that our future is hopeful. I hope so... I believe in ourselves. We can do this. I know many people who are doing what they can. I'm trying my best, but yeah, I know I should and can do better and do more. I'm in!

My way or the hiway? Really? The Scandinavian countries are being overwhelmed by their socialism. Canadians come to the U.S. for medical care, as does the world. This is the greatest country ever seen on earth. Is it perfect, no. Is there room for improvement, yes. Running from your problems is never the answer. $18 trillion in debt and spending like drunken sailors may be the biggest problem. Slogans and wishful thinking provide no answers, neither does hating on those you disagree with. Forcing your beliefs, regardless of the ideology you subscribe to, rarely works in the real world. Answers to problems come from understanding and hard work, not from running and avoiding.

What a beautiful article.

Bravo! Working together we can create/discover America - land where people treat each other the way they want to be treated.

What makes us assume those other countries would welcome us, or even admit us? Would they label us migrants or refugees? How would we feel if they herded us into camps for two or more years while they vetted us? What if they turned us away at their border and told us to go back home and solve the problems in our own country? I think Omid is right that we have work to do here to make America a country worth living in.