Persian Murray State Alum: Being Muslim and the 'American Dream'

Feb 6, 2017

Patterson School Graduation: Dec. 2009. From left to right: Dad, me, my mom
Credit David Shams

  Two years ago, a Murray State alumnus wrote an article in the Huffington Post called “An Iranian-American ‘Pioneer’ Celebrates 50 years in America.” David Shams was writing about his immigrant father’s journey towards the American Dream. Nicole Erwin spoke with Shams recently about his reactions to President Trump’s immigration ban and how that can affect others reaching for their own American Dream.


Nicole: To give our listeners some perspective on where you come from--David holds a BA in Political Science from Murray State University and a MA in Diplomacy from the University of Kentucky’s Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce. He freelances and manages a restaurant in DuPont Circle in Washington D.C. now. And when time allows, he blogs on his site Bourbon and Chai: Growing up Persian in Kentucky.

 

What was your initial reaction to hearing the news that President Trump had implemented an immigration ban that included Iran? 

 

David: When I first heard about it I thought about three things: Two macro issues and one more personal issue. The macro issues, first being national security policy related, where the ban on Muslims would only help the terrorists groups. That, it would only help their recruitment and only push more people into their camp. It would be detrimental to our ability to project soft power--you know, where we would no longer be a beacon of stability, a beacon of hope, a place of refuge.

On the micro level and on the very personal level, I have family in Iran. They may have been deciding to want to come to the US... But now they are going to question whether or not it's feasible for them to try to apply for a Visa.

I also have friends that are hurt by this.

Nicole: What is the environment at the restaurant like in D.C.?

David: It's a pretty liberal city, it's pretty progressive. Because of its diversity, or through its diversity, there's been a liberal skew to the city. Here people talk about what was going on in other places, and in general it is pretty negative towards the current administration, simply because a lot of people that come into the restaurant and a lot of people that are just around D.C. either are currently working in government or have done things in foreign policy or national security or have an idea of how national security and foreign policy work.They can see how detrimental it is to all the in our image in the world.

Nicole: Kentucky’s electoral votes went towards Trump in the election. What kind of response have you gotten from people back home in Bardstown?

David :There are a lot of people in my hometown that did support this agenda. To that my next response was, I have to somehow create the narrative that says: ‘You know what? When you vote for this person and he enacts this executive order that he said he was going to enact, you know you're partly responsible for the pain that I'm feeling right now.’ It was kind of difficult to do because, I'm not there [in Bardstown]. But my brother is there and my mom is there and my dad is there. So they would have to deal with any sort of fallout from me engaging in a way that could be considered provocative.

At the same time, I understand where people who support the ban are coming from. That religious extremism is a dangerous thing. We saw what happened on 911, we saw what happened in the Paris attacks, we've seen what can happen in Istanbul. You know my own family too know what happened in a place like Iran where you have the Islamic Revolution.

 

Family trip to California: 1986, Golden Gate Bridge. From top left clockwise: Cousin Pezhman, his wife Annahita, my dad, me, my sister Meena, my brother Jacob.
Credit David Shams

  Nicole: Was religion a part of your upbringing?

David: Our household was non denominational. My dad grew up in Iran in the 40s and 50s and it was a lot like the US, pretty secular, you know Islam played a role. From what he has told me though, he has never been to a mosque before, but he definitely feels Muslim.
 

Mom grew up Jehovah's Witness, but wasn't practicing when I was born. I do remember going to church with my neighbors every once in awhile.

Now I am Muslim.  I would characterize myself as someone who is not devout. One of my friends from my hometown calls me a Monday Muslim. Because you know, I drink and I eat pork.

My wife is Christian, so it's not like I follow it to a T. I am more, what they call a Sufi, where I practice the spirit of the law not the letter of the law. You are constantly kind of evolving in your spirituality.  

Nicole: This is something you seemed to have picked up from your father. I would like read a couple segments from your article where you talk about your dad’s journey from Iran to the U.S.  and his seemingly innate sense of curiosity for other’s cultures and beliefs. I’ve cut a few words here and there for brevity, but here you write:

“The constant learner, my father also started a master’s program in Christian spirituality. He wanted to learn more about Islam, but there wasn’t a program in Kentucky. The path that led to his decision started years before when he visited a monastery near our home town. One of the monks — took my father under his wing. Through discussions, my father became more interested in religious spirituality.

This shouldn’t have been surprising. My father has always been more Sufi than orthodox Muslim. Before finishing his masters, the fire department named him as their chaplain. Their choice spoke volumes about their respect for my father and their tolerance for other religious perspectives.

My father also became a hospice volunteer and volunteer chaplain at the local hospital. He had many interesting exchanges with patients. One he relayed to me last year, “I knocked on the door of this little old lady. I introduced myself and asked her if she wanted me to pray with her. She asked my name again. I told her Mohammad. She paused. Then asked me if I was Muslim. I wasn’t going to lie, so I said yes. Her response almost brought me to my knees. She said, ‘Well, I guess God put me here so I could meet a Muslim and learn we’re not all that different.’”

David: You know that moment for me.... Sorry, I'm going to get emotional here, was  probably for my dad a culmination of the goal of his whole life. Even for my dad, even when he tells the story he still chokes up a little bit and for him it was just like everything came together. It was like, alright, all the work I've done my entire life is come up to this point and this is why I was doing all of the things I was doing.

This is that powerful moment for humans interacting with one another and learning that we’re not all that different, what similar things and we may have different ways of getting there. This is a wonderful experience to hear from my dad. Hopefully that woman passed on the information and experience to her family as well, and that may change their opinions of Muslims.

Nicole: Is that the way that you meant has has been a pioneer?

I use the term pioneer in a very specific way because in the Iranian American community there are basically three professions that  you're allowed to be: Lawyer, doctor or engineer. If you are not those three things, then you have failed your culture in your community. My dad wanted to be a teacher,  and he realized that in America he could achieve his dream of being a teacher and it would not be to his detriment.

And the other way was that he didn't stick to the kind of comfort zone of Washington D.C. or LA which are two pockets of large Iranian American communities. I think in LA there are maybe, 200,000 and the D.C. Metro area has maybe 50,000 or something like that--it's a large community. And he kind of struck out on his own and went to rural Kentucky for undergraduate work and ended up in Bardstown. That is not something that Iranian American's did and for the most part still don't do.

And he was a pioneer in that he went to place of the kind of broke down the barriers for those communities.

Nicole: In the article you say that your father is the ‘American Dream.’ Trump has said many times that dream is dead. Do you feel there is any truth to that, two years later after celebrating your father’s 50th year in this country?

David: For me to just continue being a part of the changing face of America, which is no longer simply white, we’re biracial multiethnic. We’re not a mix of Western European countries we're half Iranian, we are half  American we’re half Japanese, half Turkish half Cypriot--but grew up in Texas.  All those things... and it's kind of interesting to watch how the face of America is changing and how I'm a part of that. What I am seeing, my American dream is that we have a country that becomes more of a melting pot and less of a salad bowl. Which we have been in the past and we were in the past, and we are moving into something else entirely, which is great.