Hate mongers can’t make me move ‘back home’

“They are even attacking those of us who had a Muslim parent who don’t even practice Islam!” This was a tweet I sent to support progressive political cartoonist Pat Bagley of “The Salt Lake Tribune” in response to his editorial cartoon in which an elephant dressed in a shirt with a red tie states that he is shocked by all the bigotry towards Muslims. The elephant then states the man responsible for this is President Barack Obama, the closet Muslim traitor in the White House.

The pronoun ‘they’ in my tweet to Bagley refers to right wing supporters of Donald Trump, many of who resoundingly approve of his message that all Muslims should be barred from entering the United States. These comments ignited even more vitriol to those of us of Middle Eastern heritage. I took to Twitter to say I was proud of my late Turkish father Mehmet Gokbudak (1921-1983) who died of a heart attack on my 13th birthday. In my tweets, I talked about how my father had spoken four languages, earned a PhD from Virginia Tech, and worked for the General Electric plant in Salem, Va., for a solid 20 years up until his untimely death at age 62.

Among the negative tweets I got in response were ones like:

1) Either you accept the Armenian Genocide or Get Out (of America), 2) Was your father among the one in four Muslims who supports Jihad?, and 3) When are you going to go home (back to Turkey)?. I was born in Roanoke, Va., as much as I love the view of the Bosporus in Istanbul, southwest Virginia will always be home to me.

The great irony to all this is that not only do I not practice my father’s religion, but my mother is an American from South Carolina. My Turkish grandfather Fuat Gokbudak served in Turkey’s armed forces during World War I; my American grandfather Dudley “Doc” Sturgis served in World War II. I also happen to be in favor of better minority rights for ethnic Armenians, Kurds and Jews in Turkey. Additionally, I would like to see the politically center-left secular party make gains against Turkey’s conservative Muslim president Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

My father was a Muslim, but a secular man who didn’t pray that often. One occasion he did was during the two years we lived in Turkey (1977-1979) when I was a child. In the city we lived in, there was a Turkish boy two years younger than me who was the son of my father’s best friend. The boy was in a coma and dying of something awful like Diphtheria. By my tragic 13th birthday, I had already outlived this kid. My father’s death lead me to believe there was no God. From what I have gathered, it is not unusual for children of all faiths who have lost a parent in their childhood or teen years to feel this way. In more recent years, I sometimes go to the Unitarian Church here in Roanoke as I like to gather around like-minded folks. But, even though I haven’t been a Muslim in 32 years, the Islamophobia stigma still strikes me quite deeply as well.

When I lived in Reidsville from 2006-2013, it was a bit of a culture shock even though I grew up in nearby Roanoke. Seeing a fire truck on the lawn of a church suggesting that those who don’t worship on Sundays were doomed to burn in eternal hell baffled and amused me. It scared me too. My initial fears that a community with an evangelical majority would hate me both for my Turkish heritage and my liberal politics were largely unfounded. I even bonded with some Republicans at the since closed Backstreet Buzz coffeehouse. Reidsville was also a place where I became more aware of the segregation years as one can sense where the invisible red line dividing the white part of town from the African-American part of town was. In the process, I felt like more of a Caucasian than I ever had growing in Salem, Va., a mostly white community next to Roanoke. There were a few black people who seemingly didn’t trust me because I am ‘white,’ and I also understood the underlying reasons for this with the realization there wasn’t much I could directly do to change their minds. This was not true of African- Americans I knew socially.

That euphoria is quite similar to the backlash of Islamophobia, except people feel no hesitation to say horrible things about each of us, regardless if we would prefer our wives to wear the bikini or the hijab. With what happened in Paris and in San Bernardino, we as Americans and citizens of the world should be coming together to defeat ISIS, a perverted cult of violence which is also believed to be responsible for a heinous bombing in Ankara, Turkey, on Oct. 24 which claimed 104 lives.

Muslim Matters, a national civic organization tweeted that American Muslims have raised $100,000 for the families of the California terrorist attack victims.

The Divan Center of Cary, a statewide civic group for North Carolina’s Turkish Muslim community, said on its web site that they condemned the attacks in France and their prayers were with the families of the deceased and injured. Imam Abdullah Antepli of Duke University said he was proud to represent America in Ethiopia this week even though Trump is spewing hate back home.

Public Policy Polling provided some disturbing numbers regarding Trump supporters in North Carolina and their view of Islam. According to the research center, 67 percent of Trump supporters in the state support a national database for all Muslims in the USA and 51 percent want all domestic mosques to shut down.

For both the American right and the left, the issue of Syrian refugees has also received much discussion. In the Dec. 6 edition of “The Washington Post,” an anonymous Syrian refugee from Damascus, now living in Baltimore, wrote an essay about her life since her country became unhinged. In one of the harrowing passages of her story, the mother in her mid-30s said that a phone call came from a family friend who worked at a hospital. This friend informed her that her seven-year-old son was killed by a Syrian government bombing of the building. They believed a rebel was hiding there. She also told about the extensive screening process she had to pass and arriving in America with literally no money in her family’s pocket.

Ragda Al-Shiblawi, a mother herself and an Iraqi immigrant in Roanoke, told WDBJ Channel 7 (CBS, Roanoke, Va.) that because of Trump’s comments and the anti-Muslim backlash she was afraid her shy son could be bullied at school.

This vitriol is no different than the retweets by the racist man who trolled me on Twitter. These tweets include: 1) “How many dead Americans are you willing to pay to let Muslims live in the West?,” 2) “So the answer is to allow unfettered Muslim immigration and pray nothing happens?” and 3) “Donald Trump’s stance on Muslims is EXACTLY what we should have done after 9/11. Instead, we invited millions of more Muslims into USA.”

To her credit, a Republican woman I didn’t know until coming across her on Twitter heavily criticized Trump for not being reflective of American values. She was in turn dumped on by Trump supporters for her comments as well. While dealing with such venom and personal attacks from unpleasant people is painful, my greater concern is that voices like the conservative woman opposed to Trump are being drowned out by the cyber lynch mob.

For my part, I have sent Tweets both in English and Turkish, a language I learned during those childhood years in Turkey, to rectify the damage and tell the Turkish people that in no way, shape, or form does Trump speak for all of us Americans. I feel it is something I must continue to engage in even as hate mongers want to threaten and intimidate people like me into moving ‘back home.’ The elder Gokbudak left Turkey in 1960 for economic reasons as he felt his expertise would best be used in America. He truly enjoyed his work at General Electric, which was one of the Roanoke Valley’s largest employers during the time he worked there. I don’t expect him to get the same kind of well-deserved praise my American grandfather got for serving his country. But, people should respect what he and so many other Muslim immigrants sacrificed for this country’s success. To me, it simply seems like the patriotic thing to do. !

TILLY GOKBUDAK is a former North Carolina-based journalist living in southwest Virginia. Follow him on Twitter via @Tilly70.