The Hate I Will Never Forget: A Decade After 9/11

I know it’s been more than two months since I’ve written a blog post.  I didn’t even write anything for Ramadan or Eid!  How did that happen?  I had a dream the other night where a friend asked me why I haven’t been blogging (it’s that serious, I guess).  She then quoted something by Michel Foucault and I was quite surprised.  “Foucault?!” I exclaimed dramatically in a coffee shop (not Starbucks, I swear). “You read Foucault?!”  I don’t remember the quote and I doubt it was an authentic one since I haven’t read much of his work, but before our conversation continued, a man in the café recognized me and decided to say “hello.”  He turned out to be one of the racist teachers (yeah, “one of”) I had in high school.  I woke up remembering how, after 9/11, everyone in that class laughed when he shamelessly said Arabs “looked all the same with their mustaches and turbans.”

As today marks the tenth anniversary of the September 11th attacks, my Facebook news feed has been buzzing with articles that highlight on the experiences of Muslim-Americans after 9/11.  Despite how outspoken the incredibly vast and diverse Muslim-American community has been, much of our stories still haven’t reached the mainstream. The ugliness of Islamophobia that followed the attacks isn’t something new to us, but what disturbs me is how anti-Muslim sentiments and bigotry has increased over the years. Correlating with this rise of Islamophobia are the US Orientalist wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, as well as its complicity in Israel’s ongoing atrocities against the Palestinians.

As I read the post 9/11 accounts of Muslims, Sikhs, Arabs, South Asians, and others, I reflected on my own experiences and thought about sharing them here.  Because this post focuses mostly on my personal experiences, it might be a little different than what I typically write on my blog.  Having said that, I don’t pretend like my encounters with racism and Islamophobia are worse than the experiences other Muslims (and those who are perceived to be Muslim) may have had.  It saddens me to point out how many have been detained, deported, physically assaulted, and/or lost their Loved ones in hate crime murders.  While I am strongly against “blaming-the-victim” politics or accusing people of “victimizing themselves,” I do wish to make clear that I don’t write this post out of self-pity nor do I think my story is “unique” or “different” than what other Muslims may have experienced. If anything, I simply wish to share what I have experienced and how my life has been shaped by those experiences.

On the morning of September 11th, 2001, I was working on my algebra assignment (shout out to Mohammed Al-Khwarizmi!) before class started.  The whole morning, teachers were saying ambiguous things like, “Today is a sad day for America,” and, of course, when students asked what they meant, no one bothered to answer.  Finally, when my algebra teacher announced what happened to the World Trade Center, a classmate next to me shouted, “Is it those damn Palestinians again?!  They should be wiped off the face of the earth!”  I remember feeling my heart drop at that moment.  Just as I was thinking about how horrible the attacks on the Twin Towers were, I felt attacked with racism.

I kept quiet and before I knew it, my mom came to pick me up from school.  She was in tears and told me that the nation was “under attack.”  When I asked her why she took me out of school, she told me that she didn’t want anyone to beat me up.  I realized then that Muslims were already being blamed by the media for the attacks.   In the following days, I heard racist, anti-Arab and anti-Muslim comments from students and teachers alike. Growing up in a predominately white non-Muslim American suburb, racism wasn’t anything new to me, but it seemed to get more hostile after 9/11.  When I found the courage to speak up and defend myself after someone called me “Osama” during volleyball, he pushed me in the locker room and challenged me to a fight.  I never fought anyone before (hmm, except my brother when I was little), so I was completely caught off guard. The gym instructors were there to break it up before anything happened.  While my classmate shouted profanities and racial slurs at me, the gym teacher said to me, “Just ignore him.”

There were several occasions when I openly called classmates out on their racism and in all cases, except for one, the teacher scolded me.  When I told one student that he was being racist for saying he wanted to “dress up like an Arab” for Halloween, I was sent to the school counselor’s office.  When I asked why I was being sent there, the teacher said, “I just want to make sure you’re ok.”  I didn’t understand, but I went anyway.  The school counselor asked me questions like, “Do you have any friends?  Are you lonely?  Were you born in the United States?”  When I told the school counselor that the Islamophobia after 9/11 was bothering me, she denied that such as thing was happening.  She said, “I think people are learning more about your culture. I don’t think there’s hatred at all.”  I never went back again, despite the number of times I was given “appointment cards” to visit her.

Like some Muslims I know, I lost friendships after 9/11.  Many of these friends I grew up with and knew since elementary school.  If I wasn’t losing friends, my friendships with them were fading to where they are now: rare contact via text messaging or awkward run-ins at the mall.  When I tried to speak about Islamophobia, I was given a defensive “I’m-offended-that-you’re-offended” attitude.  “Proof” was demanded about hate crimes committed against Muslims (because if the news didn’t report anything about it, it apparently didn’t happen).  “Colorblind” arguments were also made, claiming that they didn’t “see skin color” (despite the concurrent acknowledgment of me being a racialized and religious minority).

When I first experienced Islamophobia at my university (a faculty member posted racist political cartoons about Muslim suicide bombers outside her office), I told one of my white friends that I was going to file for discrimination. He replied, “You can’t do that, it’s freedom of speech!” The fact that my friend, someone who I knew since 6th grade, couldn’t support me (or at least empathize with me), because of his politics was difficult to deal with.  When I confronted this same faculty member alone, she admitted that she was “anti-Muslim” and, as I walked away, she said to her colleague, jokingly, “If I don’t take it (the cartoon) down, I’m going to get blown up!”  I yelled at her when she said that and I was kicked out of the office.  A random professor in the hallway shouted at me as well, even though he didn’t know what happened.

As I became more assertive of my religious identity, some accusations were made that I was being “led on by pride” and I was given holier-than-thou, Pat Robertson-style lectures on “Love.”  If I got angry at the man who shouted “Go back to Iraq” from the car next to me, it was because I didn’t have enough “Love” in me.  If I felt angry about the US wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, it was because I didn’t “Love” enough.  It started to feel like I needed to self-monitor myself in friendships because my conversations about Islamophobia were seen as “politics.”  It was as if talking about Islamophobia and racism meant to be “confrontational.”  So, I had to forget I was Muslim and choose the “neutral” or “safe” topics, i.e. the stuff we usually talked about: “Star Wars,” the Philadelphia Flyers, movies, um, extra-terrestrials, etc.   But Islamophobia wasn’t “politics” to me.  It was/is my reality.

For a while, I felt like there wasn’t anyone I could talk to.  I wrote a paper in one of my psychology classes on hate crimes and discriminatory acts committed against Muslims and I remember breaking into tears one night because I felt like my community and faith was being so unfairly and wrongly targeted. As my first semester of college went underway, I noticed a flyer posted on one of the outdoor bulletin boards on campus.  It was an announcement for the Muslim Student Association’s first meeting.  I was excited, but also shocked by the realization that I had never had a close Muslim friend.  When I made my first Muslim friend and got to know other Muslims, as well as South Asians and Arabs, it was nice to feel a sense of community.  I didn’t have to educate or enlighten anyone about the anti-Muslim climate we lived in. We all knew it.  I could talk about the media’s one-sided story on Palestine and my Muslim friends would be like, “Yeah, duh. Where have you been?”

I thought Islamophobia would die down after a few years, but as I got older and as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq escalated, the anti-Muslim bigotry in the US got worse.  Experiencing discrimination in the workplace both times was unexpected.  Being called a “terrorist” by a customer and then being blamed for it by my employer lost me my job.  Fighting for my rights was emotionally draining the first time as it was the second time. Even though I had the help of civil rights organizations and was relieved by the outcomes, the stress, the frustration, and the way others treated me is hard to forget.

When I wrote more papers on post 9/11 experiences of Muslim-Americans, I heard stories worse than mine: Vandalism, physical assault, being spat on, workplace discrimination, detainment, deportation, etc.   I read about hijab-wearing Muslim women having their hijabs pulled off and beaten on their walks home; I read about young Muslim teenagers beaten by a group of men wearing brass knuckles; I read about Sikh, Hindu, and Muslim fathers being shot and killed at their business stores; I read about Muslim women and men being denied jobs because of their Muslim names; I read about Muslim students being bullied and harassed at school, etc.  The internet, particularly social media, allowed me to connect with people who had similar and, sadly, far more painful experiences than I had.

My romanticized ideas of the “Muslim ummah” faded in time when I saw the problems that exist in our community, including the sell-out Muslims who “play the game,” work in collaboration with the State, and are complicit in victimizing their own people.  As I networked with more Muslims and people of color, I was introduced to the works of Cherokee feminist-activist Andrea Smith and African-American feminist bell hooks.  I became more conscious of the interconnectedness of oppression, which I’ve written about before on my blog.  What I noticed among Muslims (and people of color in general), is that many of us are complicit in the oppression of other groups. When Muslims are praising Thomas Jefferson for holding the “first iftar” at the White House, for example, we are ignoring Jefferson’s hand in slavery and genocide against other peoples, namely Africans and Native Americans (and there’s overlapping there as well since a significant portion of African slaves were Muslim).  Similarly, as Andrea Smith points out, when indigenous people try to escape economic exploitation, they join the military and become complicit in the colonization of other groups (Iraqis, Afghans).  Understanding the interlocking nature of racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, ableism and other forms of oppression means that we all take responsibility and work towards a reciprocal commitment that values the liberation of all people.

So, ten years after 9/11, as I reflect on the tragedy of that day, I am also thinking about the difference in the way people value human life due to racism and war.  September 11th will prompt many white non-Muslim Americans to post status updates to remember the victims – and that’s fine – but not a word is said about the unjust murders of Palestinians, Lebanese, Iraqis, Afghans, Pakistanis, etc. when the anniversary of their tragedies are marked.  At the same time, I reflect on some of the Muslim-Americans who participate in “victim-blaming” and/or fail to see how US imperialism and war crimes “over there” are connected to the struggles we face over here.  In other words, what can the State powers do for you when they’re bombing other Muslims in Muslim-majority nations (which kill, torture, and rape racialized bodies as we speak)?

Ten years later, I’m looking at Yahoo’s front page which has the same question glaring at me for days: “Are we safer?”  Um, no.  We cannot be safer when the NYPD and CIA illegally infiltrates and spies on Muslim communities.  We cannot be safer when bashing Muslims is normalized, or when hate crimes and discriminatory acts against Muslims increase annually while US politicians use anti-Muslim rhetoric to win votes.  We cannot be safer when $43 million are pumped into an Islamophobia hate machine while counter-terrorism seminars and training programs teach military personnel and law enforcement that “Islam is a violent religion.”

Ten years later, I’m wondering why we are expected to know where we were on 9/11, but not expected to know where we were when the US killed over 1 million Iraqis and Afghans, or when Israel bombed Gaza and killed over 1,400 Palestinians.  I’m also wondering how we’re told to honor the firefighters and police officers who died on 9/11, but aren’t given details about the Muslim firefighters, the Muslim police officers, or even the Muslim victims who also died on 9/11.  A dichotomy is in effect when we have to keep reminding people that, yes, Muslims died, too.  And if we’re going to honor and value all human beings, we need to eradicate the racism that poisons these narratives.

I know that Muslims and people of color still struggle against racism, sexist oppression, classism, etc.  I do worry about the future and I think a lot needs to be done.  Rather than telling people to “just ignore” racism, we need to take initiatives for healing. There is a lot of pain and hurt in experiences with racism, and people respond to racism in different ways. Some people are able to laugh it off while others take it to heart.  It can get more dangerous when people internalize the racism they hear and start to believe they are “inferior.”  You cannot expect someone to get over a situation overnight; it needs to be a gradual and compassionate process.

I have received patronizing comments from some non-Muslim colleagues who say, “Love is the answer” or even something like, “Jehanzeb, you write some of the most beautiful poetry, but then you let this Islamophobia stuff get to you.”  Well, I’m sorry I can’t be the New Age mystical Sufi dude 24/7, but I am human.  Muslims, believe it or not, have good days and bad days just like everyone else.  I find Love through my faith, which has been a source of comfort and healing in my life.  But Love is not only a word, it is action. When Muslim teenagers are getting bullied and are too afraid to tell anyone because they either will feel weak for reporting it or feel as though the teachers and faculty members aren’t trained to help them, they need more than talk of Love. They need Love that is compassionate, conscious, active, understanding, and persistent.

In closing, if you say you Love all people and see one of your friends being discriminated against or hurt by racism, then reach out and make an effort to see things through his/her perspective.  Rather than resorting to “colorblind” politics and saying “we are all the same,” recognize that all of our experiences are different based on our race, gender, class, sexual orientation, religious affiliation, etc.  A white non-Muslim telling me that “we have the same experience as human beings” does nothing but erase the struggles I have had as a Muslim and person of color.

As I wrote earlier, I don’t intend for this post to be a “victim narrative” nor am I looking for self-pity.  I am grateful for the friends I have in my life, alhamdullilah.  I know my experiences have made me stronger and taught me to stand up for myself.  Not everyone can say that about their encounters with bigotry, sadly, and rather than telling people what they need to do, we need to be more active and compassionate in helping them heal.  I’d like for my experiences to be understood instead of being dismissed as “anger” from a “dark Other.”  I’d like for all of us, Muslims and non-Muslims, to work together and move towards eliminating oppression not only in the world, but also within ourselves (as racism, sexism, classism, etc. is taught to us by society).

Anyway, if you are a non-Muslim reader who doesn’t have regular contact with Muslim friends, I suggest clicking “like” on the CAIR Facebook page so you can keep up to date with what happens in our community.  I do hope you get to read the stories and experiences of other Muslim-Americans as well.  Until my next post, I’ll be trying to figure out what that blasted Foucault quote was!

26 thoughts on “The Hate I Will Never Forget: A Decade After 9/11

  1. “Discourse is not simply that which translates struggles or systems of domination, but it is the thing for which and by which there is struggle; discourse is the power which is to be seized” -Foucault.

  2. Thank you for writing this. You make a lot of good points.

    I wasn’t a Muslim when 9/11 took place–that didn’t happen until two years ago. But I do think that having Muslims thrust into the forefront like that was one factor in my conversion because I didn’t know a thing about Islam before then. 9/11 raised my consciousness and made me curious about Islam.

    I now have a blog called I, Muslimah and I wrote a short post about how 9/11 affected my life here: http://muslimah.femagination.com/3721/ten-years-later-how-911-changed-my-life/

    A few months after my conversion, I started to wear hijab, partly because I wanted people to know that I am a Muslim. I’ve never had any negative reactions–if anything, it seems like people bend over backward to be nice to me! But I realize that’s not the case everywhere (I live in Columbus, Ohio) or for every Muslim. Islamophobia is real.

    I love your thoughtful posts. Please don’t wait two months to write another one!

    • Thank you for your kind words and comments! I’d Love to read about your experiences. It’s nice to hear that even though you haven’t experienced Islamophobia, you still acknowledge how widespread it is. Unfortunately, struggles against racism and prejudice aren’t just endured by Muslims, but other groups as well.

      Will read your post soon!

  3. I was planning to avoid 9/11 all together. I’d almost forgotten about it until late August when everyone started talking about it. I just don’t want to deal with today. I feel awkward and strange, like everyone is watching me for a response, same way they were after bin Laden was found.

    • I know what you mean. I didn’t plan on writing anything about it, but I noticed all of the posts and articles that were coming out about Muslim-American experiences, so I thought about adding my voice to the choir.

      It is frustrating when people look to you for responses. Many times I feel that people are looking to me for condemnations (and of course that points to their assumption that Muslims didn’t speak out or might even support the attacks).

  4. I wish I had something extremely eloquent to say but the truth is there is nothing that can be said for the horrible actions of Americans in light of the attacks made on us. Please know that some of us hate the aftermath that you experienced and want to change things for the better. As we say in my faith “Blessed Be”. It’s the best that I can extend to you at this time because I don’t have that magic wand to wave and fix the wrong.

    • Thank you, Angela. Having experienced racism, I know how important it is not to generalize about other groups of people. I have been grateful for the friends who have been supportive, not just of me, but of the struggle against racism and oppression in general.

  5. I am an American by birth and my color is considered white. 911 had a profound effect on me as it did you but for different reasons. My heart aches as I read your story and I’m so sorry for what you had to endure; it isn’t right. You are a person and therefore valued. Tears flow from my eyes as I read because I can feel your hurt.

    My heart ached on 911 because I am a twin to a fireman who worked in a different city at the time. Those of us who have family that handle emergencies to help other humans and save lives are intune to their feelings. We are like a big family of brothers and sisters. Nothing to do with my race. When I saw the first tower start to fall I not only thought of all the humans inside those building who would lose their lives, my heart bled for those fire fighters, paramedics, police and others.

    There was no descrimination in my heart; I hurt for everyone there that day. I had to walk away from the TV to regain my composure; to wait until my tears could stop.

    Yes, I remember where i was when 911 happened and i have no hatred in my heart for anyone. Only sadness for the fact that it happened in the first place, fear for my loved ones who still have to endure the racist views of others and hope that one day we can all accept each other as humans.

    You see; I am a human and can not be defined by the color of my skin nor by my place of birth or religion. You are a human and valued as such. With love and respect, Joyce

    • Thanks for your feedback, Joyce. No human being is superior to another on the basis of skin color, gender, sexual orientation, etc., but sadly, our world doesn’t operate like that. There are racial hierarchies, there is sexist oppression, there is economic exploitation, there is imperialism and war that murders, tortures, rapes, and dispossess people in their own lands, etc. The list goes on.

      People are abused, killed, tortured, raped, and mistreated because of those differences and that is something that needs to be recognized in order to confront them. From personal experience, I remember telling people that we are all human and that our skin color doesn’t matter, but over the years, I realized that if I were to erase my religious identity or pretend like I wasn’t brown, I would be erasing the struggles and experiences I’ve had because of those differences.

      Our struggles for social justice are meant to bring Love and peace into our lives. It is meant to restore dignity and make people realize that, yes, we shouldn’t treat others differently for any reason. We need to see the humanity in all of us.

      Thanks again for your comment!

  6. I am a white non-Muslim and when I asked “What about victims of other terrorist attacks?” I was shot down in flames and made to feel like one of the Evil People for daring to have an opinion other than the one the media tells us to have. It really saddened me that people who I consider friends could react like that.

    • I’m sorry to hear that. :( I can relate to that experience, unfortunately. It seems that whenever we question US policies, those who are unwilling to broaden their minds will quickly shoot us down and label us things like “terrorist sympathizers.”

      When name-calling like that happens, it is extremely difficult to engage in dialogue. I do hope things get better between you and your friends.

  7. Probably one of the best blog posts I’ve read today aout 9/11. I felt awkward and almost numb today but you have so beautifully written everything I wanted to say. In a way it’s harder for American Muslims to deal with the aftermath of 9/11 since it happened in your country- but as we had 7/7 in the UK, it’s not to say we don’t experience any Islamophobia here.

    Again, great post.

    • Thanks for reading and commenting! I haven’t been to the UK, but I do have family there and I’ve heard many stories about Islamophobia. I’ve read reports about the EDL and David Cameron’s racist, xenophobic statements as well. Ugh.

  8. This was a very touching post and I can only say I feel for you. It’s very difficult for me to mourn the losses on 9-11 (not that I’m not saddened by them) when people in Iraq and Afghanistan are being killed. It’s also difficult because of the sudden hostilities towards religious minorities like Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus. You’re right, there’s been an increase in Islamophobia and hostility towards Muslims in particular. You remember that incident in Orange County California? Those people were yelling at children!!

    I guess this bothers me because I’m friends with a couple of Muslims and they’re the kindest people I know. In the beginning I understood the fear, but now it’s ridiculous. Many people aren’t even trying to look past what the media is saying.

    • Hi RenKiss! Thanks for commenting! Ah, I remember that incident in Orange County. That was horrible. It seems like there’s a case everyday about Islamophobia. Today I checked my Facebook and read reports of a Mosque sign being damaged on 9/11, and then there’s a report of a half-Jewish and half-Arab woman who was handcuffed at the airport!

      It’s nice to have non-Muslim allies who are helping us defend our community. I do hope that things get better and more our stories reach the mainstream.

  9. Excellent post as always Jehanzeb, I can relate to so much of it. The world needs more badass Muslims like you writing about intersectionality, resisting oppression, and refusing to work for the state or make apologies for terrorism and other crimes that have nothing to do with us! (Though on that last note, I would argue that despite the civil liberties work that CAIR does which deserves acknowledgement, they are often the first to kiss the State Department’s butt, promote assimilation and ‘Americanism,’ and issue endless condemnations of terrorism to appease white people who think all Muslims need to condemn the acts of a few extremists…)

    • Thank you, Eskandar! I completely agree with you. CAIR has helped me in the past, but I agree that it is frustrating to see how they promote assimilation and kiss up to the State. When the US is bombing and killing people in Muslim-majority countries, how are we going to expect the State to help us fight against hate crimes, discrimination, and demonization at home?

      Muslims don’t need to issue an apology for 9/11 in the same way white non-Muslims don’t have to apologize every time a white man like Anders Behring Breivik goes on a killing spree.

      Thanks for your comment.

      • You are right Muslims do not need to issue an apology. I find it sad and pathetic that whatever whites do it’s no big deal and they are seen individuals. Only one person(I believe) who wasn’t white went on a killing spree and he (the Virginia Tech guy) went on it because of people and their racism though violence shouldn’t be the answer. Every killing spree has been pretty much white and some who I’m sure were Christians.
        So why are Christians and Whites not held accountable why do they get a pass? Did people forget about the Oklahoma city bombing? In case some of you guys don’t know a White Christian Man bombed a building in obviously, Oklahoma City. He killed over 150 people and injured over 600. So why aren’t whites dealing with racial profiling when they are at an Airport or why aren’t people getting scared when they see a white person in a store or whatever?

        Let’s not forget about how US Soldiers kill innocent Middle Eastern People/Muslims all the time. That Iraq Invasion was basically Terrorism too.

  10. Sorry about the semi rant… yeah who am I fooling? It was definitely a full on rant, lol. I just get really frustrated(not angry) when it comes to inequality. Whites always think we(minorities) over exaggerate when it comes to racism. They will never understand the struggles.

    • No need to apologize for the “rant.” I know how you feel. I’ve been in situations where people thought I was over exaggerating about racism and Islamophobia. It’s worse when we see our own internalize that racist thinking. Thanks for commenting and addressing those issues.

  11. A well written article Jehanzeb. It was a good read. We need more
    people like you to stand up for the Muslim community and raise awareness on the suffering that many Muslims go through. Fortunately i have had many good experiences and much support from friends and family in my community. But i sympathize with your struggles and wish you the very best. I look forward on reading your upcoming articles.

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