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!