On the morning of September 11th, 2001, I remember the students and faculty members at school talking about a plane crashing into the World Trade Center, but everyone was getting mixed messages. Finally, in my algebra class, my teacher blurted out the truth, but before I could even process what she said, a classmate sitting next to me said, “Is it those damn Palestinians again?! They should be wiped off the face of the earth!”
I had been on the receiving end of racial slurs before, but this was different. This was an attack that killed nearly 3,000 people. I prayed that the people who did this were not Muslim. I wanted to confront my classmate, but I didn’t know what to say to him. I was 17 years old, I never stood up for myself before, so what was I going to say to him? I didn’t do anything. I said nothing. Suddenly, the door opened and they called my name.
My mom was coming to pick me up from school.
My mother was in tears. She was frightened and told me the country was under attack. I asked her why she pulled me out of school and she said, “Because I don’t want someone to beat you up.” I knew what that meant. The media was already saying that Muslims were behind the attacks.
When we got home, my mom and my friend’s mom were incredibly distraught. My mother couldn’t even stand on her feet. She wanted to know if there was something she could do. My friend’s mom said, “We have to say our prayers. Don’t worry, we have a brave and God-fearing President and he’s going to take good care of our country.” As an aspiring filmmaker still in high school, I felt inspired.
I popped in a VHS tape into my VCR (remember those things?) and started recording broadcasts about September 11th. I listened to people deliver sweeping speeches to rekindle our spirits and remind us that America will not fall. The media replayed footage of the Twin Towers crumbling to the ground over and over again. I couldn’t believe it. I was there before. In that building. With my family. I see those buildings all the time when we travel to New York. I couldn’t believe that it wasn’t there anymore.
My friend and I even took all of this footage and put together a short commemorative video for the victims of 9/11. We were working on a short film at the time and we put a huge American flag on our website in honor of those who were killed and lost their lives trying to save others.
But soon, things turned ugly.
Racism, hatred, bigotry, and violent threats pushed me out of the video project we were making. When kids at school mentioned how Arabs were being discriminated against, I heard one of my classmates say, “I don’t care, they deserve it. Most of them are assholes anyway.” I found my voice for the first time in my grade school experience, but it was confused and premature: “No, they’re not! You don’t know what you’re talking about!” My lips were trembling, my hands were shaking, and I felt like I was going to break into tears. A girl came to my defense and told the other kid to shut up. It felt good. To speak up. But it also scared me.
Another kid called me “Osama bin Laden” while we were playing volley ball in gym class. “Why did you call me that?!” I shouted across the court. “What are you, racist?” He ignored me until we went to the locker room. While I was changing, he shoved me and I nearly fell hard against the lockers. “C’mon, p***!” he shouted. “F***ing Arab, what are you going to do?!” One of the gym instructors broke it up and told him to calm down. I don’t know what I was going to do. I never fought anyone before.
I looked at the American flag on the website my friends and I posted, and for the first time ever, I felt like an outsider. I felt like I didn’t belong. I hated everything that Osama bin Laden did to the United States. He made it worse for people like us. The crazy thing is that before 9/11, I had no idea that people like bin Laden existed. But why are people mistaking me for him? Why were they associating my religion with him when I was proudly wearing my American shirts and waving my American flag?
I went to Pakistan in early 2002 and listened to what many Pakistanis had to say. They said it was a horrible atrocity and prayed for all the victims, but they also told me about the atrocities that Muslims suffered, not just in Pakistan, but all over the world. I never really gave the issue of Palestine much thought before, but I started to read more. I listened more.
I prayed more. For everyone.
My religion – it became more than a label to me. It started to become my “way of life.” If I wanted to defend myself in school, I needed to know what I was defending. When I returned to the United States, I was more outspoken than ever before. I made sure that I told people that Islam was a religion of peace and that the 9/11 attacks had nothing to do with Islam. A kid in class looked at the newspaper and said, “What kind of name is that?! Why do they have weird names?!” I opened my mouth and asked him “What kind of name is [his really long last name]?” He was silent. The teacher told me to step outside. She started to lecture me instead of him. “Maybe you can educate us on why those people have those kind of names?” Um. What?
“Those are just their names. That’s how the names are.” What kind of answer was she expecting?
Another student made fun of Arabs in my psychology class. I called him out on it. I called him a “racist scumbag.” The teacher told me to step outside. He asked me if I needed a place to talk. I told him, “No. I want you to correct him on making those racist statements against my people” (I was Arab that day). He told me, “Don’t worry, I’ll talk to him.” The next day, I was called to an office I never been to before. It was some kind of school counselor who asked me if I needed help with socializing with classmates.
They all missed the point.
I experienced racial slurs and ignorant questions almost every day at school. There was only one teacher who actually listened to what I said and did something about it. Someone was playing anti-Muslim song in my “website design” class and after I told my teacher about it, he shouted at the students playing the song. He took the time to speak to me after class and offered genuine support. He told me he would address the students about it next class. I believe he did.
My cousins had their tires slashed and windows smashed. Another group of cousins had their cars pounded by baseball bats. Most of my cousins were telling me stories about anti-Islamic bigotry and slurs they received; similar to my own experiences. I asked my dad that if we’re Americans, then why aren’t we treated like Americans. My dad told me to just ignore the racism and don’t talk about politics and religion.
My parents started to hide their ethnic and religious identity. When non-Muslim guests came to our house, we hid the Islamic decorations. My parents and I got into heated arguments about this. Many times, they would bring me to tears. I was being taught to feel ashamed of being Muslim.
I carried on with my filmmaking hobbies. I was making a “Batman” fan film of all things at the time, and people started to stop us from filming. People were calling the cops on me and my friends. They were worried that there was going to be a terrorist attack. That’s what the cops told us. My friends were all White. I was the only brown guy. We all knew that people were calling the cops because of me. My friend started to get all cinematic on the cops until they threatened to arrest all of us.
My next film was about a man who goes insane after a serial killer murders his wife. The movie is about vengeance mostly, but it has a strong spiritual message as well. I threw in a post 9/11 metaphor in it, criticizing the Bush administration’s war in Iraq and Afghanistan. It pissed my Republican friend off. I didn’t care.
We were filming one night and one of the neighbors looked out the window and panicked. They first asked us what we were doing, but I noticed they were eying me. I explained were just filming an independent film, but the man simply said, “I’m calling the cops on you right now!” I didn’t care. I filmed the scene anyway.
Three cop cars came and told us to pack our things up and go home. The next time we filmed, a cop had to stop traffic to get to us. I was glad that this was near the end of the film I was making. I needed to do something different, something beyond a metaphor. I needed to be direct and tell a story about the Muslim-American experience. So I did. And those are the kind of stories I’ve been telling since.
I heard people on the news vilify Islam, as if it was acceptable to hate an entire group of people. I heard my friend’s mom preach Christianity to us and indirectly tell us that Muhammad, peace be upon him, was a “false prophet.” I listened to these same “friends” and “neighbors” rave about Jews around me and my family as if being Muslim automatically means “you hate Jews.”
Today, I speak out against Islamophobia as much as I can. I was discriminated two years ago at my workplace after a customer called me a “terrorist” and I reported it to CAIR. They helped me win the case, but it took a while for me to realize, “Wow, I was actually discriminated against because of my appearance and religious affiliation.” I wrote a 21 page research paper on Islamophobia in post 9/11 America and was just moved to tears when I read all of the incident reports that we never heard reported by the mainstream media.
Throughout the years, I have seen other atrocities in the world receive very little attention (and sometimes, none). The invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan received plenty of media attention, but very little was said about the innocent Iraqis and Afghans who were killed. We saw the prisoner abuse in Guantanamo bay, and yet, people debated endlessly on whether or not “torture” was acceptable during war. I think about the 2006 bombings in Lebanon and how Israel was defended so proudly by right-wing Americans and George W. Bush. I think about the nearly 1,400 Palestinians killed in Gaza last winter. These are all atrocities and people will never forget them, just as Americans will never forget 9/11.
Today, I feel my soul screaming at all the chaos in the world – the intolerance, the bigotry, the apartheid, the hate, the racism, the apathy, the ignorance, the cowardice, the injustice, and so many other things that are just pleading to die out. There must be hope and a brighter future because that is all there is to live for. We create the future. Right now. Today.
I am an American. No one can take that away from me. I am a Muslim. That is the eternity of my being. I am a Pakistani. That is my blood, ancestry, and history. I am a human being — connected to all of you, no matter what your religion is, what your skin color is, or what your gender is. I will not fall into despair. If you can listen, like I do, then you know the earth is crying for peace. It is begging us, for once, to behave like decent human beings. It is the least we can do to make up for all the damage that has already been done.
p.s. Head on over to “Islam on My Side” to read my other post, “Muslim-Americans Remember 9/11 and More.”