I woke up one Tuesday in June, and I laughed. I had hundreds of hateful, threatening Twitter notifications. I tracked down the instigator, and found a blog post by a so-called journalist, who ended his article with screenshots of tweets I’d sent about my guilty-pleasure show, The Bachelor. That’s when I laughed — hysterically.
I immigrated to the US from Japan in 1997 when I was 6 years old, a hybrid Danish-Syrian child with big American dreams. In November 2015, I was tapped to serve as a volunteer on a Department of Homeland Security task force on countering violent extremism. As the only Muslim millennial woman in a room of decorated, but ethnically homogenous, experts, I fought to ensure that the decisions being made for the future of America and American Muslims were constructive and built community.
When the final report draft was circulated in June 2016, thousands of right-wing influencers, politicians, and citizens erupted from the woodwork, intent on tearing me down for my involvement with the task force.
A blogger from the Daily Caller wrote a piece called "Syrian Immigrant Who Said 9/11 ‘Changed The World For Good’ Is A Homeland Security Adviser." He’d done a search of my Twitter account, looking for anything remotely incriminating. He then decided to take me down based on the following tweet:
It even earned me my own Snopes article debunking the false claims being made, and garnered international press coverage.
In the past two months, I’ve been asked over and over and over again: What were you thinking when you tweeted that? Did you ever expect your tweet would be misunderstood in the way it was — that thousands of people thought I was saying that 9/11 changed the world for the better?
My answer, now, then, whenever: no. I did not expect that. Sure, I could have used the word "permanently" (thank you to the dozens of people that tried to "correct" my tweet), but in 2014, I tweeted exactly what I meant, which I will lay out here: 9/11 changed the world permanently, and we all need to come together and move forward by having uncomfortable conversations about our differences. The tweet was an honest reaction to the painful anniversary the nation goes through every twelve months.
I stopped laughing when the tweets didn’t let up, multiplying in volume and influence, each more hateful than the last. I felt unsafe as bigoted politicians, social influencers, and fanatics began digging through my information. I told my building’s front desk to be on the lookout for any suspicious characters. I cried silently as I blocked and reported thousands of tweets, deleted hate emails and Facebook messages, notified my family to ensure that they stayed safe as well.
As Muslim immigrants, we already kept our personal details safe online, so my mother assured me everything would be okay on that front. My family pleaded with me to come stay with them, at least at the height of the harassment, but I refused to come, knowing that it would only intensify the fear my family felt. Every day, regardless of the amount of vitriol and the numbness I felt, I forced myself outside the apartment, taking refuge in cafes around the city that provided me with some sense of normalcy.
I’d faced bigotry and anger before. It’s normal in my work as the CEO of The Tempest, which features voices that usually go unheard. I’d grown up being bullied and spat upon because I was an American woman who chose to be visible about her Muslim identity. I’d always expected some sort of hate campaign to take place, given my active role disrupting both societal expectations and the startup world, but I didn’t expect it to happen as soon as it did — and as large as it did.
This was a full-on war to silence my voice, unchecked by those in government ("You’ll get through it," I was told), police ("Everyone will die one day," the officer told me after I called them at 5 am because of death threats), media outlets ("It’ll die down quickly, it won’t be picked up by too many blogs," when I wrote my story prior to further blogs blowing it up), and social media outlets (no response, no response, no response).
"It’ll die down, trust me," I was told by a government official. "This is normal." What wasn’t normal was who I was: fresh meat to the bigots.
Regardless of the amount of hatred, vitriol, and bigotry flung my way, I’m glad I was the one to take it. This experience has made an uncomfortable truth very public: cultural change in this nation is very, very difficult. It stretches far beyond an angry tweet or quick blog post — rather, it speaks to the thought processes and values we struggle separately and communally to uphold in this country.
People like to say that we live in a more tolerant, open, and accepting society, but I’m forced to beg to differ when a difference of opinion — and appearance — prompts unfettered hatred and anger to erupt in 2016. Are we really living in a country that’s moved forward? Or are we simply lying to ourselves, unable to face the reality that we – both individually and as a nation – still have so much to confront?
If our presidential preferences speak to anything, we have an orange-tinged distance to go before true acceptance and allowance of differences becomes the norm in America.
Still, in every troll’s horrific words and images, every alt-right blog post and article, I found inspiration to keep moving forward.
While it was, and continues to be, difficult to be attacked based on people’s perceptions of my identity, this experience taught me how important one’s voice really is — and fuels the work I do with my media startup. We need to be able to create a United States of America where a woman like myself can sit on a task force for the nation’s future without backlash — and without her own Snopes article.
Laila Alawa is the CEO and founder of The Tempest, a tech and media company by diverse millennial women. She is also the host for The Expose, a weekly podcast. She has consulted for the White House and Congress. Prior to founding The Tempest, Alawa was a research specialist at Princeton University, studying socio-cognitive processing under the framework of community identity and belonging.