September 11, 2001, is widely understood as a marker of deepening Islamophobia in America. While that’s perhaps oversimplified, the attacks did set off a series of political and social reactions that have worked together to fuel fear and ignorance about what it means to follow Islam.
I spoke to nine Muslim Americans about how misunderstandings, stereotypes, and hateful rhetoric about their religion has affected their lives in the years since. Their experiences vary with age, race, geography, and the visibility of their faith. Some live in daily awareness of dirty looks, rude comments, and constant fear of violent retaliation. Others have pursued careers in activism or processed their questions through work in academia. A few make it their mission to change minds about Islam through daily interpersonal interactions, and most keep a careful eye on political rhetoric as a powerful shaper of the country’s climate. All of them agree that since 9/11, nothing has been the same.
These are lightly edited excerpts of what they told me during our conversations.
Waleed Shahid, New York City
“The flag became a way to protect yourself from being hurt.”
I was in fifth grade. That day [9/11] is still pretty vivid in my mind because I lived in Arlington, which is where the Pentagon is, and my mom picked me, my brother, and sister up from school early. The police had blocked off our street because that was an access road heading toward Washington, DC, and my mom and this police officer got into an argument as I was sitting in the front seat and the officer got really angry at my mom. He said she wasn’t listening to him and he wound up pulling his gun on her. I remember my little brother and sister screaming in the car and we got home and my mom told me to go put on a movie and take care of them. I went and put on the movie and when I went back, my mom was in the kitchen and she was crying.
What was crazy was that my mom felt really bad for the police officers, so she went to McDonald’s and brought them food because they’d been out there that morning. And she organized a candlelight vigil on our front lawn, even though she was still upset. People had all these tiny American flags, and everyone was singing the national anthem. I didn’t even know my mom knew the national anthem until that day. It was a really beautiful thing where people were sad and came together around the flag. I think, for my mom, the reason she did the stuff with the police officers and gave them food and drinks even though she was a victim of police abuse that day, and organized this whole patriotic thing, was that she wanted to show that she was scared too, and she was American too.
In my community, my uncles, my aunts, the taxi drivers, they had American flags everywhere. They were just scared that if they didn’t put up these flags they’d be feared. There were all these stories about people in turbans being killed or attacked. The flag became a way to protect yourself from being hurt.
“I feel like I grew up right after that.”
I feel like I grew up right after that. I feel like after that day I was no longer a child and had to, like, be very careful about things. The day we went back to school, people were talking about this stuff, saying, “Your mom sometimes wears a scarf, do you know anything about this? What’s a Sunni? What’s going on?” and I was like, “I don’t know, I’m just a normal dude who plays video games.”
After that, I remember being told repeatedly by my mom, dad, aunts, and uncles never to talk about politics in school and never to share my opinion about things. I remember we would have current events day in social studies class; they would be mad at me if I ever said I talked about the Iraq War. There was this paranoid sense that we couldn’t just be ourselves. Through the Bush years, this was a very dominant feeling.
My mom works in a school now, and the kids repeat what they hear, and kids say like weird stuff to her a lot. When they’re mad at her they’ll use the word “Muslim” in a negative way. It’s sort of like how people 10 years ago might have said “you’re gay” in a negative way. My mom’s just trying to go work like anyone else and help my little brother and sister pay their tuition and stuff. It felt hopeful in ’08, but it’s gotten worse this year because of almost half the country approving of this stuff.
Shukri Olow, Seattle
“It’s even more difficult when you identify as a Muslim and you also happen to be black.”
When 9/11 happened, I think that morning, I was at my cousin’s house. My siblings and I were there having breakfast, sitting on the couch. We kept hearing “hijackers” and “planes crashed.” We later figured out that the people who committed that horrific attack identified with Islam. That changed our lives tremendousIy. I remember in high school, in a predominantly white school, getting the looks, getting in fights, kids taking off your hijab. ... I remember one of my high school teachers saying something about “your kind” and about violence. There were moments like that that shook my foundation a bit.
It’s even more difficult when you identify as a Muslim and you also happen to be black. I was born in Somalia and came here around [age] 9. My experience as a black woman who is a Muslim is different from a woman who isn’t black and can hide her identity — if she doesn’t wear a scarf, she won’t necessarily suffer.
“I understand what people fear they often turn away from.”
I think “Islamophobia” is not really a term that I understand. But I understand fear and I understand that what people fear they often turn away from and put down, but once they know better, they do better. So I try to bring whatever information I have, so they can change their beliefs and hate can be reduced.
I believe there are good Americans who just want to understand. So how do I help them understand? How do I share a meal with my neighbor during the month of Ramadan? How do I, during Eid, give my neighbor’s children a dollar or two, or candy, which is what we do when we’re celebrating? How do I greet my neighbors, which is a part of Islam, greeting and smiling? How do I take what I learned from the Quran and the teachings of our prophet and through my actions and through my behavior help change the views of others? I try to do that every day in small acts.
We have two kids and we live in Washington, and we travel a lot to different parts of the States. There was a person last week in Seaside, Oregon, who actually asked what I was wearing and I said, “This is a hijab,” and explained that it was about Islam. She asked me why I was wearing it, and I said, “It’s the same way nuns or Orthodox women wear it, to please our Lord,” and she understood.
I think microaggressions are on the daily. But it’s rare to have people ask me and to have an honest human interaction about why I cover or why I’m a Muslim. When it happens, it’s an opportunity.
Although what we as Muslims are going through is difficult at the moment, in the history of this country, of our country, there have been many others, either through systems or policies, who have endured much more. Be it African Americans, Chinese Americans who at one point were excluded from entering this country, Japanese Americans who were in internment camps, there have been many who have felt the “othering” and the fear that's often created by those with political power. We are not the first and certainly won't be the last.
Maytha Alhassen, Los Angeles
“Political racism toward Arabs was written before 9/11.”
I don’t call myself “Muslim.” I would say I’m somebody who practices Islam. I’m probably in the extreme minority when it comes to identity politics. I’m Arab. My background is Syrian; my mother grew up in Lebanon. Her family has Saudi citizenship. So, growing up born and raised in SoCal in a kind of conservative white dominant space, it was actually easier to be Muslim than Arab.
I was born in ’82. What people have to remember is that at that time, the language of “let’s shift from calling it ‘Christmas break’ to ‘holiday break’” was on the rise. Public schools were transitioning from faith-focused to secular programming. In the same way that now it is taboo to be homophobic, then it was taboo to not want to celebrate religious tolerance.
But the history of political racism toward Arabs was all written before 9/11. My dad said literally every day at [California State Polytechnic University] Pomona, he would walk into the dorms and a group of white kids would call him “camel jockey.” He was working in the school cafeteria, and he was working with some white kids who were pissed he got promoted. A white kid pushed him to the floor and stepped on his back — because this one Arab guy was promoted ahead of him. He was in rehab for six months.
“I’m Arab. I’m gonna own that.”
Pre-9/11, I was really ashamed of my Arab background. I wanted to do anything to emulate white beauty standards. When 9/11 came, it did the reverse. I remember I had the TV on at 5 am studying for an exam and they went to breaking news. I didn’t know the magnitude or all the ramifications. I went to school, had my exam, and came back home. My dad sat me and my brother down and said, “From now on we don’t know what the atmosphere and the climate is like, but you have to get back home by 7 pm, because we don’t know what people will do to you.”
I remember thinking it’s not a big deal because everyone thinks I’m Mexican anyway. But in the middle of that thought, I had this thought that, “Fuck it, I’m Arab. I’m gonna own that.” I became so radically invested in finding and getting educated on my Arab origins background. In households of Arab immigrants who have children, not all of them get interested in where their parents are from, but some do. I became the one to go back home, learn the history, educate myself, major in Arab/Islamic studies. This was a trend. A lot of us got into media after 9/11. That was our big impetus.
Robina Niaz, Flushing, New York
“I think it had something to do with being Muslim. Of course, you cannot prove it.”
I’m a social worker and activist, a Muslim feminist, all of those things combined — I consider myself a person of faith. I am a proud Muslim. My profession for the past 25 years has been social work, and almost 12 years ago I started this nonprofit called Turning Point for Women and Families. This is the first nonprofit in New York City that directly addresses domestic violence in the Muslim community and the first to start a program for teenage Muslim girls. It started in September 2004.
The reason it came about was in the post-9/11 era, life became more difficult for us, especially in New York. I was laid off of my job — actually two jobs — in less than two years. This was not the stated reason, but because it was happening in the aftermath of 9/11 I couldn’t help but think that it had something to do with me being Muslim. Of course, you cannot prove it.
It was a moment of reckoning … seeing how dire the needs in our community were and still are. My expertise was in the area of domestic violence, so it made a lot of sense because a lot of Muslims were being picked up, thrown into detention centers, or being deported, and their wives and children were left here on their own.
There was enough fear in the Muslim community, and if there was abuse going on at home, it created even more fear in the hearts of women and children. Their abusers would often use it to control them, warning them against seeking help and saying if they do the abusers be would be picked up, thrown in jail, and deported, leaving them without anyone to provide food and rent.
“Bigotry has serious long-term impacts.”
There have been tremendous trust issues, since trust has been eroded within the society as well as outside our community. And sometimes people have been fearful of each other as well. We know that the FBI has recruited informants from among Muslims who have gone into mosques and Islamic centers and befriended and framed innocent people — a lot of innocent Muslims have been picked up and thrown in jail for life.
At one of the ARISE NY workshops in a school, an 11-year-old boy shared with our youth leader that he was stopped one day by the school security guard, saying, “Let me check your backpack; your name is Mohammed, isn’t it?” I believe many of these kids were being told by their parents to lie low and not make any trouble while they bottled their pain and anger inside. We know it affects young people’s self-esteem and confidence, and the trauma and bigotry has serious long-term impacts.
Wardah Khalid, Houston
“It made me realize there was a scary world out there.”
I grew up in Spring, Texas. I was in high school when September 11 happened. I had a lot of different friends, and religion wasn’t an issue for us. I wasn’t wearing the headscarf yet. Some of my friends knew I was Muslim, but I had Jewish, Muslim, Mormon, and Catholic friends. Religion was just something we did at home with our families. I guess I was sort of in a bubble when September 11 happened.
I remember afterward some of our neighbors came to our house and gave my mom flowers and said, “If you want to go to the grocery store or anything, we’ll go for you, don’t worry about it.” It was very sweet, but it made me realize there was a scary world out there. I was 15. There was no Twitter, just TV. I wasn’t really exposed to Islamophobic attacks. I thought maybe people were just saying mean things like, “Go back home. ”
Then I was in college at Texas A&M University in 2008 or 2009. I still wasn’t wearing a headscarf, but I had friends who did, and I don’t remember hearing anything from them. Maybe one friend had someone yell something from a truck but [my reaction] was just like, “Oh, they’re just one bigoted person.” Then we had an Islamophobia session for our Muslim Student Association. I remember thinking, “What is this?” It was kind of my first introduction to modern-day Islamophobia.
After college, after the 2008 presidential elections, Islamophobia started ramping up. I realized it was very connected to politics and it’s just an avenue to change policy. Once it became tied to politics is when things got scary, and when it actually became a movement. Now it’s a multimillion-dollar machine.
“The blog exposed me to a lot of hateful comments.”
I started my blog, Young American Muslim, for the Houston Chronicle in 2009, after college. Part of it was to combat this stereotype about what a Muslim American looks like. I was working as an accountant, and it was a way for me to explain what it’s like to be a Muslim, and the things that you’re hearing on the news aren’t true, and this is what an actual American believes and thinks and does. These are the traditions I celebrate; this is what my life is like.
The blog exposed me to a lot of hateful comments. I would hear terms that, as someone who grew up Muslim, I never even heard before, and I would have to Google them. Or they would say, “Look at chapter nine, verse five” [of the Quran], and it would pull up this scary-sounding verse, and I would dig a little deeper and see the context of it, and where it came from and what the true meaning was. It was just stuff like that — stuff that was being perpetuated as part of a political and social agenda. That is what really got me to understand what Islamophobia looks like.
Now that I wear the headscarf, it’s more of an issue for me as a visible Muslim. Living in Washington, DC, after the San Bernardino attacks, I was a little afraid, so if I was going out at night I’d put a hood over my scarf. And I wouldn’t stand close to the Metro platform in case someone would push me in.
N. Jerin Arifa, Queens, New York
“I was lucky I wasn’t harmed physically.”
I personally don’t wear the hijab, so that makes me less of a target than somebody who does — and the fact that I’m married to a white man also gives me certain privileges, but I really fear for people who are more visibly Muslim.
In 2001, right after the attacks happened, I was living in Astoria and I was about to cross the street, and this driver kind of stopped as I expected him to stop, but as I started crossing the street, he basically sped up. We made eye contact, and he [accelerated and] tried to hit me. It was very, very intentional. I’m very lucky I wasn’t harmed physically, but that happened two blocks from my home. It was crystal clear what happened.
I’ve been an activist since childhood — I created a literacy program for homeless kids from Bangladesh — and I’m very sensitive about “-isms,” so there was never a moment when I was like, “Why did he do that?” It was very clear what had happened.
My mom does wear the hijab. Around 2012, she was on the bus and the driver told her to stop reading the Quran. She was scared, as most people would be. When these things happen, we don’t know how to react, because the human brain is just not trained to react.
“I just don’t feel safe.”
Most recently, we were in Texas for a road trip, and my husband was like, “This is your country, don’t let them take that away from you,” but we were stopped by immigration officials. He was driving the car, but I was asked to show my papers. I was not driving. That unsafe feeling outside of New York City is just tangible. I would not go again without my white husband with me. This is my country, and I’m not going to let them take it away from me. Our country is so beautiful. But I just don’t feel safe.
Nazreen Bacchus, New York City
“I did a hijab experiment.”
I’ve never had a personal experience with Islamophobia. I don’t know if it’s because I’m Indo-Caribbean. I’m brown, and I don’t wear the hijab. I wonder what role race plays in that. I did a hijab experiment because I was frustrated that people didn’t recognize me as being Muslim. I walked down West Fourth Street, wearing a pink hijab in the street. This was the first time I really felt what it was like to be Muslim. There was a homeless man begging, and when I walked by he said nothing to me. He looked at me like he was scared of me! This one white woman was looking at me, and I was smiling but she didn’t smile back. I was like, “This is what it feels like.”
I was on a team in graduate school researching how people who practice non-Western religions used them as a way of integration into American society. Now I’m doing a study looking at the ways in which Muslims are reframing their identities by responding to Islamophobia through grassroots organizations. I think that’s relevant because a lot of the social science literature surrounding Islamophobia and post-Muslim identities covers Muslims from a place of victimization, and it doesn’t highlight what they’re doing to fight back.
Wajahat Ali, Washington, DC
“9/11 was like a baptism by fire.”
I grew up in the 1980s in Fremont, California, in a multicultural tossed salad. I went to an all-boys Catholic school where students were Indian, Sikh, Muslim, Filipino. ... I was usually the token Muslim and the token Pakistani.
I was a 20-year-old student leader about to turn 21. I was a senior at UC Berkeley. I was elected to the Muslim Student Association, and the next thing you knew 9/11 happened. People were looking for leadership, so 9/11 was like a baptism by fire that thrust me into the spotlight and made me into an accidental activist. It also gave me the training that I have been able to use in my career.
“You’re guilty until you prove yourself moderate.”
Fast-forward to 15 years after 9/11: As a Muslim, you’re always interrogated, you always have to explain. Before I was the friendly explainer. (“Why do you eat this food?” “How do you pray?”) Now it’s different. You’re guilty until you prove yourself moderate. This very sustained deliberate movement [of Islamophobia] has blossomed into a mainstream hate movement filed by politicians.
Never, growing up, did I think a mainstream presidential candidate would call for a ban or the extreme vetting of Muslims. Never did I think there would be armed protests against mosques, mainstream candidates talking about banning Muslims, loyalty tests, banning Sharia. ... By the way, even Muslims don’t know what Sharia is! in the ’80s it would have sounded like a name for a female punk band.
Al-Sharif Nassef, Cincinnati
“Of course, I was the wrongful target of backlash.”
I'm an American born in Texas. I was 10 when we were attacked on 9/11 and was the only Muslim student in my grade at a small Catholic elementary school in Portsmouth, Ohio. It was a small city in one of Ohio's poorest counties on the foothills of the Appalachians. We moved to Portsmouth because my dad, an immigrant from Egypt, was needed in the area as the only specialist in his field.
Before 9/11, where I was growing up in rural Ohio, most kids had never known a Muslim. Many hadn't even heard of Islam. Most parents and school teachers knew little, if anything, about what Islam actually teaches or what our illustrious civilization has brought to humanity. Those who had an idea about Islam held perceptions that were deeply skewed by Orientalist notions where the Muslim "East" was backward, poor, and superstitious, whereas the European "West" was modern, rational, industrial, and advanced.
Of course, I was the wrongful target of the backlash against Islam that we started to feel after 9/11. The "war on terror" fear narrative that the Bush administration built along with the war profiteers and media giants actually turned into anger and hatred toward me — and I was the hyper, American kid who used to think it wrong to squash an ant or a ladybug.
I was victim to that kind of bullying for years, through high school, even. In ignorance and in anger I was the subject of much torment — threats, name-calling, and physical abuse when I was younger. I could never let my family know, because I was the eldest and am supposed to be strong, a leader. Kids called me "terrorist," "Osama," "Taliban," time and time again. I felt alienated — I was the only Muslim kid there, and sometimes it felt like nobody had my back. I think most in my generation shared that torment at a young age.
Eventually I became really tall, and most people stopped talking, although sometimes I still feel some lingering disdain and suspicion — and sometimes a petrified stare when a large man with a beard and kufi walks into a store.
“I’ve come to forgive — and ignore — the haters.”
Over time I've come to forgive — and ignore — the haters. In Catholic school, I stood every morning for prayer with my classmates who recited the "Our Father," daily, asking, "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us." And the first words any Muslim says before doing pretty much anything are, “In the name of God, the most compassionate, the most merciful." So love and mercy are supposed to be central to our consciousness as a Muslim.
Even today, the mass media far too often shows an Islam of boogeymen and masked murderers. In the mainstream, Islam remains detached from the its reality as a beautiful civilization, which gave spiritual knowledge and inspiration to generations of beautiful artists, masterful architects, profound poets, mathematical geniuses, medicinal giants, philosopher-sages, and saintly teachers.
The terrorists and thugs, on the other hand are antithetical to the core of message of Islam, in which the very root letters — S.L.M. — means peace. We are only here to please God by bringing peace and justice to humanity through our knowledge and love of God and his created Being.
I’m concerned that if Donald Trump wins and we don’t give a resounding defeat to Trump, it will normalize the nasty rhetoric of hate and xenophobia in the political domain and give rise to more. That may give rise to a dark new wave of bigoted politicians and hate crimes. At least during the Bush era, he would make it clear that Islam is not the enemy. The media might have sent a different message, but at least Bush made it clear. Trump’s advocacy for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States” is cause for great concern.