Muslims experienced very different treatment in America 15 years ago.
“There was a sense of intrigue; it was something different,” said Adam Soltani, the executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations’ Oklahoma chapter, of how others viewed Islam. “But I didn’t sense any fear in being Muslim at all.”
That was before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when a grieving America desperately tried to understand how anyone could carry out such an assault and found its scapegoat: Muslims, Arabs and anyone who looked like the terrorists responsible for hijacking four U.S. airliners and killing nearly 3,000 people after flying them into the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon.
“I think for most American Muslims, many of us categorize our lives as pre-9/11 and post-9/11 because of the impact the attack had on our lives in a personal and professional capacity,” said Zainab Chaudry, the outreach manager at the Maryland chapter of the CAIR .
Suddenly, Muslim Americans went from being one of the least targeted religious groups in the U.S. to seeing hate crimes against those associated with Islam jump 1,600 percent, an FBI report in 2002 found. Today, Islamophobic hate crimes remain five times more common than they were before 9/11.
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In light of the 15th anniversary of the attacks, The Huffington Post spoke with Muslim Americans of all different walks of life ― many of whom have since dedicated their lives to fighting Islamophobia ― about how 9/11 and the subsequent rise of anti-Muslim bigotry changed their lives forever. These are their stories.
9/11 marked the beginning of a new existence
Many Muslim Americans told HuffPost that Sept. 11, 2001 marks the day their religion went from something others found interesting and mysterious to something viewed as sinister.
Soltani was 18 at the time and in his first year at the University of Central Oklahoma, where he served as president of the Muslim Student Association. He had started practicing Islam two years earlier and brushed off his parents’ urging him to stay home from school after they heard the news. It wasn’t until he got to the mosque near campus that something clicked.
“Normally about 150 people would attend the weekly prayer service, and there were no more than 20 people,” he said. “That’s when it hit me that life was not going to be the same for me as a Muslim in America as it had ever been before.”
The overnight change was so pronounced, even those who were young at the time remember the shift.
“I never felt that anyone ever hated me or my family for being Muslim. Instead, people just weren’t familiar with what being Muslim meant,” said Tasnia Ahamed, a masters student at Stony Brook University who was aged 9 at the time. “After 9/11, things were definitely different.”
The attacks led some Muslims to examine their faith
Chaudry’s dad called her on 9/11 and told her to take off her hijab out of fear for her safety. She was in her first year of school at the University of Maryland and had just started wearing the headscarf a month before the attacks. She wouldn’t put it on again for two weeks, instead wearing baseball caps and hoodies.
During that period without her hijab, she found herself flooded with questions about the fundamentals of Islam.
“I wondered what Islam truly taught,” she recalled. “If these people claim to be Muslim and they’re doing these kinds of attacks, do I really want to belong to that religion? I think for Muslims, it was a period of deep introspection ... I thought, if this is a religion that promotes terrorism, I don’t want any part of it.”
Saquib Rahim, now a doctor in New York, felt similarly challenged. At the time, he was 21 and in his first year of medical school.
“On an internal level, it forced me to confront what had just happened; what it made me feel about my faith (and others who claimed to share that faith); and how did I want to construct my relationship with both God and my direct environment,” he wrote to HuffPost.
After weeks studying the tenets of the religion and regaining confidence in Islam’s peaceful message, Chaudry put her hijab back on, knowing that would propel her into a demanding role.
“I realized that I was going to be in a position where, at least for the foreseeable future, I was going to have to answer difficult questions and have difficult conversations,” she said. “And I wouldn’t be able to go back to that privileged existence where I had the security blanket of naively thinking I wouldn’t be held accountable for actions I wasn’t personally engaged in.”
First encounter with Islamophobia
“I don’t think I could forget that incident if I wanted to,” Rahim said of his first post-9/11 experience with Islamophobic comments. He was sitting in the dining hall weeks after the attack when a classmate came up to him and asked how his house was.
“I looked at him pretty puzzled, for the question felt out of left field. He then looked directly at me and said, ‘Well I hear we’re finally bombing your people, so I figured I’d ask,’ Rahim recalled
Abed Ayoub, the national legal and policy director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee in Washington, D.C., got his first taste of 9/11-linked Islamophobia at the University of Michigan-Dearborn campus on the day of the attacks.
“I was pulling my car into a parking spot when another car took the spot,” recalled Ayoub, who was 21 at the time. “I pulled my window down to ask the driver why she cut me off and took the spot. She spit into my car and told me this isn’t my country and to go home.”
The “go home” attack was familiar to many. Tahra Goraya, a full-time parent in Santa Monica first heard the insult a month after 9/11, when she was in her car stopped at an intersection.
“A couple crossing the street in front of me stopped, pointed at me and started to yell profanities and yelled for me to ‘go home,’” said Goraya, who was 28 at the time. “I was shocked, dumfounded, speechless and angry. I wanted to yell back that I was home; this is home.”
Weeks after 9/11, Soltani and some Muslim friends at the University of Central Oklahoma were walking to the mosque after a football game when a truck full of teenagers pulled up next to them
“They yelled at us, ‘Go back home you sand-niggers,’” and that was the first time in my life that I’d come face-to-face with that time of racial slur and that type of discriminatory-inspired rhetoric,” he said. “That’s when I realized that things weren’t the same or as safe as they used to be.”
Islamophobia became a part of daily life
After 9/11, everything Goraya did at work became fodder for Islamophobes. She had just started serving as the executive director of a drug-prevention nonprofit and “suddenly became the most visible Muslim in town,” she recalled.
When she made headlines for her work curbing youth access to tobacco and alcohol, someone wrote to the paper saying it was her attempt to impose Sharia law and slowly abolish all alcohol and tobacco products.
“[T]he links people were making to my work were getting ridiculous,” she said.
Muslim Americans had to get used to terrorist “jokes” too.
Salma Siddique, a pediatrician from Brooklyn, was at a comedy club a few years after the attacks when the comedian picked her name from a raffle.
“As I was walking up, he said my last name a few times and then jumped into a barrage of terrorist and Muslim jokes,” she said. “The show that night wasn’t huge, but there were enough people in the crowd laughing — some perhaps uncomfortably, but still laughing. I felt publicly humiliated and embarrassed, not for being Muslim, but for being in a place that made me feel like being Muslim was a bad thing.”
After 9/11, things as innocuous as a clothing choice could trigger an Islamophobic remark. When Negeen Sadeghi-Movahed, a law student at the American University Washington College of Law, was in high school, her favorite trench coat set off another student.
“She kind of jerked back at me ... and she said, ‘Why do you have that jacket on?’” Sadeghi-Movahed recalled. She replied that she was cold, but the girl pressed further, demanding to know what it was hiding.
“She said, ‘Well I don’t know what you have underneath it. It could be a bomb.’”
Sadeghi-Movahed just walked away.
“I never wore that jacket again,” she said. “I just couldn’t do it.”
Some casual phrases became off-limits. Chaudry stopped feeling safe saying “he or she’s the bomb” because people would think she had a bomb.
“The level of responsibility that that carries is unbelievable ― the standards to which we’re sometimes expected to hold ourselves to, the burden,” she said.
Goraya said those fears and pressures kept her mother from stepping outside her home in Bakersfield, California.
“My mom ... was harassed grocery shopping and driving days after the attacks,” she said. “She stopped going out altogether and didn’t leave the house. My siblings, my dad and I all tried to convince her to live her life and not give up on her daily activities like shopping, going to the gym or visiting friends, but she would not have it.”
Even kids were blamed
Texas A&M University student Nimrah Riaz ― who spoke out for justice after a gunman opened fire on her family’s mosque in July ― was in third grade when 9/11 occurred.
“Later that week, I found a letter on my desk from my best friend in third grade, which stated that her mom did not allow her to be friends with a Pakistani,” she said. “I was only 9 years old.”
Jehan Mansy, a Los Angeles-based content editor and columnist at the blog Miss Muslim, was even shamed by her high school teacher the day of the attacks.
“The principal came on the PA system and demanded all teachers turn the televisions and radios off,” she told HuffPost. “My physics teacher didn’t obey and she turned to me and said, ‘We all know, it’s a terrorist attack from your people.’”
And other kids picked up on those sentiments. Jenan Matari, the New York City-based co-founder and chief commercial officer at MissMuslim, was 10 when 9/11 occurred.
“On my first day back at school, one of the kids I used to ride the bus with every morning walked to the back of the bus and said, ‘Why’d you blow up the towers? Stupid Muslims,’” she said. “It wasn’t until a few weeks after the Towers fell that my parents sat us down and explained what was happening in the world. From that point on it was, ‘Don’t make it known that you’re Muslim.’”
Air travel was suddenly humiliating
Sadeghi-Movahed said she’s had a “pretty horrible relationship” with the Transportation Security Administration on her post-9/11 travels. “More often than not, almost every single time I’m traveling, I get stopped and I get patted down,” she said.
When she shows TSA agents her ID, they ask her where her name is from instead of where she’s from.
“So I can’t go, ‘California, born and raised,’” Sadeghi-Movahed said. “I have to say my name is Iranian, and it doesn’t usually end in my favor.”
She’s gotten the dreaded “SSSS” stamp on her boarding pass. The Secondary Security Screening Selection subjects passengers to additional inspections.
“It’s supposedly random, but the only people I know who’ve ended up on it are Muslim and usually Iranian,” she said.
Riaz said when she travels with her family, there’s always at least one person in the group with an SSSS-stamped boarding pass, and she always gets “a free ‘massage’ so to say,” after going through the metal detectors.
“[A]t the airports, I feel as if I always have to have a smile on my face, or make friendly talk with the TSA members, or the person sitting next to me in the airplane, in order to smooth my flying experience,” she said.
Nihal Al Qawasmi, the New York City-based co-founder and editorial director at MissMuslim, once had a TSA agent tell her that her headscarf was pretty but not to wear it next time she flew.
“After noticing how baffled I was, the agent quickly tried to patch up the damage by saying, ‘No, your headscarf is fine but it might be the reason the metal detector went off,’” she said. “I was still baffled, because I was more than positive that cotton scarves aren’t made out of metal.”
They’re expected to be model Muslims
Post-9/11 Islamophobia demanded that all Muslims answer for the violent actions of a few extremists. That dynamic forced them into a “model Muslim” role that didn’t always feel fair, many Muslim Americans told HuffPost.
“It really catapulted many Muslims like myself, especially Muslim women who wear the headscarf, into this very visible, frontline role of what it means to be Muslim in America,” Chaudry said. “Whether we wanted to or not, we were perceived to be the ambassadors of our faith.”
Soltani, still in his first year of college, suddenly found himself doing media interviews with no previous experience.
“I was looked at by all my classmates and peers as the ‘model Muslim’ if you will, whether I was or not,” he said. “I was the representation of my faith to many people, and I think that’s still true today for a lot of Muslims in places like Oklahoma, where at best we’re 1 percent of the statewide population.”
For young Muslims, the pressure to maintain a sunny disposition and stand out in all the right ways was simply part of growing up in a post-9/11 world.
“I try to be as cheerful and as positive about everything as possible,” Sadeghi-Movahed said. “I have to mute parts of myself in order for other parts of myself to be recognized, which should not be a problem anybody has to deal with.” Navigating those parts of her identity when she was an undergraduate at the University of California, Los Angeles, is part of what led her to help found the Southwest Asian and North African Coalition, a group seeking to unite students from a region most of the Western world defines by its divided politics.
“Every day there was that struggle of wanting to be a normal American kid, but I was reminded constantly that I had to be ‘better than average’ or ‘more behaved’ than my friends because of my race and religion,” Matari lamented.
That pressure is ongoing, Chaudry said, but being a proud, visible Muslim is one of the most important things she does.
“The thing that I felt strongly about was to send a message to the younger generation that if I took off my headscarf or if I changed my beliefs or my representation of my beliefs, then in a way I’m kind of saying that Islam was responsible for 9/11 or condoned what happened on 9/11,” she said. “And that couldn’t be further from the truth.”
Rowaida Abdelaziz, Sharaf Mowjood and Christopher Mathias contributed reporting to this story.
The Huffington Post is covering anti-Muslim discrimination and those who are working to combat it. The Islamophobia tracker is our effort to create a thorough look at the scope and severity of Islamophobia, and illuminate initiatives and discussions that aim to stop it. Why? Because hate and bigotry are toxic for everyone. If you have a story you’d like to share, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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