These interviews show the deep impact of Islamophobia
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 the past 15 years. 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.
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.
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.
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? Whats 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.
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.
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 sand 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.
Shurkri 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 nine. 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 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 Koran 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.
HOW DO I TAKE WHAT I LEARNED FROM THE KORAN AND THE TEACHINGS OF OUR PROPHET AND THROUGH MY ACTIONS AND THROUGH MY BEHAVIOR HELP CHANGE THE VIEWS OF OTHERS?
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 and 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 a citizenship relationship to the Saudi State. 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.
“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 5am 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 7pm because we don’t know what people will do to you.”
PRE-9/11 I WAS REALLY ASHAMED OF MY ARAB BACKGROUND. I WANTED TO DO ANYTHING TO EMULATE WHITE BEAUTY STANDARDS.
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.
More Here. Please take the time to read these stories.
Awareness leads to Movements and Movements leads to Change. We need to end this hate, bigotry and lack of understanding of the Beautiful Muslim People.
We are all the same where it truly matters, being Human. Hate ruins the soul, never allowing one to become their Truth.
My Heart aches with the horrid lies spread through the World, the Profits over Humanity and the demeaning of entire cultures. Don't be silent. Don't allow this disease into your heart.