Ten years ago, I sat in class as a high school sophomore listening to my teacher talk about English. Or maybe it was math? I can’t remember now. What I do remember quite vividly was when another teacher knocked on the door and interrupted our class. She made her way to the front of our classroom and said she had to let us know what had just happened: “There has been an attack on the World Trade Center in New York. A lot of people have been killed – it’s very serious.”
As a high school student, the weight of the situation didn’t fully sink in. I remember being confused and so was everyone else. Smart phones hadn’t taken over the world yet, so no one could quickly figure out what was going on. As my teacher explained that two planes flew into the Twin Towers and one into the Pentagon, the situation became a little clearer to us. People were scared and none of us really know what to make of the situation. How many people were hurt? Would there be more attacks? Who was responsible? Would Boston be hit next? These were my initial thoughts, and in retrospect, I could have never anticipated how this tragic event would shape the next decade of my life.
My teacher went on to explain that the attacks were being blamed on a group of people that called themselves Muslims. Because our school was housed in the classrooms of a mosque, we were told to remain vigilant against potential violent backlash against us. Many of my peers, including myself, fit the “profile” of what an Arab or Muslim looks like and we were advised against taking public transportation alone during a time of hostility, anger, pain and confusion. We were instructed to stay away from windows and my hijaab-clad peers and I pulled up our hooded sweatshirts over our scarves. Students that commuted home by the train were driven home by the school staff to make sure they were safe.
As faculty members continued to debrief us on the events as they unfolded, my thoughts were fixated on my father, who was about 250 miles away from home working in Lower Manhattan at St Vincent’s hospital. He used to tell my mother and I that sometimes he was around the World Trade Center for meetings, lunches, or other random day-to-day happenings. Once I realized the gravity of the situation- that my father was in walking distance of those falling towers, I made frantic attempts to call him to make sure he was okay. I’ll never forget the level of anxiousness I felt when my calls went straight to a recording that said that all of the circuits were busy, “…please try again later.” Excruciating hours passed before my mom and I got in touch with him, but when we finally did, I listened in horror as he described the chaos that was around him. Hospital workers were not allowed to leave so that they had all hands on deck for treating victims and receiving causalities from the attacks. My dad described how when he finally did get to leave the hospital, he could still see and smell the smoke from where the Twin Towers no longer stood.
On September 11, 2001, not only did I feel hurt and confused like my fellow Americans – but I also felt abandoned, victimized and fearful for my safety. I felt my neighbors, who I never had reason to worry about, all of a sudden saw me as someone to blame for what was going on. I knew that I was the same person on September 10 as I was on September 11, but the world would never see Muslims in the same way again.
As a 15 year old student, I was afraid of more attacks that may happen, of my father being in close proximity to these acts of war, of my mother’s safety as a woman in hijaab and the fear that on my way home from school, someone may attack me because they’re angry and don’t understand. I couldn’t really understand either.
As an American Muslim, looking back I feel that we have taken a step backwards in combating prejudice and hate – the same perverted motives that drove the 9/11 attacks in the first place. Since 9/11, inappropriate and uneducated stereotypes that were cast upon all Muslims have been a commonly occurring theme – from the exponential increase in anti-Muslim backlash, to the Peter King hearings, to the debate over the “Ground Zero Mosque”, and the irrational fear over Sharia law. In the 2011 State of the Union Address, President Obama said, “American Muslims are a part of our American family.” Despite these assurances, many Muslims feel that they should be apologetic for the actions of the terrorists that have prostituted the name of Islam for their evil actions. I resent this notion and will never apologize for something that I didn’t do – and with that, I should never be blamed for something I’m not responsible for.
With the 10 year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, it is my sincere hope that all Americans can internalize the truth that Muslims were not at fault for the attack on America, that those acts are exponentially contrary to the teachings of Islam. Not even a small group of Muslims were at fault. A group of sick individuals that call themselves Muslims carried out the tragic events on 9/11 and I have nothing to do with that.
People will say that it is the duty of American Muslims and Muslims globally to “clear up the name of Islam.” While Muslims and non-Muslims can certainly help do this, I do not believe it is my personal duty to do so. If a person is uneducated and narrow minded enough to believe that I personally have something to do with terrorism simply because of my faith, it is not my responsibility first to educate them – it is their responsibility to not be an ignorant human being and uphold one of the the fundamental principles of this country- religious tolerance and freedom. I am always willing to take the extra steps and show that the followers of Islam (not those that pervert it) are peaceful and normal people – but 10 years later I still resent having to feel responsible for enlightening those filled with hate. Being ignorant and stereotypical is never an excuse, and the media circus that propels these ideas is frustrating.
I also resent that my sincere sadness and condolences toward the victims of 9/11 may be looked at as disingenuous by those shrouded in bigotry and Islamophobia. After the 9/11 attacks, I remember we put up an American flag on our front door. The reason was because with two hijaab-wearing Muslim women living alone, we were afraid of the negative backlash that might occur and wanted to do something that might deter it. But did we feel any less American before we put up the flag? The answer is no. My mother is from the Philippines and immigrated here decades ago and met my father, a Pakistani, and they got married. I was born in the United States and have visited the Philippines once and have never visited Pakistan. I could have out-teenyboppered anyone with my die-hard fandom for NSYNC, funky nail polish and TRL. America is my home and I know no other allegiance, yet I have been made to feel like an outsider. Even today, people will yell things like “go back to your country!” or “you don’t have to wear that [hijaab] here anymore… we’re in America.” My reactions are always divided- sometimes I get angry, sometimes I sincerely feel bad for the person and want to educate them, but it is always unsettling. This struggle is something that persists until today and is widely felt within the American Muslim community.
At the annual White House Iftar dinner during Ramadan, President Obama said the following:
“Muslim Americans were innocent passengers on those planes, including a young married couple looking forward to the birth of their first child. They were workers in the Twin Towers — Americans by birth and Americans by choice, immigrants who crossed the oceans to give their children a better life… Muslim Americans were first responders — the former police cadet who raced to the scene to help and then was lost when the towers collapsed around him; the EMTs who evacuated so many to safety; the nurse who tended to so many victims; the naval officer at the Pentagon who rushed into the flames and pulled the injured to safety. On this 10th anniversary, we honor these men and women for what they are — American heroes. Nor let us forget that every day for these past 10 years Muslim Americans have helped to protect our communities as police and firefighters, including some who join us tonight. Across our federal government, they keep our homeland secure, they guide our intelligence and counterterrorism efforts and they uphold the civil rights and civil liberties of all Americans. So make no mistake, Muslim Americans help to keep us safe.”
On that note, I wish to put aside my discontent with the fragmented, distorted view that most Americans have towards Islam and their hardworking, completely human Muslim neighbors in the painful wake of 9/11/2001. I wish to remember every life that was lost on September 11, 2001, and to give my continual condolences to all that have been affected by the events of that tragic day. Ten short years later, I am still as proud as I ever was to be an American and proud to know that my father was helping victims on 9/11 to ease their suffering, even in a small way.
I pray that our country continues to heal from the attacks that we suffered on 9/11 – both the attack on our country as a whole and the attack on our unity that was sustained through stereotypes and hate. I hope we never forget that we are one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all and that the only way forward is to remember this always.