Two decades after 9/11, Muslim Americans still fighting bias
A car passed, the driver’s window rolled down and the man spat an epithet at two little girls wearing their hijabs: “Terrorist!”
It was 2001, mere weeks after the twin towers at the World Trade Center fell, and 10-year-old Shahana Hanif and her younger sister were walking to the local mosque from their Brooklyn home.
Unsure, afraid, the girls ran.
As the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terror attacks approaches, Hanif can still recall the shock of the moment, her confusion over how anyone could look at her, a child, and see a threat.
“It’s not a nice, kind word. It means violence, it means dangerous. It is meant to shock whoever … is on the receiving end of it,” she says.
But the incident also spurred a determination to speak out for herself and others that has helped get her to where she is today: a community organizer strongly favored to win a seat on the New York City Council in the upcoming municipal election.
Like Hanif, other young American Muslims have grown up under the shadow of 9/11. Many have faced hostility and surveillance, mistrust and suspicion, questions about their Muslim faith and doubts over their Americanness.
They’ve also found ways forward, ways to fight back against bias, to organize, to craft nuanced personal narratives about their identities. In the process, they’ve built bridges, challenged stereotypes and carved out new spaces for themselves.
There is “this sense of being Muslim as a kind of important identity marker, regardless of your relationship with Islam as a faith,” says Eman Abdelhadi, a sociologist at The University of Chicago who studies Muslim communities. “That’s been one of the main effects in people’s lives … it has shaped the ways the community has developed.”
A poll by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research conducted ahead of the 9/11 anniversary found that 53 percent of Americans have unfavorable views toward Islam, compared with 42 percent who have favorable ones. This stands in contrast to Americans’ opinions about Christianity and Judaism, for which most respondents expressed favorable views.
Mistrust and suspicion of Muslims didn’t start with 9/11, but the attacks dramatically intensified those animosities.
Accustomed to being ignored or targeted by low-level harassment, the country’s wide-ranging and diverse Muslim communities were foisted into the spotlight, says Youssef Chouhoud, a political scientist at Christopher Newport University in Virginia.
“Your sense of who you were was becoming more formed, not just Muslim but American Muslim,” he says. “What distinguished you as an American Muslim? Could you be fully both, or did you have to choose? There was a lot of grappling with what that meant.”
In Hanif’s case, there was no blueprint to navigate the complexities of that time.
“Fifth-grader me wasn’t naïve or too young to know Muslims are in danger,” she later wrote in an essay about the aftermath of 9/11. “…Flashing an American flag from our first-floor windows didn’t make me more American. Born in Brooklyn didn’t make me more American.”
A young Hanif gathered neighborhood friends, and an older cousin helped them write a letter to then-President George W. Bush asking for protection.
“We knew,” she says, “that we would become like warriors of this community.”
But being warriors often carries a price, with wounds that linger.
Ishaq Pathan, 26, recalls the time a boy told him he seemed angry and wondered if he was going to blow up their Connecticut school.
He remembers the helplessness he felt when he was taken aside at an airport for additional questioning upon returning to the United States after a college semester in Morocco.
The agent looked through his belongings, including the laptop where he kept a private journal, and started reading it.
“I remember being like, ‘Hey, do you have to read that?’” Pathan says. The agent “just looks at me like, ‘You know, I can read anything on your computer. I’m entitled to anything here.’ And at that point, I remember having tears in my eyes. I was completely and utterly powerless.”
Pathan couldn’t accept it.
“You go to school with other people of different backgrounds and you realize … what the promise of the United States is,” he says. “And when you see it not living up to that promise, then I think it instills in us a sense of wanting to help and fix that.”
He now works as the San Francisco Bay Area director for the nonprofit Islamic Networks Group, where he hopes to help a younger generation grow confident in their Muslim identity.
Pathan recently chatted with a group of boys about their summer activities. At times, the boys ate watermelon or played on a trampoline. At other moments, the talk turned serious: What would they do if a student pretended to blow himself up while yelling “Allahu akbar,” or “God is great?” What can they do about stereotypical depictions of Muslims on TV?
“I had always viewed 9/11 as probably one of the most pivotal moments of my life and of the lives of Americans across the board,” Pathan says. “The aftermath of it … is what pushed me to do what I do today.”
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