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How I Embraced My Muslim Identity After 9/11
This story comes to us from our partners at Feet in 2 Worlds, a project that brings the work of immigrant journalists to digital news sites and public radio.
Twenty years ago, I was sitting in my 8th grade homeroom class in Hamtramck, Michigan, when my teacher turned on the television and our class watched the terror attacks in New York as they happened. I was unfamiliar with the World Trade Center or the significance of what was unfolding before our eyes. Later we learned that hijackers had flown commercial planes into the twin towers, killing nearly 3,000 people. Images of people fleeing from the buildings, running to escape clouds of smoke, still haunt me. Immediately after the attack, I wrote a poem called, “United We Stand,” which talked about people coming together. My teacher had me read it out loud over the school’s PA system.
A few days later, a group of girls followed me home. They were swearing at my sister and me. One of them tried to pull off my hijab. This became the new norm for girls like me who were visibly Muslim.
Over the next year, countless people were harassed, followed, and beaten across the United States simply for “looking Muslim.” An older man was shot to death in front of the Detroit office where I worked as a receptionist for my after-school job. My boss told me, “Keep the door locked at all times. We don’t want anyone shooting your pretty little face.” I was terrified.
As a Muslim woman I had to be a good role model for myself, as well as to strangers who could misjudge me or my religion.
I had moved to Michigan from Temple Terrace, Florida, where I had been the only hijabi in my middle school. Now, I was fortunate to be living in metropolitan Detroit, home to one of the largest concentrations of American Muslims in the United States. Hijabi women were everywhere, exercising their freedom of religion, and I was able to blend in.
I remember calling a friend from my hometown in Florida after the attack on the World Trade Center. Her mom was a substitute teacher. “Thank goodness you moved,” she said when she picked up the phone.
I didn’t really understand what she was referring to. But later I understood that at any given moment I was being watched and judged for being Muslim. That led me to think about everything I did, from how I dressed, to the activities I participated in, and even what I included in my resumé. I was educating people by leading a life of example.
It didn’t really hit me until I got to college what it meant to be a proud American Muslim, in the face of Islamophobia, surveillance, and harassment.
Embracing who I was, I changed the way I acted and spoke. I made a point to talk more to people and introduce myself, to fit in with those around me. I was constantly asked, or felt compelled to explain, about Islam. As a Muslim woman I had to be a good role model for myself, as well as to strangers who could misjudge me or my religion based on what they saw or read in the news.
After college I worked at CAIR Michigan, a group that advocates for Muslim Americans. There I learned more about the FBI surveillance of my community—American Muslims placed on watchlists without due process, questioned when they tried to reenter the country, and school kids being called racist names by teachers, students, and administrators.
Relying on my faith has led me to become a more open-minded, conscious person.
It was heartbreaking to see the negative stereotypes of Arabs, Muslims, and minority communities in the media. Many of us were unprepared to provide counternarratives to the narratives about Muslims or had never heard of al-Qaida. Now, we were being asked to explain terrorists’ actions, while “proving” that we were patriotic.
And so, the Muslim community organized itself to better represent the diversity of Muslims. Muslims began running for office. They began holding open houses at mosques and “coffee with your Muslim neighbors” events.
The response to 9/11 also forced me to become better educated about my own religion and the American Muslim community. Relying on my faith has led me to become a more open-minded, conscious person. I want to live a life where I represent Islam in the best way possible while still being true to myself.
For many years, minority communities worked hard to assimilate and blend in without causing any disruption. But 9/11 was a turning point when people had to learn to speak up. This was one of the reasons I became a journalist.
As a visibly hijabi woman I had to learn how to navigate the spaces where I was told I didn’t belong, and learn to be comfortable with explaining my life to others. Now as a journalist, I finally feel like I have the tools and agency to share the stories of my fellow Muslims, particularly using social media.
Through social media platforms, Americans can see what everyday Muslims do—from celebrating holidays, getting their first job, opening a business—all the parts of pursuing the American dream.
This summer I took my kids to a splash pad in Sterling Heights, Michigan. A boy was spraying water into my son’s eyes. When my son asked him to stop, he replied, “You are Muhammad,” as a taunt, alluding to Prophet Muhammad, the last prophet and messenger in the Islamic faith. Moments later he looked at my daughter, called her a terrorist, and asked, “why are you and your sisters (cousins) wearing that ugly thing on your head?”
My 8-and-a-half year old daughter is practicing wearing hijab in public. She went over to a park employee and told them what had happened and asked them to remove the boy from the splash pad. My son defended his sister, and the boy who had harassed them ran off. We decided to leave.
Being a mother made me realize that despite the hardships of being visibly Muslim, I want my kids to be proud American Muslims, without having to shrink or hide who they are. This is the America where I want to raise my kids.
Two decades after 9/11, we have a lot more work to do to end Islamophobia. But I am hopeful that there is more good in this world than bad and that a few bad apples do not represent the beauty of humanity and worldwide religions. We have to stand together in unity.
Nargis Rahman is a Bangladeshi-American Muslim writer and a mother of three. She is passionate about community journalism in the Greater Detroit area and about giving American Muslims and people of color a voice in today’s media. A former journalism fellow for Feet in 2 Worlds/WDET 101.9 FM, her work has appeared in Haute Hijab, Eater, Detroiter Magazine, The Muslim Observer and others.