Note: This story was originally published on September 10, 2021.
It’s been 20 years since the 9/11 attacks, followed by the invasion of Afghanistan. Just last month, the U.S. completed its troop withdrawal, ending America’s longest war.
Though two decades have passed, many Americans remember 9/11 like it happened yesterday. But for 3 million American Muslims, that remembrance comes with double jeopardy — being publicly tried for a crime they did not commit and being looked at suspiciously since then. For many, 9/11 marks a point when the harassment began and when Islamophobia, bias and suspicion of Muslims took a turn for the worse.
American Muslims are holding their breath after the events unfolded in Afghanistan last month, wondering if they will be targeted once more. The anxiety conjures memories of being randomly selected at airports, surveilled, put on watchlists and more, prompting Muslim communities to ramp up grassroots efforts to educate the masses about Islam in America to challenge negative stereotypes and distance themselves from extremists.
A Defining Moment
Fatima Salman is Michigan’s president-elect of the National Association of Social Workers. She has lived in Michigan most of her life. On Sept. 11, 2001, she was teaching at a private Islamic school in Franklin. She was on Telegraph Road, driving to school, when she heard the news on the radio.
“I heard this terrifying analysis, really scary,” she recalls. “On the radio, somebody was talking about this very ominous thing that was happening. And I remember thinking, ‘What in the world is going on?’”
The school jumped into action, calling the police to provide security and asking parents to pick up their kids immediately. She says as the day unfolded, everyone was glued to the TV.
“It wasn’t just worrying about our country, or worrying that that happened to our country, but it was also the worry of what’s going to happen to us as a community in America,” she says.
Security was ramped up at Muslim institutions like schools and mosques.
Salman says 9/11 became a defining moment in the course of people’s lives. American Muslims felt compelled or expected to explain and justify their faith to strangers. Many felt double the trauma of their non-Muslim counterparts, both watching the terror attacks and being stunned by the deaths, but then feeling traumatized by being blamed for the attacks.
Community organizers like Victor Ghalib Begg remember all too well what happened that day. Begg is an entrepreneur, interfaith leader and philanthropist who was appointed by Gov. John Engler to the Michigan Community Service Commission. Begg was sitting next to First Lady Michelle Engler during the attacks. He was at an event to receive an award for his service.
“Tom Watkins, the State School Superintendent, was sitting on the other side, handed me a note to pass on to the First Lady,” he remembers. “I didn’t see the contents of the note. Michelle Engler’s expressions changed. The note obviously said terrorists struck the Twin Towers. At that point we didn’t know who was behind the awful act.”
As Begg started to drive home, he received a phone call from a local police chief. At the time, Begg was the spokesperson for the community group Council of Islamic Organizations, now the Michigan Muslim Community Council, which worked to promote interfaith relations.
Begg says he became an accidental activist who watched the Muslim community deal with the Patriot Act, new terror threats and rampant FBI counterterrorism investigations, which led to the violation of American Muslims’ constitutional rights. That led him to work with the Michigan Roundtable interfaith partners.
“I stepped up my activism, expanding interfaith coalitions working with the law enforcement for our security while protecting our rights and promoting better relationships with the neighbors, civic leaders and government agencies while standing up for my faith,” he says.
Not everyone has memories of 9/11, even though they’re dealing with the aftermath of the event.
Husain Haidri is the Outreach Engagement Manager for the Michigan Center for Youth Justice. He was just an infant when the 9/11 attacks took place and what he knows is based on what other people have told him. He says his mom had just tucked him into bed when she saw the news. Haidri says his mom then called his dad to find out what was happening.
“I can only imagine what that conversation was like. I don’t think that they fully understood at that moment, just the sheer gravity of those events,” he says. “I think they were a little bit scared. I think they recognize that their lives would change in some way. But I don’t think they realized the extent to which those events would go into shaping the lives of their kids.”
Haidri says he remembers his dad and friends being harassed and interrogated for things like sending money to charity organizations.
“I would joke that the black car that would drive past our house or hang out in the front was like private security for our family,” he explains. “But I think I’ve only recently started to understand the gravity of those events in the context of the story of someone like my dad who came here from another country where the freedom of speech isn’t a fundamental right, and when he came here expecting to be accepted. He instead was faced with all manner of prejudice and hatred.”
Many like Fatima Salman, Victor Ghalib Begg, and Husain Haidri say they want people to know Muslims are not a monolith. Twenty years ago, 9/11 made American Muslims stand out and find ways to come together to counter stereotypes.
They say despite efforts to be more visible in public spaces not much has changed 20 years later; American Muslims are still dealing with harassment, bias and Islamophobia.
Salman, Begg and Haidri say it’s important to get to know one another to become better educated about your Muslim neighbors, colleagues and friends. American Muslims want what everyone else does: A better quality of life pursuing the American dream — unapologetically.