This year marks the 21st anniversary of 9/11. It is the day that changed the course of history and impacted our lives in more ways than we know. For Muslim Americans, living in a post-9/11 world brought two types of grief: one for the tragedy and another for the trials that unfolded.
As we come to terms with our past and build our future, we want to take this time to reflect on the last 21 years. While we all faced and continue to face discrimination, Islamophobia, and even violence, our experiences are diverse. The reflections below shed light on the Muslim-American perspective and include viewpoints from the MENA and SWANA communities. While this has not been easy, I hope you can connect to these experiences and know that you have not been alone in your struggle.
GEN-Z SHARE THEIR THOUGHTS POST 9/11 WITH MUSLIM GIRL
I spoke with Lara Ibrahim, 25, of Mission Viejo, CA about her thoughts after visiting the 9/11 memorial in New York. “The craziest thing about being present in the space was how emotional I felt. I had goosebumps the whole time. All I could think about was how the event not only impacted the lives of the people who tragically perished that day or the people of NYC, but us as Muslims. I was saddened by the fact that this act of extremism became symbolic of a whole religion and its people. And while the world has grown and healed over time, there are still moments in everyday life where you wonder if you are safe or respected as a Muslim.”
This is a perspective that has been overlooked by practically everyone in the post-9/11 world. What people don’t realize is that Muslim Americans mourned that day for the victims of 9/11 alongside everyone else. We condemned the terrorist attacks and explained that this is not what Islam teaches. We were there rebuilding the pieces, just like everyone else. But no one listened. We were already on our way to justifying invading Muslim countries like Afghanistan and Iraq. Our grief was amplified by having to watch our loved ones suffer from afar while we suffer at home.
LARA IBRAHIM, age 25, Mission Viejo, California
It didn’t matter where you lived, across the nation Muslims felt a distinct shift in the air like an impending hurricane. No one was safe from the hate and Islamophobia that was to come. It infiltrated places we thought were safe, like school and work. I spoke with an Arab-American attorney (age 25) who grew up in my hometown of Mission Viejo, CA, and I was shocked to hear how similar her experience was to mine.
Our grief was amplified by having to watch our loved ones suffer from afar while we suffer at home. No one was safe from the hate and Islamophobia that was to come. It infiltrated places we thought were safe like school and work.
Evette Jahangiri, Age 25, Laguna Hills, California
She said, “As an Arab-American who grew up in Orange County, CA in the early 2000s, I never realized that the racism I faced growing up wasn’t normal until later in life. Learning about the war was traumatic for me and many other Americans. Comedy targeting Muslims became a popular and cruel coping mechanism. Remember ‘Ahmed the Dead Terrorist’? Prior to college, my schools had populations that were mostly white. There was only a handful of Muslims and even fewer Arabs, so I felt different.”
Like her, so many Muslims learned to live with the racism they faced because they were ostracized and made to be outcasts. Not fighting back made it easier to get by, but we were still suffering. If we did fight back, people would use that to prove that we were “aggressive” or “violent” or whatever other negative stereotypes they assigned to us. They manipulated what we said and used that against us to feed their idea of what Muslims were.
However, it was not easy for everyone to try and stay under the radar. I know for a fact the sisters that wore the hijab were easy targets because of their visibility. I know that they face a cruel world and live in fear of someone attacking them at any moment. Because of this, I know my experience as a Muslim woman who does not wear the hijab was starkly different than that of my sisters who do.
The attorney I spoke to highlighted this difference, explaining, “Since I have fair skin and I don’t wear the hijab, most people wouldn’t know my identity until they read my name or asked me, so I would often hear people make racist jokes without having known my heritage. But often, when students learned I was Arab or Muslim, the information emboldened them to be racist.”
It was not easy for everyone to try and stay under the radar. I know for a fact the sisters that wore the hijab were easy targets because of their visibility. I know that they face a cruel world and live in fear of someone attacking them at any moment.
Evette Jahangiri, 25, Laguna Hills, California
I remember people asking me about my last name, and where I was from. The response would always be the same: some ignorant, hateful remark thrown my way. I would lash out at anyone who would make racist or derogatory remarks about Muslims. I fought with my friends and strangers. I remember being angry all the time. I did not realize it then, but because I did not wear the hijab, I had the privilege of skating by without being specifically targeted for Islamophobia because I didn’t “look” Muslim. Most of the hate I received happened because I proudly proclaimed and owned my identity — I was not going to hide it.
We all have different ways of coping with what we went through. Some of us would sit in our grief and others became reactive. In our conversation, the attorney explained how she would cope. “When people would call me a terrorist or say something hurtful, I would laugh along or add to the joke. For me, that was the only way to cope with the offensive humor. I figured that if I was part of the joke, I wouldn’t be the joke — but I never really felt okay about it.” Even though we front as if we are okay, that does not mean we are not affected by the way we are treated. Because of this we discovered and created new ways of coping so we could get through the day.
When people would call me a terrorist or say something hurtful, I would laugh along or add to the joke. For me, that was the only way to cope with the offensive humor. I figured that if I was part of the joke, I wouldn’t be the joke — but I never really felt okay about it.
arab-american attorney, 25, Mission Viejo, California
Survival comes in many forms. Our parents are the epitome of this. They’ve shown us by example what the real meaning of strength and perseverance is. As a daughter of the Afghan diaspora, I see this resilience reflected in my parents. My conversation with a friend from New York City who is also Afghan-American highlighted this theme. He said “My parents immigrated from Afghanistan in the early 1980s, leaving their friends, family, and culture behind, in the hopes of finding opportunity in a country where anyone can attain their own version of success with hard work and strength of character. To my parents, America was the beginning of a precious diary entry to bleed their hopes and aspirations into. They worked long hours to ensure my sister and I could experience the same things as other children our age. When my father was laid off from his job on my ninth birthday, he still came home with balloons and presents.”
Our parents know what it means to experience loss. To rebuild from the ground up and keep building. Our parents are the most selfless people; they make sure we are fed, taken care of, and put first. They think of everyone but themselves. No matter how tired, sad, or tough things get our parents always find a way to rise above. As my 25-year-old friend from the Afghan diaspora said so articulately, “My parents came to the U.S. alone, unable to speak the language, unsure of their future, deeply troubled by what they experienced back home, but they taught me everything I needed to know about hard work and perseverance by the simple eloquence of their example.”
As children of immigrants, we are a reflection of the best and worst parts of our parents. This was evident in the way they tried their best to protect us from the world while sacrificing their dreams and their well-being in the process. Often our parents faced the brunt of Islamophobia, but they never let it show. They led by example, and they continued to work and take care of us. Our parents are the strongest people that we know. They took every challenge they received and handled it with grace. I hope to have half the strength they have in my lifetime and to repay everything they have done for me.
Evette Jahangiri, 25, Laguna Hills, California
But all the strength in the world won’t stop people from continuing to try and break you down. I spoke with a 24-year-old Palestinian-American student from Anaheim, CA about her experience growing up in a post-9/11 world. “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.” The word in question here is a term Muslim Americans know all too well: the word “terrorist.” This term is often used as a racial or religious slur to describe Muslims, generally by biased and bigoted people.
Per Oxford Languages, the definition of a terrorist is: “a person who uses unlawful violence and intimidation, especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political aims.” But growing up in the predominately white, suburban Midwest, Ohio, the term “terrorist” was commonly used by my peers to describe Muslims.
In the past 21 years, it’s likely that nearly all Muslims has been called a terrorist. It may have been passive-aggressively, framed as a “joke.” Or it may have been overt aggression. The perpetrator may have been a friend, co-worker, stranger, or even a family member(s), much to the dismay of Muslim reverts.
Micro and macroaggressions have been present across environments, from school to work and out in the community. All we heard about was how evil and violent Muslims were. So many people fed into this narrative without giving it a second thought. Having this come from people who you thought were your peers or friends hurts. Being constantly “othered” and ostracized can understandably affect you, especially as a child. No child should have to be forced to adapt to a world that wants nothing to do with them.
She further explained, “My family was the only Muslim family in my neighborhood, and after 9/11, the neighbors requested my bus stop be moved to the other side of the street, where I was to get on and off the bus alone. I was no longer allowed at the bus stop with the other white children, as their families were afraid of me. I was in the first grade. I’m not sure I blame them; after all the American media did a great job of instilling fear in their feeble minds. This is just one of many experiences I have encountered as a Muslim Arab-American.”
Isolation and feeling isolated were not foreign to Muslims. We were made out to be the “other,” and everyone around us made sure we didn’t forget that. Looking back on it, it’s amazing how many TV shows, movies, and productions came out of that time filled with Islamophobic themes, stereotypes, and plot lines. Hollywood and the media were profiting from anti-Muslim stories. Everyone just accepted it as if it were normal — and it became normalized and socially acceptable to be anti-Muslim. Our society has a history of demonizing any nation, people, or faith that they see as foreign to further their agendas.
The student I spoke to experience this first-hand. “My roots come from Palestine, where struggle and diaspora make up the threads of who I am. It is not uncommon to see my homeland on the TV screen, usually amidst political turmoil and war. In a post-9/11 era, Palestinian resistance fighters are almost always described as terrorists; yet another example of how the American media made it its mission to demonize and dehumanize the people of the Middle East. Even though my people were victims of colonialism and nefarious apartheid, we were portrayed as the aggressors in the situation. This is an example of the pain endured as a Muslim American in a post-9/11 era.”
I remember feeling angry every time I would watch the news and they would dance around yet another war in a Muslim-majority country. But that anger was followed by an overwhelming sense of grief; this feeling of emptiness as I watched Muslim countries burn and families left destroyed. No one cared. No one ever questioned if what we were doing was wrong. Everyone accepted the loss of Muslim lives as collateral damage. But the images of children bloodied and bruised still haunt us.
Evette Jahangiri, 25, Laguna Hills, california
I remember feeling angry every time I would watch the news and they would dance around yet another war in a Muslim-majority country. But that anger was followed by an overwhelming sense of grief; this feeling of emptiness as I watched Muslim countries burn and families left destroyed. No one cared. No one ever questioned if what we were doing was wrong. Everyone accepted the loss of Muslim lives as collateral damage. But the images of children bloodied and bruised still haunt us. I feel guilty living in the comfort of my home when they don’t know if they will have a home tomorrow. Witnessing entire cities full of history and life be reduced to rubble was heartbreaking. We were both bystanders and victims all at the same time.
But because of this, we advocated and fought for the truth. Complacency was not an option for us. Throughout everything we went through and everything, we fought for we came out victorious. The Muslim brothers and sisters I spoke to shared their thoughts on their resilience.
“As I got older, I was lucky enough to meet and bond with people who really cared about me and helped me become confident. And as I grew older and braver, I wouldn’t tolerate bullies simply because my teachers had created an environment where bigotry thrived. While it took me a really long time to get to that point, I’m proud of who I am now and I hope future generations don’t have the same experience that did,” said one Gen Z Muslim.
Another shared, “In a post–9/11 world, some would say individuals like my parents shouldn’t be permitted into the country. The world would be a better place if we remember that underneath divisive political rhetoric and demagoguery, immigrants, refugees, people of color, and members of the LGBTQ+ community are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
“Growing up in the West during this time was challenging, but I am thankful to have stayed strong. I am proud of who I am and where I am from. I am proud of my Muslim name and ethnic features. I am thankful for the strength and courage to embrace my culture and people, even with the American media’s strong efforts to tear us down,” said my Palestinian-American friend, aged 25.
Palestinian-American Student, 25, Anaheim, California
I believe we find comfort in knowing that after every hardship comes ease. Our ease takes on many forms. We remain steadfast in our belief. We still celebrate Eid. We still wear our cultural clothing with pride, speak our mother tongues, and learn how to cook the favorite dishes of our grandmothers and their grandmothers before them. We find pieces of ourselves in each other’s stories. The world tried its best to make us small, but it cannot take away the noor of Allah that we are given.
Our pain and resilience have gone unrecognized for too long. So, to every Muslim American out there, I am so proud of each and every one of you. You are loved, heard, and seen. It’s a blessing you have made it this far.
Thank you to everyone who contributed to this story. Thank you for being brave and vulnerable. May Allah grant all of us the peace and strength to continue living our truth.