The Unity That Never Was After 9-11

Where we stand depends on where we sit. This maxim comes to mind over and over as the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks draws near. Many people in my orbit of friends and neighbors are pining for the unity that existed in America right after the horrific attacks took place. One person commented that we had such a “kumbaya” moment after that tragic day of senseless carnage. Compared to where we are today, maybe there is some truth in it. But that depends on where one sat on the morning of September 11, 2001, and in the days and years before and after that fateful day. I don’t remember any “kumbaya” feelings after 9/11. I am an immigrant Muslim with brown skin and a foreign sounding name. Then and now, I sit in a very different place from many friends and neighbors.

I was in my car driving to downtown Chicago on the morning of September 11, 2001. I was northbound on I-94. I was listening to WBEZ, the local NPR affiliate, on my radio. In front of me was a clear blue sky. At the very moment the programming was interrupted to announce that a plane crashed into one of the World Trade Center towers in New York City, I could see the Sears Tower and the rest of the magnificent Chicago skyline in the distance. Before I was able to park my car, the reports of a second plane crashing into another World Trade Center tower were broadcast.

In that moment I was very selfish. I am a bit ashamed to admit this, but my first thoughts were not of the carnage that was sure to follow. Instead, my first thoughts were “God, please don’t let this be connected to Muslims.”

I have lived through the Iran hostage crisis, the bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon, the first World Trade Center attack, the Oklahoma City bombing, the attacks on American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, and the bombing of the USS Cole in the Yemeni port of Aden, and I was well acquainted with the backlash such events can have on Muslims living in America.

I called my wife. We had an 11-month-old baby at home, and my wife was at work already. We talked about the need to be extra vigilant that day. I told her I would get home as soon as possible.

I was active in various Muslim centers and Muslim community service groups back then and throughout the day there were conversations about what precautions the Muslim communities in America might need to take. At the time we lived near Bridgeview, Illinois. There is a sizable Muslim population living in that area. My wife and I took our daughter and we headed to the mosque in Bridgeview, Illinois. As we drove by the mall in Chicago Ridge, we saw the parking lot was filled with police and emergency vehicles, but the roads were open. There was no sign of an accident or other trouble.

We never made it to the mosque. From 95th Street we exited onto northbound Harlem Avenue and saw both sides of the street leading up to the road towards the mosque lined with angry people. They were angry with us. They were there to protest us. We were the enemy.

There was no shortage of hate crimes against Muslims before 9/11, but afterwards the numbers skyrocketed. Not only did hate crimes skyrocket, but the thinking and mindset of people across the political spectrum shifted. Politicians, community leaders, and even journalists who were known to be fair and openminded spoke openly about the need to surveil America’s Muslim communities more closely. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, our leaders enacted the USA PATRIOT ACT, Muslims were arrested all over the United States under material witness warrants, and they were held using “secret evidence.”

Those were the most Orwellian times of my lifetime to that point, but too few people agreed with that assessment. In those days, many people showed great deference to the demonization of Muslims and Islam delivered under the imprimatur of national security. They didn’t see it as demonization at all. In the aftermath of 9/11, Muslims were chided for raising concerns about bigotry. I was asked on many occasions to be more forbearing of those whose conduct I found anti-Muslim, because they were just Americans struggling to process the trauma. It was as if, in that moment, people spoke their minds freely and in doing so, they let us know that they did not see us as fully “American.”

Why is this important to talk about now? For one thing, it is the truth. Also, is there a better way to honor the victims of 9/11 than to use their memories to build a better world? To not talk about this is to perpetuate the “otherness” of Muslims and Islam in America. Our collective failure to address Islamophobia before and after 9/11 made Trump’s “Muslim Ban” and overall anti-Muslim rhetoric resonate more readily with many Americans. It was not just Trump and his rhetoric though. We have a deep-seated anti-Muslim bias in America. Today we see the use of Muslims and Islam as shorthand for oppression in our responses to the misogynistic Texas law that bans a woman’s right to choose.

The 20th anniversary of one of the most tragic events in modern American history is exactly the right time to shift our focus away from war and towards justice. That includes addressing Islamophobia and many other problems that continue to plague our nation.

Until I became a father I didn’t think nearly as much about Islamophobia. I was 10 years old when Iranian students took over the American embassy in Tehran, Iran in November 1979. I remember that time. One night that November we started getting hostile calls from strangers. Our house was shot at, and for years after that our home was vandalized regularly. I endured physical and verbal abuse from classmates and verbal abuse from grown men and women including teachers. These are things I have never forgotten, but for a long time I minimized the events’ significance.

After one of my children had an experience with anti-Muslim bigotry, I stopped minimizing it. The moment I mentally placed one of my children into my shoes of my childhood experiences, I realized how scary it can be. That was when the enormity and the vileness of what I endured as a child really struck me.

I hope my children never experience such hate. I think my children have been spared the experiences I had growing up, but they haven’t been entirely immune. I am deeply troubled by the fact that decades later we are still fighting Islamophobia. The backlash of 9/11 contributed to this, and that is why I feel compelled to reflect on this now.

Al Qaeda killed nearly 3000 innocent people on 9/11. Before this tragedy, the Oklahoma City bombing was the deadliest terrorist attack in America. Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichol, two far-right domestic terrorists, killed 168 innocent people, including 19 children. The tragedy on 9/11 does not erase or minimize the tragedy of the Oklahoma City bombing. Each life is sacred.

Nearly 5000 Blacks were lynched in America between 1882 and 1968, and in the 21st century unarmed Black people continue to be killed by the police in record numbers. Why do we feel that we cannot talk about these issues of injustice together? Each death demands justice and a commitment to prevent such tragedies from ever happening again.

It is time to re-think how we honor the victims of 9/11. It is my hope that we honor the victims of 9/11 by re-dedicating ourselves to justice for all. Instead of allowing the memory of the 9/11 victims to be used to advance a forever war against a tactic like terrorism, let us honor the victims by working to build a more just society. I think that is far more meaningful than using their memories to fuel forever wars that only enrich war profiteers while visiting endless suffering on more innocent people.

Terrorism is a tactic, and we will have to deal with it. It is not going away. There is no “winning” a war on a tactic. We must continue to do our best to keep innocent people at home and abroad safe. But we need to think more broadly. The significance of 9/11 need not be tethered to more violence. Henceforth, it should be an inspiration to do better.

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