Nila is a freelance journalist and Clinical Psychology Doctoral student…
This year marks the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attack, a catastrophic event whose aftermath evoked a wave of empathy, love, and unity. It layered the nation like fresh snowfall blanketing the earth—but like fresh snow—it was short-lived and easily muddied with hate.
America has gone through waves of divisiveness since its inception while consistently claiming it’s “the greatest nation.” From the civil rights movement in the 60s to end segregation to a “war on crime” campaign by politicians in the 90s that essentially over-populated our jails with low socioeconomic class Black men and didn’t actually reduce crime, we have always been a nation divided. The events of 9/11 and the political climate in its aftermath only created new ways of dividing us.
I can’t tell you what else happened on any given day in the 7th grade, but on September 11th, 2001 I have each moment branded in my mind like a nightmare I can never escape. The ability to meticulously recall every aspect of a traumatic event is known as a flashbulb memory, and with an event like 9/11, any given New Yorker can tell you exactly where they were and what they were doing on this fatal day. I still recall reading J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” in my 7th grade English class when my teacher received a phone call from her sister in Oklahoma who had seen the attack on the news. With our classroom in the basement of our school, we had no knowledge of the panic that ensued above us until this call. We listened to the radio for updates after that and when we headed up to art class on the 4th floor we saw the dark cloud over Manhattan just across the water.
Numbness overwhelmed me as I watched my peers were crying over relatives who worked in the city but my father and uncles worked on the 106th and 107th floors at Windows on the World. As far as I knew, my father was headed to work that morning. It wasn’t until my mom picked me and my brother up from school did I know that my father was alive, I still remember seeing the relief in my 8-year-old brother’s face. The aftermath was not pretty as we dealt with the loss of my uncle and my father faced the loss of many of his friends. Picking up our lives was already hard enough when the war on the Middle East began. Suddenly every crime-fighting television series and film was playing out a storyline based on Arabs or Muslim jihadists terrorizing Americans or Europeans.
I never really had a face that looked like mine on screen and now that I finally did, it was a villain destined to be killed in an elaborate scheme spanning 60 minutes. Even how the news described incidents diminished the Muslim experience, they are quick to label any foreign-sounding name a “Muslim terrorist” or “Jihadist” meanwhile non-Muslim terrorists had softer descriptors such as “Teacher kills 5 students and injures 12” or a “Mentally unstable” person. Why not call this person what they are, a terrorist or a mass murderer?
With media constantly perpetuating the death of Muslims, an entire generation of Muslims have grown up internalizing self-hate, guilt, and a fear of being themselves. I shouldn’t have to feel guilty for the actions of a few, I shouldn’t have to constantly announce that I do not agree with the actions of every single terrorist that happens to be Muslim. Why is it that only Muslims are forced to make a statement? Why are white men not scrutinized for not denouncing the actions of a mass murderer who shoots up a school?
For context, the FBI released a report citing lone wolf terrorist attacks in the nation from 1972-2015 which includes 52 offenders committing 33 attacks killing 258 people and insuring 982. Of these individual terror attacks, any guesses on what race MOST of the offenders were?
No, you are incorrect, it was not a brown man.
65% of terrorists are white, 13% are Middles Eastern, 8% are black, 8% are biracial, 4% are Asian and 2% are Hispanic.
There have been twice as many White American terrorists killing Americans due to anti-government or white supremacist ideologies than radical Islamic views. White supremacists actually account for two-thirds of the terrorist attacks in the United States in 2020. Per U.S. Homeland Security, “racially and ethnically motivated violent extremists—specifically white supremacist extremists (WSEs)—will remain the most persistent and lethal threat in the Homeland.”
Islam had rapidly become synonymous with terrorism across the globe and not has it led to more hate crimes but it has informed domestic and international policymaking in the world. France now has bans on burqa’s, the Uyghur Muslim population in China is facing oppression and genocide, the Christchurch mosque shooting in New Zealand, the Chapel Hill shooting in North Carolina, a mosque in Victoria, Texas was burned to the ground, the shooting of a Sikh Gurdwara in Wisconsin, and he U.S. Muslim ban are just a few instances that have resulted from this association.
I have no words for the disappointment and anger I feel when American media discuss this time of unity after 9/11 with fondness, did America conveniently forget that this “time of unity” was only afforded to certain people? As a brown-skinned, Muslim, 12-year-old American-born girl, I was not included in this “togetherness.” Yes, many communities joined forces to help each other but this unity was only afforded to certain groups, races, and religions. For anyone who looked remotely Arab, North African, South Asian, or Southeast Asian, for anyone openly identifying as Muslim or Sikh, this was a time of pain, isolation, and suffering. Why was my pain invisible? Why was it that I could not cry over my losses, but instead made to feel guilty for who I was?
Per the FBI, Muslim hate crimes skyrocketed from 28 to 481 post 9/11 and although by 2016 it had decreased the rate was never as low as it had been before the attacks. I watched as Muslims sisters stopped wearing their hijabs and burka’s for fear of attacks, I listened to people around me make racists remarks not knowing I was Muslim. Before 9/11 I didn’t have to account for being harassed at the airport due to my name/looks for a “random search” because the TSA did not exist before this event. Muslims did not have to fear going to the Mosque for fear of attack by others, being tracked by Homeland security as a potential member of a “sleeper cell” because Homeland security did not exist. My mom didn’t have to worry about how long my brother’s beard was or if I was wearing too much Arabic jewelry or clothes were before 9/11, and as ridiculous as it sounds, these were valid concerns.
As a millennial who lived through 9/11 and its aftermath, it still boggles me that Gen Z will never understand how meaningful it is to have the few instances of positive Muslim representation we have on television to have mainstream pop-culture icons like Riz Ahmed, Ramy Youssef, Hasan Minhaj, and Kumail Nanjiani normalizing being Muslim in America. They don’t play terrorists, they are comedians, television hosts, singers, songwriters, actors, writers, and now, superheroes. We are finally taking control of the narrative and changing how the media portrays us. Riz Ahmed spear-headed a campaign to do just that by promoting positive representation of Muslims in media through The Pillars Fellowship. The world is changing, and I am glad I’m here to see it, but I still have more questions than answers.
I still feel as though my experience as a Muslim woman of color is invisible to the public eye because stereotypes about who I am supposed to be jades people’s views of who I am. I feel forgotten as an American, you can’t tell me to go back to where I came from because I’m already here, Queens, New York (yeerrr!). If you need me to go farther than that, I suppose it’s my mother’s uterus but I think that’s a one-way ticket out, no way back. So, clearly, I’m not going anywhere, but I refuse to be invisible anymore.
It is not my job to pay for the crimes of others, my pain is valid, my tears are real and I will not be made to feel guilty for who I am.
Nila is a freelance journalist and Clinical Psychology Doctoral student who was born and raised in New York City. There is very little she loves more than Harry Potter marathons, pizza, 90s Bollywood, bagels, falooda, and her family. She hopes to use her powers for good by spreading mental health awareness and positivity in the South Asian community through her love of writing.