Muslim Students Talk About Life in U.S. Since 9/11

Brian Handwerk and Zain Habboo
National Geographic News
September 10, 2002
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A year after the terrorist attacks of September 11, sat down with a group of young Muslim students at the Islamic Center of Maryland in Gaithersburg to discuss how their lives have been affected in the past year. The students, ages 14 to 17, attend Sunday school and receive religious instruction at the center; most of them attend public schools in the area. The three female students in the group wear traditional Islamic dress (hijab).

NG: Where were you last September 11, and what was your reaction to the terrorist attacks that day?

Nasir: I was in school and I just didn't believe it. It didn't sound real to me until I saw it on TV.

Wali: I was also at school. When they first announced it over the PA system I did not think it was that big of a thing. Then, as they kept explaining what was happening it got bigger and bigger. When I got home and saw it on TV, then I really realized what a big event it was.

In the beginning there was a lot of speculation about what happened. When it was reported that it was Muslims who had hijacked the planes, what were your feelings?

Wali: It was really, "I just hope it's not Muslims who did this," because it was, like, Muslims were kind of already in trouble and I did not want to get in more trouble.

Fasiha: I remember them announcing on the PA system, around 10:00, that two planes had crashed into the twin towers and it didn't occur to me that it was terrorism at the time. The overlying feeling, what stopped me from totally immersing myself in the sadness of it, was the feeling that "There is going to be a backlash." I just knew right away that there would be a backlash and that made me angry because it didn't allow me to feel sad. It was as if I was them, and you can't feel as sorry when you feel like you are under attack yourself.

Sherene: I was in my world studies class. A teacher came into our room, one of those teachers who like to joke around. He told us that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center and everybody knew it was a joke—we never took it seriously because he's that kind of teacher. But then, our principal came on the PA and told us that two planes had hit the World Trade Center and a plane had crashed into the Pentagon. Then we took it seriously and just sat and watched it on TV.

Aysha: I had stayed home from school because I was sick, so I watched it on TV. The next day when I went to school, a lot of people were kind of staying away from me because they knew I was absent on the 11th. They were kind of, like "OK, where was she?" That just kind of reminds you that there are a lot of ignorant people out there.

Fasiha: Yeah, I remember sitting in a class and one kid saying "It's probably Iraqis, let's go bomb Iraq." Then they looked at me and asked, "Are you Iraqi?" I said, "No, I'm from Bangladesh" and they were, like, "Oh, OK," as if that was any better.

Nasir, you are from Afghanistan. Did people ask you a lot of questions about Afghanistan?

Nasir: Well, they would ask, "Is Osama your uncle?" All as a joke though—they were not serious. …Because of the cap that I wear, once in D.C. this lady saw me with this on and came [storming] up and said, "We will win." I just walked away and into a McDonald's. A lot of stuff like that happened on the bus and in the street. I didn't really care what they said, I just said, "Yeah, I'm a Muslim and an Afghan."

Has your life changed in the past year? If so, in what ways?

Nasir: No, it's really the same.

Wali: My life at school really hasn't changed that much, but at home I started learning more about my religion because since September 11, a lot of people have become curious about Islam. It's useful to have knowledge about your religion because a lot of people have been asking about it. I want to have the right answers. That's really what's changed in my life so far. I've read more about Islam and tried to ask more questions in Sunday school and things like that.

So you have found that your non-Muslim friends have been more interested in your religion?

Wali: Yeah. A lot of them are asking a lot of questions, so now I have answers. Before, they really didn't ask that much. It's been positive, not negative at all.

Aysha: People started asking more questions. Since that happened, you educate yourself more about some of the things people are asking about, some of the more controversial issues. Also, people would make comments, like, asking if I was married to Osama bin Laden.

Fasiha: At school, I felt more scrutiny. I do wear this [indicates the hijab] to school and I am the embodiment of everything they see on TV—in real life. So I am under more scrutiny: Am I proving or disproving what they see on TV? When the Taliban was on a lot, the role of women in Islam came under scrutiny as, you know, "Is Fasiha oppressed or is she not?" I felt myself getting more active in speaking out. I went to a SHOUT (Students Helping Others Unite Today) lecture where I spoke about women's roles [in Islam]. A couple of us made a video at school that talked about how Islam is not terrorism and what jihad really is. Also, just getting involved, speaking out in class because a lot of people are very politically incorrect about certain things and I just feel like I need to say something and this is my chance to do it—so in terms of faith, yeah, it strengthened me because you have a real appreciation for it. It strengthened me.

Sherene: I just remember the day after September 11, I went to school…and I saw a couple of eyes just looking at me as if I was a new person, like I was strange to them. My friends did ask a lot of questions like: "What's jihad?" "What does jihad have to do with Islam?" "What does terrorism have to do with Islam?" So I answered them, explained to them that Islam is not a terrorist religion.

You girls all wear your hijab to school. Have you ever felt as though you might stop wearing it, maybe to fit in more?

Fasiha: The stubborn part of me wanted to wear it just to spite everyone. Because they look at you, and they just want to, like, hate me, and I felt, "Fine, I will wear it and maybe I will wear it better than I did before." But no, I don't change myself because of what people think. I do it for a reason and because I know my reasons, it doesn't matter what other people think. People respect you for that, especially in high school because you know what you are doing. In the beginning they might ask, "Why are you doing that?" Once you explain yourself, it changes their perceptions.

Sherene: After September 11, I did think about taking it off, but I wasn't really serious. It's just that even before, everywhere I went people would look at me strangely. After 9/11, I just really didn't feel comfortable walking in public. So I thought about it, but I knew that if I kept it on, my faith in Islam would increase.

Before September 11 did you identify yourselves more as Arab or Muslim Americans or as Americans? Has that changed since that time, the way you present yourself now?

Wali: After September 11 my nationality has played more of a major role. The government has really been kind of targeting Muslim countries and Muslim people in America. They put a lot of people in jail because they are Arab or of Muslim background. That makes me angry because I'm an American too—I was born here, I'm a citizen. It doesn't really matter to them. Other religions have also been involved with terrorism, Timothy McVeigh, for example, but they are not targeting them so it's unfair for them to do it to Muslims.

Aysha: It really hasn't changed, because I would always identify myself first as a Muslim, and then mention my heritage and that I am an American citizen. So that really hasn't changed.

Fasiha: Because I am Bangladeshi, no one knows where that [country] is, first of all. But it's almost as if it's a comfort that I'm not Arab. To me, I would rather that not be important.

Sherene: Usually when people ask me, "What are you?" they know that I'm Muslim so they ask me, "Are you Arab, what are you?" I tell them, "Yes, I'm Arab—I'm half Egyptian and half Iraqi." The first thing they say is, "Oh my God, you're Iraqi?" and they start a whole conversation about Iraq and everything that's going on and I tell them, yes, we talk about the issue. Before, I used to just say I was Arab American, and people really didn't concentrate on the topic that much. Now, after September 11, they are asking all these questions: "Have you been to Egypt?" "Have you been to Iraq?" "How are things there?" People go on and on.

Have you felt as if you have been singled out or profiled?

Nasir: Yes. For example, when I went out of the country, they saw my mom and my sisters wearing the hijab and they told them to go outside and they started to check every bag. Everything. I asked one [security] guy, who was Muslim, and he was, like, "Don't worry about it, you know why they are doing this."

When you have been abroad, in Muslim countries, how did people act toward you when they knew that you were living here in the United States?

Sherene: When I was in Egypt, the first thing anybody would ask me is, "What happened September 11?" That's the first thing they would ask, whether I knew them or not. Out shopping, for example, you know my Arabic is not Egyptian Arabic, it's American style. So they ask, and I tell them the whole story—everything. And I have no problem saying it, but it gets annoying after a while because every single person asks you that.

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