Immediately following 9/11, life for Muslims everywhere changed.
EARLIER this year, the United Nations released a report that highlighted the rise of Islamophobia and surveillance of Muslims worldwide. US politicians may scratch their heads over the cause of their nation’s Islamophobia, but one significant date looms overhead: As the 20th anniversary of 9/11 approaches, Muslim Americans who were students in 2001 tell Teen Vogue that the xenophobia and Islamophobia that surfaced in response to those attacks is still with us. The anti-Muslim sentiment and white supremacy that shaped their young adulthoods, and was stoked so successfully by former president Donald Trump, can substantially be traced to that day.
“The first emotion I had was horror,” Mona Masood, a Philadelphia-area psychiatrist, says when reflecting on 9/11. “I remember praying fervently, ‘Please, God, don’t let them be Muslim.’ But they claimed they were. And we would all be punished for it.” Masood, a child of Indian immigrants, and a sophomore in high school at the time, watched at school as the events unfolded.
Masood’s experience is shared by organiser Aisha bint Gladys, whose parents immigrated from Haiti and Sudan, and Sharmin Hossain, co-director of Queer Crescent and founder of the Bangladeshi Historical Memory Project, who are both from New York City. As bint Gladys tells Teen Vogue, “My classmates and I witnessed videos of the towers burning, firefighters moving through rubble, and just pure chaos.” Although bint Gladys, who was only eight at the time, didn’t quite understand what was happening (“I didn’t even know what the Twin Towers were,” she recalls), she says the situation was tense. Hossain attended a multicultural school in Jackson Heights, Queens, but “that didn’t stop the anxiety from creeping in about what words would be said about Muslims and the terrorists who were responsible for this heinous act of violence,” she says.
Immediately after 9/11, life for Muslims everywhere changed. A year before, Masood had started wearing hijab, which she describes as “a deeply personal decision about…centering my faith as a visible part of my identity.” After that day, she says, “Our mosque held meetings on whether the women should remove their hijabs, if the men should shave their beards.”
Similar discussions were had in New York City too. Bint Gladys recalls that her dad once asked her mom to stop wearing hijab for fear of her being attacked. She says her mom said she would never let anybody make her afraid to be who she was and refused to take it off.
Bint Gladys herself started wearing hijab two years after 9/11, but often took it off before going into school. “The first day I actually wore it inside,” she says, “a boy pulled it off my head.” On bint Gladys’s behalf, someone told a teacher and she says the boy was expelled. But instead of relief, bint Gladys “felt the school turned against [her],” and she heard “whispers of ‘terrorist’ at lunch and in the hall.” Afraid of how her dad would respond, she never told her parents about the bullying. “I deeply internalized bad messages about myself, my religion, and my culture,” she says. “To an extent, a lot of other Muslims did this too, mostly out of survival.”
Hossain, who had worn hijab before 9/11, reports similar experiences. Once, in elementary school, she says a white teacher called her hijab a “stupid thing” on her head. Years later, a Latino boy called her a “terrorist” and ripped off her hijab in class. The harassment also extended beyond school walls: Hossain remembers when an elderly Black couple on a train said, “We don’t praise no Allah, we praise Jah! We don’t pray to terrorism.” Those experiences, Hossain says, put her “in a position to fight, defending Islam, and in a position of otherness. It made me tense. It made me angry.”
The 9/11 attacks were the deadliest terrorist attacks in US history, with nearly 3,000 people killed. But their impact reverberated far beyond US borders. Iman Ismail, a senior at Georgetown University in Qatar, was living in the Philippines at the time. He was too young then to remember the day, but Ismail tells Teen Vogue, “I do remember the numbing fear that overcame my family and the Muslim American community in the years that followed.” For her parents, who had Sudanese passports, there was a “fear of immobility” that extended to Ismail and her siblings, whose American passports may “do next to nothing to protect us.”
Adam Karami, a Philadelphia-based computational biologist, moved to the US from Jakarta, Indonesia, in 2007. “Growing up in the world’s largest predominately Muslim country meant that I was tapped into the shared global consciousness of Muslims everywhere,” he says. Regarding 9/11, Karami, who was nine-years-old then, recalls, “It felt like a massive tragedy to me even at that age. I remember watching the news and thinking it was some sort of action movie. The loss of life was truly shocking to me at the time.” But, Karami continues, “what was most etched into my memories wasn’t 9/11 itself — it was the US response to the attack.”
After 9/11, Hossain says, “the whole world was watching George W. Bush fumbling through his terribly racist, irresponsible response to these attacks.” In an address to the nation, Bush vowed that the “full resources of our intelligence and law enforcement communities” would be used to “bring [those responsible] to justice.” He continued, “We will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them.”
Although Bush’s first address didn’t outrightly say so, Hossain remembers, “Muslims knew what was going to happen — increased war, occupation, and justification for violence against our people. All of our family members called each other, making du’a (praying) that the worst wasn’t yet to happen.”
What Muslims feared took shape through policies like the PATRIOT Act, which allowed for a massive expansion of domestic surveillance, and which the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding called a “major blow to the constitution”; and the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System, essentially a travel registry for Muslims entering the US Even after communities like Masood’s tried to respond to fears of violence by bringing on more security for Friday jummah services, she says, “We all secretly wondered if security was there to protect us or monitor us, if they saw us as with America or with the terrorists.”
That fear wasn’t unfounded. Documents obtained by the Associated Press in 2012 showed that the New York Police Department reportedly deployed informants called “mosque crawlers” or “rakers” in a surveillance operation that started in response to 9/11. This sort of surveillance evolved into programming like Countering Violent Extremism with disastrous consequences. “With psychological terror and distrust sowing, we became more isolated than connected,” Hossain says. Due to a lack of resources to address this type of monitoring, “Mental health issues have continued to increase.… Paranoia, drug addiction, anxiety disorders.” (The Anti-Surveillance Project, established by the Council on American-Islamic Relations, has found that “government surveillance leads to heightened levels of stress, fatigue, and anxiety, fosters distrust, and reduces our sense of personal control.”)
The US response to 9/11 took an even more profound toll on Muslim communities across the globe. Bush’s “war on terror,” resulted in the deaths of almost a million people, produced over 38 million refugees, and cost over $6.4 trillion, per Brown University’s Costs of War initiative. When the US began its attacks on Afghanistan, Karami says, “There was massive outrage in Indonesia. Friday prayer sermons talked about the evils of the US and we sent prayers to our Muslim brethren across the ocean. We bonded over our fear and rage as Muslims.”