I don’t remember where I was during the horrific attacks on September 11, 2001. I was 4, and I did not lose someone I personally knew or loved in the attacks — the only relative of mine that worked in the area was miraculously able to run to safety. I can’t imagine the pain of all the families who weren’t as lucky and who, I’m sure, lost a piece of themselves that day.
But, as with almost everyone — not just Americans, but those around the world who felt the effects of our post-9/11 foreign policy — the tragic chain of events on that day still profoundly affected me. When I finally was old enough to understand what had happened, it completely and utterly changed my worldview.
I can still remember the first time that I became acutely aware that people saw me differently, because I am a Muslim. I was in elementary school, and we were on our way to Mississippi to visit my grandmother. We’d stopped at a Walmart in Arkansas as I’d characteristically forgotten a hairbrush. As we walked out of the store, I heard them: a group of teenage boys screaming at the top of their lungs “Al-Qaeda! Al-Qaeda!”, pointing at my mother’s hijab, laughing, and running away. There’s no way my mother didn’t hear them, but she acted like nothing had happened. I was so embarrassed and shocked and confused that I didn’t bring it up. I couldn’t believe something like that could actually happen. Not in my America, not in the country I knew and loved and called home — it couldn’t.
To this day, we haven’t talked about it, or any of the other plethora of similar incidents that have happened since then. Because of growing up as a Muslim in post-9/11 America, you come to take some of these things as a given.
But it’s because of these given things that I am who I am, and I hate it. I’m an apologist at best, a coward at worst. Preteen me felt the urge to try and be extra “American” so as to convince everyone I really was on “their” side. I stood each day with the rest of my class, over-enunciating the words to the Pledge of Allegiance, hiding even the slightest semblance of a foreign accent, and I filled my closet with an obnoxious amount of Old Navy. I spent all of high school keeping my mouth shut when Bin Laden was finally killed during my freshman year; when a kid in my world history class asked me if I “cried when we killed your Uncle Osama,” I merely slid down in my seat and tried to pretend I was invisible. Later on, I switched tactics — after hearing talking head after talking head pontificate about how the moderate Muslims need to speak up more after each and every atrocious attack carried out by a bearded monster with a warped ideology and an Arab name, I made sure to jump on social media and write some long status about how that wasn’t the Islam of my friends and family, that wasn’t my faith, that wasn’t me, Islam is a religion of peace, Islam is a religion of peace, Islam is a religion of peace.