“Please don’t be an Arab or a Muslim. Please don’t be an Arab or a Muslim!”
That was the prayer that came to my mind once I learned that the plane that flew into the World Trade Center in New York on the morning of September 11, 2001 was not an accident but an attack.
It was my day off from college. I woke up early, poured my cereal and milk into a bowl, and turned on the TV. Every, single, channel showed a building that was on fire….. I was still half asleep so it didn’t register that it was one of the Twin Towers that had smoke billowing out of the top; that the building was so close to home, and that we, as a country, were under attack.
I was living in Jamaica, Queens at the time. My parents were the administrators of a private Islamic school, also in Queens, but just a few miles from the Manhattan border. I had been to the Twin Towers many times – especially when showing guests around who were visiting from out of state.
Just a minute later another plane crashed into the second tower. The realization of what was happening all hit me at once, and I felt sick to my stomach.
I tried to reach my mom on her cell phone. Busy signal. Her work phone. Busy. I tried again. Busy… I felt alone and scared. Is she okay?
When the TV anchor said the planes had attacked the towers, that’s when I remember thinking: Please don’t let it be a Muslim or an Arab behind this. I knew what this would mean. We would be persecuted as a whole for the heinous actions of a few.
Some people have told me that having those thoughts meant I believed that Muslims were the victims of the 9/11 attacks. No, that is not what that meant. The nearly 3,000 people who died on that morning were the victims. The people who lost loved ones were the victims. Police officers. Firefighters.
But here is the reality: Americans were afraid of another attack happening on their soil, but Muslims and Arabs were afraid of being attacked, assaulted, raped, by their fellow Americans.
My family, just like many other Muslim and Arab families, stayed home for a week. We heard about women getting their hijabs yanked off and being raped, both men and women being beaten (not just Muslims but people who looked like us — Hindus, Sikhs, and Christian Arabs), mosques being set on fire. According to FBI figures, the number of anti-Muslim hate crime incidents jumped in 2001, from 28 to 481 incidents. The number dropped in the following years, but has never returned to levels reported before the 9/11 attacks.
I remember emailing the dean of my university (College of New Rochelle) and telling him I was worried about what would happen to me on campus (I was wearing hijab at the time); could I be attacked, physically or verbally? The dean assured me that anyone who did so would immediately be expelled. I felt a weight lifted off my shoulders. I felt supported.
I finally went back to school a week after 9/11. The city had pretty much been shut down for days. When I arrived at the campus some fellow students came up to me (I had no idea who they were) and said, “If anyone messes you, we got your back. Don’t you worry.”
These young women who didn’t even know me just swore to protect me. I almost cried.
In the months following 9/11, I was asked more questions about my religion, my hijab, my traditions, my culture. Random people in the streets of New York City would approach me and tell me how they knew I wasn’t a terrorist and that Muslims as a whole shouldn’t be blamed for the attacks. It was a little strange to hear, but definitely a nice gesture.
On the flip side I was told to go home to my country (that would be Vienna, Austria for those who don’t know me). I was called un-American. And I did get asked a few times if I supported Al-Qaeda or what happened on 9/11 – as if I, being a Muslim Arab, was supposed to have a deeper insight into the tragic event. I remember furrowing my brow and almost laughing at how absurd those questions were. It’s sad that I would even be asked that. It’s also sad that Muslim leaders across America were expected to denounce the attacks and apologize for them on behalf of all of us, while I don’t see a white leader apologize for his race when a school shooting takes place. We, as Muslims, obviously reject the hateful ideology and violence of terrorist organizations. So why do we feel the need to voice an opposition to an attack by a fanatic and a murderer who does not represent us and our values? It’s because we as members of an entire religion or ethnicity get blamed when an extremist commits an act of terror.
I refuse to apologize for something I didn’t do and would never even fathom doing. I’m an American. I am proud to live in this country and wouldn’t go any where else. This is and always will be my home.