On growing up Muslim in America in the post-9/11 era.
A Vile and Filthy People
I was three years old when 9/11 happened. I don’t remember the planes hitting the tower. I don’t remember them collapsing, or the footage of the smoldering wreckage afterwards. I do remember the image of smoke billowing from the towers on our CRT TV as my mother stood and watched, her mouth agape. I had never seen her so afraid.
I grew up Muslim in America in the post-9/11 era. It really fucked with my head.
The extreme proliferation of anti-Islamic, anti-brown, and anti-Arab sentiment in my community had adverse consequences not only for me, but for my fellow Muslims: those who were my age, growing up and trying to find themselves in an environment that fundamentally opposed them.
I was friends with this kid growing up, Omar, and he in my mind was an extraordinarily bad Muslim. He ate pork, didn’t pray, questioned the beliefs of Islam, and didn’t really consider himself a Muslim. In middle school, while I stuck to reading and tennis, he had started skateboarding, playing guitar, growing his hair out long and secretly dating, all in an attempt to rebel against his parents. There was a week in which he wasn’t at school, and when he came back, I asked him why. Apparently some kid had called him a terrorist, so he had punched him and gotten suspended.
A minor altercation really. But he had tried so hard to distance himself from his heritage, only to be recognized in that moment as being solely the stereotypical representation of it. This fight was one in a greater war between where we came from and where we lived.
My grandparents used to live with us on and off until they became homesick and permanently relocated to Karachi. On one occasion, I was taking my grandmother on a stroll through our neighborhood outside Boston. The roads were steep, and she was fragile; she held my arm for support as we walked. As we approached home a bright red pickup pulled up alongside us. The driver, a bald, goateed man with wraparound shades, leaned out the window and shouted, “Go home you fucking A-rabs!”
I hope he felt brave, standing up for his beliefs in the face of an alarmed ten-year-old and an elderly woman. My grandmother, who spoke little English, hadn’t understood him, and I made vague explanations for his comments as I hurried her home. It is shocking to a child to realize that a large population of people, the majority of which are grown-ups, despise not only a child but the very idea of a child, simply because of where that child came from. At the age of ten, I had already had that realization. In fact, that knowledge was so foundational to my childhood that I don’t know if there was a time in which I was unaware of it.
In seventh grade, my seventy-year-old geography teacher attempted to explain the divide between the Sunni and Shia sects of Islam. “First you have the Sunnis. They go about their day like any of us. They pray five times a day et cetera. Then there’s the Shias. Once a year they have a holiday where they whip themselves and hurt themselves. These are the ones you want to watch out for. All the terrorist attacks are caused by them.”
At this point, an extremely menacing six-foot-tall fifteen-year-old—who had been held back twice—turned around to ask me, “which one are you?” I couldn’t even be outraged at the gross misrepresentation of Islam. I was just glad I was Sunni. It saved me from getting my ass kicked.
Later that year, the small mountain city in which my grandmother had grown up was all over global headlines. I watched Obama on the news:
Today, at my direction, the United States launched a targeted operation against that compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. A small team of Americans carried out the operation with extraordinary courage and capability. No Americans were harmed… After a firefight, they killed Osama bin Laden and took custody of his body.1
I was ecstatic. I remember going to school that day, where everyone was buzzing with excitement. On my way home I got a call from my friend.
“Some guy just asked me if I was upset that Osama died,” she said between indignant sobs, “when I said no he told me I had to be because Osama was my prophet.”
In Arabic, Osama translates to ‘lion.’ There was a kid named Osama at my Sunday school. When he came to understand the gravity behind his name, he changed it to David.
As my confusion with my identity grew, so too did a newfound disgust of where I was from. I had never really disliked going to Pakistan as a child as much as I was bored there. The electricity would come and go as it pleased, which meant the TV wouldn’t work for hours at a time; my favorite books were never available anywhere; I spent most of my time avoiding distant relatives. Karachi, where I’d go most often, was dirty: We had to boil our water before we could drink it; cockroaches and other vermin would emerge from furniture and screen doors; and at night, people would burn trash on street corners, filling the air with the pungent stink of household refuse and aerated plastics.
I was hardly cognizant of these third-world realities when I visited Pakistan at the age of fourteen; when I arrived, I was able to experience the dirtiness and decrepitude with the fresh eyes of early adolescence. I was disgusted when I saw the chaos of Karachi streets, the carcasses of burned out buildings on every other block, the hordes of beggars missing limbs clamoring up to the windows of our cars pleading for change, and the dispassionate manner with which our driver would honk the car horn to disperse them (everyone in Karachi either has a driver or is a driver. It is impossible to operate a vehicle without having an innate instinct for the road, which drivers must hone through the course of their lives. Such is the state of traffic in the city). I was not proud of where I came from. Nor were my peers; whenever one of us would return from abroad we would commiserate on how smelly the streets were and how unkempt the people were.
Pakistan did not feel like home for me and America, though it was my home, kept trying to reject me because of where I came from.
As we became teenagers, we were trying even harder to fit in, to make ourselves completely inoffensive so that like all other teenagers we could blend into the background and explore the newfound freedoms of adolescence. This resulted, in many, in a brand new attempt at erasing what we saw as the inferior side of our identities.
“Don’t call me uh-mer. It’s oh-mAr,” stated Omar, correcting a fifteen-year mispronunciation of his name.
“I’m not really even brown. Or Muslim,” said Musa, after a six-month-long stay in Lahore. “I’m atheist. All I did in Pak was smoke hash.” He smirked in the manner of a teenager who believes he has discovered the world because he has learned to intoxicate himself. The effect it had on us was shattered when an Aunty walked up to him to pinch his cheeks and tell him how much he had grown.
Some of us, instead of trying to pass as white, tried to adopt a different culture entirely, one we saw as being resilient to oppression and marginalization. I was somewhat taken aback when I heard my ginger, pale-faced Arab friend greet me with: “what’s up, my nigga!”
Sometimes this alienation would be so profound it manifested itself in the form of self-hatred. I remember vaping with this kid, Shabaz, in the stairwells of our Sunday school building while he showed me pictures of his bong. ISIS had just emerged as a global threat.
“Dude, all brown people are terrorists, man.” This made me uncomfortable, but he took my silence as permission to go on. “They rape women. They blow shit up. Dude, fuck Islam.” Some years later, I saw Shabaz wearing a Make America Great Again hat.
My freshman year of university, after the election of Donald Trump, my mosque received a letter. “To the children of Satan,” the letter was addressed, “You Muslims are a vile and filthy people. Your mothers are whores and your fathers are dogs. You are evil. You worship the devil.” After the usual smearing and insults, which none of us in the community were unfamiliar with, the letter took a more ominous and threatening tone: “your day of reckoning has arrived. There’s a new sheriff in town—President Donald Trump. He’s going to cleanse America and make it Shine again. And, [sic] he’s going to start with you muslims. He’s going to do to you what Hitler did to the Jews. You Muslims would be wise to pack your bags and get out…” It was signed by “Americans for a Better Way.”
The letter wasn’t surprising as much as it was foreboding. Our mosque, ICB Wayland, had been an institution in its surrounding community for over thirty-six years. After 9/11, it had received a note accusing it of harboring the perpetrators of the attack. Nothing was done. This time, the police were notified and the letter was traced back to Santa Clarita, California, but the author was not identified. The FBI claimed that because there was no mention of a specific threat, they would not be investigating the situation. It was an emotional and trying time. The Jewish synagogue across the street staged a protest against the letter in solidarity with our mosque, and for that we were grateful.
We were, quite honestly, very lucky. We were privileged enough to be a primarily middle-class community; we had the means to go back to Pakistan and India and help our family members relocate to America. When the police were called on our home by our more intolerant neighbors, we could rest assured that they would only park outside of our house and “monitor the situation” instead of taking more direct—and drastic—action.
Many Muslims do not have such privilege. I remember hearing about a boy—a seventeen-year-old—who was detained by police for making posts sympathetic to terrorists on social media. His elder brother had been visiting mosques in the area, trying to raise awareness and funds to put together a legal team for the boy’s defense. I remember my father calling that boy an idiot when the topic came up at dinner time, and I remember agreeing with him. Now I’m not so sure.
When an individual grows up in an environment that is hostile, abrasive, and alien, they will become sympathetic to extremist ideologies. These may cause them to renounce parts of their identity, such as was the case with many of my friends and peers. It may cause them to look for more drastic solutions. Perhaps this boy’s family had never assimilated to the degree my parents had, and as a result, he was caught between two starkly polarized worlds: one in which he was hated for the color of his skin and the practice of his faith, and the other that was being annihilated by the former. When the elder brother stated his plea at our mosque, he claimed the boy was kind, thoughtful, but incredibly confused. He said that the boy would never think of hurting anyone, and that he didn’t know what he was posting. I believe that the boy would never hurt anyone. I also believe that he was driven to such radical and violent doctrines through prolonged desperation, frustration, and anger. Detaining the boy would only reaffirm for him the extreme path he had begun internalizing.
After Donald Trump instated his “Muslim ban” shortly after he was elected, the most underprivileged and impoverished Muslims were affected in the worst ways. It was during that time that my mosque was in the process of relocating a family of Syrian refugees to the nearby town of Revere. We had found an apartment, recruited volunteers to ensure that the family’s transitionary period was comfortable, and filed paperwork so the children could start school. All that remained was for the family to fly into Boston from the refugee camp they lived in. That, however, came to an abrupt halt when the Muslim ban was enacted, and to my knowledge that family had to stay in the camp, in a state of prolonged uncertainty, for several months before they were relocated.
The issue of anti-Muslim prejudice is systemic; it is aggravated by the desolate conditions of the postcolonial Middle East, the hateful rhetoric used by elected representatives garnering political support in the easiest way possible, and terrorist attacks resultant of both previously stated factors, which only reaffirm the prejudices of the public. Even as Muslims try to find their place in American society, try to achieve representation in government when too long they have been spoken for by others, they are put down by pundits on both sides of the aisle. No one exemplifies this phenomenon more than freshman Representative Ilhan Omar, who was grossly blasphemed for her all-too-accurate criticisms of Israeli lobbying groups. Republicans and Democrats alike, from Donald Trump to Nancy Pelosi, have labeled her an anti-Semite, in a gross appropriation of a classical Muslim stereotype. In contrast, when the Pittsburgh Synagogue shooting occurred, there was no bipartisan effort to criticize the anti-Semitic rhetoric of the far-right groups which champion the President.
At what point in time will our patriotism cease to be questioned? It has been eighteen years since 9/11. The invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan have been exposed as empty promises, wars which pledged to bring world-wide peace yet resulted in unprecedented destruction and chaos. Yet Muslim youth in this country are still ostracized and alienated. The media discusses the danger of “radical Islam.” Stereotypes continue to run rampant. Mosques are still surveilled, whilst simultaneously being the targets for alt-right white supremacist mass shootings.
My youngest brother turned thirteen last June, and traveled to Pakistan for the first time in seven years. He naturally got sick. Had both the stomach flu and a head cold. When he got back I talked to him on the phone; he didn’t have much to say about it.
- Macon Phillips, “Osama Bin Laden Dead,” May 2 2011, Obama White House Archives.