I’ve been avoiding the coverage of the ten year memorial of 9/11. I’ve been thinking and contemplating the changes, the good and the bad over the decade. I have wavered between pessimism and optimism. Like many, I also remember that fateful morning vividly. I was a senior in high school, in second period Macro Economics class with Mr. Stocks. He began the class with the usual jokes and stories that had little to do with economics but were shared to wake us up and get us animated in the morning. We were about to start the class when another teacher barged in and told us to turn on the tv quickly. We watched the second plane hit the tower and go up in smoke and then received the news that the Pentagon had been hit. Our teacher, a member of the National Guard, stood with his mouth open, shocked by the news and images. Our class became deadly silent. My mind went numb and I felt like I had no feelings other than utter shock. All of us students walked around solemnly that day, not sure about what had just happened. That day as I left school I turned on the radio and listened to talk radio which I normally did. As I listened I was again shocked by the words pouring out of the mouths of the callers. By this time I knew that the people who had flown the planes into the towers were “Muslims”, and my naive 17 year self did not even think about the ramifications of that for the Muslims living in America. However this quickly became clear as I listened to hateful words pouring out of the radio from ordinary Americans. As a young Muslim and an immigrant from India, I became bothered and angered by this sudden display and vocalization of hate. I didn’t do anything, I thought, I don’t know any Muslims who believe in violence and would ever think to commit such an act. I was a shy person and rarely spoke up in class. I never experienced hate from others because most people did not know I was Muslim. I didn’t wear anything that labeled me as such. However I realized that many of my fellow Muslims were experiencing hate and violence.
As I graduated from high school I knew that the world I was entering into was very different than I had ever imagined and that being shy would not cut it. From that day and the things I saw, heard, and read I knew that I wanted to study Religion, especially Islam and to write about it. I wanted to educate and teach others about Islam and to clear wrong perceptions about Islam. My trajectory was shaped by that day and in college I dove into my field of study, and worked with the Muslim students and became a part of interfaith activities. I also saw a awakening of the Muslim communities around me, as they realized that they could no longer remain silent and invisible in this society. Many mosques started opening their doors to the general public and hosted interfaith events and community service projects. My generation became involved in dialogue and hosted events to educate and inform others. As I graduated from college I was optimistic, I felt that Americans at large were learning to get past the rhetoric of hate towards Muslims, and that the attitude that all Muslims are terrorists was going to come to an end soon.
However, as the years passed and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq dragged on and despite the optimism of having Barack Obama’s as the new President, I realized that America and the Muslim community had a long way to go. Every year on the memorial of the 9/11 attacks, the media opened the wounds that we desperately wanted to heal. There was constant reminders that Muslims were the ones to blame. In the past two years there was escalation in hate mongering and discrimination against Muslim communities. There was the infamous “Ground Zero Mosque” controversy, anti-Sharia bills in various states, discrimination against building of mosques in many communities, and hate filled crimes towards ordinary American citizens of Muslim, Sikh, Arab, Iranian, and Indian backgrounds. People who even looked anything like what was perceived to be Muslim were targeted and hurt. These incidents linger in the air as the decade since that day closes and the next one begins. Will these sentiments ever dissipate? Will the Muslim community ever be welcomed and seen just as Americans as the rest? When will we ever heal?
Despite these pensive questions and feelings of pessimism, I do have an optimistic outlook. I know the Muslim community have made tremendous strides in opening up and taking control over their own identity. Many new organizations have been formed to combat extremist ideas and to project a positive image of Muslims in this country. Muslims have began to write their own narratives, to speak for themselves, and to not let a handful of violent men define who they are and what they believe in. I was elated to read the stories collected and written by the two Muslim guys of the 30 Mosques project, in which they traveled around the country giving us a picture of the diversity of the Muslim community. The profiles of various mosques and Muslims is different from the media perception of monolithic Muslims. There is also the book I Speak for Myself, a collection of stories from American Muslim women. These and others like them have started to come out. We define ourselves. Muslims living in America are just as Americans as Jews, Christians, Blacks, Chinese, Italians, Irish, Mexicans, and all the other ethnic and religious groups that make up this country. Muslims have to take the reins into their own hands and to write their own narratives. We don’t need to be apologetic and to accept what is said about us. We should not be ashamed of being Muslim. It is only by taking this into our hands and in telling our individual stories that we can collectively define our community in positive words.
As I look forward to the next decade I want to be optimistic. I intend to bring new Americans into the world and raise them here. They will be more American than me. I hope that they will enter into a world that does not have the hate and discrimination that my generation are dealing with. I want the next generation to know that we tried hard to make it better for them just as the previous generation strove hard to grant us the civil liberties that we take for granted today. I want them to know that there is no contradiction in being Muslim and American. I want them to have a positive narrative of the community. I want them to define the Muslim community and American society as a whole in new positive terms and images such that we are only imagining today. I hope in ten more years we will have healed and risen further than we have today.