A first-person point of view on a global event that changed everything for a Muslim woman
On Canada Project
Thu, September 14, 2023
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I was barely one on September 11th, 2001 – sitting in front of the TV with my mother, awed by bright colours and loud noises.
I don’t remember 9/11, and because I don’t wear a hijab and had never lived in North America until I moved there for university, I didn’t feel myself turn into an enemy overnight in the same way that so many Muslims did immediately following the attacks.
Instead, I grew up with the full knowledge and awareness that I was, for some reason that I couldn’t explain, an enemy to the West. I knew that border control officers trembled in fear at the sight of a nine-year-old Pakistani girl, and I knew not to speak Urdu in public. I knew to be careful, I just didn’t know why.
Having grown up in Europe, we never learned about the attacks in school. Instead, my older brother taught me about the tragedy, the costly War on Terror that followed, and the way the world saw us as a threat to be neutralized.
Even so, I didn’t really understand why my classmates would ask me if my father was a terrorist and if we were going to visit Osama bin Laden when I went home to Pakistan for summer vacation.
I couldn’t tell if they were sincere or if it was supposed to be a twisted joke. I’d nervously laugh it off, but it’s no wonder I started to hate my brown skin, my name, and my Muslim faith.
I found myself erasing the Muslim pieces of my identity – hiding the Quranic children’s books under my bed and refusing to practice Urdu with my dad before bedtime like we had for years. Apathy felt better than my friends’ parents’ looks of anxiety when they heard I was Pakistani.
I felt so guilty for denying myself the beauty and vibrancy of my culture, but it felt like the only choice was to resign myself to a life of being as palatable as possible, even if I was miserable.
When I moved to Egypt at 13, after being battered by the white, Islamophobic echo chambers I was trapped in while living in Europe, I finally began to unlearn the bullsh*t and self-hatred that the West forced into me.
I wasn’t threateningly different anymore – I was surrounded by Muslims who were proud of their identity, Muslims who were displaced from their homelands because of the War on Terror, Muslims who weren’t afraid of the American war machine even though their lives had been ravaged by it.
They, like me, felt such overwhelming loss and mourning, but they still had hope and honour. They taught me to be proud to say “MashAllah” (Meaning “God wills it” in Arabic) again.
As I sit in my brown skin, with Arabic calligraphy hanging around my neck and a Pakistan flag pin on my backpack, I can’t help but think of every single ‘random search’ and extra bomb swab I’ve faced at airports.
I remember my peers joking about the men in my family being backwards degenerates. I can’t forget how my dad gets held up in interrogation rooms for hours by border control officers who see him as a threat for his name and passport. I remember every time my brother has come home in distress because he was questioned about being an ISIS fighter.
I grieve over how thousands of my fellow Muslims in the U.S. and Canada were surveilled and detained for no reason other than the God they believe in.
I think back on every news headline, every drone strike, every civilian casualty. The memories keep flooding back, and all I can do is mourn how much we all have lost.
To a lot of people, war is an abstract thing.
War is a game you turn off when your parents call you for dinner, war is a movie you watch with a bucket of buttery popcorn, war is a textbook you read in a history class you wish you’d skipped.
Government officials have never threatened to “bomb [their] country back into the stone age” (as said by Former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, to Pakistan).
They’ve never seen a headline and rushed to call their grandmother to check if she’s alright, and if the drone strike reached her neighbourhood. They’ve never seen people who look like them being gunned down on the 2 o’clock news daily. They’ve never felt that ever-present, lingering fear for your life and safety.
My story is just one of 1.9 billion Muslims around the world. And this isn’t even just a ‘Muslim story’ – every Arab and every brown-skinned person, regardless of their religion, has felt the aftershocks of this tragedy.
21 years after the attacks, many of us are just beginning to piece together our experiences after September 11, 2001. Many of us are still struggling to unpack the years of orchestrated political and media moves intended to paint all Muslims as terrorist sympathizers; my heart aches for those brown kids who make bomb jokes in attempts to make white friends. Inshallah (Arabic for “God willing), they’ll learn better.
U.S.-born Muslims are twice as likely to attempt suicide than any other religious group, and hate crimes have yet to drop to where they were before the attacks. Our community has mourned every single day since the attacks on 9/11, but Muslim Americans and Canadians are still treated as sub-human in the countries we call home.
We are not terrorists, and we are not America haters. We are first responders, we were working in the towers, we were travellers on the planes. We lost our lives and our loved ones on September 11th. We are your neighbours, co-workers, friends, and family, and we didn’t deserve the hate we received.
This piece was written by Aynur Shaikh, a team member of On Canada Project.
Aynur is an activist, organizer, and creative problem solver who seeks to always challenge dominant cultural hegemony. She holds a BA in Sociology and Criminology from the University of Toronto, and brings a critical and intersectional outlook to her research. As a Pakistani woman and ‘third culture kid,’ who has lived in six countries and visited 32, Aynur provides an informed international perspective that highlights not only culture, but historical and postcolonial legacy. She is currently pursuing her Masters in Sociology, aiming to develop a career in academia and social organizing.