Photo credit: Jasmin Merdan
Muslim students report being teased and harassed when schools focus on 9/11.
Maysoon Zayid gained fame as a stand-up comic and actor seen on the daytime soap “General Hospital.” Yet she still gets death threats “all the time.”
Farhaj Hassan served in the Iraq War with the U.S. Army but later was so horrified by police spying on Muslim citizens that he sued the NYPD.
Amani Al-Khatahtbeh, frustrated by stereotypes and media bias, started her own online platform so Muslim women could tell their own stories.
For American Muslims who grew up in the shadow of 9/11, the last 20 years have been a time of contradictions — pride and fear, harassment and suspicion, solidarity and resistance. They mourned the attack on their country but also endured a rising tide of Islamophobia, no-fly lists, the “Muslim ban” and stereotyping.
The USA TODAY Network interviewed influential Muslim Americans about the lasting impact of the 2001 attacks. For most, it was a turning point, shaping their journeys as artists, activists, politicians and performers.
They described being taunted by classmates, having their homes egged, seeing neighbors detained by the FBI.
Did 9/11 permanently change life in the US? More Americans say so than ever before
Anti-Muslim bias continues today, but what has changed is how the generation that came of age after 9/11 has responded. Cast as “other,” they were determined to take back the narrative of their faith, their lives and their place in America.
They rued being typecast in film as either villains or victims and how they were expected to censor their speech or onstage acts. Now, they are influencing a wider audience as culture makers, elected officials and civic leaders.
Here are their stories, in their own words:
Zayid is an actor, comedian, writer and disability advocate.
On 9/11: Since the ’90s, Arabs have been vilified in movies. We played terrorists. We played taxi drivers and belly dancers. But I didn’t realize, being born and raised in America, watching the towers fall, being as terrorized as everyone else in my neighborhood, I would be treated differently because I am Muslim, because I am Arab.
Shortly after 9/11, I met my partner in comedy crime, Dean Obeidallah [the comedian and SiriusXM radio host]. He said, “Let’s do an Arab comedy show to combat the negative images of Arabs and Muslims in media.” That was the first time I was like, “Oh, I can actually use my comedy for good.”
Maysoon Zayid, a comedian from Cliffside Park, speaks on her experiences as a Muslim American in the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Interviewed in her office in Englewood Cliffs on Thursday, July 1, 2021. Photo credit:DANIELLE PARHIZKARAN/NORTHJERSEY.COM
On being a Muslim celebrity: I get death threats all the time. I live in a country where Islam is so vilified that people sit at home and go, “You know who I’m going to kill? The Muslim funny disabled chick.”
The future: I think things are changing because Muslims are getting involved in every aspect of public life. I think it’s changing because we have people like Rashida Tlaib in Congress. We have Keith Ellison as an attorney general [in Minnesota]. There are Muslim comics, incredible Muslim Olympians. We have become such a part of the mainstream fabric that I think that we are beating the stigma, we are breaking the stereotypes.
Aman and Zeshawn Ali
The Ohio-born Ali brothers are storytellers and filmmakers who made the acclaimed 2020 documentary “Two Gods.”
Aman: I was a junior in high school. It was toward the end of the day and a kid stood up and said, “We should bomb Afghanistan until it glows.” And I confronted him. “Yeah, let’s go after who did this, but why should we bomb an entire country, any country, for what a group of people did?”
He goes, “I bet it was you. It was probably your dad flying that plane, wasn’t it?”
I don’t think we fully understood at the time. It created an inferiority complex like, “We’re not good enough to be here,” even though we’re born and raised in this country, that we’re not welcome and me self-censoring myself initially: Don’t be too loud because they might see you as too angry, or don’t do this, they may see you as this.
Zeshawn: Teenage-hood and adulthood was always tainted by this air of feeling like I was being watched out of like the corner of somebody’s eye. Or needing to be good but not great, so that way I wouldn’t be targeted. I quieted myself in many sorts of ways. A lot of my personality is very sort of low-key and I sort of blend into the background, but I do think that was a survival tactic.
Zeshawn Ali, left, and Aman Ali, right, are storytellers and filmmakers who made the acclaimed 2020 documentary “Two Gods.” PHOTOS BY: GUILLERMO HERNANDEZ MARTINEZ/NEWS-LEADER AND JOSHUA A. BICKEL/COLUMBUS DISPATCH
Zeshawn: The mosque we grew up in was vandalized in Ohio. I’ll never forget. We found out the news on my 12th birthday. We saw news footage on the local news and I remember just being like, “Well my birthday is ruined.” I wasn’t putting the pieces together of how much it was shaping the ways in which I had to interact with the world at large. And I think I’m still putting the pieces together 20 years later.
There was one night where my mom and I were coming home and we noticed that our house had been egged. We noticed something was drawn on them. We picked it up and looked at them and there had been a swastika drawn on the egg. And I just remember being like, “Mom, don’t worry. They must have gotten the wrong house because we’re not Jewish. That’s the wrong hate for us.”
And my cousin was like, “No, they hate us, too. They just hate everyone.” And I think it was that moment where I connected the dots where people were using this moment in time as a way to justify othering people.
On becoming storytellers:
Aman: 9/11 to me just underscored the importance of telling stories and getting our stories out there. We would get fed up with how this Muslim was portrayed in this film. We would always go, “Does that seem like us? Does that seem like somebody we know?” When we became adults, we said instead of just complaining, let’s start telling our own stories. Let’s tell stories the way we want them to be told, the way they should be told.
Sarsour is a racial justice and civil rights activist from New York City who co-chaired the Women’s Marches on Washington in 2017 and 2019.
On 9/11: A lot of our women in our community in that time did take their hijabs off. I felt really defiant. I was like “Absolutely not!” After 9/11, [the hijab] became really spiritual for me. It was something that helped me maintain an identity that I felt I needed more than I ever have.
Her first civil rights case: I went from an aspiring high school English teacher to becoming a [community] volunteer. The first client I ever had was a man from Morocco who had been apprehended. He was part of a company that does import/export, and they saw there were a lot of stamps in his passport. He was going to different countries in little, short periods of time, and that was a red flag for the government.
Eventually, he was released because there was nothing. You can’t keep a guy because you don’t like the stamps in his passport. That’s not how civil rights works.
Linda Sarsour signals for quiet as activists opposed to President Donald Trump’s embattled Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh, demonstrate before being arrested, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Monday, Sept. 24, 2018. Photo credit J. SCOTT APPLEWHITE, AP
20 years later: It required a very horrific, tragic event for our Muslim community to look around and say we are one. It doesn’t matter if you’re Black Muslim, South Asian Muslim, a convert. We are being attacked as one community.
One of the things I’ve seen over the last 20 years is a much more politically engaged and politically active Muslim community and young Muslims who see their plight connected to the plight of other minority groups around the country. That for me has been very hopeful.
U.S. Rep. André Carson
In 2008, André Carson of Indiana became only the second Muslim ever elected to the U.S. Congress.
On 9/11: I knew that this would be a tough go going forward for the Muslim community. I was in Indianapolis at the time, but you felt a shift. Those who were bigots and xenophobes and Islamophobes — 9/11 for them was a reason to justify their hatred and animosity.
It caused a lot of Muslims, I think, to perhaps hide their Islam, their religious beliefs, in the workplace and society to gain acceptance. In other parts, it created a space for Muslims to create a dialogue with the greater community and say, “Here’s who we are. This is what we stand for. This is what we believe.”
Uniting Muslims: There were huge divisions between the immigrant Muslim community and the indigenous African-American Muslim community, and it created a space for dialogue. Pre-9/11, you could go into a mosque as an African-American and say “As-Salaam Alaikum” and people wouldn’t respond.
After 9/11, I think that many who were legally white because they were checking a box socially, they became nonwhite. And they were saying, “Hey, this is what the African-American community has been talking about in civil rights and so many other issues.”
Rep. André Carson is interviewed in his office at the Rayburn Office Building on Aug. 16, 2021 in Washington, DC. Carson has represented Indiana’s 7th congressional district since 2008. Photo credit:DOUG KAPUSTIN, DOUG KAPUSTIN-USA TODAY
Islamophobia today: I have continued to receive death threats because of my faith and because of my race. I had a threat on Jan. 6. A person was apprehended carrying explosives who had my name on a list.
I think progress has been made. You have greater representation from the Muslim community in our governmental space, law enforcement and American political life. Go to any major hospital in this country, you’ll find a Muslim physician. You’ll find Muslim attorneys, Muslim judges, Muslim engineers, certainly Muslim educators. There is a lot of work that needs to be done.
Amani Al-Khatahtbeh is an activist, media influencer and founder of MuslimGirl.com
On harassment after 9/11: As young as I was when 9/11 happened, it was still very obvious to me that life had changed almost overnight.
Our house in our hometown was becoming targeted by getting egged, toilet-papered, kids were throwing rocks at it. This one time, an egg flew through a window and almost hit my newborn baby brother in the head. So it was a very terrifying time for my parents and our whole family.
I was a New Jersey girl born and raised, and suddenly I was being treated like I was an outsider and like I didn’t belong, even though this was the only home I had ever known.
Her role in media: I started my platform, MuslimGirl.com, in large part because of the lack of community I was finding in real life, because of the experience I had to endure growing up as a Muslim American girl with one foot in two cultures and trying to navigate my modern lifestyle in today’s society as a practicing young Muslim woman.
Aug 2, 2021; Los Angeles, CA: Amani Al-Khatahtbeh is an author and activist who founded of MuslimGirl.com. The website and blog’s goal is to debunk myths and stereotypes about Muslim women in America, along with creating a community for Muslim women to open up about their challenges in America. Mandatory Credit: Dan MacMedan-USA TODAY
Islamophobia today: The hate is very much present today, but I will say that far more people are aware of it now than they were back then. When I was a child, it felt like a much more isolating experience. One thing that was the only silver lining for me over the past few years with everything going on around us was the fact that at least our generation started establishing the support systems needed for the next generation to be able to not only survive like we did but hopefully thrive.
When the planes struck the Twin Towers, Army Sgt. Farhaj Hassan of Helmetta, New Jersey, was in boot camp in South Carolina. He would later serve in the Iraq War and then was lead plaintiff in a lawsuit challenging the New York City Police Department’s secret surveillance of Muslim communities. Hassan reenlisted.
On 9/11: It was the second day of basic training. We didn’t know what happened. The only thing that we saw was a giant flag being taken down to half-mast. Then the drill sergeant said words that I will never forget: “Soldiers, if you pray, pray for your country today.”
“Terrorizing” Muslims: My beloved Newark, New Jersey, had three or four, a handful of mosques that were surveilled. My two mosques were surveilled. They infiltrated student organizations. They were in and out of Rutgers University and other places and they [found] zero credible intelligence or leads to stop any terrorism.
I took an oath to protect and defend the Constitution and I’m going to do that until I die in any way, shape or form. What the NYPD was doing was terrorizing innocent Muslims and people of faith through no fault of their own, and somebody had to put a stop to it. We had the Constitution on our side and we succeeded.
NYPD denies 9/11-era surveillance practices: Some New Yorkers are skeptical
Farhaj Hassan, a Muslim American, currently of Helmetta, New Jersey, was in basic training on 9/11. Here he poses for a photograph as he holds a flag that was awarded to military deployed to the first rotation of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Tuesday, July 27, 2021. Photo credit: KEVIN R. WEXLER-NORTHJERSEY.COM
On reenlisting: I signed up because I knew I could do more for Muslim Americans in uniform when it comes to the guy on my left and the guy on my right. We can’t view things from a 30,000-foot view at all times. We have to be good neighbors, good co-workers, honest people and good representatives of Islam one person at a time, and that’s how we’re going to get ahead.
Sadaf Jaffer is a Princeton University educator and activist and was the first female Muslim mayor in the U.S., serving in Montgomery Township in New Jersey.
On 9/11: It was just the beginning of my freshman year at Georgetown University and I remember watching the news in the student lounge. We could see the Pentagon burning from our campus, and obviously all of D.C. was on lockdown.
I remember just a sense of fear, certainly, among the Muslim students about not wanting to be alone around campus, not leaving campus, and I think it was a long time before I actually went past the gates of the campus after the attacks. But I also remember students coming together right after the attacks, all the different religious communities.
Choosing a career: After the attacks, I really wanted to understand Islamic history — what is true about what is being said and what’s false, both by Muslim extremists but also by anti-Muslim activists. So I decided to focus on regional studies of the Islamic world. I studied abroad in Egypt. I went for two years to study Urdu in India and have ultimately pursued a focus on Islam in South Asia as my academic field.
Not seeking re-election former Montgomery Mayor Sadaf Jaffer left office December 31, 2020 after serving for two years. When elected she was the first Muslim women to serve as mayor in the US. Photo credit: CHRIS PEDOTA, NORTHJERSEY.COM-USA TODAY NETWORK
Islamophobia today: I do think it’s worse today. We’ve had 20 years of intense information just being shared through every possible medium. We’ve become more and more siloed and isolated in our various communities, so those who just want to believe the worst things about Muslims can spend their whole day only being exposed to media that agrees with them.
One of the things I think is really powerful and has a lot of promise is the role of arts and literature in helping us understand each other and elevating the beautiful elements of Muslim communities and Islamic history. That’s something I’d like to see more of.