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Muslim Americans Reflect On Experience Growing Up In A Post 9/11 World

Following 9/11, millions of Muslim Americans faced significant challenges in their lives. The attacks led to a swell of Islamophobia and bigotry in the U.S. that many Muslims had to live under.

Now, 20 years later, that day still affects the community.

Wardah Khalid was around 15 years old and in high school when the attacks happened on Sept. 11, 2001. She remembers being confused in the immediate aftermath.

“I think I was shocked also,” she says, “to see that somebody would do something like this in the name of a religion that I also followed.”

The policy of 9/11 influenced Khalid to take up policy as a career, using her background as a Muslim American to contribute to a field that lacked diversity in areas such as D.C. and New York.

“I wanted to use that knowledge to improve policy, improve our foreign policy, improve our domestic policy and improve the Islamophobia that people around the world were facing,” Khalid says.

It’s so easy for the U.S. to get caught up in a system of fear and abandon the progress it had built up, Khalid says. But she remains hopeful for the future after seeing the work of Muslims across the country and increasing interfaith efforts.

“That’s all great,” she says, “but it also needs to translate to policy.”

“We need to improve in politics, we need to improve in media, we need to improve in our politician’s rhetoric,” she says, “and make sure that these attacks are not the reason that we have this discriminatory legacy in the U.S. against Muslims or those who are perceived to be Muslims.”

Noor Tagouri was 8 years old at the time of the attacks. It was a moment that would change the course of her life, including her dreams of becoming the next Oprah Winfrey.

“There’s this overwhelming anxiety most of us carry with us,” Tagouri says. “And it takes a lot of reflection and work to peel back why we carry that.”

As a journalist and founder of the production company At Your Service, Tagouri has taken note of how Muslims have been misrepresented in the media. She recalls sitting down one day with a news director and showing him her resume reel. Afterward, the director told Tagouri he hadn’t even noticed her hijab.

At her confusion, the director further explained that another woman wearing a hijab had asked for a job. In her reel, the woman wore a black hijab and the director told the woman it made him uncomfortable. A year later, Tagouri says, the woman came back and showed him her new reel, this time without wearing her hijab.

In another instance, Tagouri herself wore a black hijab while out reporting and was told by a friend not to wear it.

“The woman literally told me, ‘You terrify me.’ She used that language,” Tagouri says. “I remember thinking to myself ‘oh, the black hijab is what people have seen on television.’ ”

As the 20th anniversary approaches, Tagouri says one lesson people need to pay attention to will start with themselves.

“Take a look at the stories that you have believed, the stories that you have told yourself about yourself in this country,” she says. “It’s time to ask those questions of ourselves and then it’s time to listen.”

On Sept. 11, Eboo Patel was sitting in his mother’s living room, watching with terror as the attacks happened. At the time, Patel was in his mid-20s and a graduate student in England visiting friends and family in the U.S.

Since then, Patel says it became clear to him that being a Muslim in America was going to be different after 9/11. While there was bigotry and hatred, he says there were also parts of the U.S. that were responsible, hopeful and looking for other opportunities for religion.

When he founded the Interfaith Youth Core, Patel discovered there were people who were receptive to it.

“I think there was this real hope in America, that religion could play a positive role in the world,” he says.

“We contribute to this nation in beautiful, powerful, positive ways,” Patel says, but adds that Islamophobia is the barrier to those contributions.

On the 20th anniversary, Patel says that he’s reflecting on a different Sept. 11, one in 1893. On that day, Hindu monk Swami Vivekananda delivered an address at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago. Within that speech was a message of peace and a call to an end of ill will amongst religions.

“As I tell my kids all the time, Islam is a tradition that’s about the belief in mercy, how we treat our fellow human beings,” Patel says.

At Your Service is working on an investigative series on the Misrepresentation of Muslims in American Media. Email [email protected] to share your story of witnessing the consequences of inaccurate representation of Muslim and Arab communities.

Jeannette Muhammad and Sam Raphelson produced this interview and edited it for broadcast with Chris Bentley. Muhammad also adapted this interview for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Noor Tagouri (Skai Blue Media)
Noor Tagouri (Skai Blue Media)