(CNN) — Many Muslims in the United States point to September 11, 2001 as the day their relationship with the country changed.
Islamophobia had always existed, but the terrorist attacks in New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia seemingly made it worse — much worse.
Muslims of all stripes — citizens, immigrants and refugees — faced backlash. Many were ostracized and harassed, some physically assaulted and even killed. Charged rhetoric, successive wars and attacks further inflamed the situation.
Feeling condemned for crimes they didn’t commit, some Muslims changed their names and clothing to conceal their identities, while others clung even tighter to their faith. A few became outspoken advocates for the community.
Every Muslim in America has a story to tell. Here are some of them.
Ruwa Romman, 28, is a Palestinian American community organizer and policy analyst living in Duluth, Georgia.
When the terrorists attacked, she was 8 years old and had just recently immigrated to the US with her parents. But the dream she had of building a new life in America quickly turned into a nightmare.
“I remember the hallways and the day seemed darker even though I remember it was sunny outside,” Romman told CNN about her experience in school that day. “I don’t think I fully understood what was happening since I barely spoke English.”
Still, she recalls the long list of insults hurled at her as a child: “terrorist” and “sand n****r.” Some even asked if she was related to Osama Bin Laden, the Al-Qaeda mastermind behind the attacks.
Romman says she can’t remember a single day in elementary school when the bullying stopped. High school wasn’t much better — with one teacher pulling her out of class to ask if her family belongs to a terrorist group.
Outside of school, a close friend’s family banned her from their home because she was Muslim and “dangerous,” she said. Airport travel required numerous bag checks — sometimes three times during a single trip.
The bullying and harassment set Romman on a path to educate and advocate for her community, even at a young age.
“I felt this sense of duty to never respond to every terrible comment made to me and instead try to educate people,” Romman said. “Looking back at my younger self, I’m so angry and sad for her. I didn’t have to do any of that. I was a kid trying to grow up and figure out my life. All of a sudden I’d become an ambassador for a billion people around the world.”
“I remember trying so hard to get people to just see me as a person,” she added. “I stubbornly ignored the reality in front of me that my community was being systemically targeted from airports to universities to mosques. It wasn’t until I was around 18 that I began to learn about government entrapment, surveillance of students in Muslim Student Associations, and so much more.”
In 2016, Romman joined the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the nation’s largest Muslim civil rights and advocacy organization, as their communications director. She’s since become a community organizer, policy analyst and consultant working on related issues.
Romman says advocating for US Muslims and the issues they face is daunting, but sees hope in every small victory.
“We will continue to be politically engaged and unapologetically so.” Romman said. “Muslims are no longer willing to carry that burden. None of us committed 9/11. Why should we carry that burden?”
Qasim Rashid, 39, is a Pakistani American human rights lawyer living in Stafford, Virginia.
He remembers standing with coworkers in front of the office TV watching the World Trade Center collapse. Like the others, he was shocked by the news, but then he overheard a colleague whisper “rag heads” and fear set in.
“I moved here when I was four, so this was the only home I knew,” Rashid told CNN. “I’m American through and through in every sense of the word. But I was 19, Muslim, and I had a beard, and suddenly people couldn’t see me as American.”
Random police stops became his norm. Racial slurs that once felt so jarring eventually became predictable. And anytime Rashid met someone new, he braced for when they would inevitably bring up 9/11.
“Whether I liked it or not, just by existing I was suddenly representing 1.6 billion Muslims,” Rashid said. “I knew if I didn’t take an active role in writing my narrative, my story, someone else is going to do it for me and it’s not going to be true.”
He channeled his desire for truth and justice into studying law, and now works as a human rights lawyer representing Muslims, among other marginalized communities.
“There have been immense atrocities and horrific violence committed against Muslims because of 9/11. We saw things like the Patriot Act, the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, and Guantanamo Bay and the indefinite detention of people without due process of law,” Rashid said.
“I knew I had to do something to create the kind of country I thought America should be; one based on justice and compassion,” he added. “Becoming a lawyer was an acknowledgment that this country has noble values of equal justice and protection and a constitution worth fighting for.”
Much of Rashid’s work has centered on issues of immigration, asylum and women’s rights.
Fighting for justice in the court system hasn’t been easy, he said, but he’s heartened by the next generation, which has become increasingly vocal about rights issues and intolerant of hate.
As for young Muslims, he offers these words of advice: “Be fierce and be courageous in your identity. You don’t need to be ashamed or shy about it. Embrace it fully and confidently, and do so while leading with justice and creating an inclusive world for all voices.”
Nakibur Rahman, 44, is a Bangladeshi American university professor living in Fayetteville, North Carolina.
He immigrated to the US just weeks before 9/11 — young, confident and inspired to make his dreams come true. But everything changed that fateful morning, and the future didn’t seem so bright anymore.
“What came to my mind immediately was my friends and family in New York, one who worked in the towers,” Rahman told CNN. “It was a very traumatic moment for me, and I hadn’t even had the time to think about what this could mean for my community.”
His loved ones were found safe, but the fear and panic he felt remain with him to this day.
“If I close my eyes, it’s like I’m watching a movie,” Rahman said. “I can see exactly what happened from the moment I woke up to the moment I saw the attack on TV. After that, it was like my life stopped and I couldn’t remember anything.”
Rahman said he was fortunate to receive loads of support from his community in Maine, where he was in graduate school at the time. Still, he thought twice about doing or saying anything that could be misconstrued as suspicious.
“I was lucky to be surrounded by kindness, but something would always bring me back to reality,” he said. “I was constantly reminded of the same question: Am I going to be subject to backlash because a Muslim group committed this? It made me sad and very careful.”
His fears were bolstered by frequent news reports of hate crimes targeting Muslims. He said it led to a terrifying realization for the Muslim community that ultimately brought them together.
“The Muslim community learned that the things we cherish most in this country, the First Amendment, liberty, and pursuit of happiness could be taken away from us in a second,” Rahman said. “We came together because of that.”
For decades, Muslims have lived in the shadow of 9/11, but Rahman believes the future won’t be as dark.
“Muslim organizations we see today that are flourishing were born after 9/11, when we realized that if we don’t start helping ourselves, be active in the community, tell our sides of the story, no one else is going to do it for us,” he said. “And we refuse to be made the scapegoats forever.”
Ashanti Jabri, 27, is a data analyst and martial artist living in Atlanta, Georgia.
Jabri says he always felt like an outsider in the South. Being both Black and Muslim, he was taught to be wary of racism and Islamophobia from a very young age. But Jabri didn’t really understand what that meant until the morning of the attacks.
He was outside playing with his brother and some neighborhood kids when the news broke.
“It was an absolutely beautiful day, there was nothing around me but laughter, before my dad screamed our names and we ran to the house,” Jabri said. “He took us into our parents’ room, and my mom was sitting on the bed crying and CNN was playing in the background. It was extraordinarily scary.”
His parents explained what happened, before telling their children that even though they hadn’t done anything wrong, their lives would be forever changed.
Jabri was told that he was no longer allowed to play or be outside alone. For a year, his mother took off her hijab and his father stopped wearing a kufi, a traditional cap worn by some Muslim men.
“For our safety, we had to live very under the radar,” he said. “As a child, I was just terrified all the time of anyone realizing I was Muslim and thinking I was a bad person. I felt like I didn’t know who I was anymore because of the way the world saw Muslims. Was I the enemy?”
Jabri struggled with his identity for years. He debated dropping his middle name, Omar, because it sounded Muslim. At times he tried to hide his religion, and often questioned if it was his responsibility to fight back against Islamophobia.
“It was like I felt the need to constantly denounce those acts and ideologies, to remind people ‘Those people are not me. I am not that kind of Muslim’,” Jabri said. “I was constantly analyzing myself and what I had to say instead of dealing with the issues 9/11 caused me as a Muslim.”
Jabri said his whole life was marked by incessant reminders of 9/11, including harassment from community members and law enforcement. His mother was verbally and physically assaulted, and he was once questioned by the FBI after a trip abroad.
“Every day after 9/11 was a very constant reminder that I was living in a place that wasn’t comfortable with me existing as me,” Jabri said. “Being a Black man as well as a Muslim in America, it felt like people only saw me as a threat. My very essence intimidated people and I didn’t know how to live with that.”
Jabri still feels “abandoned, hurt, and criminalized” for being himself, but says he’s now more confident in his identity and does not harbor animosity.
“I’m just grateful to be part of a community that’s so strong and resilient to survive that kind of backlash,” he said.
“We have seen the best out of Muslims after 9/11,” Jabri added. “We went from our communities being near obscurity to hearing our wonderful voices in journalism, sports, politics, arts, business, and activism. So many voices have been given a chance to be heard and show what Islam is really about.”
Nadia Ahmad, 41, is a Pakistani-Indian American professor living in Altamonte Springs, Florida.
Ahmad was buried in a pile of books and LSAT practice tests when her sister called to tell her the US was under attack and authorities believed Muslim extremists were to blame.
“I flung the books from my lap and started pacing around the house, thinking what would happen,” Ahmad told CNN. “I had that same feeling when Donald Trump was elected President in 2016. What will happen to us?”
Her heart broke for all the innocent people who died. She also knew the backlash against Muslims would be harsh, and wondered if her law career was over before it could even start.
It wasn’t long before news of hate crimes targeting Muslims began to make national headlines. Some Muslim women who typically wore the hijab removed their headscarves, but Ahmad refused.
She described her hijab as a “shield” and the source of her courage.
“I didn’t care if I stuck out like a sore thumb,” Ahmad said. “I remember a few days later when I went back to my LSAT class and stopped at a nearby gas station, a man yelled at me, ‘Go back to your country.’ I stared back at him and his pathetic existence and walked away.”
Almost immediately, Ahmad began organizing within her community to educate and advocate for Muslims.
“I don’t think I paused to process what had happened on 9/11, because I was too busy responding. I couldn’t grieve, because I felt under siege,” Ahmad said. “Everything changed suddenly. The ground beneath our feet was shifting. At the same time, there was no way as an American-born, Berkeley-educated Muslim woman I would cower in this situation.”
She organized local meetings that brought the Muslim community, government officials and law enforcement together to tackle such issues as civil rights protections and hate crime reporting. When the US declared its “War on Terror” and invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, she helped organize anti-war rallies in Orlando that were attended by thousands. She was even invited to speak at Church Center for the United Nations about women’s rights and wartime violence.
All the while, Ahmad silently battled depression, anxiety, and paranoia that she attributes to the backlash she faced after 9/11.
Now, as a law professor, she aims to inspire young people to continue fighting for Muslim rights in the US.
“Muslims now are stronger as a community,” she said. “While in many ways we are so powerless and silenced, we have fought back against stereotypes. We have added our own narratives.”
Aneelah Afzali, 44, is an Afghan American community organizer in Seattle, Washington.
Before coming to the US, her family fled as refugees from Afghanistan to Germany to escape an invasion by the former Soviet Union.
In America, they hoped to build a new and promising future for themselves. But the journey toward a better life away from war and injustice wasn’t going to be easy.
On the morning of the attacks, Afzali was glued to the TV in her dorm room, watching in horror as the World Trade Center’s towers fell. “I had difficulty breathing, and a sickening feeling grew in my belly — about those killed, about what this would mean for our country and the world,” she said.
Then came worries that her family, friends and community were also at risk.
“Here I was, grieving like other Americans for those killed and their family and loved ones — but unlike other Americans, I knew Muslims could not simply grieve,” said Afzali. “Even though Muslims were killed in the attacks, and Muslims were part of the frontline workers risking their lives to try to save so many in New York and beyond, Muslims were still being demonized and collectively blamed. And that broke my heart.”
Afzali said she felt “disgusted, angry and sad” that the perpetrators claimed Islam as their religion.
As hate crimes targeting Muslims increased, so did her anxiety. She was especially concerned for her parents, who owned a small market and gas station. When her father hung an American flag at the store, she wondered if it was enough to protect them from bigots.
After graduating from law school, Afzali worked for two firms and ran the legal department at a healthcare IT company. She did her best to educate those around her about Islam and American Muslims, but always felt she could do more.
In 2013, after what Afzali calls a “spiritual transformation,” she left her legal career and founded the American Muslim Empowerment Network (AMEN), a grassroots organization dedicated to educating Americans on Islam and building coalitions to fight Islamophobia. AMEN has trained more than 5,000 people on related issues.
Despite the group’s success, Afzali worries that recent events in Afghanistan could spark a new wave of bigotry and violence against Muslims in the US.
“I fear the narrative may shift again because we often see the wholly inappropriate conflation of the brutal behavior of groups like the Taliban with the teachings of Islam, which drives Islamophobia,” she said. “And with the looming Afghan refugee crisis, we may also experience an increase in xenophobia as well.”
The hope, she says, is that Americans will take all the positive things they’ve learned about Muslims since 9/11 and use it to work toward unity and justice.
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