I grew up in a Muslim family. My mother wore hijab, and when I was 12, I started to wear hijab. The attacks on the World Trade Center happened a little after I was 13. When it happened, I was at school, and I think we found out during my math class. A friend of mine made some sort of joke about my brother’s name being Osama, but I didn’t think anything of it at the time, and I’m sure that the joke maker didn’t have any malice behind it either. We didn’t really understand what happened.
That night, my parents discussed whether or not to send us to school the next day or even the next week. I was in middle school, so of course I wanted a reason not to go to school the next day. My dad was an immigrant so he bore the pain of discrimination every day from that. We didn’t really relate to him as much because my mom and my siblings and I were all born in Missouri. So of course, when my dad was very serious about how this attack will change our lives forever, we didn’t understand how his history would give him foresight into the issue. I remember thinking that he was being paranoid, but whatever, I got a day off of school.
I didn’t expect what would happen at school. When you’re a teenager, your friends are everything. I couldn’t fathom that my friends wouldn’t be nice. Just to clarify, this wasn’t all of my friends or most of them even. But, it was enough friends that I was crushed. One of my best friends from the year before didn’t have any classes with me, but she told me that her parents didn’t want her to be friends with my kind of people. It’s funny — my parents voted for Bush the first time and considered themselves Republican. That’s why I got along so well with this particular friend of mine: we were both conservative. Who knew that “my kind of people” would turn on me so rapidly?
That first week, teachers didn’t make eye contact and stopped calling on me in class. It got better as time went on, but I still remember that initial hurt. Classmates kept asking me if my family had terrorists. They asked me if I hated America or why my religion hated America. The “nicer” ones acted like my family was this isolated bubble of different, good Muslims, but still said horrible sweeping statements about Muslims in general. Every time someone said something stereotypical like that and then followed up with “but I don’t mean you or your family”, I had mixed feelings. I was happy that they didn’t think that about me, but I wondered at the same time if they didn’t realize that they were still thinking in terms of stereotypes. It felt like when people say, “I’m not racist! I have a black friend!”
And then there were the mean classmates. When I was in middle school, I was maybe 80 pounds. I was tiny. Needless to say, the bigger kids thought it was okay to shove me and call me a terrorist. I remember clearly when I accidentally embarrassed another kid by answering a question in class correctly. She was so mad that she ripped my hijab down to expose my hair and said that I shouldn’t be allowed to wear the stupid towel. Later, she did the same thing again but this time, she took the entire hijab off of me. She held it up and asked me to beg for forgiveness for killing all those people. I was so humiliated that I didn’t tell anyone what happened. People who saw the first incident didn’t really understand why I was upset that my hair was uncovered in the first place. I didn’t feel like I had any recourse the second time around. Sadly, this was not the only time something like that happened.
My brother had it even worse. His name was Osama. He changed it after a while. 2001 was also around the time when wrestling was super popular on TV. He had classmates that would put him in chokeholds. When we moved cities, he had classmates that met him for the first time and instantly mocked his name. He would have people refuse to say his name out loud as if they were summoning a demon. When we were both the new kids at school, we would have contests to see who could go the longest without having anyone other than a teacher speak to them in school. It was a toss up between who was less liked — me with the hijab or him with the name Osama.
In my super idealistic view of the world, I was 100% sure that real adults would not have these views. I had no reasons to believe that. Every so often, people in the street or at the store or at the airport would hiss or yell that we were terrorists. I remember that sad feeling when other patrons would pretend like they didn’t see as if they secretly agreed with the person yelling. People would spit at us and tell us to go home. People would say that they wanted the military to blow up our country (side note, my favorite time was when someone said this to a Hawaiian hijabi friend of mine and she bitterly yelled back that Pearl Harbor already happened). We would get propaganda at our door talking about how Muslims worshiped the moon god, and they were crazy lunatics that should be put in camps. My parents’ friends would whisper about rumors of concentration camps for Muslims, and no one was sure whether or not it was real. When I voiced my fears to my friends, some would shrug and say that they understood putting a group of people away like the Japanese during WWII because it was important for the greater good’s safety. I started reading up on the treatment of Japanese-Americans just so I would understand what my world would be like if there was an internment of Muslim-Americans. No teenager should ever have that fear.
Given this view of the world, I’m not sure why I was so shocked when my teachers in high school were the ones who started to teach the rhetoric that Muslims were angry, violent terrorists. I remember sitting there speechless when one of my teachers went on and on about how Islam as a whole hated America and all that it stood for. I patiently raised my hand and waited the entire class for him to call on me so I could say something, but he didn’t. He cruelly made eye contact with me while he said that Muslims wanted all of these awful negative things including raping women and kidnapping and selling children. When he handed out the exams later that week, I wasn’t surprised to see the essay question asking everyone to explain the differences between the Muslim world and America. I refused to answer the question, but instead wrote a long essay about being a Muslim in America and how the two worlds he saw were just one, singular world for me. I can’t imagine how everyone else answer that question.
I’m still not sure why I thought college was going to be better. I had a lot more Muslim friends to hang out with, which was nice. At the same time, I was exposed to far more people from smaller towns where this was the first time that they met a non-white person. When I started college, I still wore hijab. Drunk people were cruel. Sober people were just as cruel but they disguised their distaste for Muslims as intellectual curiosity. I always felt so small when I accidentally fell into their conversation traps.
When I stopped wearing hijab and was less religious in general, things shifted a lot for me. There wasn’t a clear indication that I was that different. I would befriend people and they would feel comfortable in telling me about what they thought of Muslims as if it were a foregone conclusion that I shared their stereotypical views. Despite not being religious, I would defend Muslims, and people’s faces would turn in disgust as if I was being contrary just to be annoying.
Or, people would be shocked to find out that I came from a Muslim family. They would say, “but you’re so normal” or “you don’t seem violent at all” as if being Muslim meant that you were different and prone to violence. The worst were the people who pretended like it didn’t matter until they needed to hurt me some way. I got angry at someone, and they said, “hey, don’t blow up my house”. A couple times, I would date someone who seemed nice at first, but they wouldn’t defend me when their families would say racist/religionist/whatever comments. Family members would ask if it was safe to associate with me or safe to date someone who had connections to the Islamic world. I always found it nicer when people just avoided talking about their negative views of Islam generally.
Now, I still get a lump in my throat when people talk about terrorists or 9/11. I am so sad for all of the people who lost loved ones. But, I and the majority of Muslims are not responsible for what happened. My home is America, too. I want everywhere to be safe. When the KKK or Timothy McVeigh blows up a building, no one whispers that white Christians are a violent group, but when a group that doesn’t look like their idea of American performs a violent action, everyone tries really hard not to look at me.
It’s easy to see people as their skin color, as their religion, as their differences. It’s much harder to see people as people.