On the occasion of the anniversary of 9/11, and in honor of the end of Ramadan, four New York Muslims reflect on piety and patriotism, on sharing classrooms and rituals of community life, on the courage and goodness of New Yorkers, and on the horrific event that has shaped a generation of American Muslim life.
September 11, 2001. The day I became Muslim.
That’s a lie. I am now a Muslim. I was not always. America made me Muslim.
I was born into a Muslim family. Like all good children of immigrants, I rebelled. By the time I was 16, I was a firm Marxist, rejecting religion as an opiate of the masses. In college, two things happened: identity politics and a good liberal arts education. In high school, I was me, with all my multifaceted parts a congruous whole that my friends, whom I had known for years, accepted and understood. In college, I had to choose one part of me to define me. I was being made Muslim. But then I took an Introduction to Islam course, taught by a former Jesuit priest of Syrian descent. Intellectually, I learned more about Islam in that semester than I had up until that point in my life. That’s when I knew I could be Muslim. I became Muslim.
When 9/11 happened, I was a proud Muslim, studying Islam academically. Bin Laden wanted to take that away from me, but I was not going to let him. He did not awaken Islam in me. In fact, had I been weaker in my faith, he would have made me run from it screaming. As a native New Yorker, bin Laden’s actions fueled in me an anger against the injustice he perpetrated. He may want to take credit for making me a defender of Muslims, but it was New York that did that. The city of my birth, the city under attack, was also the city that refused to retreat into cowardice. I have nearly a dozen stories of people who said to me, in either words or deeds, that if you are a New Yorker, it does not matter your faith; come and grieve with us.
I traveled the country giving talks about Muslims after 9/11, but the safest, warmest, and most trusting I ever felt was in New York. That was my country, that was my faith. We do not turn away in ignorance. We do not turn ignorance to fear, and fear into hate.
Returning to my city, I was welcomed once more. And I encountered the vibrancy of faith that I missed so much in my time away. The symphony of the Sh’ma, of the Lord’s Prayer, of the Fatiha, of Om Namah Shivaya, of “Fuck God,” was all around me. And in that diversity I understood my own faith. I grew up in one of the most diverse Jewish areas in America, and saw the parallels in my own faith. I knew of the Christians who came here because their faith was not welcome from where they left, and knew that my Islam too could find a home in America.
When I think of September 11, 2001, I know the horror that was visited on my city. But I know something that so many other do not. America made me a Muslim. It continues to make me a Muslim. I am not sure I would be the Muslim I am today without New York. So when people say you cannot be American and Muslim, I laugh and think “You’ve never met a Muslim and you’ve never been to America.”
On October 19, 2008, General Colin Powell endorsed then-Democratic candidate Barack Obama for President. During this interview with Tom Brokaw on Meet the Press, General Powell spoke of his disappointment with the Republican Party and their ‘allegations’ that Mr. Obama is a Muslim. He went on to say:
…the correct answer is, he is not a Muslim, he’s a Christian. He’s always been a Christian. But the really right answer is: what if he is? Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? The answer’s no, that’s not America. Is there something wrong with some seven-year-old Muslim-American kid believing that he or she could be president?…This is not the way we should be doing it in America.
As he spoke, I sat on my sofa with tears streaming down my face. When I was seven I did firmly believe that if I wanted to, I could be President of the United States. And I am certain that thousands of seven-year-old Muslim-American children across the country believe that today. That is the beauty of childhood, believing without the shadow of a doubt.
9/11 changed me. Before 9/11 I was a reluctant ambassador of my faith. But on 9/11 my city, my country were attacked and my faith was deemed the culprit. It still is.
As someone who loves my faith deeply, 9/11 shook me to the core. I feel an enormous level of personal responsibility to represent Muslim Americans and Islam, and to present them both in an objective and relevant light. This responsibility and focus on the Muslim American facet of my identity has taken priority over other facets of my identity for so long that sometimes I forget that they even exist. I see this in many friends too.
General Powell’s simple and honest words that October day took me completely off guard. Hearing someone speak so eloquently and powerfully on our behalf gave me momentary reprieve from my responsibility and allowed me a brief moment of weakness.
His words reminded me of a simpler time when my faith and my fellow Muslims, though not well understood, were still accorded dignity as a major faith tradition by all levels of American society regardless of political affiliation. That time when the Twin Towers still stood as a beacon in Lower Manhattan was also a time when those frightened by my faith were a relatively weak voice.
Since that day in 2001, the coexistence of our piety and our patriotism has always been in question in the court of public opinion. I anticipate that it will continue to be this weekend when the 9/11 anniversary and our Eid celebrations converge. The convergence of these two events is something that has been weighing heavily on my mind since I mentioned it at an interfaith Eid event in Manhattan in late 2009. I have finally made peace with it.
9/11 is a difficult day for all Americans, and for me as a New Yorker it is one laden with very personal and painful memories. Eid is a joyous day for all Muslims, marking the end of Ramadan, our holy month of fasting, serving others, and seeking God’s forgiveness and blessings; but it is by no means a raucous celebration.
Eid is a day of remembrance where we come together with family, friends, and community to pray, to offer charity, and to give thanks. The elements of our form of celebration are very much in keeping with the spirit of the 9/11 anniversary a day for remembrance, prayer, and unity.
I am always happy to see the Empire State building lit up in green and white for Eid—this year will be no different—but that will in no way reduce the sadness I will always feel when I look south on the anniversary of 9/11 and see the Tribute in Light where the World Trade Center once stood. As General Powell rightly said, there is nothing wrong with being a Muslim in this country. Being Muslim does not make me any less American.
How Far is it to Islam?
We spent the first Monday evening of my senior year plastering every dorm we could with fliers for the Islamic Center at NYU’s first event of the year. We slipped into the dorms we couldn’t get signed into, and posted hundreds of cheap notices printed on 8.5 x 11 paper. We’d invited a prominent imam to speak and ordered a delicious dinner, convinced that the perpetually elastic undergraduate stomach would be the gateway to the soul.
The next morning, the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were struck, thousands were murdered, New York City went into lockdown, and our community was sent reeling. Every generation has its shaping event and, for ours, that was an impossibly beautiful Tuesday morning. September 11 put an end to the long 1990s when, as it is nearly inconceivable to imagine today, the biggest problem in our post-Communist, unipolar world seemed to be Monica Lewinsky.
I had long planned to become a corporate lawyer. Two years later, I enrolled in law school only to leave within months. There were many reasons why, but among them was this: I could no longer go down the path I’d imagined, a quiet professional life in suburban America. This realization grew from the first impulse to grip our city that day, a desire to help, in whatever way possible, in the face of horrific attack; it was a mark of a courage and goodness common to New Yorkers of all types on that day and in the months and years that followed.
New York University’s Middle East specialists did their part, organizing a panel on Islam, extremism, and world politics within a week or so of the attacks. I went well ahead of the start time, but by the time I got down to campus, the doors were already closed. They’d gotten far more attendees than they could fit. Hundreds of disappointed New Yorkers milled about on Washington Place, with nowhere to turn for answers.
My great regret, down to today, was that I didn’t climb on one of the concrete planters lining the street, and tell everyone who I was, offering to answer any questions they might have. After all, I was in a leadership role in the Muslim community on campus, I’d just come back from a summer program in Egypt studying Arabic, and I was majoring in Middle Eastern Studies. I had no reason to be afraid, other than this detail: a longstanding panic in the face of attention, a strong preference for dry-heaving over public speaking.
Crowds have moods, but this one wasn’t hateful, wasn’t vengeful. Just New Yorkers trying to figure out why we’d been attacked. A far cry from the crowds I’ve heard about recently, congregating to vent a barely seething anger towards all Muslims. Sometimes the expectations on us weigh too heavily, but all the same, in the weeks and months that followed, American Muslims couldn’t and didn’t step up as we should have. And because we didn’t tell our stories, the far right has been able to make us their punching bag, bringing us into the company of those great threats to Western civilization, including gay marriage, Latinos, and a president simultaneously godless and Muslim.
I still think back to that day, and wish I’d stood up and said: Those people are not us, and their beliefs are not Islam. But these are the kinds of moments we learn from. It may not be fair to American Muslims that we must prove we are not those who have tortured Islam into a hideous thing. In fact, it is not fair. But this is the reality of our time: We must direct our lives into fighting the capture of our religion by those who, claiming Islam, have nothing to offer the future but barbarity.
I was born in India, but raised in America. The great advantage for us growing up in the United States was the ability to develop our own identity. I was brought up an Indian Muslim. There were so few of us Indians in the U.S. then that if you saw a woman in a sari on the other end of the shopping mall, you went running over to introduce yourself and, a day or two later, your whole families were having tandoori chicken picnics together.
I was about 8 or 9 when I discovered that Hindus and Muslims were not divisions of the same religion. I was in my teens when I found out there was supposed to be animosity between us.
In high school, I learned about the split between Shi’as and Sunnis. I asked my parents what we were. They said, “Oh, we’re all the same, it doesn’t matter.”
My father’s college roommate was Jewish American so our families celebrated holidays together every year. At 13, I’d heard the prayers so often I’d memorized them. I could have had my own Bat Mitzvah. I really only discovered the fear and anger between Muslims and Jews when I went to college.
I was lucky like that. I still believe everyone is coming from the same place. It’s like a marriage, we just need to remember what it was like in the beginning.
I was shell-shocked when my neighborhood was attacked on September 11, 2001. I saw the first plane hit as I came down the steps to put my kids on the schoolbus. I thought it was an air traffic accident, just kept walking down to the swimming pool on Chambers Street. Ran into neighbors spilling out on the street, muttering about terrorists.
Then the next plane hit and I decided not to go to the pool. One of my neighbors sat on the steps sobbing as her toddlers jumped around. Her husband was on the top floor. “It’s ok,” I told her. “The towers were built to withstand a lot. He’ll get out.” I was wearing a bathing suit, a denim skirt and a Wonder Woman T-shirt that said, “You can run, but you can’t hide.”
I wore that for the next sixteen hours as I ran away from the collapsing buildings with my toddler, trying to find my 4- and 6-year-old daughters who’d been evacuated from the U.N. School.
But what’s strange is, even then, when we finally came back to our apartment still dusted in the white powder of collapsed buildings, when our air was so acrid it made our eyes water, I didn’t feel like I was different from anyone else. I was a New Yorker, a Tribecan; being a Muslim was like having brown hair or green eyes. The little storefront mosque I attended was sandwiched between two bars and we still went on having our prayers every Friday and the Sufi zhikrs, worship, in the evenings.
The growing anger hit me when guys spat at my sari crossing Canal Street; when people tried to scare a Sikh friend I was with at the Tribeca Grand; when my Christian neighbor told me she was getting threatening phone calls because of her Arab last name; when a Hindu Indian friend told me her kids were getting beaten up on the school bus. The irony of my T-shirt hit me then. I threw it away.
I never felt like Muslim values—tolerance, compassion, generosity, honesty—were at odds with American ones. My elders often told us that the United States was the only true Muslim country, the only place that really lived up the those values. I believed that. I still do.
While the anti-Muslim sentiment seems to be increasing in this country, in my neighborhood, I feel empathy and support. I wear my ONE MORE MUSLIM FOR PEACE T-shirt to pilates and people smile at me as they pass me on the street. My daughters feel proud to speak at a crowded, angry community board meeting. The day that the Landmarks Preservation Commission voted against adding 51 Park Place to the historic register and Bloomberg gave his speech on Governors’ Island, I walked into my swimming pool and all my friends—Jewish, Hindu, and Christian—started cheering. “You did it, Ameena! You’re going to build that community center!”
Ramadan is when I feel most clearly connected to the Divine. Since I am recovering from cancer treatments, for me Ramadan means fasting from anger, from my temper. It means feasting on love, caring, and compassion. It’s so funny because here it is September again, the time when all of us living downtown look at the clear blue skies and wonder.
There is no disconnect for me, I am a Muslim in the way only an American can be.