Coming-of-age after 9/11: Muslim millennials sense progress (audio)

Coming-of-age in post-9/11 Western society wasn’t easy for young Muslims. In this podcast conversation, Monitor journalists Husna Haq and Shafi Musaddique discuss the cultural progress and setbacks that shaped their views of country and self.

Reflections on Being Muslim in the Aftermath of 9/11

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Karen Norris/Staff

In a small town in Pennsylvania, a young Muslim woman wearing a hijab walked into a mom and pop store and struck up a conversation with the owner. She’d just moved from New York state to start her first reporting job after college. The next day, a police officer showed up at her office. The store owner had reported suspicious behavior. 

Husna Haq, now a Monitor editor, says that experience in 2005 is a reminder about how life after 9/11 was different from before: “I was already used to the funny looks or the stares. But I think 9/11 just turned the volume way up.”

The Monitor’s London correspondent Shafi Musaddique was 10 years old at the time of 9/11. But he, like Ms. Haq, experienced the shift as “a flick of a switch,” he says. “Because of 9/11 we became this homogeneous group.” And yet, he notes, “Muslims are a myriad of thoughts and ideas. We’re not always victims. We’re not always perpetrators.”

As the world reflects on 20 years of loss and conflict since the 9/11 attacks, Ms. Haq and Mr. Musaddique look back in a Monitor interview at how Western views of Islam and Muslims shaped their view of faith, country, and self.

Episode transcript

Samantha Laine Perfas: Welcome to “Rethinking the News” by The Christian Science Monitor. I’m Samantha Laine Perfas, one of its editors. As part of the Monitor’s 9/11 20th anniversary coverage, producer Ashley Lisenby takes a look at how the Sept. 11 attacks affected young Muslims in the West, who grew up in a world forever changed by terrorism. Here’s Ashley’s story.

[Music]

Ashley Lisenby: Twenty years ago, terrorists attacked the United States. President George W. Bush’s Address to the Nation recounted the day’s horrific acts saying that the country’s way of life and freedom had been threatened.

[George W. Bush: “The pictures of airplanes flying into buildings, fires burning, huge structures collapsing have filled us with disbelief, terrible sadness, and a quiet, unyielding anger.”]

Lisenby: Some used that anger to target Muslims in America as a whole – demonizing and politicizing their religion and practices.

Monitor staff editor Husna Haq lives in the United States and correspondent Shafi Musaddique lives in Britain. They grew up in societies that scapegoated their communities and religion because of terrorism.

As The Monitor looks at the 20th anniversary of 9/11 and the lasting impact on individuals and their families, Haq and Musaddique discuss how becoming adults after the attack has shaped their view of country and self.

Shafi Musaddique: Husna, do you remember where you were that day?

Husna Haq: I do. I was actually in an intro to communication class. When news spread of what was happening, the professor actually played the footage live of the towers falling on a giant projector for all of us to see. And I remember the entire auditorium going silent. I mean, of course, at that point, there were a lot of unknowns about what was happening and who was behind it and why. But I remember thinking this will change journalism and my role as a journalist. But you’re a little younger than I am, Shafi. Do you remember that day?

Shafi Musaddique: I do. I do indeed. I was at primary school. So about age 10, here in the UK. And I just finished my school day. And if I remember correctly, I walked back home with my dad. And as soon as I got back home, I saw the second plane attack happen live on the BBC News Channel. And then – remember, this was way before 24-hour news, television channels, and social media – so you could tell from afar, that this was a massive, massive moment. And you know, even as a child, you knew from that moment, you’d remember it for the rest of your life. And I definitely know that life changed from that day onwards. But I’m really interested to know Husna, because you were closer to what happened, then I was: So was there a moment when you realized the way people around you maybe saw you differently because of the attack?

Haq: Yeah, well, I think I was always aware that people saw me differently. I was wearing hijab then, as I do now. So I was already used to the funny looks or the stares. So that was always there. But I think 911 just turned the volume way up. I mean it threw Muslims into the spotlight really, in a way many of us were unprepared for. I mean, in some ways, it became a statement to be Muslim, to be visibly Muslim. I felt like you had to own your identity. There was no hiding. For me at least. You know, Shafi, I remember this one time, I had moved to a very small town in Pennsylvania for my first job right out of college. And I wanted to explore my new town, you know, get to know the area. So one afternoon I remember walking into a small mom-and-pop type shop on the main street. And I started chatting with the owner. I was just trying to be friendly and get to know people there. Well, the next day, when I showed up at work, I was greeted at the door outside by a police officer. It turned out that the store owner, he reported me as being suspicious. And the police ... they greeted me at work to question me. They ended up just talking with me and they sent me on my way, but the entire experience was pretty disheartening. It took the wind out of me.

Musaddique: I was quite small, but I engaged and I realized that there was a palpable fear in the air. I thought that was a flick of a switch. Muslims became a racialized group, because of 9/11, we became this homogenous group. But I think here in Britain it didn’t happen the day after 9/11. I think there was more... 9/11 built that momentum of Muslims being seen as this one group who wore headscarves and beards. And I think really, the acceleration was our own 9/11 in a way, 7/7, as we call it, when there were terror attacks in the London Transport network in 2005. And I still remember, like, aunties stopped wearing headscarves. You know, my dad stopped wearing the traditional cap, which you may often see older men wear. I remember there were news reports of attacks on Hindus and Sikhs, which, to me, is ridiculous. But it shows the, I guess, the homogenization of Muslims and anybody who looks like Muslims. And I think it’s interesting, Husna, that while we share some similarities in our experiences living in Western countries, I think we might also have some differences in our experience, do you think?

Haq: Oh, definitely, definitely. I mean, I grew up in a small, very white, one-stoplight kind of town in upstate New York. But it’s gorgeous, Shafi. It’s surrounded by rolling hills and dairy farms, apple orchards, actually a really idyllic place to grow up, but definitely not diverse. So I’m used to being the only person of color in the room. When I was growing up, I’m not sure it even registered, to be honest.

Musaddique: When you talk about growing up in a white majority town but not being threatened. That’s not something you usually read about in the media.

Haq: No, no, it’s not. I mean, it’s, it’s surprising to me looking back that I felt that way. But somehow, I always remember feeling comfortable in my skin, you know, in my identity as a Muslim I, I don’t think I realized that at the time. I just took it for granted. But looking back, I think I have my parents to thank for that.

You know, my dad, Shafi, he actually passed away earlier this year. He, he taught us the basics about Islam. But more than that, he just lived and embodied it beautifully. I saw his faith manifested in a thousand small ways. Every day, it was in how he stopped to pray at a rest area when we traveled so he wouldn’t miss a prayer. You know, he would put in a full day’s work. He worked as an engineer, and then [would] drive 45 minutes to Syracuse University. He worked there as a volunteer chaplain. He just lived Islam beautifully with, I think, a very simple aim – just to serve others and to please God. And that made an impression on me. You know, of course, this was all set against a very rural landscape. For me, I think yours was very … like night and day.

Musaddique: Mine was completely different to this idyllic greenery. So I grew up in Camden, which is a borough in North London. And there are about 130 languages in this district alone. My family have been here since the 1950s. My grandfather came here from Bengal, now modern day Bangladesh. You know, he was British, he came here on a colonial passport. And I still remember these stories, and they're stories of resilience, and sometimes interfaith relationships, that I think have shaped me via this ancestral passing down.

So for example, you know, my grandfather would walk for about two hours, sometimes, to go to East London. It’s a poor part of London, it still is. It was heavily bombed by the Nazis. And back in the 1950s, it was where the Jewish community was based. They’re not there anymore, but that’s where they were. And he would walk for hours to go and get kosher meats because at the time, there was no halal meat available in London. Which is incredible to think about now because I can just go on any takeaway app and find a halal dinner easily.

Growing up as a kid in the 1990s, in Britain, it was a really golden time. It was as if the UK had moved from black and white in the 1980s, a time that was dominated by race riots, and austerity. And we moved into Technicolor, you know. We had a fresh-faced leader. I don’t know if you heard of this man called Tony Blair at all, you might have heard of him.

I’m in danger of romanticizing this time, I know it because it’s my childhood. But the flip side to all of this is that racism still existed for Black and South Asian folks. And even for Irish folks, there was a massive IRA bombing campaign in Britain in the '90s. And when 9/11 happened, in many ways, I feel that Muslims and Al Qaeda kind of replaced that British imagination of who the terrorists were. They used to be Irish and the IRA, and then in the eyes of some I think we’ve replaced them. And I feel that, you know, maybe because of the racism, xenophobia, that Muslims have experienced off the back of that. I’m wondering, what do you feel, if at all, on this particular issue of proving or somehow needing to show your humanity to others? Do you feel that you have to sometimes?

Haq: I don’t, I don’t think I always think about it, but I think I do. I, you know, I learned about this concept called double consciousness in a piece that the Monitor actually ran a while back. And I remember it really resonated with me, it was like, it was like a light bulb went off, when I read it. It’s this feeling of constantly seeing yourself as others see you. Like, like, looking at yourself through other people’s eyes, really. And, you know, I looked it up because it resonated with me so much. And it was actually first used to describe the Black experience, but it’s a feeling I can definitely relate to. The first time they see me, all they see is my hijab, I think. And you can see it in the way they look at you. But each time after that, they see it a little bit less, and they see me a little bit more.

Musaddique: I know that as a Muslim woman, there’s a double-edged sword of being a woman and a Muslim, and you get the brunt of both. And, you know, I think, yes, there’s an element for me anyway, I have to prove my liberal credentials to friends, or even in dating, actually, well, I have to say, you know, I’m not a radicalized man, I’m, you know, I’m a cool person. I’m not, I’m not cool. But you know, it’s something that you sometimes feel you have to prove with, especially non-Muslims. And then, you know, as a bearded man, as you say, kind of, it used to be that, wearing your rucksack or a bag to work on the train, you’d always be aware that people didn’t want to sit next to you.

[Ambient sound of a train]

And, I mean, that was a feeling maybe 10 years ago, 15 years ago. But something interesting has really happened since. And I think it might be because there’s been this funny sort of progression. Beards have become a sort of a fashion now, really, everybody’s got one. But you know, Husna, I think that the serious point to this is that with progression with the beards, for example, I feel that it has progressed. And there’s not that fear element of people not wanting to sit next to me. And sometimes when you live within a moment, you think that moment will be forever, but it doesn’t. It passes.

And it’s exactly what you say about the hijab and people seeing you again, and again. And again.

Haq:I mean, do you think things are improving in other ways?

Musaddique: I think there has been well, it’s not I think, I do know that there has been more understanding on Islam as a religion. So I don’t need to explain Ramadan anymore. There are fantastic interfaith events, especially in London. There’s, I think there’s a sense of progress on two fronts. There’s the representative and then there’s the unseen, deeper level. So what I mean by the representative is that we see Muslims on screen. You know, we have Nadiya Hussain from The Great British Bake Off. We just recently had the first Muslim flag bearer for Great Britain at the Olympics in Tokyo, which was fantastic to see. And, and then there’s the unseen. So I feel there is not just a tolerance, but there’s a deep love and curiosity in a way, in a way that’s not exoticizing Muslims.

Haq: I mean, for every challenge I’ve faced, I think I can think of 10 or 20 examples of support, like, a genuine desire for understanding, for learning about Islam, you know. A desire to just connect. I mean, I just, I see so many more Muslims in the media, like you said, in elected office, in the arts, and not just in stereotypical portrayals, you know, not just kind of figurehead roles. I think 9/11 was a wake-up call to our community to find our own voices, and tell our own stories. You know, when I think about my kids, they are 8, 5, and 5 months old right now. The world, in some ways, is different for them than it was for me growing up. I mean, they just have so many more resources.

[Ambient sound of baby laughing]

Haq: I love that my kids are growing up and seeing these things, you know, not as landmarks, but as normal. I think that’s so cool. Like, you know, that wasn’t the case for me. So, I mean, so there’s definitely progress. I see it, I see it every day. But that said, I think we both agree that we still have a ways to go.

Musaddique: I also think that what needs to change is an understanding that Muslims are a myriad of thoughts and ideas. We’re not always victims, or we’re not always perpetrators. And actually, I think that mode of thought can also come from us internally, as well as externally. It’s a two-way process. We as Muslims should be confident and know our faith and our spirituality as a place and a foundation against adversity, despair, and noise. I think we have to find an inner peace, that we are a part of Western society, we are Western. And I think beyond us, the homogenous idea of Muslims as this one big group has to change. But I think it already is.

Haq: I mean, I think to that I would just add two things, Shafi. I would say, we need to go beyond tokenism [to] really embracing Muslim inclusion that that goes beyond stereotypical depictions or, you know, “diversity, marketing, inclusion” that’s truly substantive. I think we have a tendency, particularly in the West, to view or judge other cultures, other faiths, by Western standards, by Western benchmarks of what is or isn’t acceptable or progressive. I mean, it’s human nature to do this. I think we all do it to some extent. You know, one example that comes to my mind is certain European countries policing Muslim women’s dress. But I wonder if we can challenge ourselves to think like anthropologists do, and basically suspend our notions of how things should be. And that gives us space to expand our perspective, expand space for other systems of belief or governance. I kind of think of it as a kind of philosophical inclusivity. And I think it gives us a really strong foundation to build on.

[Music]

Lisenby: Thanks for listening. This episode was produced by me, Ashley Lisenby. Edited by Samantha Laine Perfas and Clara Germani. Sound design by Morgan Anderson and Noel Flatt. This podcast was brought to you by The Christian Science Monitor. Copyright 2021.