On this day 20 years ago, we as a nation tried to make sense of the tragedy that occurred, on what should have been a normal Tuesday. We remember the 2,977 people killed, including 412 emergency workers, in a senseless act of hate on 9/11.
I wanted to leave Friday as a day of mourning because I know millions of Americans were hurting. But today, I feel, is a day for reflection. A reflection of how we as a nation responded to the hate of a few terrorists, 20 years later.
I wasn’t alive when the Twin Towers came down. Still, here’s how what happened on September 11, 2001 would fundamentally impact my life.
2003. That’s the year I was born. That’s also the year my parents named me Anika Lima. To the shock of many elementary school friends, I don’t carry the same last name as my dad. Neither does my brother. That’s because my dad’s last name is Rahman. It’s an Arabic word that means “gracious” and “merciful”. Like the names Jake or Ian. But Rahman is a foreign name, a name that meant “merciful” now signifies fear and loathing, at least to the FBI. Rahman is a common last name for Muslims, which is precisely why my parents didn’t want me to have it, in fear that my name would decide my reputation, before I was even born. So Rahman was slipped in quietly as my middle name, surrounded by racial ambiguous names that weren’t supposed to be hard to pronounce. Just so whenever a future teacher or employer saw my name on a class roster or resume, their first impression wouldn’t be a Sharia infiltrating Moselem.
2007. I was four years old. It was late at night, my one-year-old brother was running an extremely high fever. He was having some sort of fit or seizure. My dad was at work. My mom, who was at home, ended up calling 911 since she couldn’t drive him to the hospital. The medical responders came and took care of everything. My brother is fine, and we were all relieved. But the next day, the police came knocking at our door. They came to interrogate my parents on the basis of “suspicious behavior”. You see, we had a photo of the Manhattan skyline with the Twin Towers, which was gifted to us by my cousin in New York City, hanging in our living room, which the medical responders must have seen. The police asked so many questions. Who gave it to you? Why are the Twin Towers in it? Did you know the attack was going to happen prior to September 11, 2001? All because of a tacky tourist photo. I have this poster from Boeing with the history of airplanes. My parents won’t let me put it up for fear that some people might get the wrong idea.
2014. At this point, I was 10 years old. My family was flying to Saudi Arabia for Umrah, which is basically a shorter version of Hajj, the pilgrimage to Makkah every Muslim must try to make. We were standing in line at the security checkpoint at LAX when a TSA agent pulled my mom and I aside. It was that day that I first understood what random security checks were. We were taken to an interrogation room and asked questions about what we were going to do in Saudi Arabia, who we were gonna meet, where we were going to stay. They went through my mom’s phone and the tablet my brother and I shared for reading e-books and playing games. After a pat-down, they let us go. An hour had passed.
2016. I’m a seventh grader. Lots of things happened this year. Just a few months before, the Presidential-candidate Donald Trump said he wasn’t opposed to maintaining a database tracking Muslims or issuing identification cards or conducting warrantless searches, to citizens or otherwise. He kept amplifying Islamophobic rhetoric, echoing the sentiment of “Islam hates us”. The thing is, people hear those words and internalize them. For three months, I was bullied by a kid in my tutorial who would steal my backpack and say things like “Where is the bomb?” “When are you going to blow the school up?” I told my teacher, but she said he was only teasing. A few months later, President Donald Trump would issue a ban on all people from seven Muslim majority nations in the name of “national security”. He issued a Muslim ban just one week into his presidency.
2017. I’m 13, just about to enter high school. I was at LaGuardia airport after visiting family in New York City. Again, we were at a security checkpoint, scanning our baggage, when TSA agents pulled my parents to the side. My brother and I were told to take our luggage and keep moving forward. As I stalled, not wanting to get separated from my parents, I watched TSA agents interrogate them and conduct a chemical swab. No one else was pulled aside for a “random security check”.
2019. I’m 16 years old and volunteering at the Tustin Public Library. As I was walking to the Homework Help Center with my lanyard on, a stranger blocked my path. He pointed to a book display next to us, commemorating memoirs and biographies of American heroes for Memorial Day. He jutted out his finger back to me, then back to the books. He told me, “That’s what patriotism looks like.” I replied, “They sacrificed so much for us, didn’t they?”, gave a little nod, and tried to walk away. He stepped in my way again. We should be patriotic here. Show that you are American. I’m lost for words. I nod again, and walk away. He tries to side step me again, but I’m over it. We were right in front of the help desk. None of the staff or patrons said anything.
And this is what angers me. Why do I have to prove my American-ness? Why does no one believe I’m born here? Why are people shocked by my English? Why do people think I’m the enemy?
I think in the emotional rage following September 11, 2001, people forgot that Muslims were also hurt by the terrorist attacks. Muslim Americans lost their lives on 9/11. Muslim Americans lost their families on 9/11. Muslim Americans helped save lives on 9/11.
The stories I’ve shared are only a small fraction of the hate and discrimination Muslims have faced since 9/11. My parents won’t even tell me everything that happened in the days right after. Instead, I can read posts from the hashtag, after September11, where Muslim Americans are sharing their experiences, like going to the bathroom to find a man with assault rifle in the window. People changed their name because it was Osama. People bunkering down in their homes, blinds closed, and lights off. Women taking off hijab for fear of being targeted.
Balbir Singh was a Sikh man killed in Arizona because he fit the caricature of a Muslim with a turban and a beard. He was the first post-9/11 hate crime. Waqar Hasan, Vasudev Patel, and many more would be murdered because their faith or appearance is perceived as violent. Even a daycare at an Islamic Center in Florida would be burned to the ground. Because apparently you can’t be Muslim and American at the same time.
The reason Islamophobia is on the rise, both in the United States and overseas is because many politicians have made 1 billion Muslims out to be potential terrorists risking the nation’s security. Bush, Obama, and Trump have all destroyed the Middle East, or Southwest Asia. 2,976 Americans lost their lives because of 9/11, but so did 35,000 Pakistanis, 48,644 Afghanis, and 1,690,903 Iraqis who had to pay for the actions of 19 terrorists. Civilians who weren’t killed by the bombing became refugees banned from the United States. Here, hate crimes against Muslims, Arabs, and Sikhs rose from 2015 to 2016, when Donald Trump was spewing out Islamophobia, inciting fear in his supporters of a religion which literally means peace. George W. Bush ran the NSEERS program, which required non-citizens from 24 Muslim-majority countries to register, be interrogated, and regularly check in with immigration officials. The NSEERS program caught 0 terrorists. Instead, at least 13,153 legal residents were placed in deportation proceedings. Islamophobia became legally justified, leaving some Muslims traumatized almost two decades later.
In a time of hate, when remembering a tragedy spurred by hate, can we choose love? Can we choose to educate ourselves and check our prejudices and choose to love? In a time where we can’t ignore the social injustices in this country, can we finally choose to love?