In the 20 years since the tragedy that was 9/11 took place, a lot has happened. The perception of Islam and Muslims as being hostile to the West took hold, and several politicians have made careers off of their Islamophobic rhetoric. An entire generation of children who weren’t even alive when 9/11 happened have grown up being bullied, with their identities being shaped by an event they had nothing to do with. And countless civilians abroad have been murdered by the “war on terror” as recently as a few days ago, for something they had nothing to do with.
We asked millennial Muslims, most of whom were pre-teens or teenagers when 9/11 happened, what their memories of 9/11 were. Here are their responses.
Twenty years later, I still remember September 11th, 2001 like it was yesterday. I was 12-years-old, it was a Tuesday afternoon, and I was off school because I had tonsillitis.
I went downstairs into the sitting room to see my parents fixated on the TV. When I looked at the TV, I saw a huge skyscraper on fire, surrounded by huge amounts of smoke. I asked my parents what was going on, and they said a plane had flown into the Twin Towers in America.
I had never heard of the Twin Towers or knew where they were — I live in the United Kingdom — and at this point, we thought it was some huge horrible accident. The idea of it being a terrorist attack never crossed our minds.
As the day unfolded, details emerged about a plane being hijacked and it being a terrorist attack emerged. I was too young to understand the significance of this, but could only think of the poor people that had lost their lives and families in this awful incident.
The next day at school, I remember my Muslim friend saying that her dad wouldn’t let her walk home from school because he was worried she would be attacked for being visibly Muslim because she wore a hijab.
That had never even occurred to me. That day changed what identifying as Muslim meant for me; it feels like there was life before 9/11, and life after. Back then, being Muslim only meant following Islam; after 9/11, it meant that all of these labels were attached to the faith: terrorist , jihadi, Taliban, Al- Qaeda, suicide bomber. Twenty years later, those labels have never gone away.
On 9/11, I was 10-years-old. I went to a private school in the South that was predominantly white. I was a very proud Muslim, and I loved explaining my religion to other kids. I learned what happened because the school held an assembly to explain that the nation was under attack. I don’t remember what they said to us, but one of my friends turned to me and asked, “What’s a terrorist?” I replied that a terrorist was like those people in the movies that rob banks and take hostages. I didn’t understand the magnitude of the event.
My English teacher, a Black woman, pulled me aside and asked if I was doing okay, or if anyone was bullying me. I was confused as to why anyone would be bullying me, and told her no. The next day, I went to school and all my classmates were acting differently toward me. One boy had started a rumor that Osama bin Laden was my grandfather. Another girl spit on my leg in gym class. Someone in the hall called me a “sandni**er.” I had never heard that word before.
At lunch time, someone called me a terrorist, and that’s when I ran to the bathroom and cried. That night, I told my parents about what I had experienced and they called the school. The guilty kids were given a slap on the wrist. Knowing the school would not protect me, I went back and did not feel safe at school. The hate became so bad that the next year I transferred to a public school. The public school system was much more diverse, but that didn’t stop people from calling me a terrorist, camel jockey, towel head, or other terrible names for the next ten years or so. In high school I founded a club for Muslim students to provide a safe space, and to do volunteer activities and do presentations that educated other students about Islam. Mashallah, the club is still active 15 years later.
When I was 10, I did not understand that what happened on 9/11 was a big deal. I realized it was a tragedy, but thought that tragedies happen all the time and this would be a distant memory by the time the next news cycle came around. Now, I can’t imagine the fear everyone who was old enough to understand what was going on must have felt on that day. All that I knew at the time was that some “Muslims” had killed a lot of people, and that I was Muslim too. And everyone suddenly hated me for what they did.
Elizabeth Ann Aziz:
It was early in the school year, maybe a week in. I just started 4th grade. Teachers were running around whispering early in the day and slowly kids started being pulled out of class one by one. I didn’t find out what happened til I got home from school. Within the following weeks, I started getting asked by classmates if I was a terrorist. This wasn’t nearly as bad as the bullying one girl in my class who had just started wearing hijab that year would receive. I didn’t seem outwardly Muslim and could conceal my identity, but she couldn’t and it hurt me to watch, but I was too scared to intervene at that age. It’s one of my biggest regrets despite being nine years old at the time.
I never stopped getting weird comments about my ethnicity or perceived religious leanings from that point on. If you tell people you’re Muslim, their mind goes to an extreme example and you have to explain away from that as a starting point. But I’ve never worn a hijab and my name is extremely American, so I’ve avoided a lot of situations by flying under the radar. The issue is that there’s a radar at all in the first place.
Zoleikha Ibrahimi Ebadi:
I vividly remember the events of 9/11. I was 20-years-old and was getting ready for work while listening to the news. Coming from a war-torn country (Afghanistan), I was overwhelmed by fear. My initial thoughts were that every corner would be blown up. But as time passed and the hijackers were identified as Muslims, my heart sunk even more. The first thing I did was drive to my cousin’s school and pick her up. I had a big “Allah” sticker on my car windshield, and I thought I’d be a victim of hate crime. All my family told me to take off the sticker and I refused. But I was terrified every day I went to school or work for the next few weeks. It was a very difficult time to go through.
Linda Mouti El Omari:
I was 10 years old when the attacks happened. I was in middle school. In France, it was the afternoon. I remember coming home and finding both my parents stuck in front of the TV, silent. I remember seeing the plane hit the second tower of the World Trade Center. This moment kept repeating in my head days after 9/11.
It was the first time something that big happened for me.
Chaos. This is what I saw. I understood immediately the importance of this day and also, how it will impact our lives as Muslim people. I wasn’t wrong. It was difficult. We became the enemy. It was on this day that I knew I wanted to be a journalist, to tell stories, real stories. To be a part of History.