I was born on Aug. 2, 1996 into a Pakistani-American, Muslim family. Five years before the attack on the Twin Towers on Sept. 11, 2001 in New York City. Those five years that I can no longer remember would be the only time in my life that Islamophobia was not attached to my identity. That I did not need to defend my religion excessively, in light of every crime that took place by someone who called themselves “Muslim.” Although racism and discrimination prevailed before 9/11, no one could anticipate what the country would experience following the attacks led by Osama bin Laden. No one could anticipate the gross, misleading interpretations of the Qur’an that would ensue. And no one could fathom that in response to the thousands of innocent individuals that lost their lives on 9/11, thousands more would be tormented, killed and attacked simply because they identified as Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Indian, Pakistani, Bengali and any other South Asian or foreign-seeming ethnicity.
Those five years that I can no longer remember would be the only time in my life that Islamophobia was not attached to my identity
At about 8:46 A.M. on Sept. 11, 2001, five hijackers that had been associated with al-Qaeda crashed an American Airlines flight into the North Tower. Approximately 17 minutes later, at 9:03 a.m., another group of terrorists hijacked United Airlines Flight 175 and crashed the plane into the South Tower, between the 77th and 85th floors. The South Tower collapsed first, after burning for about 56 minutes. After burning for 102 minutes, the North Tower collapsed as well. As debris fell, surrounding buildings were also damaged and smaller fires had spread.
The attacks were not just on the towers. Altogether, the attacks on the Pentagon in Arlington, Va., a plane crash in Shanksville, Pa. and the attacks in New York City results in deaths of 2,996 people. Of this total, 2,507 individuals were civilians, 343 were firefighters and 72 individuals were law enforcement officers. Fifty-five were military personnel and 19 were hijackers. One thousand three hundred and fifty-five individuals at or above the point of impact (where the planes hit) were immediately trapped and died due to smoke inhalation, injuries from falling, jumping from the building or the building collapse. It is crucial to note that when Flight 11 hit the North Tower, all three staircases were destroyed- making it impossible for anyone above the impact zone to escape.
These were individuals of all nationalities, all skin colors, all sorts of backgrounds that died. There were people who were not meant to be there that day, who visited as tourists, who came there just to ask for directions to another location that died. The hijackers did not protect others who were Muslim, nor did everyone who identified as Muslim support the attacks. Regardless, the term “terrorist” became synonymous with “Muslim” and a foundation for hatred and division brew.
These were individuals of all nationalities, all skin colors, all sorts of backgrounds that died.
When I was 13, my father took my sister and I to watch the Bollywood movie “New York.” My sister and I were excited–the movie had cast a few of our favorite actors. But this one was very different than any other I had seen before. It revealed a very different perspective of the aftermath of 9/11. Indian actor John Abraham portrayed a college student in the year 2000. He studied, hung out with friends and led an ordinary life enjoying his freedom in the United States of America.
On Sept. 11, 2001, that life for him ended. After the attacks on the Twin Towers, he was targeted by government officials because of his background as an Indian. He was then captured and taken to a detention camp known as Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, where he was held for 18 months without reason and without a lawyer, trial or any of his personal belongings. This was all despite being an American citizen. Within hours of his capture, he was interrogated by various officials. When he could not provide the answers they wanted, he was beaten, urinated upon, hung from the ceiling by his arms for hours, taunted verbally, starved and left in isolation. He was tortured. Eventually, he was released when no information could be found associating him to the Twin Tower attacks. He was released with a severe case of PTSD, which induced harsh nightmares, hallucinations and paranoia. Normal life after Gitmo was extremely to resume.
Regardless, the term “terrorist” became synonymous with “Muslim” and a foundation for hatred and division brew.
Statistics played at the end of the movie. Over 1,500 individuals had been unjustly taken against their will to the Guantanamo Bay detention camp and tortured. Each and every one of them had been found to be innocent. An additional 1,500 lives were ruined because of racial profiling. Children in schools all across the country were bullied and attacked for their South Asian heritage and adults were discriminated against in their workplace and social lives alike. Men who proudly grew beards for cultural and religious reasons were forced to shave to minimize their risk of being targeted. Women who wore the hijab felt pressured to remove their symbol of modesty.
It has been 16 years since Sept. 11, 2001. Still, the issues surrounding Muslims, Islam and people of color are more prevalent than ever. The systematic ruling is for them to be considered “less” or “dirty” or a stain on the portrait of the “true American.” To blame the millions of innocent Muslims for the actions of a group of people who did not even add up to one percent of the Muslim population is horrifically wrong and tragically common.
However, in the 16 years since the attacks on the Twin Towers, there has also been progress. The One World Trade Center was built. Also known as the Freedom Tower, it is the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere, making it the fourth-tallest building in the world. The skyscraper stands on the northwest corner of the 16-acre World Trade center site and is accompanied by a 9/11 memorial which consists of two square pools where the two towers once stood, as well as the National 9/11 Museum.
Over 1,500 individuals had been unjustly taken against their will to the Guantanamo Bay detention camp and tortured.
I walk through the memorial one day before the 16th anniversary of a moment in history that changed the world for countless people. I stop and stand before the enormous pools, their structure outlining where a tower would have teetered above me. A location where people jumped from dozens of feet above ground in an attempt to escape a collapsing building. A location that people ran from, screaming, fearing for their lives. There are so many people surrounding me at this memorial, of varying skin tones and languages. Some are tracing their fingers over the names etched on the marble surrounding the pool. Some are quiet. Some are crying. Some are on their phones, sitting on the neighboring benches unaffected by what happened here. Some do not know; some do not care. They have the privilege to make that choice.
Anytime I leave my home, I carry an invisible weight of defense because I am a Muslim woman. From when I began elementary school at the age of five, to being in my fourth year of University at 21, I hold paragraphs of explanation under my tongue. Defending my culture, defending my religion, defending my character because I am a Muslim woman. And because I am a Muslim woman, I do not have a choice. I will not be humiliated, I will not be ashamed, I will not hide and I will not fear. I will educate and spread awareness, I will defend and I will honor. Because this is how the truth lives, and this is how the truth strives.