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20 years on: 9/11 reflections of American Muslims

24th Sep 2021
20 years on: 9/11 reflections of American Muslims

Bisharat Khan, Ali Khan, Shabir R Bata and (below) Eddie Rodriguez

Sarah Sakeena Marshall

When the first plane hit, everyone thought it was an accident caused by an inexperienced pilot operating a small plane. When the second plane hit, onlookers knew it had to be on purpose. America was being attacked. No one knew why. Many people still do not know why. As the world sat glued to the television, planes were grounded, tears were shed, and fear ran through the veins of a nation. Muslims all around the country thought, please don’t let the perpetrators be Muslims.

The “post-9/11 world” ushered in the “War on Terror”, fought by increased security checks at airports, erosion of privacy and attacks on non-uniformed terrorist suspects in Afghanistan and Iraq. 9/11 united Americans in grief and Western allies together in revenge. The Muslim News interviewed American Muslims living in New York during the time of the attacks to understand their experience and how their lives changed after that heinous attack that took almost 3,000 lives, many of them Muslims.

Bisharat Khan, 86

Bisharat was a chemist working for the US Customs Service in the World Trade Centre 6 on September 11, 2001, when he saw a flash of blue light and heard an explosion. He looked out of the window and saw people staring at the North Tower and running away. He heard debris hitting the roof of the 8-story building he was in, which, unbeknownst to him, had caught fire.

He was in the lab where he tested products arriving in the US from all over the world to make sure they were authentic, not harmful to consumers and complied with American regulations. He and his fellow employees had had many prior evacuation drills, and after evacuating the building, they went to meet by the Hudson River for a headcount.

Then, they saw the second plane hit the South Tower. Chaos ensued and the team decided it would be wiser to leave than to wait for everyone to be accounted for. They needed to let their loved ones know they were OK and to find a way home. Public transportation had been halted, so Bisharat walked for miles before reaching the Queensboro Bridge.

When he looked back, he saw, in shock that the towers, always a beacon in the distance, were gone. When he arrived home, his wife was relieved, and Bisharat started watching the news, praying that Muslims were not involved in the attack. When he learned that they were, he reminisced in horror about the partition in India he had lived through as a 12-year-old boy, where he saw Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus being slaughtered in the streets.

Bisharat feared for his family, worried there would be major repercussions for Muslims in America. Soon, his neighbours came to see if he was okay, knowing that he worked in the World Trade Center. They reassured him that nothing bad would happen to him or his family.

Bisharat says he feels blessed to have always had good neighbours everywhere he lived in the US— California, Arizona, Colorado and New York. Still, in the days following the tragedy, he continued to feel fear.

Once, while Bisharat was getting the mail, a truck in his neighbourhood stopped and revved the engine, but Bisharat experienced nothing else that he would consider Islamophobic. In fact, due to the September 11 attacks, US Customs came under the purview of a newly formed department in the US Government: The Department of Homeland Security, and Bisharat continued his work as a petroleum chemist, doing his part to keep Americans safe.

Ali Khan, 40

At the time of the attacks, Bisharat’s son, Ali, 20 years old, was at the doctor’s office getting a physical. A song on the radio was interrupted to announce that a plane had hit the World Trade Center.

The announcement sounded nonchalant, so Ali assumed it must have been an accident involving a small private jet. By the time he got to the lab where he was interning, everyone was huddled around the radio, hearing that one of the towers had fallen. He immediately called his mother to make sure his father had got out. When Ali found out that a second plane had crashed and knew that the incident could not have been an accident, he prayed that Muslim extremists were not responsible.

Ali felt there were already so many misconceptions about Muslims in America, and that they were often portrayed negatively in the media, and he feared retaliation against his people.

In the weeks and months following the attacks, Ali heard of Muslims and Sikhs being targeted around the country, but he had a very strong support group of friends, both Muslims and non-Muslims, who were understanding of his situation. He never felt threatened.

While Ali never experienced Islamophobia himself, his friend was nearly attacked one night while getting food at Taco Bell, but others at the restaurant defended him against the aggressors. A Sikh family the Khans knew received threatening hate mail telling them to “go back to their country.”

Ali has never felt attacked or targeted for being Muslim. He feels privileged to live in the US where he can practise his religion freely, but admits that his experience may have a lot to do with the fact that he lives in New York City, a diverse city with a good education system. Without generalizing, he believes his post-9/11 experience may have been different elsewhere, especially if he were in America’s Deep South.

Ali says that 9/11 forced him to become more confident and knowledgeable about Islam to correct people’s misconceptions about the religion and to clarify what certain things meant. He found it particularly upsetting to see mainstream news programs taking Qur’an verses out of context to claim that Islam is a “hateful” religion.

After the attacks, Ali says his Muslim community felt solidarity with Americans and made a point to say that they did not support what the extremists had done, and did not stand with terrorist groups like Al Qaida. He says, “We didn’t feel like ‘this is us versus them’ or anything like that. We were all Americans at that point. And we were. We felt the same emotion, the same level of shock, the same level of anger and sadness.”

On what the future holds for Islam, Ali says that the religion continues to spread and that more people have become curious about what it truly stands for, which he believes is a positive thing because, “sometimes people fear what they don’t understand so if something differs from you or what you’re used to, you’re not open to it, you’re fearful of it, and some people have that mentality.”

Mohamed Hasham, 40

In 2001, Mohamed was a 20-year-old student attending university in Midtown Manhattan. The Twin Towers were hit while he was on the subway. As he transferred stations, an announcement came on stating that because of an investigation at the World Trade Center, trains would not be going to that station. Mohamed thought nothing of it but when he got out of the station, the smoke had already filled the air. As per usual, he went to the pre-med club and found his classmates huddled around a radio. The moment he walked through the door, before he even understood what had happened, one of his classmates angrily approached him and said, “Are you happy about what your people did?”

The student continued to accusingly berate him before one of Mohamed’s friends got between the two and told the student to back off. Mohamed soon understood what was happening, and his first reaction was anger—anger at the fact that Muslim terrorists were again doing things that smeared all Muslims, and anger at the student accusing him of sympathizing with them. From that day on, things were never the same between Mohamed and the angry student. He says that in such moments, “You really find out who your true friends are. They stood up for me. They stood up for Muslims.” His first exposure to the tragedy of 9/11 was someone marching up to him, casting blame still sticks with him.

Soon after hearing the news, the pre-med students went to find a place where they could donate blood. On the streets, they found shell-shocked pedestrians in a daze. Lines for blood donation centres snaked around buildings as smoke from the collapsed towers filled the air. The students tried to volunteer at Ground Zero but were barred from doing so because the situation was too dangerous.

Eventually, they headed home. They were all commuters, and with public transportation systems in downtown halted, it would be a trek. Mohamed walked a long way to the bus depot and eventually got on a bus that was normally packed with commuters, only to find that he was the only passenger.

The streets were empty. Everything felt eerie. Mohamed finally reached home in the evening. His family was in shock. They all were in disbelief at what had happened. Then the fear set in—fear of retaliation. After all, before he even knew what was going on he had been verbally attacked by someone he had thought was his friend.

In the months after 9/11, Mohamed and his brother carried baseball bats to retrieve their mother from her job in Long Island because she had been verbally abused and threatened on the street. Mohamed has never felt that he was the victim of Islamophobia, other than being scrutinised more closely at the airport. He lives in an open, accepting community. He is happy to see Muslims in Congress, something he never expected.

While the aftermath of 9/11 brought out some of the best in people—unity, solidarity, comfort—he also saw the worst in people—discrimination, accusation, misdirected hatred. Regarding the war that started in response to the attacks, he hopes that the American troops who deployed learned that, “the civilians in Afghanistan were just people that were trying to survive and live their lives and have their families and watch them grow up and get educated… just normal people that wanted to live good lives for themselves and for their families.”

Aateqa E., 39

In 2001, Aateqa was a 19-year-old university student living in Long Island. On Tuesdays, she volunteered at a hospital in the city. As she got out of the subway station on 9/11, she saw that the first tower had been hit. There was smoke everywhere and then we watched the second plane crash into the South Tower. Not knowing what to do, she made her way to the hospital. When she arrived, she helped move patients out of the ER, as they were expecting a flood of patients to the trauma unit. Sadly, they did not receive many patients because there were so few survivors, but some came in with burns. Aateqa’s hospital was far enough away from the towers that she did not see the panic of people fleeing the scene, but when her shift ended and she made her way home, she looked up and saw a hole in the sky where the towers used to stand.

In the attack’s aftermath, Aateqa says she did not feel discriminated against, as she kept a diverse group of friends and did not wear hijab, which allowed her to “blend in” to the multicultural city. While she and her family often got pulled out of line at the airport for extra screenings and had all of their bags inspected, after writing a letter to the proper authorities, this treatment stopped. Aateqa does recall that someone once yelled, “go back to your country!” to her aunt who was visiting, but that was the extent of the Islamophobia.

She feels that living in major cities has coloured her experience as a Muslim in America, and she believes things would probably be different if she travelled to a less diverse place.

Reflecting on 20 years since the attack, Aateqa says, “I think these 20 years has made a difference and people have probably realized there is a big difference between your neighbour who’s Muslim and the terrorist who claims he’s Muslim.” She hopes that as Afghan refugees move to different parts of the US, that with exposure, people will continue to be more accepting of Muslims.

Shabir R Bata, 69,

Shabir was supposed to be onboard American Airlines Flight 11 from Boston bound for Los Angeles on September 11, 2001. However, as this day was their wedding anniversary, his wife, Fatim, rang him that he should be with her on September 11 to celebrate their anniversary. So Shabir took a flight on September 10 to return home to Los Angeles. His two co-workers took the scheduled flight on September 11.

Shabir, who was a supply chain manager, relates what happened. “It was devastating when I realised I was supposed to be on that flight. My co-workers perished and I walked away. The entire day felt like a bad dream, but I remember thanking God that he had spared me, yet I felt so guilty that I was spared.”

Fatim told The Muslim News she was “in shock” when she watched TV and saw the flight “my husband had missed thanks to a date! I’ve never been so grateful in my life, but it was still traumatic to think of the what if’s. I remember Shabir coming home and constant calls from co-workers. We spent a silent evening with our children in gratitude.”

“It was devastating for us as he went through survivor guilt,” Fatim said.


War in Afghanistan, from a veteran’s perspective

Eddie Rodriguez, 37

Eddie Rodriguez was a 17-year-old living in the Bronx when the Twin Towers got hit on 9/11. He could see the smoke from his apartment, and at first, he did not think much of it, but once the second plane hit, he suspected it was terrorists from the Middle East. He knew that in the early ‘90s another bombing had taken place in the parking garage of the World Trade Center, and was carried out by Muslim extremists. In the aftermath of the attacks, he observed that people may have seemed against Islam simply because they did not understand it, stating, “Not understanding something can create a fear for anyone, and at that point, no one knew why we were being attacked.”

As a patriotic person, Eddie was galvanized to join the Army a few years later. After 3 deployments in Afghanistan (2008, 2012 & 2020), working with locals, and learning more about Islam, Eddie converted to Islam. He had been raised Catholic but felt that Islam was a beautiful religion that aligned well with his conservative values. He says, “I just appreciate the conservative side of the religion. I think if it’s done well, it’s meant to help other people.”

His tours in Afghanistan taught him a lot that he feels has been left out of the mainstream media. He says, “After a while, I came to realize that the war that we were fighting wasn’t really a war against terrorism, it was a war against ignorance, it was a war against illiteracy, it was a war against the fact that the Taliban were taking advantage of the people who were illiterate.” As time progressed, Taliban fighters were increasingly infiltrating the Afghan National Army to carry out “green on blue” attacks, killing American soldiers on their base.

Eddie believes that education was the most difficult aspect of building the Afghan army because it was hard to train people who had not received much, or any, formal education. He believes that it takes much longer than 20 years to build up a viable army and that the US military has a long history, with proven systems that have been in place for generations. Still, Eddie believes that the war in Afghanistan was not in vain because the troops kept America from being attacked for the 20 years they were there.

On the 9/11 attack 20 years on, Eddie says that it is a tender spot for him and all New Yorkers. He does not believe it will be the last time Al Qaida attacks the US and feels that US security and borders should be strengthened.

While he is glad to be helping Afghan refugees, he has heard reports of some that were transported to a military base in Germany and were then found to have ties to the Taliban. He believes it is important to be very vigilant in these turbulent times, and that America should continue to have a presence around the world to prevent future atrocities.

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