I want to say I was hurt by the attacks, but that’s not true. I understood the magnitude of the situation and could sympathize, but I had never dealt with the loss of a loved one to truly empathize with everyone whose life was altered that day. The fact that thousands of lives weren’t just lost but so ruthlessly taken wasn’t something I could truly wrap my head around at age 10. I don’t think any of us could.
At first, I didn’t believe it was possible for a single human being — let alone a group — to harbor hatred like that. I’d read about wars in textbooks that had long lost their luster to students whose concerns were limited to playgrounds. When it was revealed who had been behind the attacks, all I could think was that everyone was going to hate me for something I couldn’t have been held responsible for.
Historically, these defining moments — whether good or bad — serve as a rallying point for generations, unifying a collection of individuals by tying us to a tangible event in a flux of indescribable emotions. The week following the attacks, we plugged red and blue plastic cups into the cross-bridge fencing spelling out “USA.” It was for everyone to see on one of the most traveled roads in Michigan. It felt right.
Luckily for me, I grew up in a place with a strong Muslim population ingrained within the community. Muslims and non-Muslims had been close, so my fears of being outcast were tapered. But I eventually moved farther from the Detroit area, losing the safety net I was so accustomed to. As I got older, prejudicial jokes became common. It was funny to us middle-schoolers. Even I took part in them — it’s a lot easier to manage when you’re the one controlling the laughter, even if it’s at your own expense.
We were young and stupid — mostly stupid.
I’ve grown up since then, and I like to believe that I’ve matured, as well. Nowadays, I’m accused of not being religious enough. I deny it a lot, but I can’t help but feel there is a disconnect within me that mirrors the greater struggle of being a Muslim in America. Usually, it’s difficult for individuals to defend things they are close to, for there is always the lingering worry of being dismissed as biased. I’ve spent a good portion of my life trying to distance myself enough to avoid that label.
At times I feel like I’ve pushed too far, to the point where I’ve felt as if I’m on my own. I still sometimes feel uneasy passing through checkpoints in airport terminals, for no other reason than the fact that I think I should.
Hate has always existed. It has no affiliation. And individuals have acted upon that hate long before Sept. 11. Many will continue to try to do so.
However, to claim that a group of people is liable for the actions of isolated individuals doesn’t help alleviate the problem. Alienation only makes us weaker in times when we should all be taking pride in our ability as diversified peoples to unite.
The victims of the Sept. 11 attacks were American.
I am an American, and I am also a Muslim — the two are not mutually exclusive.
And no one should forget it.