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'Isn’t this the land of the free?' Growing up in an era of Muslim stereotypes

Photo by iMuslim/Flickr (Creative Commons)

Last week, Yasmin Nouh joined four other young people on the Patt Morrison Show to talk about growing up Muslim in the decade following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Here she expands on that interview, sharing her perspective in a first-person essay.

Yasmin, whose parents are immigrants from Egypt and Iran, was barely in her teens when she heard the devastating news of what had occurred in New York that morning. She writes about what followed and how, as she experienced it, helped shape who she would become.

My eyes, still heavy with sleep, lit up wide open when my father told us the spine-chilling news as he drove us to school in the morning: Two planes turned missile had crashed into the World Trade Center in New York City. At 13 years old, I barely understood the gravity of the terrorist attacks. When I asked who the hijackers were, he said the United States had identified Osama bin Laden as a likely suspect.

“This is going to be a hard time for Muslims,” my father said.

His words puzzled me. Why would this be a hard time for Muslims?

The magnitude of terror that followed would not hit me at once. My school decided to close for the day. My younger sister came back home as well. She attended a private, Islamic elementary school at the time. The school shut down for the rest of the week, out of fear of a bomb threat.

When we returned home from school, I turned on the television. The terrifying images reverberated on the screen, and in my mind when I would turn my eyes away.

But one particular series of images, displayed on various mainstream news stations, angered me. It showed several women in Palestine celebrating news of the attacks. The women, clad in hijab and abayas, were eating cake and cheering “Death to America.”

They looked just like me, but I did not share their happiness. And afterwards ensued a slew of images, connecting terror with men bearing resemblance to my father, and oppression with women who looked like my mother.

At the time, I wore the hijab, the Islamic headscarf donned by Muslim women. My mother sat me down in the family living room a few days after 9/11, and explained to me that I could remove my headscarf if I felt like I was in danger. A number of family friends’ daughters had done the same, and she told me she would understand.

“God wouldn’t want you to be in danger,” my mother said.

I turned to my father, who was in the same room with us. He held a disapproving look of my mother’s words.

“Isn’t this the land of the free?” he said.

His words solidified the decision I had already made. I kept it on, and thankfully, I never felt like I was in any physical danger afterward.

But my anger lingered, and confusion built up, as the word “terrorist” was thrown at me, and I was increasingly asked if I chose to wear the hijab to make a political statement.

I was born and raised Muslim, but the Islam that was being portrayed in the news was not the same Islam I had learned about growing up. Terrorism, violence and oppression did not equate with serving humanity, peace and God-consciousness. Most Muslims I knew felt the same way, so why were our voices not being heard?

In the years after 9/11, American officials and political pundits asked the same question: Where is the moderate, Muslim voice to counter the fringe groups? I always cringed at the question for two reasons, the first being the term “moderate.”

In an op-ed published in 2007 by the Christian Science Monitor, Asma Khalid analyzed this term:

The term moderate is actually a redundancy. In the Islamic tradition, the concept of ‘the middle way" is central. Muslims believe that Islam is a path of intrinsic moderation, wasatiyya.

There is no such thing as a “moderate” Muslim because Islam is inherently moderate, and those who choose otherwise don’t properly follow Islam. The second reason I cringed is because the so-called “moderate” Muslims were everywhere around me, but hardly any were making it onto the airwaves, and so continued a perpetual cycle of misrepresentation about Islam, Muslims, and ethnic minority groups like Arabs and South Asians, in the news.

The stereotype associated with the images of women praising the attacks was that I, as a Muslim hijab-wearing woman, also partook in their joy. Such a stereotype failed to represent millions of other Muslim voices.

My anger propelled me to enter the media industry, and write stories that challenge society’s assumptions – whether they are Muslim-related or not.

Yasmin still wears hijab. In her most recent contribution for Multi-American, she wrote about how Ramadan, the Islamic holy month of fasting and spiritual reflection, is observed by American Muslims living and working in our fast-paced society. She works as an intern at KPCC.