Sept. 11 affected the psyche of the whole nation, but for many Muslims in America, it changed everything about their day-to-day lives.
For some Muslim youth the suspicion brought on by 9/11 made them simultaneously question their traditions and solidify their sense of self.
Patt Morrison spoke to five Muslims who were children or young adults when hijackers flew two planes into the World Trade Center. Mohammad Mertaban was an active member of UCLA’s Muslim Student Association at the time. He says the 9/11 attacks affected student activism within the group.
“There were people that either chose to retreat,” Mertaban said. “Or they were forced to retreat. Many parents were very afraid, rightfully so, for the safety of their children.”
A few days before 9/11, then-high school freshman Nida Chowdhry started wearing the hijab — the Islamic headscarf worn by Muslim women. After the attacks, however, her mother feared wearing hijab might threaten her daughter's safety. “My mom thought I shouldn’t wear it because she didn’t want any harm to come to me,” Chowdhry said. “I remember seeing girls that had made the same decision as I had, and they wouldn’t make eye contact with me because they chose to stop wearing a headscarf.”
Chowdhry, who studied film and English at UC-Irvine, says she was affected by the media’s misrepresentation of Muslims, Islam and minority ethnic groups like Arabs and Southeast Asians. She questioned her religious identity after the attacks, mostly due to confusion over how Muslims and Islam were portrayed in the media. “I feel like the rhetoric calls on Muslims to say, ‘OK this is what good Islam is and this is what bad Islam is,’” she said. “Are you a good Muslim or a bad Muslim? The rhetoric tries to pit you against yourself sometimes.”
When asked if she felt like she had to choose between Islam and Americanism, she said in retrospect it was the public atmosphere that made her feel that way, but her feelings have subsided. “I later came to understand more of what it means to be an American,” she said. “I can look you in the eye and assert my Americanness.”
Chowdhry was one of many young Muslim-Americans caught between the good Muslim-bad-Muslim dichotomy, a phrase used by UC-Berkeley graduate Kifah Shah.
“People used to introduce me as a good Muslim girl,” Shah said. Shah majored in ethnic studies and is applying to public policy programs, an ambition, she said, shaped by how 9/11 profoundly politicized her Muslim identity.
Despite the hardships endured by Muslim community after 9/11, Shah said the attacks offered an opportunity for reflection and growth, “It was an opportunity for Muslims to learn more about their faith, and for us to come to a certain, political consciousness, as a community,” Shah said.
Nida Chowdhry, 2009 graduate of UC Irvine
Tasbeeh Herwees, senior, print and digital journalism major, USC Annenberg School of Journalism
Mohammad Mertaban, health director, St. Joseph’s hospital in Orange County; active member in the Southern California Muslim community
Yasmin Nouh, KPCC/AirTalk intern
Kifah Shah, 2010 graduate of UC Berkeley in 2010