Young Muslims and Arab-Americans tell MTV News about their lives as Americans in the decade since the September 11, 2001, attacks.
By James Montgomery, with reporting by Tami Katzoff
Life changed for every American on September 11, 2001, but perhaps no group felt that change so profoundly as Muslims and Arab-Americans, who, after spending decades living largely under the radar, suddenly found themselves the target of scorn, harassment, discrimination and, in some cases, violence — and all because of the color of their skin.
In the months following the attacks, as reports of anti-Muslim hostility circulated and protests outside of mosques became a regular occurrence, MTV News’ Sway Calloway worked on a story that attempted to document the lives of young Muslims in post-9/11 America, in part because he saw parallels between their ordeal and the ongoing civil-rights struggles faced by African-Americans.
“The country was in fear, people were scrambling, no one trusted anyone, no one knew what was coming next,” Calloway said earlier this week. “At the time, there were a lot of racially motivated crimes that were starting to take place against Muslim-Americans … so, it was important to go into the Muslim community and talk to our audience.
“It was something that I truly wanted to do, because I could, in some way, relate to it. There were kids who were school-age, kids who were college-age, parents and grandparents, who all had horrible stories to tell. It definitely divided us as a people.”
But, 10 years later, has that division grown or has time helped heal the wounds? Sadly, given recent events like the fervent debate over the planned Park51 Muslim community center, the answer appears to be the former. MTV News recently sat down with a group of young Muslims and Arab-Americans, who have spent the past decade growing up in a society that has fundamentally changed, to hear their experiences in this very new America.
Adil Ibrahim, 26, student
“I remember: It was physics class and … we were watching [the aftermath of the attacks] on TV, and immediately, I felt people around me giving me a look. Twenty minutes later, the teacher asked me, ‘Hey, you’re from Pakistan, right?’ And my global knowledge grew eons in, like, a week. I became an educator for my religion.
“I think, in some aspects, things have gotten worse since, and in some aspects, they’ve gotten better. People are more aware of the religion of Islam, and some people are more aware of what the Middle East is, and the differences between the regions and the people there. … People have become more knowledgeable. But, at the same time, people have become more angry, people’s relatives and sons and daughters have died in the war, so there’s a hatred there, and I understand that. We need to educate people even more.”
Nadine Sfeir, 24, law student
“[On September 11, 2001,] I was 14 years old, in high school, in drama class, and I remember my mom pulling me out, crying, because she thought it was going to be just like when America detained all the Japanese [after the attack on Pearl Harbor]. And I remember, distinctly, on the drive home, hearing on our local radio station: ‘It’s the Palestinians.’ And I was like, ‘Oh my God.’ Because if our local radio station was saying it was the Palestinians, we were in deep trouble. … It was very scary.
“I think people are starting to get more numb to the whole issue of Muslims in America. … The ignorance is still there, of course, in many ways, but I feel most people aren’t as scared anymore.”
Ramy Youssef, 20, artistic director, New York Arab-American Comedy Festival
“I was in fifth grade [on September 11, 2001], and I remember, pre-9/11, I was just a kid, and then after 9/11, I was a kid on the defensive. … It became a positively defining thing for me in a lot of ways, because it became the cause I was fighting against, as opposed to fighting against, like, my parents.
“I feel like I grew up in a very fear-based society, and I feel like we’re at a breaking point. I don’t know if things have gotten better. For a while, like in 2007-2008, I thought they had, then a taxicab driver gets stabbed for being Muslim, then a mosque can’t be built in New York City. … I don’t think things have gotten better, I think people’s perceptions have just settled.”
Cyrus McGoldrick, 23, civil rights manager for the New York chapter of Council on American Islamic Relations, rapper/singer performing as “The Raskol Khan”
“I was 13 [in 2001]. 9/11 was in my first week of high school, so it was a pretty dramatic coming of age. I was in a small town near Pennsylvania, and, at first, it was just fear. As soon as the news started zeroing in on ‘These were Muslims, and they did it because of Islam,’ we were getting calls from my aunts and uncles who were getting yelled at on the street, were getting flipped off by cars, were getting chased in the city … and I think Muslims were terrified.
“A lot of things have changed. … Back then, the hate was just directed at individuals, but now, I see it more formalized in police. Now we see this anti-Muslim bigotry being formalized in law-enforcement policy and so-called ‘counter-terrorism policy.’ It’s almost a harder battle to fight now. We have a lot of work to do, as Muslims and Americans.”
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