11th September 2001. It’s last lesson and we’re chatting with the teacher informally before heading home, completely oblivious to the functioning of the world outside our little Islamic school. I traipse home that day only to be greeted by my elder brother at the door: “have you ANY idea what’s been going on?!” And then the sound of the news on the radio and the unforgettable images of destruction; the collapse of two seemingly powerful buildings into a smouldering pile of crumbling rubble.
This was devastation on a scale and proximity I had not witnessed before. This was destruction so dangerously close, it was almost tangible. My sensation was dual; I witnessed both the murder of innocent thousands at the hands of a deviant few, as well as our helplessness in the face of reality, in spite of our frequent bravado and sense of power. But perhaps the greatest sensation was felt when I discovered the identities of these criminals, apparently Muslim. They were people who claimed to be of my faith. My pure, beautiful and humane faith. It was jarring beyond description, and I was left reeling.
The unfortunate reality of September 11th for a Western Muslim is that, unlike for others, the strike came to us from both sides. At one end we found ourselves attacked by external forces, our New York monuments destroyed to the ground. At the other end we found ourselves attacked by internal forces – by our governments and our neighbours, by fellow citizens, friends and colleagues who were naturally angered at these crimes, and turned their narrowed eyes towards us. As if we had something to do with it. As if we weren’t one of them; shared victims of an immense brutality.
The past decade has seen the world shift in ways unimaginable in an incredibly short space of time. I am often left wondering at what we witnessed. We are the wartime generation, not of one war, but several. Our experiences have been such that I am certain future generations and historians will look upon us in wonder. And by ‘us’ I mean specifically Western Muslims. Buildings may be struck and devastated, but they can be rebuilt. The fragility of a nation may be exposed, but confidence may be reinforced – and in the case of 9/11, quite reactively, where the cost was hundreds of thousands of innocent lives abroad. But it is those whose lifestyles are changed, altered beyond recognition and beyond the point of return, that are most deeply affected. From 9/11 and the decade that followed, in the West it was we Muslims who experienced the greatest impact.
This past decade has shown a seismic shift in the lifestyles and identities of Western Muslims, as the pressures came to be applied from all sides: from those purportedly brothers in faith and those purportedly brothers in nationhood. Both elements of our dual identity – an enriching and harmonious identity – came to be scrutinised and questioned. From being labelled ‘bomber’ by a fellow shopper in a department store, to the cold stares of post 7/7 England and verbal abuse on public transport, to being stopped no less than three times in swift succession by airport security while fellow passengers flit past, the stigma and victimisation was not imaginary. From having to live through a constant media barrage of simplified, falsified, islamophobic hype that would never be acceptable of any other community, to the damning attack levelled at anyone suggesting Islamophobia was on the rise regardless of glaring evidence, we found our own countries alienating us, their citizens, and then wondering why they faced dissent.
We found ourselves being spied on and targeted from every angle – in our streets, at our universities, even in our homes. Civil liberties, built and proudly upheld over generations, became watered down beyond recognition and we were bearing the brunt of it. Even as our parents’ nations were bombed and destroyed, wreaking havoc, pain and suffering on a far multiplied scale than witnessed by the terrorist attack that sparked it, the magnifying glass was applied upon the Muslims, daring us to disagree and display “disloyalty”: “you are either with us or against us”. In spite of countless academic studies, surveys and evidence brought highlighting the overarching loyalty of Muslim Westerners, even beyond our neighbours of other communities, the suspicious gaze did not ease.
Yet while this may make some quail and lose ground as to who they are, for many of us it enabled a strengthening of confidence and roots. It made me more aware of who I am and what I believe; most importantly that identity is not determined by those around me, but by myself. And it is a point of pride to see how the British Muslim community has flourished and excelled in spite of the pressures brought to bear upon it, how we have not given in and not forgotten the dignified citizens we are as inspired by our faith. This fact was exemplified most resoundingly during the recent riots witnessed across Britain. Whilst the past decade has seen British Muslims as the prime target of scrutiny and accused of disloyalty, the riots witnessed members of other communities violently attack, destroy and loot their own neighbourhoods with impunity. In marked contrast, the Muslim community stood in defence of the streets, protecting all Britons without discrimination, and laying down their life for the cause. While race tensions simmered and anger brimmed, members of the Muslim community were seen calling for racial harmony and calm – and achieving it where the authorities could not. It is events like these that exemplify not merely what the Muslim community is at heart, but also what they have survived and how they have come through. These are the realities which reflect the strength of a community whose identity has been tested to the limits, and yet they have emerged even stronger than before.
While 9/11 may have impacted the Western Muslim community so significantly, it is these trials that help to strengthen our identity. It is when we are challenged and tested that we realise who we are and staunchly uphold it, regardless of the external pressures. And for those of us who made it through, I would argue that our identity is stronger than any of those around us.
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