By Beenish Ahmed
One morning, my uncle arrived at his family medical practice in Toledo, Ohio, to find threats on his answering machine. A muffled voice greeted him with a string of expletives before warning that there would be consequences if he didn’t “get the hell out of here.” In the 30 years since Uncle Doctor, as I called him, had emigrated from Pakistan to the United States, he had never been singled out for his nationality or religion. It was September 12, 2001, and the dust still hung heavy in Lower Manhattan. A similar message was waiting for him at home.
“The scariest thing about it,” my Aunt Kathy says, “was that whoever left those messages knew us. They knew our names. They knew the clinic number and our home number, even though it was unlisted.” Today, my aunt and uncle struggle with the details (“It was ten years ago!” my aunt says), but at the time, they felt it was necessary to report the threats to the FBI. A middle-aged agent arrived on their doorstep clad in jeans and a khaki jacket. He spent half an hour listening to the messages and putting a tap on their phone to trace any further calls. None came, and my uncle went to work the next morning.
I was 14 years old and less willing to accept what was happening. My mother and I had our own encounter with what media started calling the “backlash” against Muslims. Like my uncle, my parents had moved to Toledo because it had a decades-old Muslim community. The first to arrive were Syrians and Lebanese who were attracted to the area’s high-paying auto-manufacturing jobs. The 1970s brought a different wave: engineers, doctors, and other professionals from South Asia.
Still shaken by the threats to my uncle, my mother and I stood in the checkout line at our grocery store. She wore a gauzy scarf and a shalwaar kameez—the long tunic and matching pants ensemble that is ubiquitous in South Asia—and I … in what? Shalwaar kameez as well? My cross-country warm-ups? Jeans and a T-shirt? I don’t remember. In fact, I don’t remember any of it, but my mom does.
A woman who was standing behind us asked where we were from. It’s a question I still have not learned how to answer. Northwest Ohio or Northwest Pakistan? Perrysburg or Peshawar? Which is the right response? Which me is being asked? A girl who wore flannel shirts and listened to emo bands like Midtown and Brand New in her room or the one who sat down to lentils and rice for dinner and recounted her day to her family in Urdu?
The woman didn’t wait for an answer. Instead, she told us in a rush of anger, over the beeps of the register, that we should go back to where we came from. We lived no more than two blocks from the store, but she wasn’t telling us to return to our suburban home with white aluminum siding and black shutters. She was telling us to go somewhere that existed in her mind as a place that was foreign and feared.
Maybe my inability to recall this event signals my unwillingness to accept the Islamophobia that rose up after September 11. I wanted to believe I belonged in the United States—the country where I was born. I could chalk up the grocery store incident to the acts of a single, frightened individual, but when my mosque was attacked, it was hard not to feel under siege.
In the middle of sprawling cornfields dotted with red, weathered barns, the Islamic Center of Greater Toledo is an architectural wonder in white. On either side of a vast dome stand two towering minarets that are even taller. Stained-glass windows of turquoise, blue, and vermillion line the inside of the prayer hall. Built in 1983, the center was one of the largest mosques in North America at the time. When I was a kid, my friends asked me in excited playground voices if a princess lived there. I felt ennobled by the place where I had spent nearly every Sunday of my life learning to pray and recite the Quran with melodious precision. Early on the morning of September 12, bullets shattered one of the stained-glass windows.
“People were saying, shall we cancel Friday service? Shall we cancel Sunday school?” says Imam Farooq Abo Elzahab in a lilting Egyptian accent when I recently asked him about the incident. “But we never did that. To the opposite. We unlocked our doors.” He didn’t waver despite the profane notes slipped under the center’s door and the threats when he answered the phone.
In response to the shooting, a Christian radio station organized a day of prayer, and more than 1,000 people from the community joined hands to encircle the Islamic Center. They made a human shield to protect us from further threats. It was as if they were saying, “You have to go through all of us to get to them.” The words “United We Stand” could be found in every corner-shop window and on the bumper of every car in those days, but this interfaith demonstration organized a week after 9/11 was the first time that I felt such unity.
Today, Imam Farooq assures me that the window was easy to replace and that area congregations donated money to cover the costs. Still, I wonder if something irreplaceable wasn’t lost that night. Rather than judging Islam by the billions of peaceful practitioners around the world, the shooter had equated all Muslims to the extremists who hijacked my religion along with the planes. I wanted to judge the city that was my home by the mass outpouring of support, not by a single gunman’s hatred. Sometimes, though, individual displays of violence speak louder than the peaceful actions of a silent majority.
Four years after 9/11, I bought extra-long twin sheets and took my place in the mass anthropological experiment that is random-room assignment at a public university. The University of Michigan has a large number of Muslim students, though many of them share apartments off campus instead of the dorm life I chose. Like so many other college students, most of what I learned in my first year happened in my residence hall and not in lecture halls. A plate of steamed string beans taught me about vegans, and an offhand reference to a fellow resident who was transitioning from female to male forced me to rethink gender norms.
When Ramadan began that fall, I came to share something about myself. My hall mates weren’t aware of the hunger that came before the Eid, the feast that ends the dawn-to-dusk fasting during Islam’s holiest month. Some of my friends even joined me in observing the fasts, and I got used to praying in front of my roommate who had grown up in a town with only one streetlight. I also got used to lifting my feet into a sink in the communal bathroom to complete the pre-prayer ablution known as wadu as other girls rushed in and out in bathrobes, shooting me curious looks. Eventually, I began to feel comfortable enough to leave my door open while I prayed, so my hall mates could observe as I moved through the movements. It made me happy to think of them taking some part in my meditative moments.
One afternoon, as I carried my rented sitar onto an elevator for my weekly lessons in Indian classical music, someone I didn’t know stepped in and asked me half-jokingly if I were smuggling a bazooka somewhere. When I recoiled, he said, “I only ask because you seem to be from the part of the world where people like to tote those sorts of things around. Just try to remember, you’re in America now.” The door opened, and he grinned at me and stepped out.
There was another day when I barreled down the hall, chased by a student who spent his summers volunteering with the Israeli Defense Force. He hollered at me in Arabic until I slipped into my room and slammed the door behind me. It happened time and again, but it wasn’t until a Lebanese international student moved onto our floor that I learned what the other student had been saying: “Show me your papers!” and “Stop, or I’ll shoot!” I don’t speak Arabic, and apparently neither did he, except for those two phrases. He shouted them at me and no one else.
More often, I was asked to explain the basic tenets of my faith, and many times, people responded with their beliefs about Islam. Strangers took it upon themselves to warn me of the dangers of abstaining from food and drink during my fasts, and even longtime friends looked at me woefully for not trading in jeans for cutoffs in the summer. Growing up as a Muslim American, I had often been told to be a good ambassador of Islam, but this notion implies that Muslims will always be emissaries from elsewhere—that we will always be outsiders because of our religion. That it is my fellow Muslims who say this to me makes me wonder if we will ever see ourselves as fully American.
September 11 is part of what divides my parents’ generation from mine. Almost half of my life has occurred after the attacks, and I remain profoundly ambivalent about the country where I was born, the country where I am a citizen. There are days I am as hopeful as I was when those hundreds of people joined hands around the Islamic Center of Greater Toledo. Like Catholics and Jews before us, who were also once told to “go back to where they came from,” we will prevail, I tell myself. We will become part of this country without losing our identities.
At the same time, public support for Muslims is too often seen as socially suspect and politically imprudent. State legislatures around the country are banning Shariah law—the facet of Islam included in marriage contracts and wills—and city councils around the country have blocked plans to build new mosques. A year ago, plans to expand an Islamic center near Ground Zero sparked a nationwide controversy. Sometimes I wonder whether Muslims will ever be viewed as American without having to defend or explain ourselves. I wonder if 9/11 will come to define my generation.
Beenish Ahmed is a freelance journalist based in Pakistan. She’s reporting on education there with support from the Pulitzer Center on Crises Reporting.This Article first published in http://prospect.org/authors/beenish-ahmed.
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