On 9/11, my husband and I stood in our living room. The TV was on and I remember trying to turn my body to force my eyes to look away. The second plane hit. My husband’s hand covered his mouth. He felt too far away. I couldn’t move closer. One of us was saying, “Those people. All the people. Why would anyone do this?”
At that time, we were learning to be practicing Muslims. I helped my university Muslim Student Union set up interfaith dinners where we sat with college students and professors answering any and all questions. Islam was unpopular and poorly received. As is the way with the unknown, it was vilified and feared. I was happy to take part in peaceful, global education. I willingly represented “other” in order to demystify a presence that came to America with slave trade.
And then 9/11 happened. My world collapsed with the towers. I went to my classes. One of my instructors disappeared every five minutes to try to contact his daughter. I hugged him. I whispered the words over and over to myself that my husband had whispered to me before he clicked off the TV, “Please don’t let this be Muslims.”
Over the next 13 years, my relationship with and to Islam evolved based on this one act of terror and the response of my home country.
1. I stopped looking up. Despite being an anti-war pacifist I, along with my husband, was very likely profiled as potentially violent and in-the-know. I say this because there was a large police presence everywhere I went. A helicopter hovered above our apartment for hours daily until the next week’s end. The FBI was at our mosque that day and every day after for several months searching for a sleeper cell. Our phones stopped and started working again, but the reception was staticky and there was clicking anytime I talked to my family. I was convinced we were wire-tapped.
2. I was afraid to go outside. If I stayed inside, I couldn’t mess up, Except maybe with my words which I policed carefully. I couldn’t speed, I couldn’t frighten anyone, I couldn’t break any law no matter how tenuous and therefore couldn’t be thrown in Gitmo.
3. I began to actively self-censor by talking to the air. I reconsidered every word out of my mouth. The Arabic phrases I’d been using to express hope were replaced with the English equivalent. I frequently announced how much I hated al-Qaeda to the air when I was alone. I became hyper-aware of trigger words like “jihad,” which I had previously used on a regular basis to describe my personal struggles and which frequently popped up in the materials for one of my classes on the history of the Middle East. I apologized to the nobody I was sure was listening when I punned or let a trigger word slip. My friends and family did the same.
4. I changed the way I dressed. I used to wear comfortable, loose clothes that covered my arms and legs. I kept the headscarf I carried for prayer hidden in my purse instead of draped around my neck. I stopped reading the Qur’an between classes. I began pushing up my sleeves when in groups so people would not worry that I was conservative. I hoped they wouldn’t even remember that I was Muslim.
5. I walked everywhere with a friend during the day. As a woman, I already practiced this habit at night. On-campus violence against Muslims happened on my campus to people I knew. I didn’t want it to happen to me.
6. I stopped answering the door. If I wasn’t expecting someone (and even when I was), my husband or I would tiptoe to the peephole to see if I could identify whoever stood outside as a trusted and safe individual who was not going to exercise vigilante justice on us or deliver us to Gitmo. We had the numbers for both a lawyer and an FBI agent just in case.
7. I stopped going to group functions. Worse than being a Muslim was being in a group of Muslims. What if I spoke to someone who turned out to be a part of al-Qaeda? It could happen. And if it did, I would be dragged off to Gitmo.
8. I stopped going to the mosque. This is particularly intriguing to me because I had not started attending services at the mosque until public response to 9/11 triggered intense feelings of solidarity with my community. In fact, for a long time the mosque was the only place I felt safe and understood. I regularly attended seminars, luncheons and dropped in to make my five daily prayers. Then, someone tried to burn it down. They were never caught. I was exhausted by wondering if they would try again while I was praying, and I knew I couldn’t trust the police to keep me safe. Based on the news, they were just as likely to find reason to pack me off to Gitmo.
9. I stopped opening packages that came in the mail. I knew they probably weren’t bombs, but I couldn’t be sure they weren’t bombs. I once screamed at my son for carrying a package to me from the front door because I was certain it would blow him to pieces. This went on until 2012, but by then I had shifted from “religious” to “spiritual.”
10. I left public play spaces if my son said an Arabic word or I had performed any action that might reveal me as Arab or Muslim. My history is littered with incidents of Christian Americans approaching me to advise me to save my soul or others asking where I was from (born in Texas) and telling me I should “go home.” I am half-Lebanese and inherited many Middle Eastern features. My first son was born a mirror to me. I couldn’t bear the thought of that happening to my him. More, though, I was afraid of physical violence against our persons.
11. I hid all physical evidence in my home that I was Arab or Muslim. This includes the Lebanese flag that used to hang in my bedroom, the “I LOVE LEBANON” t-shirts I gardened in, my prayer beads, scarves and carpets, my family photo albums, my Arabic coffee pots, cups and saucers, my Qur’an and its reading/display stand, and any framed art with Arabic script in it. That way, when non-Muslims came over, they could feel safe and they wouldn’t later try to hurt me.
12. I courted new relationships for months before revealing my religious beliefs. I had to be certain the person was not a gun owner and knew what people and areas were actually included in the Middle East. And when I did reveal myself, I began from the space that I was born and raised in America and I always thought I would join the military when I grew up. I followed that with an argument for why Islam was a feminist movement and wasn’t it fascinating that Muslim women have more rights than American women? I had about a fifty percent retention ratio.
13. I started a blog addressing representations of Muslims in media post-9/11. It had good readership, but I was afraid someone would link it to me. Multiple articles were picked up on blogs discussing race and religion in America.I was proud to be a voice for change, much like I was a representative for interfaith understanding pre-9/11, but I had a family to think about, and I couldn’t keep them safe if I drew attention as a Muslim. The blog was called Islam on My Side. Someone else owns that domain now.
14. I prayed for world peace. During my five daily prayers, which I hadn’t become attentive to until after I felt America was trying to rip away my religious freedom, I often spent an extended time in prostration praying for the victims of violence both in the name of and against the name of Islam. I prayed for their families, their souls, and for their lasting positive legacies. I don’t believe in violence as a means of education or peace. Violence begets violence. And since I can’t watch vacuum commercials without weeping, the knowledge that someone perverted my faith to perpetrate crimes periodically destroys me. Worse is the knowledge that hundreds of America’s children have been sent to witness atrocity and die in the name of perpetrating violence on perpetrators of violence in order to instruct them perpetration of violence is unacceptable.
15. I learned how to be invisible. I grew my hair long enough to hide my face. My anxiety reached an all time high after my second son was born. I grew my hair long and wore baggy clothes. I practiced silence. I went unnoticed until, with the help of medication, I snapped out of deep depression, chopped off my hair and began to stand up straight and look people in the eye. I had been so good at hiding that my neighbor of two years with whom I had spent several hours talking did not know who I was when I changed my hair and clothes. Another man I had known for years couldn’t place me at all, frank in his disbelief that I was his student’s mother. Interestingly, I found that cutting off my hair also cut ties with my public Muslim identity because my visual difference was so stark.
16. So, I stopped talking about Islam altogether. I stopped defending, I stopped mentioning, I stopped praying, I stopped being Muslim. I separated myself entirely from that identity.
17. I learned I could feel safe if I believed no one saw me as Arab, Brown, or Muslim. And it was so heady a feeling that I rolled with it, recognizing that I now had access to previously white only privileges. With the renewed all-access pass, I could keep my children safe from prying eyes.
18. I realized that, even if I choose to present myself as a White, Non-Muslim American, I am still seen as a Brown and Muslim or Other. My neighbor brought me a vitriolic chain-mail that was obvious in its intent to harm Muslims by propagating hatred and fear. He asked me which parts were true. I realized that, despite my describing myself as anti-religion, he still sees me as Muslim because he sees me as brown. I should have known when he leaned into my personal space to ask, “What are you? You look like you’re something else. What are you?” My knee-jerk response was, “Human.” My spoken answer was, “Well, my dad is Lebanese but my mom is from Boston.”
19. I chose to defend Islam and educate rather than deny and hide. I informed my neighbor that the email was an offensive lot of bunk, gave him a short lesson on Islamic history, encouraged him to research contexts if he chooses to learn more about Islam and lent him a Qur’an when he asked for one.
20. I watch my kids very closely when they play outside. Despite the pleasant face of the above exchange and horror of the neighbor’s wife that he would even show me something so insidious (along with the promise of garden goodies), I am aware of the signs. After all, I grew up in the Bible Belt where every other statement was an invitation to seek forgiveness from Jesus for being born to such wickedness and every other phone call was filled with heavy breathing or promises of violence against us, the damned. Perhaps my neighbor genuinely wanted to learn about the faith I grew up with rather than seeking a loophole through which he could appeal to my feminine sensibilities and save me and my children. It’s possible. It’s been a year and he has certainly proven himself a friend. But I will be damned if I fall back into the trap of trusting white America to protect my freedom. As President George W. Bush said, “Fool me once, shame on me. Fool me twice, can’t get fooled again.”