9/11 a defining moment in the childhoods of Muslim millennials

Georgia Muslim Voter Project Community Organizer Salik Sohani stands for a portrait outside of the Al-Farooq Masjid in downtown Atlanta, Friday, August 27, 2021. He hopes the 20th anniversary of 9/11 provides Muslims opportunities to dispel negative narratives and continue educating people. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal Constitution)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Georgia Muslim Voter Project Community Organizer Salik Sohani stands for a portrait outside of the Al-Farooq Masjid in downtown Atlanta, Friday, August 27, 2021. He hopes the 20th anniversary of 9/11 provides Muslims opportunities to dispel negative narratives and continue educating people. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal Constitution)

From the moment Sikandar Husseini walked into his sixth grade homeroom class on Sept. 11, 2001, he knew something was wrong.

His teacher, who doubled as the girls’ basketball coach, usually had EPSN’s “SportsCenter” on, but that morning the TV was switched to CNN. Shortly after, Husseini’s mother pulled him out of school, and he spent the rest of the day watching the news and trying to make sense of what was unfolding.

By Sept. 12, everything changed for the 11-year-old.

Husseini was left to deal with a new reality where people in his life went from being indifferent about his Islamic faith and Afghan heritage, to suddenly having negative opinions about both.

The 19 hijackers who carried out the attacks were associated with the Islamic extremist group al Qaeda, and were from Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries. As a result, stereotypes about Islam began to emerge and people with ties to majority Muslim countries became targets for discrimination and hate crimes.

Muslim millennials say 9/11 was a defining moment in their lives and have vivid memories of trying to process the intense fear and sorrow felt by all Americans in the aftermath of the attacks, while handling spikes in racism and Islamophobia.

Husseini would think about his parent’s safety following the attacks. His father worked at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, and his mother wore traditional Afghan clothing.

“It made me grow up a little quicker,” Husseini, 31, of Suwanee, said. “I was never bullied as a kid, but post 9/11 is when the terrorist jokes started ... When I hear anti-Afghan sentiments, to me, anti-Muslim is a part of that.”

Salik Sohani  and Xan-Rhea Bilal registering Muslim voters through the Muslim Voter Project. The pair were children when 9/11 took place and now work to empower Muslim Americans by encouraging them to use their political voice.

Credit: Submitted by: Xan-Rhea Bilal

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Credit: Submitted by: Xan-Rhea Bilal

Prior to 9/11, anti-Islamic incidents were uncommon, making up the second-least reported religious-based crime in the U.S. according to the FBI. By 2001 those incidents grew by more than 1,600% over the 2000 volume. The FBI says there were 176 reports of anti-Islamic incidents in 2019, making it the second-largest category behind antisemitic attacks.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations recently released a snapshot summary report of anti-Muslim bias incidents. The organization said it has documented a spike in anti-Islamic incidents over the summer, ranging from vandalism and physical assaults targeting Muslim women wearing the hijab.

For Muslim Americans these incidents can trigger memories of anti-Islamic feelings after 9/11.

Nadine Kaslow, professor of psychiatry at Emory University School of Medicine, said it is common for millennials to find their own ways of dealing with the trauma of 9/11 and its aftermath.

“Some people turned outward, some people turned inward and other people did both,” Kaslow said. “Millennials tend to be about social justice, they are focused on social change and invested in being that change.”

A call to action

Xan-Rhea Bilal was 5 years old in September 2001, but still remembers the sounds of military jets flying above her Brooklyn home following the attacks. She also remembers how she felt in its aftermath.

“After (9/11) happened I was just confused, especially as a little kid,” Bilal, 25, said, adding it left her with lingering questions about her identity. “I feel like that’s a question that I struggled with for a long time in my life and I’m just starting to figure it out.”

Bilal grew up in a mixed-faith household, with an Christian mother and a Muslim father, who are both immigrants from Trinidad and Tobago. After 9/11 she immediately noticed shifts in the way people treated her father and other Muslim family members.

“People would just kind of pull away from them, or they would put their kids on the other side when they were walking,” Bilal, a Stone Mountain resident, said. “I know it affected them and no one could really explain to my cousins and I, why (it was happening).”

Eventually, Bilal asked her father directly: “Why do some people look at us like we did something wrong?”

His response: “Sometimes people have different views of the world, and it’s based off their beliefs.”

She was convinced the hate came from a deeper place.

Xan-Rhea Bilal grew up in Brooklyn, New York and still remembers the sounds of jets flying overhead following the 9/11 attacks.

Credit: Submitted by: Xan-Rhea Bilal

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Credit: Submitted by: Xan-Rhea Bilal

In searching for answers, she is earning a master’s degree in international relations, and began working with the Georgia Muslim Voter Project, a nonprofit that encourages Muslim civic engagement.

“We’re trying to work to engage our communities,” Bilal said. “If you love what you do it’s not work and I am blessed in that way.”

Bilal’s colleague at the Muslim Voter Project, Salik Sohani, shares her passion.

“Hopefully this 20th anniversary will give us opportunities to dispel these narratives and continue educating people,” Sohani, 25, said.

Addressing Hate

For Sohani, addressing anti-Islamic feelings is personal.

He remembers a particular time in eighth grade when his school in Chattanooga, Tennessee had an imam speak to students in an attempt to ease tensions. At first, he was thrilled to have the imam at the school and felt represented, but that vanished when a student asked the imam a question: “Why do Muslims hate Americans?”

“My kids are American, they were born here. They’re also Muslims. Do you think that I hate them? Or do you think I hate my wife who is also American?,” Sohani remembers the imam answering.

Sohani knew that the question wasn’t directed at him, but being one of few people of color and one of only four Muslims at his school, it felt like it was.

“... in the back of mind I’m thinking, ‘is that what people are thinking when they see me talking around the campus? Is that what they see when they look at me?,’” Sohani said.

Shoani has gotten better at dealing with waves of Islamophobia, and believes education is the key to combating hate. As a member of the Ismaili sect of Islam, he welcomes questions about his faith and Pakistani heritage.

“I’m just trying to show people that Muslims are actually the most caring, the most peaceful, and the most compassionate of people out there,” Sohani said. “... shedding a light on the values that I know my faith espouses and that the people of my community espouse.”

Love of country

Even two decades after the attacks, Azka Mahmood, communications and outreach director for CAIR Georgia, said it is still common for Muslim Americans to have their patriotism questioned, although the tactics have changed.

“People call out Islamophobia and outright racism, so the dog whistles are different now,” Mahmood said. “The terminology is more subtle (today), because it’s not acceptable to be Islamophobic outright, but you can make policies (showing prejudice).”

Following 9/11, Muslim Americans were regularly questioned for their patriotism. One way they attempted to dispel hatred and profess their devotion to the country was to display the American flag. For them, displaying the flag became a shield.

“My dad, kind of feeling an internalized guilt, ended up buying an American flag,” said Farah G, an Atlanta resident who asked that her full name not be used because of concerns about her job. “He ended up flying it at the base of, or at the top the mailbox, as a way to tell the neighbors like ‘hey, yes we’re Muslim, but we’re American.’”

Farah was in her sophomore year of high school and living in a suburb outside of Jacksonville, Florida in 2001. At the time she was the only Muslim player on her school’s girls basketball team, and the only Black player.

“If you played well, they loved us,” Farah, 35, said. “Growing up I remember being told ‘oh you’re not like the other Black folks.’ I felt disgusted when they said stuff like that, especially because my family is from Somaliland.”

Farah also felt the need to display her love for America.

“I remember even at games I felt like I had to be super patriotic,” she said. “I had to put my hand on my heart and be very outward about that expression, and be almost flamboyant about it. I had to sing the words, I had to know the words.”

She began wearing the hijab after starting college at New York University, and with that came with the weight of representing her religion.

“There is something different about a woman wearing hijab and what she has to face on a daily basis,” said Farah, who doesn’t regularly wear the hijab anymore. “The stares, the snickering. I’m also 6′1, 6′2, so I am of height and of stature, so it’s like I already stick out like a sore thumb and then put on a hijab on top of that.”

Sikandar Husseini during an August demonstration in support of Afghan citizens. Husseini was in middle school when the attacks took place, and has since used his voice to support Afghans and Muslims in his community.

Credit: Submitted by: Sikandar Husseini

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Credit: Submitted by: Sikandar Husseini

Looking ahead

As for Husseini, he turned inward following 9/11, and found himself searching for photos of Afghanistan online, wanting to get glimpse of the landscapes his parents saw during their childhoods, and to counteract the negative images of the country he was hearing from people around him.

Since then, he’s taken an active position in his community, and most recently joined demonstrations in Atlanta aimed at speaking up for Afghan rights following the Taliban’s takeover of the country.

“I screwed up and I assumed I could go back whenever I wanted, but that’s not the case anymore,” he said. “It sucks, for a lack of a better word, it sucks.”

Mahmood said American Muslims are less likely to take an apologetic approach when it comes to associations with their faith and terrorism, and have made strides in finding their social and political voice.

“Muslims are tired of it,” she said. “It’s been 20 years, they are tired of being painted with a broad brush, they’re tried of the burden of educating people and they’re frankly tired of the biased treatment that they’re afforded.”

Paradise Afshar is a Report for America corps member covering metro Atlanta’s immigrant communities.