Free to be Muslim and an American

On Sept. 11, 2001, I nervously ate dinner with my family in front of the TV, as we all tried to understand what was happening in the chaos, wondering if family and friends in New York were all right. It was my 13th birthday, and when I heard that an “Islamic” group had taken credit, I was even more afraid of what would follow.

Sunday and Monday, I watched as friends in the United States, Lebanon, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey and elsewhere celebrated this tremendous event, the death of this evil man, via Facebook statuses. They were Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Republican, Democrat, apathetic, American and international. My dad called excitedly making sure I knew. My hilarious Texan roommate even sang her best rendition of “ding, dong, the wicked witch is dead.”

We went to our neighbors’ house to watch President Barack Obama’s speech, and others gathered with us. This time, as we sat in front of the TV with our midnight finals week snacks, we felt proud, ecstatic, victorious. Fraternities set off fireworks, blasted the national anthem out their windows and people cheered. My family spent two years in Kuwait, and I remembered having Thanksgiving and hosting four Navy SEALs who were unable to go home, hearing their stories, and after learning more details of this mission, once again thinking how blessed we are as Americans to have such heroes.

For me, this moment isn’t just a celebration, but an opportunity to continue to heal the false conflict between America and Islam that Osama bin Laden has tried to create. Born to an American Catholic mother and a Lebanese Muslim father, I have struggled to understand what it means to be an American Muslim. That day in 2001 changed not only the world and the U.S., but also challenged an entire population to define itself. Bin Laden not only created the plot that hijacked those four planes, but he also hijacked the message of an entire religion. No one has been as troubled these past 10 years as those moderate Muslims who have had to repeatedly hear this man try to speak for us. An Egyptian man once said it perfectly in a State Department focus group: “In the Middle East, if you don’t define yourselves, they [extremists] will.”

Each year on my birthday, now officially Patriot day, I have taken his words to heart, knowing that as an American, and as a Muslim, I must work constantly to define myself and my values. I’ve talked American politics and the Iraq war with a Tunisian cabdriver, and lead Bible-Quran comparative studies in Georgia. I am certainly not alone, and Tuesday, 40 women, all under the age of 40, all born in the United States, all Muslim, stood up to define themselves in a new book, “I Speak for Myself: American Women on Being Muslim.” Our book showcases the diversity within Islam, a generation of women working to connect worlds and spread compassion.

Before the release of “I Speak for Myself,” the contributors were each asked when we were most proud to be an American. For me, it’s every time I stand in a passport control line. When I pull out that little blue book, whether I’m returning home to the U.S., visiting family in Lebanon, or vacationing in Europe, I always flip to the same page, proudly reading Page 14 to myself. On Sept. 11, I began to understand what these words meant.

Today, I rejoice in knowing that despite our partisan politics, the extreme global challenges we face, and the injustice we see in various ways, this quote from President John F. Kennedy still rings true: “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”

Let us strive to remember the sense of unity, triumph and thankfulness we felt this week, and continue to each do what we can to assure the survival and success of liberty.

Amira Choueiki, a senior at Georgia Tech, is a contributor to “I Speak for Myself: American Women on Being Muslim.” She also has published a report on the recruitment of Jihadist organizations.