Ten Years After: Growing Up Muslim

Photos by Rachel Feierman

Cyrus McGoldrick on Atlantic Avenue, in front of the
Fertile Crescent Islamic Library (UPSTAIRS) and a Halal Grocery

On the morning of 9/11, Hasiba Rashid was in class at the Al-Noor School in Greenwood Heights. She saw the Twin Towers collapse from her school’s second-story windows, ash and debris floating over the East River and landing in the yard and on the blacktop basketball court. The school closed early that day, Rashid recalls, sending its students home for security reasons. By evening, news outlets were reporting that Al-Qaeda had carried out the attack, ostensibly in the name of Islam. “That’s when we realized,” she says, “that things weren’t ever going to be the same again.”

In the early days after 9/11, there were widespread fears of an anti-Muslim backlash. In fact, though, the number of attacks targeting American Muslims has been fairly small. There have been terrible incidents, like the 2001 murder of two South Asian immigrants (one of them Muslim) by Texas gunman Mark Stroman, or the killing in Arizona of Balbir Singh Sodhi, a Sikh man whose murderer mistook him for a Muslim. These have been isolated events, though, reflecting the derangement of particular individuals rather than some broader public sentiment.

Which is not to say Rashid’s instincts were wrong. Perhaps less immediately threatening than physical violence, but more pervasive, has been the steady stream of protests, outrages, uproars, controversies—the steady stream of bullshit, really—that’s passed for our national engagement with Islam since 9/11. The dozen-plus states currently considering measures to ban Sharia law, for instance. Or the recent kerfuffle in New Jersey (nicely put down by Governor Christie) about judicial appointee Sohail Mohammed’s supposed plans to reestablish the caliphate in Passaic County. Or, going back a few years to 2008, then-candidate Barack Obama’s repeated denials that he was a Muslim—the obvious implication being that Islam=bad.

Roughly 2.6 million Muslims reside in the United States—less than one percent of the nation’s population—and it’s perhaps inevitable that such a small minority will be marginalized in some ways, made to feel like outsiders by the dominant culture. What’s much stranger, though, is suddenly finding yourself not at the margins but plunked down uncomfortably at the center of your country’s most intensely felt conflicts, suspicions, and fears—going, in the space of a morning, from being largely ignored to obsessively scrutinized. Probably even more disorienting is having this happen when you’re 14 years old.

On 9/11, Cyrus McGoldrick was in his first week of high school in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. The son of an Irish father and an Iranian mother, McGoldrick was raised Catholic, converting to Islam only in college, but he realized on that day that his identity had changed. He remembers sitting at home with his parents watching coverage on cable news and, in particular, clips of Muslims overseas purportedly celebrating the attacks, “and I just felt like, this is not going to go well for us,” he says. “The language was very quickly becoming ‘us versus them,’ and I could include myself in the ‘us,’ but I also realized that I was getting included in the ‘them’ a little bit as well.” There was “like a re-ethnicization,” he says, “where being Iranian all of a sudden had a new meaning, a new weight—and not by choice, necessarily.”

He recalls a few months after the attacks, when an older teammate on his school’s lacrosse squad approached him during practice. The teammate put his arm next to McGoldrick’s and held it there, telling him “when I grow up, I’m going to start a private club that no one darker than me can get in.”

“So I look at his arm,” McGoldrick says. “And then I look at my arm. I look at his arm. I look at my arm. And I’m like, damn, that’s personal. Because I had never thought of myself as anything other than white. I had always looked white and felt white, and I was like, ‘Wow.’ That was a very strange moment when I realized that someone looked at me and thought of me as different and inferior—or if not inferior then at least undesired, unwelcome.”

In Brooklyn, the message was sometimes delivered less subtly, Rashid recalls. In the months after 9/11, venturing out of the largely Arab stretch of Bay Ridge where she lived was to risk “being cursed at, spat at, you name it.” Al-Noor students coming to school from other parts of the city were harassed on the trains and even physically assaulted. “We were just trying to go to school and live our lives and be normal teenagers,” she says. “And in the span of a few minutes, our entire high school experience changed.”

Danya Gheith was also a student at Al-Noor at the time of the attacks, but at 10 years old she was too young to understand exactly what had happened. “My parents just told me that a bad guy hijacked a plane and killed a lot of people,” she remembers. She understood enough, though, that after 9/11 she began removing her headscarf for her walk home from school.

“I got a little afraid to walk around the block because the scarf was part of our uniform. So I used to take it off when I walked down the block to my house. Even before 9/11 I used to take it off sometimes because I was a little kid and it got annoying. But now I made sure that I took it off.”

In the wake of the attacks, this question of how visibly one should identify as Muslim was a topic of discussion in communities across the country, says Nzinga Knight, a Brooklyn-based fashion designer who makes clothes aimed at Muslim women. “People weren’t sure what we should do, especially when it came to women,” she explains. “Because if you wear the headscarf you are identifiable. So there was a question about whether women should cover, shouldn’t have to cover… that question of visual identity, should you visually identify as a Muslim?”

For her part, Knight—who was a sophomore at Pratt at the time—went without a headscarf in the first few days after 9/11. Having worn one since she was 11 years old, going out into the city without her head covered was an awkward, unpleasant experience, she says. “I remember taking the bus and not really knowing where to place my head. It just felt so uncomfortable. I felt like my hair was getting dirty.

“I remember going to class and not having it on. And it was so strange to me because people didn’t even seem to realize I wasn’t wearing it. But I didn’t want people to see me either, because I felt ashamed that I didn’t have it on.”

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