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.”

Faatimah Knight in her family kitchen in Flatbush

This went on for several days, Knight remembers, until, one morning, getting ready for school in her dorm room, she decided to put it back on. “I was listening to some music as I was getting dressed one morning. It was a Mos Def song—he has this song ‘Fear Not of Man’—and it was just so empowering, and I felt like, you know, the reason that I felt so ashamed walking around was because I was afraid of people. Like, I was afraid of every random person, and that’s why I wasn’t wearing the scarf. So I decided that I was going to wear it.”

This deliberate choice to not be afraid, to not be angry, is universal among the people interviewed for this story. That’s not to say, however, that it’s universally convincing. Asked if the city’s response to 9/11 changed the way she relates to her fellow New Yorkers, Gheith replies emphatically in the negative. “Not at all.” she says. “Not. At. All.” But the answer sounds a little forced—how can a person not be at least a bit insulted by, for instance, the implications of last year’s Ground Zero mosque controversy? And, in fact, moments later she admits how frustrating that episode was. “It’s like, why are they doing this stuff?” she says. “I thought it was unbelievable. I thought it was nonsense.” What, though, is the alternative to letting it go? Spending her days parsing the meaning of each dirty look she gets on the subway? Devoting herself to close readings of Robert Spencer blog posts? Unfair as it is, self-conscious rejection of what would be a perfectly understandable sense of estrangement is maybe the best, the only, way of getting on with things. Even if you actually are kind of pissed off about it.

Beyond that, notes Aman Ali, a Muslim writer and comedian living in New York, a danger exists in letting your detractors set the boundaries of your existence. Born just outside of Columbus, Ohio, Ali was a junior in high school when the Twin Towers fell. Since then, he says, he thinks American Muslims have been too reactive in making their voices heard, too willing to accept the narratives they find themselves plugged into.

“I think that recently we’ve only defined ourselves in response to something,” he says. “We’ve been on the defensive. We’ve only been clarifying. We’ve never, like, fully explained who we really are. We really haven’t done much to talk about our faith and just our average lives.”

Ali started doing stand-up around five years ago, putting together sets heavy with the expected TSA and terrorism jokes. Material like, “Going through airport security I’ve had my junk handled so many times, you might as well call me Antiques Roadshow.” The act always got laughs, Ali says, but after a few years of doing it, he started to wonder what his comedy had to do with his actual life. “I was making up jokes about being at the airport and getting held up there or being profiled or things like that,” he recalls. “And one day I realized, these things are getting laughs, but these things aren’t really my life.

“I got frustrated, because when you talk about Muslims in a post-9/11 environment, the only thing you talk about are hate crimes or airport security—all these narratives of Muslims being the victims of something. And I don’t want to downplay the severity of a woman getting beaten just because she wears a headscarf, or a guy being detained because he looks ‘suspicious.’ But to say that’s reflective of ordinary Muslims’ lifestyles is completely absurd.”

In 2009, Ali and filmmaker Bassam Tariq made a plan to break fast each night of Ramadan at a different New York City mosque. They called the project “30 Mosques in 30 Days” and blogged accounts of their visits, drawing as they went a steadily expanding readership, and attention from media outlets like NPR and NY1. In 2010, they took the project on the road, visiting a different mosque in a different state each day of Ramadan, following a route that stretched from Maine to California. This year, they’ve reprised the trip, hitting the 20 states they missed the first time around along with 10 repeats to round out the 30.

Traveling around the country has reinforced Ali’s growing sense that the now-standard tropes of Muslims as either terrorists or victims “aren’t even remotely reflective of ordinary Muslim lives,” he says.

Aman Ali near his home in Harlem

“What I see in the news and what I see on television really isn’t mirroring the reality we see when we’re traveling around the country. Most Muslims are living very content lives, and their neighbors are wholeheartedly accepting of who they are. I feel like a lot of people don’t give America enough credit in regards to how open this nation really is.”

And yet… as the saying goes, just because you’re not paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you. For instance, one entry from Tariq and Ali’s 2010 trip describes an encounter with an Alabama cop who used the occasion of a traffic stop to express his opinion of the Ground Zero mosque. (Spoiler Alert: He was against it.) More serious was a comedy club run-in several years earlier that left Ali with a line of stitches in his face.

He was performing at the Comic Strip Live on the Upper East Side—a five-minute spot for which he had driven from Ohio, where he was living at the time. At some point during his set, he mentioned he was a Muslim, and a drunk man in the audience stood up and started yelling. “He was like, ‘You effin’ terrorist! This is New York! Who brought you here? I bet it was your family that knocked those buildings down. Get the eff out of here!” Ali recalls. “So I motioned to the bouncer and he pulled the guy out of the room, but as he pulls him out—and I’m not seeing this as it happens, I’m just onstage doing my thing—the guy reaches for a beer bottle at the bar and throws it at me. And the bottle smashes when it hits me, and I had to get three stitches underneath my eye.

“This was my dream,” he says of performing at the club. “This was where Eddie Murphy, Chris Rock, Ray Romano all got their starts. So I went through this rollercoaster of emotions. I was like, ‘What am I doing? What’s going to happen?’”

Ultimately, Ali says, the experience “motivated me to be more comfortable with my identity, because it showed me there’s a lot that people don’t understand about us, that we’ve got a lot more work to do.” How, though, do you preserve that attitude when you know there might be some guy waiting to chuck a bottle at your head? How do you know where to draw the line between openness and prudence?

Probably, you can’t. Nzinga’s sister Faatimah was 10 years old on 9/11 and, she says, she too deliberately chose after the attacks not to be afraid. “I think from the beginning I decided that I didn’t want to feel like I was going to be a target. I’m just a kid from Brooklyn. I didn’t do anything wrong. And I think for the most part that people are good people.”

As much as anti-Muslim sentiment, her parents were worried about religious radicals she might encounter. “They definitely talked to me afterwards about Islam, just to make me understand that the people who did this were wrong, and that if I met people who had those sort of extremist views to be aware and cautious about interacting with them.”

Still, “I definitely had insecurities,” she says. “I was definitely conscious of the fact that I did know of Muslims who had been assaulted. So I couldn’t be na├»ve about the fact that something bad could happen to me.”

Strangely, Faatimah says, while day-to-day interactions have become less fraught with the passing of time, the country’s political and media environments have in recent years actually become somewhat more threatening. “I don’t really recall feeling threatened when I watched the news in the early 2000s,” she says. “I feel like maybe television was more fair back then, especially where news is concerned. There was a time when I think Muslims felt more comfortable both out in public and watching TV, and then the balance sort of tipped to where things became uneasy and tense on TV and in the media, but not so much with regard to people’s everyday actions.”

McGoldrick, who is civil-rights manager at the Council on American-Islamic Relations’ New York office, thinks this change started with President Obama’s campaign in 2008, when opponents seized on his Muslim background in order to portray him as an outsider. “It wasn’t appropriate to seize on his blackness, just like it’s not appropriate in most media platforms to be anti-Semitic or homophobic. So Islam became the acceptable target for that fear of the other.” That attitude, he suggests, has led us to where we are today, when the likes of Pamela Geller can pose as an Islam expert on cable TV and a Republican presidential candidate feels comfortable declaring that he’d exclude Muslims from his administration if elected. (Although, to be fair, Herman Cain hasn’t exactly been setting the world on fire.)

“I oscillate between two perspectives,” Faatimah says. “Sometimes I feel comfortable and ok because when I walk outside I don’t feel threatened, and what’s on TV feels distant and sort of cartoonish. But then sometimes I definitely do feel discomfort to the point where it sort of spills over into how I feel when I’m outside and interacting with people. Because I feel like the anti-Muslim rhetoric on TV can be so repetitive and so extreme that it does make me feel insecure.

“Especially when, you know, they show a group of people out protesting against a mosque being built or something. When I see that, it really troubles me because I think, ‘Well, where do those people come from? I don’t meet those people—where are they?’ So it gives me this feeling of like, ‘Well, I guess they’re out there, too.’”

Hasiba Rashid on her neighbor’s roof garden in Bensonhurst

If there’s a silver lining to this situation, it’s that the presence of an outside threat has eased some of the internal divisions that have traditionally split the city’s Muslim community. “One thing 9/11 really changed for me was that, before, I was very nationalistic,” says Rashid. “I’m a Palestinian Arab, and I kind of stuck only to associating with Palestinians and Arabs. 9/11 really helped me move away from that sort of illogical, nationalistic identity. I realized not to isolate myself, not to consider myself just an Arab Muslim but to think of myself as a Muslim in general.”

A Caribbean-American and the child of converts, Nzinga says her generation has seen “an unbelievable shift” in the years since 9/11. She describes going into corner stores as a child and being made by the Arab or South Asian clerks to recite verses from the Koran to prove she was really a Muslim. “That was a very common thing,” she says, “because there was a feeling with a lot of Arabs and Asians that they owned Islam, that it was their religion.” This began changing, she says, after 9/11, “because I think a lot of Arab and Asian Muslims were feeling like maybe they needed the black Muslims and the white Muslims and the Hispanic Muslims.”

Discrimination post-9/11 has also led Muslim communities to associate themselves with America’s civil rights struggles, Nzinga says. “I think a lot of Muslims wanted to see themselves as white as opposed to seeing themselves as a person of color and attaching themselves to that kind of history. Suddenly, though, they realized, ‘Oh no. People aren’t seeing me as white, they’re seeing me as a person who can be marginalized.’”

McGoldrick recalls a talk given several years ago at a CAIR fundraising banquet by the Muslim intellectual Tariq Ramadan in which Ramadan encouraged Muslims to take the civil rights movement more seriously. “He was saying, ‘You need to invest in this. And not just your money. You need to invest yourselves.’ The African-American community understands this, because they’ve been through it before, but for all those Arabs and South Asians who came to this country in the 1950s, ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s and got good jobs and just assimilated and nobody bothered them—well, now the American Dream is coming for you.”

Of course, there are two sides to that American Dream. Being labeled an outsider is to be devalued, dismissed, threatened—to, as Faatimah puts it, have “a feeling of being cornered… like people can say anything about you and maybe you don’t have the power to say anything back.” On the flip side, though, we have a habit of fetishizing groups we’ve disenfranchised, of viewing them as repositories of authenticity. This latter predilection is probably just as ridiculous (if perhaps less obviously sinister) as the initial discriminatory impulse, but, as phenomena ranging from suburban white kids’ love of hip-hip to the collected works of Martin Scorsese attest, it’s real. This is something we do.

Which raises a question—has this tendency of ours rubbed off in any way on Islam? After 9/11, is there something a little bit badass about being Muslim in America?

There are hints of this in the way Gheith describes how her religious practice has changed in the years after the attacks. “People always called me rebellious,” she says. “I always like to do the opposite of what the community wants or what anybody wants. So, ok, they don’t want me to practice my religion? They don’t want me to be a Muslim? I’m going to do it and I’m going to do it ten times better.

“It just made me a more religious person. I started doing my prayers on time. During Ramadan, I fasted and didn’t miss a day. It just made me stronger.”

“People have taken on the outsider status in different ways,” Ali says. “Some people like the idea of an outsider. There’s no doubt that with projects like our ‘30 Mosques in 30 Days,’ a lot of the interest in it was this curiosity of ‘the other’ and people not knowing anything about Muslims. There’s no doubt that this controversy with the Ground Zero mosque and things like that helped pique people’s interest. Like my agent told me when the project really took off last year—‘Dude, as long as people hate Muslims, you’re going to make a lot of money.’”

Patronizing and perhaps unwelcome as this sort of interest may be, it’s something that American Muslims should take advantage of all the same, says McGoldrick, who, in addition to his work at CAIR, makes music under the stage name Raskol Khan. “We need to capitalize on that otherness, that authenticity, even on that fetishization,” he says. “It’s important to capture the imagination of the Americans that imagine themselves to be fighting for social justice, that believe in social justice.”

He offers the example of hip-hop, particularly the music’s earlier, more political manifestations. “A huge proportion of white Americans got into hip-hop,” he says. “And I think they gravitated toward that feeling of… that they were listening to that person inside of everyone that feels angry and disenfranchised. Even if it was just that you hated your parents, you know, it felt like that person had the legitimacy to put that anger into music. That was to [African-Americans’] benefit, I think, and I think that we need to capitalize on that, too.”

Most immediately, though, McGoldrick says, “we still need to get safe.

“I think, overall, Muslim communities aren’t quite there yet. Most Muslims are still deep in the fight to regain our American-ness. I think that’s the issue. We’ve had an identity stripped from us.” He cites a hadith: Islam began strange, and it will become strange again just like it was at the beginning, so blessed are the strangers.

“I think we’re back to someplace where Islam is pretty strange again.” •


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