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On 9/11, united we stood, unless we were Arabs
The attacks on September 11 provided an opportunity for Americans to unite. However, my family and I had to let everyone know we weren’t “ those kinds” of Arabs.
Like many of you, I remember exactly where I was on September 11, 2001 I was seated in Miss Leach’s geometry class when the first tower was hit, and by the time I got to Mrs. Nunemacher’s algebra class, the second tower had been struck. It was an extraordinary moment that I didn’t realize would not only change our nation, but also shape how I saw myself and how I lived, for the rest of my life.
My parents grew up in Egypt, a secular theocratic military dictatorship, where they were oppressed because they were Christians. My dad’s experience as a religious minority shaped his politics. His Islamophobic perspective was informed by his own experience of prejudice. He raised us to be fundamentalist Christians—and suspicious of Muslims. What happened on 9/11, in his mind, proved him right. After witnessing the attacks, I suspected Islamist terror because of the instincts my family had planted in me. I was not afraid of being treated differently in the wake of Al Qaeda’s violence, since I was Christian, not Muslim. My naiveté became apparent in the months that followed.
My family thought that if we could bind ourselves strongly to conservative American ethics and politics, if we could conspicuously demonstrate our faith, we would be spared prejudice. My dad flew an American flag, wore an American flag pin, and put pro-America bumper stickers on his car. I’m sure my parents didn’t do this to ward off bigotry, and might even deny having done it at all. From my experience, however, we were trying hard to blend in. But it didn’t work. Our neighbors and peers couldn’t see past our skin color. Despite all those best efforts, we couldn’t escape racism.
Christians often eschew identity politics based on race because we want to find our true identity in Christ. But the reality is that holding on to God’s promise is not enough to overcome prejudice. The tide of racism and xenophobia was much stronger than our best intentions and even our faith. That does not diminish the fact that I am the beloved of God, loved fully and unconditionally, but that love just wasn’t and isn’t shared by the people around me– even though they generally believe in that love.
After September 11, 2001, the country was strongly united. We heard and saw everywhere that we stood together. Even foreign newspapers declared, “We are all Americans today.” The collective experience of Americans was powerful and built solidarity, but that unity was the result of having a common enemy. And that common enemy looked like me. The precision and nuance required to call out terrorism without collateral damage to unassuming Arabs was unlikely, and not what happened. The unity that America stood for on 9/11 was one that burdened Arab people.
My skin color felt highlighted. While the prejudice that I experienced after 9/11 wasn’t the first time I had felt it, it became distinctly potent and pervasive. Obviously, my family was horrified by the attack and grieved the loss of life just as everyone else did. In fact, Arabs all over the world did—whether Christian or Muslim—but our grief was held in doubt.
What’s more, the fact that these attacks resulted in violent and expensive wars, was frightening. Not only were we looked at with suspicion, but the Global War on Terror—affecting Arabs from North Africa to Iraq—made matters ineffably worse. We were enemies of the state and therefore national security threats. The stereotypes we see in movies of Arab terrorists became essential to daily discourse and even to foreign policy. Our skin color and last names were causes for so-called random searches at airports. We were mocked and mistrusted. Someone even joked that I looked like Osama bin Laden. The fury and torrent of racial insults was hard to bear, and I would feel it and remember it in the years to come. I am still doing the work of uncovering the harm of that prejudice, filled at times with the anxiety about simply waking up in a brown body in the right place at the wrong time. And I wasn’t alone in my experience, hate crimes against Muslims and Arabs spiked after 9/11, and also continued to rise during the Trump Administration.
As one who takes pride in fitting in and adapting, I did learn how to live in this new world. We were expected to assimilate to American culture, and be grateful for the opportunity, yet what we did was never considered to be enough. It was sad to be surrounded by people requiring us to be patriotic, while at the same time casting that sideways glance. It is disturbing, further, that protesting this treatment and the wars that would follow simply elicited even more hatred.
But I decided that God loved me, and that I needed to stand firm in that love, and name my own mistreatment and my objections to the wars that followed. I went against the assimilation and accommodation that my parents taught me—a risky choice for an Arab teen. To both name that this so-called united country was united against people like me, and to name the wars for the evil things that they were, put me further in harm’s way. It takes courage to name racism and xenophobia and to protest war when you are a targeted minority. You can be seen as a traitor and an accomplice to evil. But I remembered the words of my Lord: “What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, but forfeit their soul?” It wasn’t worth it for me to try and fail to be united with the rest of the country if it meant losing my humanity. My grief over the loss of life was no less than anyone else’s, but I needed and still need to speak about how my family and I were treated. Further, I need to speak out against the Global War on Terror which treated Arabs like me with deadly force.
Today, there are many well-intentioned brown people—like all oppressed minorities—who refuse to acknowledge the prejudice against them and who turn a blind eye to it. They are insistent that they aren’t treated differently, probably because it costs too much to acknowledge that pain. Instead, they bury it, and it causes harm, both somatically and psychologically.
On the anniversary of this brutal attack, I am filled with sadness at the loss of life and the senseless violence. I am incensed at the violence it perpetuated in response. And yet, I cannot forget what it was like to be a brown teenager caught up in the country’s climate of fear. It was not easy knowing that no matter what I did, what I believed, or how I acted, I’d be looked at with suspicion. 9/11 unfortunately did not unify all Americans.