Why I’m Tired of Telling My 9/11 Story
Every year on September 11th, Muslims and Sikhs are encouraged to share their “9/11 stories” on social media and at various social justice events. It’s a well-intentioned effort to center the experiences of Muslims, Sikhs, and other communities who have faced Islamophobia in the years after the 9/11 attacks. As much as I recognize the importance of these initiatives, there are many reasons why I’m tired of telling my “9/11 story.”
Before I continue, I want to clarify that this post is not meant to judge or shame anyone who participates in these events. After all, mainstream media coverage and general discussions about 9/11 rarely, if ever, focus on the experiences of Muslims, Sikhs, and other communities of color impacted by Islamophobia. I would never discourage anyone from sharing their experiences. Storytelling can be very empowering and cathartic, and in this context, hearing the stories of fellow Muslims and people of color can strengthen the sense of community and solidarity. So, the purpose of this post is not to argue against these events, but rather share my thoughts on why I personally have concerns about participating.
Like for many Muslims, the days and years after 9/11 had a significant impact on shaping who I am today. Over the years, I have spoken in classrooms and written college essays and blog posts about where I was on 9/11, as well as how I experienced Islamophobia on the very day of the attacks. At first, telling my story was therapeutic and even liberating, especially since I often felt discouraged to share my experiences. It also meant a lot to hear the support and solidarity from fellow Muslims and non-Muslims. At the same time, something I always realized while telling my story is that some of the worst experiences I’ve had with racism and Islamophobia happened well before 9/11.
As a Pakistani Muslim man who grew up in a predominately white suburban town in the United States, I feel like I can write a whole book about my experiences with racism and Islamophobia. In fact, I chose to make a movie about it, which is currently in post-production. While making the movie, I quickly realized that even a feature length film would only capture a small fraction of my story. I also remember coming to the realization that a major part of the film is based on an experience I had in high school prior to 9/11.
Whenever I told my “9/11 story,” I often wondered, where do my previous experiences fit into this narrative? Such as the times when classmates called me “jungle man,” “Aladdin,” or “Apu”? Or the times when teachers would say “Iraqis all look the same” or show us Islamophobic propaganda movies like Not Without My Daughter? When my teachers romanticized the Crusades, vilified Palestinians, and assigned research projects on “Muslim terrorist organizations,” it was all before 9/11.
We continue to hear many narratives from non-Black Muslim leaders and civil rights groups where 9/11 is marked as the “starting point” for Islamophobia. The problem with this, of course, is that Islamophobia has existed long before 9/11 and one could argue that hostility and violence against Muslims began as early as the advent of Islam. In the pre-9/11 era, Edward Said published his groundbreaking work on Orientalism, and Jack Shaheen documented over 900 films in his book, Reel Bad Arabs, exposing U.S. cinema’s vilification of Arabs and Muslims for nearly 100 years. Marking September 11th, 2001 as the “beginning” of Islamophobia means erasing history of demonization, European colonization, military campaigns, and laws that have targeted diverse populations of Muslims around the world.
Moreover, many of these narratives imply that the U.S. was not a hostile environment for people of color before 9/11, as they ignore genocide against Indigenous Peoples, enslavement of Africans, and institutionalized white supremacy. Sometimes I’ll read articles written by non-Black Muslims who reinforce the mythical idea of a pre-9/11 “racial harmony.” Not only is this inaccurate, but it dangerously negates anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-imperialist, and anti-colonial struggles that Black, Indigenous, and other communities of color have fought and continue to fight.
The other problem is, what we have come to understand as Islamophobia today has primarily meant focus on the experiences of Arab and South Asian Muslim men. History of Black Muslim resistance is erased in Muslim American narratives and discourse about Islamophobia. Instead, Islamophobia is treated as a post-9/11 phenomenon that primarily targets non-black Muslims. As Muna Mire emphasizes: “Black Muslims existed prior to the colonial systems which brought them to the Americas, and they have been fighting assimilation for centuries. For a long time, to be Black has been to be Muslim.” Yet Black Muslim resistance against European conquest, slavery, forced conversion, white supremacy, police brutality, and assimilation are shamefully missing from dominant discourse about Islamophobia and Muslims in the U.S.
There is no denying that Islamophobia, hate crimes, and imperialist violence intensified after the U.S. response to 9/11, but my point is, when I think about sharing my experiences within a post-9/11 framework, I worry that I’ll be reinforcing the idea that Muslims, as well as other communities of color, didn’t have these struggles before. I’m not suggesting that all Muslims participating in the 9/11 story events are complicit in perpetuating myths about “racial harmony” existing before 9/11; I only state this because I have noticed myself making this mistake in the past.
As I grew older and learned about anti-black racism, slavery, and genocide being foundational to the U.S., I began to connect these realities with the racism I experienced and witnessed prior to 9/11. In other words, Islamophobia was always here because white supremacy has always been here. Perhaps instead of framing our experiences with Islamophobia as being a “post-9/11” phenomenon, it would make more sense to assert that such experiences stem from being Muslims in a white supremacist, capitalist, imperialist, heteropatriarchal settler state.
To reiterate, this is not a critique or condemnation of the 9/11 story events. I want there to be a space for Muslims of all social locations to share their stories, and I’m grateful for the amazing community activists and leaders who have organized these events. Having reservations about participating does not mean I would not attend or listen to the stories being shared. I also recognize that there are many Muslims speaking at these events who firmly speak out against white supremacy and assert that Islamophobia existed long before 9/11.
During a previous 9/11 anniversary, I noticed some stories about Islamophobia were excluded by certain social justice websites (which I won’t name) simply because the stories were submitted after September 11th of that year. I remember thinking, is this the only date on the calendar when people will care about our stories? Is this the only time of the year when people will listen to us? Our stories should be told and valued no matter what time of the year it is, and no matter what context we want to tell it.
My wish is that we can continue organizing spaces to tell our stories, especially beyond the 9/11 context because I know our struggles and resistance are not merely against a “post-9/11 Islamophobia,” but an already established system of white supremacy.