This Is Life for Muslim-Americans 18 Years After 9/11

By Dean Obeidallah
Tom Pennington/Getty
Tom Pennington/Getty

When you speak with the author of a new children’s book, you typically don’t expect to hear words like “neo-fascist movement” or how the current U.S. president has “unearthed bigotry.” But that was the discussion I had with Ibtihaj Muhammad, who made history in 2016 when she became the first American Olympic athlete both to wear a hijab and win a medal while doing it. (She won a bronze medal as part of the women’s sabre team.) Her new book, The Proudest Blue: A Story of Hijab and Family depicts an African-American Muslim girl wearing a hijab and confronting the challenges and celebrating the joys that brings.

Muhammad recalled that as a kid growing up in New Jersey before 9/11, she was taunted for wearing a hijab, with one kid calling her head covering a “tablecloth,” and said she hopes her book can help kids “feel strong in the face of being made to feel different.”

She added something that I know resonates with countless Muslim Americans today, “I believe it’s a lot harder in this moment to be Muslim…than it was right after 9/11.”

I heard that sentiment countless times over Labor Day weekend at the Islamic Society of North America’s annual convention in Houston.

It truly is a tale of two experiences for Muslims today. On one hand, Muslims in America are seeing our greatest successes ever in ways that can be objectively measured. There are now three Muslims in Congress, the most ever. Keith Ellison last year became the first Muslim American to win statewide office when he was elected attorney general for Minnesota. And more Muslim Americans than ever before now serve as elected officials from school boards to state legislatures, with historic wins in 2018 from New Hampshire to New Mexico to California.

In the world of entertainment there has also been never before seen success. In 2018, Mahershala Ali became the first Muslim American to win an Academy Award for acting, which he repeated in 2019 with an Oscar for his performance in The Green Book. For years, the Muslim American community longed for a TV series focused on a Muslim family. That finally happened in 2019 with the critically acclaimed Hulu Series Ramy, starring Ramy Youssef, about growing up Muslim in New Jersey. There’s also comedian Hassan Minhaj becoming the first Muslim American host of late-night show with his Netflix series, Patriot Act.

Yet at the very same time there’s a growing a sense of unease and even fear that something horrible is waiting around the corner for us. And I mean that last part quite literally, given the spike in hate crimes directed against the Muslim community since Trump first called for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims” entering the United States back in December 2015 through 2018. We have seen our mosques firebombed and self-professed Trump supporters plotting terror attacks to kill American Muslims in places from New York to Kansas. (I was even the subject of death threats and an organized smear campaign by Trump-supporting Neo-Nazis, causing me to sue them in federal court.)

And while it didn’t occur in the United States, the white supremacist terror attack on a New Zealand mosque that killed over 50 Muslims sent shockwaves through the U.S. Muslim community, as did the man espousing white supremacist views who killed 11 Jewish Americans while they were in the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh.

As one mental health professional explained to NPR recently about the rise in anti-Muslim hate crimes and rhetoric, “What is going to be the long-term impact of this persistent exposure to trauma that our kids are facing right now?” No one knows for sure, but there has been a documented spike in bullying of Muslim students in recent years.

Consider for a moment what it would feel like to be part of a faith community that the man in the White House declares he wants to ban from our nation and that other GOP elected officials have demonized over the years amidst plots to murder people in your community. Add to that Trump’s recent attacks on the two female Muslim members of Congress, Reps. Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, urging them to go back to their own country. How would that impact your sense of being an other? Your sense of being unwanted in your own country?

Despite the dreams of Trump and people like him, we as a community aren’t going anywhere. Muslims were here before the United States and literally help build this country, given that 10 to 15 percent of African slaves were Muslims. And we are a growing community; as Pew notes, by 2040 Muslims are expected to be the second largest faith group in the country, behind Christians and moving ahead of Jews.

The future for our community in the near term, however, will likely be more of what we’ve seen recently. The hope, though, is that in the long run the best of times will eclipse the worst.

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