Guest contribution by Shirien D.
I was a freshman in high school—in first period art class—when it happened. Half way through, Alan, a kid in my class, received a text and told everyone that the Japanese had attacked us. We didn’t take him seriously, particularly because Alan had a reputation for being the class clown. I brushed it off.
In second period, I was in honors biology class. Our teacher, Ms. O’Donnell, explained to us what happened. “They attacked New York,” she said, in a voice that was calm on the surface but had worrying undertones. She proceeded to roll out a TV and turn on the news. As we watched, one of the twin towers collapsed. All of us were completely in shock, sitting wide-eyed in silence. Finally, a student raised her hand and broke the silence.
“Who did this? I heard it was the Japanese. Are they trying to get back at us for bombing them all these years later?”
Yup, that was the rumor at my school.
“Hun, I don’t know who did this. I wish I knew,” Ms. O’Donnell replied. Ms. O’Donnell was the teacher who we always looked to for all the answers, but this time she didn’t have any. No one did. We were all afraid and although she tried her best to hide her emotions, so was she.
During third period English, we would hear the intercom go off every five minutes or so, calling down students whose parents were waiting for them at the principal’s office, ready to take them home.
By fourth period lunch, the school was half empty. The cafeteria was eerily quiet.
By fifth period physical education class, everyone was so consumed with fear that we weren’t allowed to go outside for our usual soccer activities. My P.E. teacher warned, “Chicago might be next. We have to play it safe, guys.” And somehow, that meant our small, southwest suburban school about forty minutes from Chicago might get attacked along with the Sears Tower.
After school ended, my mom arrived and took my sister and I home.
“You won’t believe what happened this morning in New York!”
“I know, mama, I know.”
She was under the impression that high school was a bubble where we were sheltered from the outside world.
We got home and instantly glued ourselves to the television. Video clips and images showed towers falling and people desperately running from the smog while firefighters were running into it to help those who had been trapped. I was in tears; I sat in a state of sadness and disbelief.
Then it started. Images of Osama bin Laden began to dominate the news. This was the named mastermind behind the atrocities. The terrorist attacks. An Arab Muslim.
“What?! No way,” I thought. I was confused. At first, I had a really hard time grasping the fact that this man and I belonged to the same faith. They kept talking about “radical Islam.” Huh? This definitely isn’t the Islam I was exposed to growing up. This couldn’t be right.
So I did what every kid does when they search for answers: I went to the internet. No, I don’t think Wikipedia existed back then, unfortunately, but I still managed to find more information about bin Laden and why he did this. I read all the latest articles on the attacks.
Each article embarrassingly made sure to point out bin Laden’s religion and ethnicity. In the comment section under every article, I saw the same things. “Kill all the Arabs!” “Muslims=terrorists” “Let’s lock up all the Arabs and Muslims.” And my favorite, “Islamics need to pay for this!”
“Oh, great. Now everyone hates us,” I thought. I commented on article after article, forum after forum, trying to be the rational voice amongst the countless angry and emotional ones. I tried telling them that not all Arabs and Muslims were bad people, but of course omitting the fact that I was an Arab and Muslim. Oh how useful the internet’s anonymity can be.
But even my anonymous efforts were in vain. I was accused of being a terrorist sympathizer.
My sadness over the destruction and loss of human life on 9/11 quickly turned into a state of constant defensiveness. I debated with people about Islam, Arab culture, and politics of the region. In order to do this properly, I had to educate myself further. I read books upon books and articles upon articles to saturate myself with the information I needed to be the best “defender” of my faith and culture I could be against those who attacked it.
The day after the attacks, I went to a special meeting at the community Muslim youth center, a place that I would go to weekly to play sports and learn more about my religion. At the meeting, the head counselor told us that the terrorist attacks do not reflect Islam, and that we should not be ashamed to be Muslim. He told the women to not be afraid to wear the headscarf, because many took it off out of fear of being attacked.
As the counselor spoke, we heard yelling outside. We went out and saw a protest of 300 or so “patriotic” Americans chanting outside the mosque, which was less than a block away from where we had our meeting. They were carrying American flags and, believe it or not, torches. Rocks were thrown at the mosque windows and there were many attempts to burn the building. They were chanting “go home, Arabs!”
“Where’s home?” I wondered.
I went home and received a call from my best friend since the fourth grade. She went to a different high school than me. I went to a public school, while she went to a private math and science academy. I missed her and was so excited to hear from her.
“Ana, you won’t believe what just happened!”
Pause. “Where are you guys hiding him?”
“Osama bin Laden.”
“What are you talking about? Is this a joke? You know I have no clue where he is. Didn’t even know who he was until this whole thing started.”
“So why are you hiding him then?”
I hung up. This was the last time I ever spoke to Ana. She never called me back or apologized. As a highly intelligent Mexican-American who faced discrimination herself, Ana was the last person I thought would lose sight of her rationality.
At school, things were worse. There was a large group of kids wearing American flag clothing and face paint in the days following 9/11. They went around harassing Middle Eastern and Muslim students. In one instance, they attacked an Arab girl while she was alone after school in the gym locker room. They pushed her into the lockers, threw her to the ground and stomped on her. Repeatedly.
Not only did Arab and Muslim students receive backlash from other students, but the school administration took part as well. I was running late to one of my classes and in the hallway, a girl taunted a group of Arab guys in our school’s ESL-program who were speaking to one another in Arabic.
“Speak English or get the hell out of my country!” The hallway monitors and security guards just sat back and watched. Some even seemed to encourage her.
On International Day, an annual festival hosted at my school, students representing various ethnic groups and nationalities put on proud cultural displays. For the most part, they wore traditional cultural clothing. Alternatively, Palestinians who didn’t want to walk around school all day with a thawb on, like me, wore t-shirts with the Palestinian flag that said “Palestine.”
Although many Polish and Mexican students wore flag t-shirts as well, the administration made it clear it was not happy about the Palestinian shirts in particular. They called in about 20 Palestinian students wearing these shirts into the dean’s office and handed out several detentions. This is because these shirts were a “security threat” and students wearing them were perceived to be insensitive in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, or as one dean put it, “basically supporting terrorism.” I guess someone forgot to tell them that none of the 9/11 hijackers were Palestinian, for one.
At first, all these instances of discrimination came as a shock to me given the fact that my school and Chicago-suburb community are made up of large Arab and Muslim populations. I would have expected lots of racism and outright hate crimes from a more homogenous community, not ours. But it happened, and it happened everywhere.
The events after 9/11 changed my life profoundly. Every day was a struggle for a long time. And unfortunately, when I think about 9/11, the fear of backlash is what I remember first. It wasn’t the tragedy and unity that most Americans remember. Sure, flags, signs, and stickers that said “United We Stand” were displayed everywhere. But Arabs, Muslims and those who looked like them weren’t included in this united front. We were the enemy at home.
I was shown the ugly side of humanity. I saw the ugliness inside of the people who felt so desperate to prove a political point that they would kill innocents and themselves on 9/11.
But I also saw the ugly thirst for revenge by the United States, the country I was born and raised in. This ugliness led to hate crimes and the stripping away of our civil liberties at home. It started two wars that took away millions of lives abroad. It also caused the torture of countless innocent detainees at Guantanamo Bay.
Rather than really looking at the root cause of why those individuals hijacked those planes, our politicians chose to react in an irrational, unjust, and exploitative way. Still to this day, our politicians don’t want us to ask those questions because the answer is what they see in the mirror. Our politicians’ corrupt foreign policy is the root, maybe even spine, of terrorism.
Don’t believe it? Just look at every single dictator and occupying power in the recent history of the Middle East. What they all have in common is their years of support and friendship with the U.S. government. It is in these suppressive environments that “radical Islam” was fostered, not because of an inherently cultural or religious hatred towards American “freedoms,” as orientalists claim.
Ten years later, the thing I learned most from 9/11 is that in the end, we are all human beings. That day, I saw images of Americans running away from falling debris, images that share a stark resemblance to the Palestinian civilians running for cover while Israel targeted them with white phosphorus chemical weapons. These foreshadowed the images of Afghan and Iraqi children narrowly escaping death-by-American-bullet. To them, 9/11 was, and still is, their 24/7.
Today, we must continue to commemorate the civilians and firefighters who tragically lost their lives on 9/11 every year, but we also need to reflect on the innocent lives still being lost today as a result of the retaliatory decisions made by the U.S. government. Rather than creating divisions between “us” and “them” and perpetuating the cycle of hatred, we must unite and work to bring down the systems of oppression that cause intolerance, bigotry, death and destruction.
Let us recognize our common humanity and not simply ignore what happens on the other side of the world, or even what happens in our very own schools and communities. Solidarity and humanity hold the keys to justice, and these alone can prevent 9/11 from ever happening again.
Shirien D. is a Palestinian-American born in Chicago. She recently graduated with her MA in Sociology, concentrating on Middle East politics. In her spare time, she runs the blog Yansoon, which focuses on Arab issues.