Drone Pilot SchoolYoung American Muslims reclaim their voice after 9/11 stoked bias

September 10, 2021by helo-10
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Maysoon Zayid gained fame as a stand-up comic and actor seen on the daytime soap “General Hospital.” Yet she still gets death threats “all the time.”

Farhaj Hassan served in the Iraq War with the U.S. Army but later was so horrified by police spying on Muslim citizens that he sued the NYPD.

Amani Al-Khatahtbeh, frustrated by stereotypes and media bias, started her own online platform so Muslim women could tell their own stories.

For American Muslims who grew up in the shadow of 9/11, the last 20 years have been a time of contradictions — pride and fear, harassment and suspicion, solidarity and resistance. They mourned the attack on their country but also endured a rising tide of Islamophobia, no-fly lists, the “Muslim ban” and stereotyping. 

The USA TODAY Network interviewed influential Muslim Americans this summer about the lasting impact of the 2001 attacks. For most, it was a turning point, shaping their journeys as artists, activists, politicians and performers.

They described being taunted by classmates, having their homes egged, seeing neighbors detained by the FBI. 

Anti-Muslim bias continues today, but what has changed is how the generation that came of age after 9/11 has responded. Cast as “other,” they were determined to take back the narrative of their faith, their lives and their place in America.

They rued being typecast in film as either villains or victims and how they were expected to censor their speech or onstage acts. Now, they are influencing a wider audience as culture makers, elected officials and civic leaders.

Here are their stories, in their own words:

(These excerpts have been edited for space and clarity.)

Zayid is an actor, comedian, writer and disability advocate. She plays the recurring character of lawyer Zahra Amir on “General Hospital” and has a widely viewed TED Talk in which she discusses overcoming adversity as a Muslim and Palestinian-American woman with cerebral palsy. She is also co-creator of the New York Arab-American Comedy Festival, now in its 18th year.

We have become such a part of the mainstream fabric that I think that we are beating the stigma.

On 9/11: Since the ’90s, Arabs have been vilified in movies. We played terrorists. We played taxi drivers and belly dancers. But I didn’t realize, being born and raised in America, watching the Towers fall, being as terrorized as everyone else in my neighborhood, I would be treated differently because I am Muslim, because I am Arab.

Shortly after 9/11, I met my partner in comedy crime, Dean Obeidallah [the comedian and SiriusXM radio host]. He said, “Let’s do an Arab comedy show to combat the negative images of Arabs and Muslims in media.” That was the first time I was like, “Oh, I can actually use my comedy for good.”

Maysoon Zayid, an actor and comedian from Cliffside Park, New Jersey, has gained fame on the daytime soap

Maysoon Zayid, an actor and comedian from Cliffside Park, New Jersey, has gained fame on the daytime soap “General Hospital” yet says she still gets death threats “all the time.”
Danielle Parhizkaran/NorthJersey.com

On being a Muslim celebrity: I get death threats all the time. I live in a country where Islam is so vilified that people sit at home and go, “You know who I’m going to kill? The Muslim funny disabled chick.”

The future: I think things are changing because Muslims are getting involved in every aspect of public life. I think it’s changing because we have people like Rashida Tlaib in Congress. We have Keith Ellison as an attorney general [in Minnesota]. There are Muslim comics, incredible Muslim Olympians. We have become such a part of the mainstream fabric that I think that we are beating the stigma, we are breaking the stereotypes.

Aman and Zeshawn Ali

The Ohio-born Ali brothers are storytellers and filmmakers who made the acclaimed 2020 documentary “Two Gods,” about a Muslim casket maker and ritual body washer in New Jersey who takes two at-risk youths under his wing. 

On 9/11: (Aman) I was a junior in high school. It was toward the end of the day and a kid stood up and said, “We should bomb Afghanistan until it glows.” And I confronted him. “Yeah, let’s go after who did this, but why should we bomb an entire country, any country, for what a group of people did?” 

He goes, “I bet it was you. It was probably your dad flying that plane, wasn’t it?” 

I don’t think we fully understood at the time. It created an inferiority complex like, “We’re not good enough to be here,” even though we’re born and raised in this country, that we’re not welcome and me self-censoring myself initially: Don’t be too loud because they might see you as too angry, or don’t do this, they may see you as this. 

(Zeshawn) Teenage-hood and adulthood was always tainted by this air of feeling like I was being watched out of like the corner of somebody’s eye. Or needing to be good but not great, so that way I wouldn’t be targeted. I quieted myself in many sorts of ways. A lot of my personality is very sort of low-key and I sort of blend into the background, but I do think that was a survival tactic.

Zeshawn Ali, left, and Aman Ali, right, are storytellers and filmmakers who made the acclaimed 2020 documentary “Two Gods.”
Zeshawn Ali, left, and Aman Ali, right, are storytellers and filmmakers who made the acclaimed 2020 documentary “Two Gods.”
Zeshawn Ali, left, and Aman Ali, right, are storytellers and filmmakers who made the acclaimed 2020 documentary “Two Gods.”
Photos by: Guillermo Hernandez Martinez/News-Leader and Joshua A. Bickel/Columbus Dispatch

Hate crimes: (Zeshawn) The mosque we grew up in was vandalized in Ohio. I’ll never forget. We found out the news on my 12th birthday. We saw news footage on the local news and I remember just being like, “Well my birthday is ruined.” I wasn’t putting the pieces together of how much it was shaping the ways in which I had to interact with the world at large. And I think I’m still putting the pieces together 20 years later.

There was one night where my mom and I were coming home and we noticed that our house had been egged. We noticed something was drawn on them. We picked it up and looked at them and there had been a swastika drawn on the egg. And I just remember being like, “Mom, don’t worry. They must have gotten the wrong house because we’re not Jewish. That’s the wrong hate for us.”

And my cousin was like, “No, they hate us, too. They just hate everyone.” And I think it was that moment where I connected the dots where people were using this moment in time as a way to justify othering people.

On becoming storytellers: (Aman) 9/11 to me just underscored the importance of telling stories and getting our stories out there. We would get fed up with how this Muslim was portrayed in this film. We would always go, “Does that seem like us? Does that seem like somebody we know?” When we became adults, we said instead of just complaining, let’s start telling our own stories. Let’s tell stories the way we want them to be told, the way they should be told. 

Linda Sarsour

Sarsour is a racial justice and civil rights activist from New York City who co-chaired the Women’s Marches on Washington in 2017 and 2019. Her memoir, “We are Not Here to Be Bystanders,” was published last year.

On 9/11: A lot of our women in our community in that time did take their hijabs off. I felt really defiant. I was like “Absolutely not!” After 9/11, [the hijab] became really spiritual for me. It was something that helped me maintain an identity that I felt I needed more than I ever have.

Her first civil rights case: I went from an aspiring high school English teacher to becoming a [community] volunteer. The first client I ever had was a man from Morocco who had been apprehended. He was part of a company that does import/export, and they saw there were a lot of stamps in his passport. He was going to different countries in little, short periods of time, and that was a red flag for the government.

Eventually, he was released because there was nothing. You can’t keep a guy because you don’t like the stamps in his passport. That’s not how civil rights works.

I remember they came back to my office a few days later, and there was his little boy and they had this box of baklawa they bought for me. He walks in and is telling me in Arabic, “Thanks for helping my wife. I’m here now.”

I said to myself, “This is it. This is what I’m going to do.”

Linda Sarsour signals for quiet as activists opposed to President Donald Trump's Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh, demonstrate before being arrested on Capitol Hill in 2018.

Linda Sarsour signals for quiet as activists opposed to President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh, demonstrate before being arrested on Capitol Hill in 2018.
J. Scott Applewhite, AP

20 years later: It required a very horrific, tragic event for our Muslim community to look around and say we are one. It doesn’t matter if you’re Black Muslim, South Asian Muslim, a convert. We are being attacked as one community.

One of the things I’ve seen over the last 20 years is a much more politically engaged and politically active Muslim community and young Muslims who see their plight connected to the plight of other minority groups around the country. That for me has been very hopeful.

U.S. Rep. André Carson

In 2008, André Carson of Indiana became only the second Muslim ever elected to the U.S. Congress. Carson is a former law enforcement officer with the Indiana Alcohol and Tobacco Commission and also worked for the state’s Department of Homeland Security.

On 9/11: I knew that this would be a tough go going forward for the Muslim community. I was in Indianapolis at the time, but you felt a shift. Those who were bigots and xenophobes and Islamophobes — 9/11 for them was a reason to justify their hatred and animosity.

It caused a lot of Muslims, I think, to perhaps hide their Islam, their religious beliefs, in the workplace and society to gain acceptance. In other parts, it created a space for Muslims to create a dialogue with the greater community and say, “Here’s who we are. This is what we stand for. This is what we believe.” 

Uniting Muslims: There were huge divisions between the immigrant Muslim community and the indigenous African-American Muslim community, and it created a space for dialogue. Pre-9/11, you could go into a mosque as an African-American and say “As-Salaam Alaikum” and people wouldn’t respond.

After 9/11, I think that many who were legally white because they were checking a box socially, they became nonwhite. And they were saying, “Hey, this is what the African-American community has been talking about in civil rights and so many other issues.”

U.S. Rep. André Carson, in his office in Washington, D.C. Carson has represented Indiana's 7th congressional district since 2008.

U.S. Rep. André Carson, in his office in Washington, D.C. Carson has represented Indiana’s 7th congressional district since 2008.
Doug Kapustin, Doug Kapustin-USA TODAY

Islamophobia today: I have continued to receive death threats because of my faith and because of my race. I had a threat on Jan. 6. A person was apprehended carrying explosives who had my name on a list.

I think progress has been made. You have greater representation from the Muslim community in our governmental space. You have greater representation in law enforcement and American political life. Go to any major hospital in this country, you’ll find a Muslim physician. You’ll find Muslim attorneys, Muslim judges, Muslim engineers, certainly Muslim educators. There is a lot of work that needs to be done.

You’re seeing more Muslims rally around political candidates, push their own political candidates out. There are Muslims who are voting in bloc, who are hosting events and fundraisers for politicians, holding them accountable.

I think now is the time for us to really recognize our power.

Amani Al-Khatahtbeh

Amani Al-Khatahtbeh is an activist, media influencer and founder of MuslimGirl.com. A native of New Brunswick, New Jersey, she wrote about growing up in a world affected by Sept. 11 in her 2016 book, “Muslim Girl: A Coming of Age.”

On harassment after 9/11: As young as I was when 9/11 happened, it was still very obvious to me that life had changed almost overnight after that tragedy and suddenly the life I was experiencing became much more hostile toward me and the people around me.

Our house in our hometown was becoming targeted by getting egged, toilet-papered, kids were throwing rocks at it. This one time, an egg flew through a window and almost hit my newborn baby brother in the head. So it was a very terrifying time for my parents and our whole family.

I was a Jersey girl born and raised my entire life, and suddenly I was being treated like I was an outsider and like I didn’t belong, even though this was the only home I had ever known.

Her role in media: I started my platform, MuslimGirl.com, in large part because of the lack of community I was finding in real life, because of the experience I had to endure growing up as a Muslim American girl with one foot in two cultures and trying to navigate my modern lifestyle in today’s society as a practicing young Muslim woman.

I found it very difficult to find a space for me to really carve out my identity on my own terms and not have it be shoved down my throat with propaganda, misleading headlines and what people around me were trying to define me as. So I created this space online, and I had hoped there were other Muslim girls from my generation out there that were going through similar experiences, that could then find each other, come together and have those conversations.

Amani Al-Khatahtbeh, author, activist and founder of MuslimGirl.com, in Los Angeles. She created the website to debunk stereotypes about Muslim women and to create a community for them to discuss their challenges in America.

Amani Al-Khatahtbeh, author, activist and founder of MuslimGirl.com, in Los Angeles. She created the website to debunk stereotypes about Muslim women and to create a community for them to discuss their challenges in America.
Dan MacMedan, Dan MacMedan-USA TODAY

Islamophobia today: The hate is very much present today, but I will say that far more people are aware of it now than they were back then. When I was a child, it felt like a much more isolating experience. One thing that was the only silver lining for me over the past few years with everything going on around us was the fact that at least our generation started establishing the support systems needed for the next generation to be able to not only survive like we did but hopefully thrive.

I think once we acknowledge people aren’t voiceless, everybody has a voice, it’ll become easier for us to recognize our goal. 

Farhaj Hassan

When the planes struck the Twin Towers, Army Sgt. Farhaj Hassan of Helmetta, New Jersey, was in boot camp in South Carolina. He would later serve in the Iraq War and then was lead plaintiff in a lawsuit challenging the New York City Police Department’s secret surveillance of Muslim communities. The department settled in 2018. Two weeks later, Hassan reenlisted. Today he serves as a master resilience trainer in the 304th Civil Affairs Brigade.

What the NYPD was doing was terrorizing innocent Muslims and people of faith through no fault of their own, and somebody had to put a stop to it. We had the Constitution on our side and we succeeded.

On 9/11: It was the second day of basic training. We didn’t know what happened. The only thing that we saw was a giant flag being taken down to half-mast. Then the drill sergeant said words that I will never forget: “Soldiers, if you pray, pray for your country today.”

“Terrorizing” Muslims: My beloved Newark, New Jersey, had three or four, a handful of mosques that were surveilled. My two mosques were surveilled. They infiltrated student organizations. They were in and out of Rutgers University and other places and they [found] zero credible intelligence or leads to stop any terrorism.

I took an oath to protect and defend the Constitution and I’m going to do that until I die in any way, shape or form. What the NYPD was doing was terrorizing innocent Muslims and people of faith through no fault of their own, and somebody had to put a stop to it. We had the Constitution on our side and we succeeded.

Farhaj Hassan, a Muslim American soldier from Helmetta, New Jersey, was in basic training on Sept. 11, 2001. Here he poses with a flag he was awarded after serving among the first rotation of military members deployed in Operation Iraqi Freedom.

On reenlisting: I had a heck of a time re-upping under the presidency of Donald Trump. I went to a chaplain. We talked about it, because I had seen that the greatest threat to America and American inclusion and multi-ethnic opportunity was sitting in the White House. But I signed up because I knew I could do more for Muslim Americans in uniform when it comes to the guy on my left and the guy on my right. We can’t view things from a 30,000-foot view at all times. We have to be good neighbors, good co-workers, honest people and good representatives of Islam one person at a time, and that’s how we’re going to get ahead.

Sadaf Jaffer

Sadaf Jaffer is a Princeton University educator and activist and was the first female Muslim mayor in the U.S., serving in Montgomery Township in New Jersey. She’s running this fall for a seat in the New Jersey State Assembly. 

On 9/11: It was just the beginning of my freshman year at Georgetown University and I remember watching the news in the student lounge. We could see the Pentagon burning from our campus, and obviously all of D.C. was on lockdown. 

I remember just a sense of fear, certainly, among the Muslim students about not wanting to be alone around campus, not leaving campus, and I think it was a long time before I actually went past the gates of the campus after the attacks. But I also remember students coming together right after the attacks, all the different religious communities.

Choosing a career: After the attacks, I really wanted to understand Islamic history — what is true about what is being said and what’s false, both by Muslim extremists but also by anti-Muslim activists. So I decided to focus on regional studies of the Islamic world. I studied abroad in Egypt. I went for two years to study Urdu in India and have ultimately pursued a focus on Islam in South Asia as my academic field. 

Sadaf Jaffer was mayor of Montgomery, New Jersey, for two years, until she left office on Dec. 31, 2020. When elected, she was the first Muslim woman to serve as a mayor in the U.S.

Sadaf Jaffer was mayor of Montgomery, New Jersey, for two years, until she left office on Dec. 31, 2020. When elected, she was the first Muslim woman to serve as a mayor in the U.S.
Chris Pedota, NorthJersey.com-USA Today Network

Islamophobia today: I do think it’s worse today. We’ve had 20 years of intense information just being shared through every possible medium. We’ve become more and more siloed and isolated in our various communities, so those who just want to believe the worst things about Muslims can spend their whole day only being exposed to media that agrees with them.

One of the things I think is really powerful and has a lot of promise is the role of arts and literature in helping us understand each other and elevating the beautiful elements of Muslim communities and Islamic history. That’s something I’d like to see more of.

Hannan Adely is a diversity reporter covering Arab and Muslim communities for NorthJersey.com, where she focuses on social issues, politics, bias and civil rights. To get unlimited access to the latest news, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.

Danielle Parhizkaran is a photographer and videographer for NorthJersey.com, as well as a certified drone pilot for the USA Today Network. She’s been with The Record and NorthJersey.com for 4 ½ years. The Syracuse University graduate and Bergen County native covers professional and high school sports, news, and everything in between.

Emails: [email protected][email protected] 

Twitter: @adelyreporter, @danielleparhiz



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