Everyone old enough to remember September 11, 2001 has a story to share. You probably remember where you were, whom you were with, the confusion, sadness and range of emotions you felt.
As Americans all over the country reflect on the tenth anniversary of that fateful day when the Twin Towers were struck, we keep the victims, their families and all the service men, women and rescue dogs who bravely rushed to the scene in our hearts.
But something else happened that day: a change in the way we view each other.
On one hand, an incredible sense of unity tied our country together, and for the first time in a long time political differences seemed simply irrelevant. We weren’t Republicans or Democrats that day – we were American citizens, united and grieving together, lending a helping hand to complete strangers if we could.
On the other hand, a seed of racism and prejudice began to grow that day. Once the news broke that al-Qaida had carried out the terrorist operation, a fear of Islamic and Muslim people was established. Of course, we know that not every Muslim-American citizen is a terrorist, but racial profiling and a general wariness of those that “looked” different sprouted up everywhere – in airports, on the streets and in each of our cities and hometowns.
Patch had the opportunity to speak with two members of the Muslim community: Dr. James Jones, president of the board of Masjid Al-Islam mosque in New Haven, and Zaheen Hussain, a recent college graduate who comes from a religious family but is currently a non-practicing Muslim.
Jones recalls the day vividly: “It was a Tuesday morning, I believe, and I was at work at Manhattanville College where I’m a professor. When the news was broadcast, I was stunned. And then I realized the enormity of what had happened, and how close it had come. I mean, where I work is 30 miles from ground zero, approximately.”
What Jones refers to as “Islamophobia” heightened significantly in the weeks and months following 9/11. He believes that in order to overcome Islamophobia, politicians must take a stance against prejudice instead of playing on citizens’ fears.
“The reality is that these are the people who ought to know better,” Jones said. “A guy like Newt Gingrich, who has a Ph.D in history, ought to know better than the things he says about Muslims and Islam. But it is an easy way to gain a following by ripping on radical Islam.”
Still, Jones is hopeful for the future. “Islam teaches me to be optimistic about the nature of human beings,” he said.
Hussain spent the first eight years of his life in Bangladesh, a country he says is 90 percent Muslim, before moving to the United States. He was actually on vacation in Bangladesh on September 11, 2001. Like Jones, Hussain said the reaction there was disbelief and confusion. For him personally, the destruction of the buildings signified “a part of childhood that was taken away,” as he recalls his “mesmerizing” first tour of Manhattan with his uncle as an eight-year-old kid.
Now, ten years has gone by and Hussain said it is disheartening to see unjust prejudice against Muslims.
“I’m an American. I identify as being an American. And when people shout things like people of my background shouldn’t be able to worship the way we want to, we shouldn’t be able to walk down the street without hearing what we are – it’s just not American. Muslims did not attack the United States; foreigners attacked the United States,” he said.
Both Jones and Hussain said that although their background and religion have come under attack, they are not totally discouraged for the future. Hussain hopes that as time goes on, cultural and religious divides will weaken.
“[My hope going forward] is everyone just being American together, because being different is what makes us similar in the United States.”
So as Americans everywhere reflect on one of the most tragic days in our country’s history, it is equally as important to look forward as well as back.