Every year around this time, the stares intensify. It doesn’t matter that I was born here or that I’ve lived here my entire life. The sense of estrangement in the country that I am a citizen of is as severe as ever.
It’s been 20 years.
I am only 19.
So why am I regarded as a monster?
How can I bear responsibility for something I wasn’t even alive to witness?
Why am I expected to apologize for the actions of those I have no connection to?
Is it because I am Muslim?
Is it because I wear the hijab?
Is it because I speak Arabic?
What about my identity makes it so easy for America to pin its grief on me?
Anti-Muslim profiling and surveillance of communities. Unlawful detentions. Racist immigration policies and bans that tore families apart. Endless wars waged in the name of fighting terror. Hundreds of thousands of children, mothers and fathers murdered in cold blood. Millions more displaced. Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen. All scapegoats for securing America’s world dominance, ensuring this country remains number one at all costs.
As we step out of our apartment, my roommate and I laugh about random TSA checks we’ve endured and the potential of being hate crimed. But this feeling is anything but funny. This is the life of many other Muslims living in Westernized societies around the world.
Especially those of us who wear hijabs.
Especially those of us with obvious Muslim names.
Especially those of us forced to directly witness American imperialism unfold under the visage of fighting terrorists.
Lives altered forever. Intergenerational trauma lingering, waiting to explode like bombs suspended in the air. People abandoning their identity and livelihoods out of fear. Triple checking anything and everything they say or do. Because God forbid you make a mistake. God forbid you mess up.
As my Muslim parents taught me about the beauty of Islam and the love and empathy it preaches, the military family next door fed their children propganda about my religion, filling their hearts and minds with hatred towards all Muslims.
When Dylan and Lauren would come out to play, my brother and I would hide around the porch, waiting in anticipation as they rushed into our backyard to indulge in kickball with hushed voices. If their parents ever peeked out the window and found they were out of sight — possibly spending time with two young Muslim children — they called them back inside immediately and would keep them there until my brother and I went back home. Then, and only then were Dylan and Lauren allowed back outside. This tiringly endless cycle continued on, but the measly half hour of fun with them was worth it. One week, they stopped coming out to play. We were only informed by the fading chalk note they left on the sidewalk that they had moved out because Dylan and Lauren weren’t allowed to say goodbye.
My brother Ali was 5. I was 6.
Ramadan rolled around during the school year. I had fasted for the first time the year before, but only a few scattered days, so I was committed to fasting the full month this time. My parents were worried I would get hungry and dehydrated at school. Not wanting to discourage me, they told me it would be easier to fast on the weekends and that I would be rewarded with goodies and prizes, but after a long night of begging and pleading, they reluctantly agreed. As my mom dropped me and my brothers off to school the next morning, she reminded me it would be okay to just fast until lunchtime and then she bid me farewell. But I was too excited and determined to prove my strength. When lunchtime rolled around, the kids in the cafeteria bombarded me with questions, noting that I didn’t grab a lunch tray or take out my lunchbox. I protested giving them an explanation, and finally they came to their own prejudiced conclusion: that my parents were neglectful and forced me not to eat. They said I should be adopted by new parents that would love and feed me. My classmates continued discussing my family situation — as if I wasn’t there — as my brother’s kindergarten teacher started rounding his class up for recess. He saw me and ran up for a hug. Now that everyone knew I had a sibling, the conversation grew deeper. One girl, who was adopted, declared it would be hard to find a family willing to take in two kids, and that we probably wouldn’t stay together.
My brother Ahmed was 6. I was 10.
We were in line to board the plane on our way to Jordan. My brothers and I were so excited that we didn’t get a lick of sleep the night before. As per usual, my dad had us at the airport 6 hours before departure “just in case.” It was a good thing he did. After completing the customary security checks, we were all pulled aside for a “random” TSA check. We were heavily interrogated before even setting our bags down, and my youngest brother was starting to get antsy. I reached over to my bag to grab the stuffed animal I had been carrying for him. Immediately, the TSA agent told me to stop what I was doing and grabbed his walkie talkie to call for backup. We were the first ones to check in, but the last ones to board the flight.
My brother Amin was 5. I was 14.
Terrorist. Towel head. Camel jockey. Goat f***er. Sand n***er.
The anti-Muslim slurs and hate go on for decades.
Then, there is also this aggression towards the religion of Islam as a whole that stems from preconceived notions of associating Muslim women who cover themselves with oppression and this belief that western women must provide them with secular liberation. This idea of “colonial feminism” falsely labels the hijab or veil as a sign of oppression, but gives no support to things like women’s right to education or suffrage. It is used to justify past colonization of and current war in the Middle East, all done under the guise of fighting for the rights and dignities of Muslim women. Rather than focus on the actual safety and health of women in the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia, the United States and Europe use “the freedom to unveil” as a tactic for waging wars, colonizing lands,and extracting valuable resources. The obsession with this unveiling of Muslim women connects back to the savior complex of the West and their Orientalist view of the East; white men saving brown women from brown men. These white men have no actual concern for “saving” brown women, they are more so ridding the brown man of all that is “his” while simultaneously pinning him as the danger. Essentially, either way women are not concerned for, but painting their freedom as the motivation provides access and acclaim to the white man without him having to do anything other than harm the brown man. This othering of the East allows the West to justify the wars they wage while granting them impunity, aiding them in furthering their own personal gain and economic agendas.
With this piece, I do not intend to center my plight or dissect Orientalism while discrediting the pain of those who lost loved ones on 9/11. I do, however, want to bring light to an oftentimes forgotten group. A group that is facing the violent and blatantly hateful consequences of a day and event they had nothing to do with. A group that is constantly expected to condemn and apologize for the actions of others they don’t know, but of whom they have become assumed accomplices. A double standard that their white, Christain counterparts are not held to. An emotionally draining barrage of questions that will always have us on the defensive: “Does your religion promote terrorism? Doesn’t jihad mean killing all non-Muslims? Why do you guys hate America so much?”
We don’t hate America so much. We hate America’s foriegn policy that advocates for the destruction of the countries we belong to. We hate that the American government engages in imperialism abroad. We hate that America feels so entitled to our natural resources to the point where forever wars have become the norm. But I don’t hate America as a whole nor am I rooting for its destruction. My parents came to America to pursue their own higher education and give me and my brothers the chance at a better life. Opportunities. Freedom. A fighting chance to live a life free of war and destruction. But this war and destruction that my family was forced to flee didn’t just “come to be.” It’s part of an endless cycle of colonial imperialism. White supremacy. Orientalism. A cycle filled with intergenerational trauma and pain. One that America is at the forefront of. But I am still an American citizen. And though this country is far from perfect, it is still my country.
As Dr. Abdul El-Sayed so eloquently puts it, “Today, on 9/11, I’ll mourn the nearly 3,000 lives lost, the over 6,000 injuries, the infrastructural carnage and devastation in NYC, and the humiliation of my country, all perpetrated ignorantly in the name of my religion.
And tomorrow, on 9/12 (and everyday after that), I’ll mourn the nearly 1,000,000 lives, the tens of millions of injuries, the infrastructural decimation in three countries, and the humiliation of my religion, all perpetrated ignorantly in the name of my country.”
MiC Columnist Mariam Odeh can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.