September 11, 2017
By Sacha Maniar, National Security and Civil Rights Program Coordinator
Growing up in a community with few people who looked like me, I had very little concept of racial and religious identity. At the time, I had no language to understand differences except that I wasn’t like the people around me. I didn’t celebrate Christmas like the other kids, didn’t eat bacon, and my grandparents lived in Pakistan, a country no one had ever heard of.
I remember sitting in my fifth grade classroom one morning when we heard news of the terror attacks on the Twin Towers. I heard that the attacks were by a group of Muslim people, but there was no one to explain what that meant for people like me. No one to even properly explain it to my teachers, or peers. The only reference to Islam any of my classmates had was me, until September 11th.
Days after the attacks, kids in my class started to ask questions. They looked to me for answers about my family’s religion and about what those “terrorists” had done. And I had no answers. I didn’t know how to talk about what had happened and what that meant for our communities. As I got older, I distanced myself from my identifying as “Pakistani” and “Muslim,” sticking instead with “American”. I wore shorts, didn’t fast during Ramadan, and went to prom – all signs that pointed that I couldn’t possibly be from a Muslim family. It felt easier, safer, and insulated from judgement. I was like any character Aziz Ansari plays on television: your integrated Muslim(ish) person with only few particular identifiers besides the obvious difference in skin tone.
There’s an interesting intersection between my identity as an affluent South Asian American in the suburbs and my connections with Islam. Certain economic factors allowed me to avoid the trauma that so many other Muslim Americans were subjected to. After 9/11, men and women who grew up in cities or in rural America were taunted and bullied. Violence was enacted by the state and in our streets, and, for the most part, there was a deafening silence in response by the public. The alienation that Muslims faced was only heard in my communities through coded language. When people would discover my Pakistani- background they’d ask with a tone of judgement “how “Muslim” I was.
There are Muslim Americans who’ve managed to economically “succeed” and not have to go through secondary screenings at the airport, despite being named Mohammad. We don’t face the brunt of Islamophobia, so we claim that maybe it doesn’t exist because well, we weren’t exactly affected. This isn’t just an experience faced by my community. There are many Asian American groups who feel unaffected by white supremacy and choose apathy in the face of systemic racism in this country.
Over the years since the 9/11 attacks, I realized that just because I don’t directly feel the violence enacted by white supremacy doesn’t mean it isn’t killing other black and brown bodies. I’ve been working at Advancing Justice – Asian Law Caucus for over 6 months, working directly with impacted community members that deal with racist Islamophobic targeting by our government every day. This experience has opened my eyes to reveal how unsafe so many Muslims feel here in the US. So many community members are scared to take their children onto public transportation for fear of violence. Families invite strangers who knock on their doors into their homes only to be harassed by the FBI. Folks are seen as suspect only because they attend mosque or travel back to their villages in Yemen to visit sick relatives. What is the hardest is that folks who experience these attacks on a daily basis do not feel safe to talk about their experiences either. There is a culture of fear and distrust all around, making our work incredibly difficult. It is difficult to reach out and lend support when communities have for the most part, only received vitriol and violence.
So many of us have convinced ourselves that those other people of color aren’t the same as us. Their identities, more foreign, scary. We’ve spent most of our lives trying to separate from that foreignness that at some point, we internalized that belief system. Our collective silence has managed to lead us to a point when our President is telling us that brown and black people don’t deserve to be treated the same as others. We can no longer ignore all the injustices happening in this country and continue to step on the backs of the working class and pretend that Islamophobia and racism do not exist. There’s a point when we all have to step back and think about the damage post 9/11 has caused on the psyche of so many Americans and immigrants alike. And if we aren’t actively uplifting the voices of those communities that have been silenced and attacked, we are perpetuating the belief that there are “successful” “integrated” immigrants, and there are “others”. Those who don’t need to be treated with dignity.
Now it’s more important than ever for all of us to stand up, speak up and fight. Today is not like any other day. Today is the anniversary of 9/11 on the first year of Trump’s presidency and we are all under attack. We don’t have the luxury of sitting back and ignoring the injustices that are happening against Muslim, black, undocumented, and LGBTQ people, no matter if you can’t directly identify, no matter if you have never taken time to truly understand and codify the oppression that happens on a daily basis in this country. If we all aren’t fighting against this destructive system, we are complicit. I’m not saying that everyone needs to be doing what I do, but we all can no longer be silent. Now is the time to resist.