Press "Enter" to skip to content

How Islamophobia Shaped the Lives of Muslim American Students

Earlier this year, the United Nations released a report that highlighted the rise of Islamophobia and surveillance of Muslims worldwide. U.S. politicians may scratch their heads over the cause of their nation’s Islamophobia, but one significant date looms overhead: As the 20th anniversary of 9/11 approaches, Muslim Americans who were students in 2001 tell Teen Vogue that the xenophobia and Islamophobia that surfaced in response to those attacks is still with us. The anti-Muslim sentiment and white supremacy that shaped their young adulthoods, and was stoked so successfully by former president Donald Trump, can substantially be traced to that day.

“The first emotion I had was horror,” Mona Masood, a Philadelphia-area psychiatrist, says when reflecting on 9/11. “I remember praying fervently, ‘Please, God, don’t let them be Muslim.’ But they claimed they were. And we would all be punished for it.” Masood, a child of Indian immigrants, and a sophomore in high school at the time, watched at school as the events unfolded. 

Masood’s experience is shared by organizer Aisha bint Gladys, whose parents immigrated from Haiti and Sudan, and Sharmin Hossain, co-director of Queer Crescent and founder of the Bangladeshi Historical Memory Project, who are both from New York City. As bint Gladys tells Teen Vogue, “My classmates and I witnessed videos of the towers burning, firefighters moving through rubble, and just pure chaos.” Although bint Gladys, who was only eight at the time, didn’t quite understand what was happening (“I didn’t even know what the Twin Towers were,” she recalls), she says the situation was tense. Hossain attended a multicultural school in Jackson Heights, Queens, but “that didn’t stop the anxiety from creeping in about what words would be said about Muslims and the terrorists who were responsible for this heinous act of violence,” she says.

Immediately after 9/11, life for Muslims everywhere changed. A year before, Masood had started wearing hijab, which she describes as “a deeply personal decision about…centering my faith as a visible part of my identity.” After that day, she says, “Our mosque held meetings on whether the women should remove their hijabs, if the men should shave their beards.” 

Similar discussions were had in New York City too. Bint Gladys recalls that her dad once asked her mom to stop wearing hijab for fear of her being attacked. She says her mom said she would never let anybody make her afraid to be who she was and refused to take it off. 

Bint Gladys herself started wearing hijab two years after 9/11, but often took it off before going into school. “The first day I actually wore it inside,” she says, “a boy pulled it off my head.” On bint Gladys’s behalf, someone told a teacher and she says the boy was expelled. But instead of relief, bint Gladys “felt the school turned against [her],” and she heard “whispers of ‘terrorist’ at lunch and in the hall.” Afraid of how her dad would respond, she never told her parents about the bullying. “I deeply internalized bad messages about myself, my religion, and my culture,” she says. “To an extent, a lot of other Muslims did this too, mostly out of survival.”

Hossain, who had worn hijab before 9/11, reports similar experiences. Once, in elementary school, she says a white teacher called her hijab a “stupid thing” on her head. Years later, a Latino boy called her a “terrorist” and ripped off her hijab in class. The harassment also extended beyond school walls: Hossain remembers when an elderly Black couple on a train said, “We don’t praise no Allah, we praise Jah! We don’t pray to terrorism.” Those experiences, Hossain says, put her “in a position to fight, defending Islam, and in a position of otherness. It made me tense. It made me angry.”

Be First to Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *