I haven’t written much the past ten years about my thoughts on 9/11. In truth, the day marks a day of loss in a much different day. The first anniversary of 9/11 was the day my father died. I hadn’t seen him in 18 years with intermittent phone calls. But we reunited in 2000 only to drift apart again. This is by no means a comparison to the those who lost loved ones the year before. But, I remember listening to a radio program on my way to my second year back at Santa Clara University. And the program reminded me that I needed to reconnect with loved ones. Since school hadn’t started, I worked pretty much full-time hours in the Dean of Student Affairs office. At some point of the day, I felt a profound sadness. This upped my anxiety and I couldn’t wait to get home to get on the phone and locate my father. But when I got home, I heard a voice mail from my father’s cousin telling me to call her. I knew then that it was over, no second chances, I would never have a relationship with my father. He was gone.
My father was a Vietnam Vet who as awarded a purple heart. He suffered post-traumatic stress syndrome, which profoundly affected him and those who loved him. Even during my parents’ marriage, he could not hold it together and his life spiraled into an out of control cycle of drug abuse, unemployment, and domestic violence. My mother eventually left. I have heard that he had been to VA hospitals and some treatment programs. He never remarried and I was his only child. My cousin told me that the day he died, he spoke of my mother and me and said he wanted to contact me.
When he died, my father had no burial arrangements and I had no money as I was a struggling student. He stayed in the morgue for over a week as his family tried to figure out how to bury him. So, my cousins had to erase my existence saying that he had no next of kin on the forms. He was cremated and my cousins drove his remains to his home town of Columbus Ohio. Eventually, my cousin was able to hire someone to get my father recognized as a veteran who served his country so that he could have a dignified burial. I had to leave before he had a proper military burial. He was finally laid to rest a bit over a week after I left Ohio, but they mailed me the flag that they used on the coffin. To this day it remains folded in an immaculate triangle, in a case my mother bought. While it is at my mother’s house, that flag is my one possession that I take most pride in. That flag is a testament of his service to our country, the friends he lost, the wounds received, and the price he paid. Yes, Vietnam was a senseless war, but it wasn’t his choosing. Still he paid a price, and ultimately our family did too. But this post is not about me feeling sorry for my family because of his PTSD, rather it is to point out that as a daughter of a veteran, as the descendant of people who sacrificed so much in this country, that no one can deny my Americaness.
When I met my father again for the first time after 18 years, he knew I was Muslim. He said he studied Islam and respected the religion. He respect my choice, as do my other family members. I have a number of family members who have served their country. And while we have different political views, they would never deny my right to belong in America. And never as a Muslim have I felt like I didn’t belong in this country. It was my birthright. And it is the right of other American Muslims to be able to grieve, live, and love in this country.
September of 2001 was an exciting year for me, as I finally picked up the pieces of my life and was going back to school. I knew I wanted to write, but figured I’d become a technical writer working on software training manuals and that I’d write fiction on the side. At that time, I was still trying to figure out my place in the American Muslim community. I identified as a Muslim, but I had no idea how that would ultimately manifest itself in my life. I didn’t wear hijab at the time and the only identifying feature of my religion was the Arabic “Allah” necklace I wore around neck. But frequently I talked about my faith if people were curious. School hadn’t started, so I still had my regular 9 to 5 hours at MicroCenter. And as I turned on the radio, I thought I was hearing a joke. I changed stations because it wasn’t funny. But it was more reporting of the attacks. I could barely make sense of it, the towers, airplanes grounded, we were under attack. As I passed the airport, I didn’t see a single plane in the sky. Just a clear blue sky. It was eerie because for some reason I tended to live near the landing and take off path and could always see airplanes in the sky. But it was just clear, empty blue sky. I didn’t know if any other cities were being hit. I didn’t know what was happening as I was stuck in my car and could only move forward to get to my job. I got to work and my co-workers and I were transfixed. Some of the guys tried to make some jokes and made an off color joke about our Arab co-worker parachuting out. I can’t even remember the rest of the day. All I remember was feeling doubly vulnerable as an American under attack and as a Muslim who would receive the backlash from those who would blame all Muslims. I wondered what types of wars would come of the attack and I feared the worst.
The tragedy touched me in different ways. A former co-worker’s mother had been in the vicinity and escaped the World Trade Center, someone I knew told me he had been in an adjacent building, Deora Bodley a 20 year old junior who died on Flight 93 would have graduated with me from Santa Clara University. There were memorials for Deora and several vigils. Someone even pointed out Deora’s boyfriend, who looked so broken and still in mourning. During my first week of classes, 9/11 was all that people wanted to discuss. I was often the only Muslim, I would try to help my classmates and professors understand the socio-political situation in Muslim majority nations. I tried to explain the grievances that extremist Muslims had. I was well versed since that literature circulated widely and easily as different groups tried to radicalize us young Muslim student . I often thank God that I turned away from justifying certain actions early on and became more grounded in 1997 as I studied under Hamza Yusuf. And some of our more radical MSA members were finally able to see the logical outcome of their rhetoric and they too turned away from their extremist views. But many of us Muslims were all concerned that we had not provided a counter balance to extremist ideologies and there was a call “Where are the moderate Muslims?”
9/11 was my wake up call and ultimately it made me embrace my faith even more. I couldn’t be an invisible American Muslim, a Muslim of convenience. Under the encouragement Professor Gelber, I decided on a career in academia. Maybe my plans were lofty, to explore the history of Muslim societies and look for institutions and practices that were not reactionary but positive. I believed that by drawing on our historical and cultural legacy, that we Muslims could transform our communities and societies. I wanted to be a bridge, bringing together both sides of my identity. Bridges were needed as I saw my country become increasingly polarized. In retrospect, when you compare what has happened in Afghanistan and Iraq, American Muslims have had it so easy. But there was increased pressure for us to become public. Maybe I was lulled into a sense of comfort because I attended a Catholic University, which was anti-war and pro-interfaith dialogue. But praise God, we American Muslims didn’t receive much of a backlash. Yes, there were hate crimes, a burning of an Arab Christian Church, a random murder of a South Asian Fremont woman, some beatings, increased surveillance, etc.
Ten years later, it seems like America has become even more uncomfortable with American Muslims. While I feel profound loss when I see the horrors of those events and often cry when I read or watch the personal accounts of people who lost a loved one, I also feel as if I am not allowed to mourn (at least not publicly). Ten years later, people want me to apologize for 9/11, assume I have some agenda to take over this country, and spew hate and misconceptions about me and my co-religionists. I see the hate posted in the comments section of news articles. I have seen protest after protest against Muslim houses of worship. I have heard some people deny that my faith is even a religion. I fear that this country has gone down the path that the terrorists wanted us to go. Their actions were meant to provoke military aggression, to stir up fear and hatred, and to drive a wedge between peoples. Despite all the hatred, there are those like myself, whether immigrants, children and grand-children of immigrants or converts or children and grandchildren of converts, who are committed to both our faith and country and see no contradiction in being American and Muslim.
While no one carries the sins of another, many of us American Muslims know that we bear an even greater responsibility now to be better neighbors and citizens than those who would deny others’ constitutional rights. We will be better than those who spew hate and try to intimidate others. I am glad that many Muslims are embracing and asserting their Americaness, when we were too timid to do so because we were once so steeped in anti-establishment rhetoric, in the anti-neo colonial discourse, or ethnic isolationism to feel like we could fully participate. When we can fully embrace our Americaness, we will not only be able to make a contribution, but we can also participate in the our constitutional rights and even spirit of protest to make this country better. We have a new generation of Muslims serving in this society, giving humanitarian aid, educating, healing, building, creating, even defending it in armed service. I think back to my father’s flag and how that will eventually pass on to my children. And I don’t mind working harder to contribute something to my community and society. Many of my American co-religionists feel the same. And we do this because this is where our future lies, were our children and children’s children will be buried. We do this, not because we are rabid nationalists or ethnic chauvanists, but because America is our home and part of who we are.