Omar Mouallem is an Edmonton-based writer and the author of the forthcoming book Praying to the West: How Muslims Shaped the Americas.
The question is almost a cliché now: “Where were you on 9/11?”
Just about everyone older than 20 can put a pin down on a map marking where they were when the world as they knew it changed. They were at home, or at work, or in the middle of a commute when, out of the blue sky, four planes flown by 19 hijackers set into motion the chain of events that would flip foreign policies upside down, unravel much of the Arab and Muslim world, and give rise to right-wing fascism.
For the millions of millennials who came of age in Canada and the U.S. in the wake of 9/11, the memory often looks the same: At 10:28 a.m. EST, when the second tower collapsed, we were surrounded by whiteboards and lockers. Our immediate understanding of the future was in the hands of our teachers. Some of us were called to an assembly to ask questions and grieve. Some watched the carnage on a TV set rolled into the classroom. Some were pulled out of school by frightened parents. Others – myself included, in my school in High Prairie, Alta. – were allowed to go home and try to make sense of this future on our own.
These shared visceral memories of Sept. 11, 2001, can create a sense that we’re all connected to its aftermath. But the pins people drop tend to only mark the moments of impact; the specific stories are usually bookended by the events of that terrible day. Not so, however, for those millions of young North Americans from Muslim homes. For us, 9/11 launched a difficult search for our own identities, whether we were ready for that or not. We had to ask ourselves: What will it mean to be a Muslim in this new world, and will it be worth the cost?
I heard about this struggle often when I talked to young Muslims for my book, as I travelled from mosque to mosque across 10,000 kilometres in the Western hemisphere during Donald Trump’s presidency. The standard-issue question of where someone was on that fateful day was often answered in a way that was less about a physical location and more about a metaphysical one: Where was I in that point of my life, and where am I now because of it?
Many Muslims who came of age in the immediate wake of 9/11 felt like they had something to prove. How could we not, when our senses of self were still forming? We had to undergo the typical adolescent process of defining ourselves, while a massive event prompted everyone else to try to define us at the same time.
The majority of my peers responded to Islamophobic rhetoric that followed 9/11 by embracing and protecting their Islamic heritage, almost empowered by the backlash. That was the approach of Sobia Siddiqui, a Pakistani-American I spoke to whose father and uncles were all fired from their jobs as managers of three separate gas stations after 9/11. She was just 10 when the towers fell, and what happened afterward inspired her to defend Islam from attackers – to advocate for her faith and strive for a job in Muslim civil-rights advocacy, against the wishes of her parents, who feared she’d make herself into a bigger target for hate. “They were terrified of rocking the boat. They more wanted be in their bubble, like, ‘Leave us alone,’ ” she told me.
But others, including me, were jolted in the opposite direction after 9/11, shedding our religious identity like a flaky old skin in the desert. Eventually, that thinking curdled into the hard bricks of a cognitive wall I built myself – one that made me believe that I was too good for Islam, and that the religion and the religious were beneath me intellectually.
Like the rest of us who are old enough to remember, I can put a pin down on a map of where I was, and who I was, when the attacks occurred. But I can also vividly recall where I was a few hours later, when I learned who planned them. I was at home, in my dark basement, watching the news with friends when we learned his name – Osama bin Laden – and right away, I earned myself a new nickname: Omar bin Laden. Not wanting to be a poor sport, I welcomed it between us friends. For years, that was my way of guarding myself: to be in on the joke, to assure everyone they were safe in my presence, even if the joke was an insult to the dead and to my very religion. And so while I worried that life after 9/11 would become harder for my Muslim family in our northern Alberta community – a fear that never really did bear out – I dropped a pin in my memory for the moment I decided to define myself in opposition to Islam, or at least, what I thought it was.
These pins are one and the same – the ones that pierce and hurt us indelibly that come from other people, and the ones we drive into ourselves, holding and framing our bodies up against corkboard walls. It comes from the dual perceptions forced upon so many racialized people – how we see ourselves, and how others see us – but while most would reconcile those two, I spent my youth aligning with the others. And because Islam seemed to me like the hardest dividing line between us and them, it became a convenient scapegoat for my alienation, the easiest part of me to diminish. In deciding, after 9/11, where I stood as a young person, I lost a part of me that would take more than a decade to rediscover.
I don’t remember where I was when I stopped apologizing for Islam, when I stopped being hostile to religion, or when I realized the veiled bigotry of my own anti-religious views. No one incident made me suddenly relate to other Muslim Canadians again, or become protective of my religious upbringing. It was everything, all together, at once – the era of ISIS and Trumpism, the genocides of the Rohingya and Uyghur people, the acceleration of ethnonationalism and misinformation – that compelled me to reclaim the thing that makes me a target. It was – it is, to this day – less an act of faith, and more of a rebellion against the right-wing populists and the Islamist fundamentalists policing Muslimhood. As Rana Abbas Taylor, an activist in Dearborn, Mich., told me: “I want to get in your face and defy every misconception you have about what a Muslim woman looks like. I want to screw up your worldview.”
Over the past few years, I heard this kind of spirit from other young Muslims, those with early memories of 9/11, and those with none whatsoever. Anti-Muslim hate has become too frequent, too loud, and too ugly to try to brush past, and the reality of Islamophobia has erased any distinction between the pious, the secular and the non-believer, because we share the same spaces, communities and blood. In Edmonton, where I now live, Muslim women have reported brazen attacks in at least six separate incidents. Most were in broad daylight, and one victim, I recently learned, was my cousin.
Though some of these young and predominantly Black Muslim women are too young to remember where they were on 9/11, they no doubt know their attack came as a direct consequence of that day. What I hope most for them is that the shock of this moment won’t pressure them to conceal or cast out their religious and cultural heritage, as many of us did after 9/11. Whether or not you choose to wear your identity, it sometimes wears you, and it often wears you down. But in the end, a Muslim isn’t baptized in the faith; Muslims are those who declare themselves one. That’s the egalitarian nature of Islam: You choose what you are, naysayers be damned.
I am a father of two, and I know that my children will face a reckoning of their own, as I did after 9/11. I know this as a fact, because many of the Muslims I spoke to who were too young to remember 9/11 talked about another moment that seemed to share familiar scar tissue: Nov. 8, 2016, the day that a man who promised to enact a Muslim ban and Muslim registry in America, and once told a feverish crowd “I think Islam hates us,” became president-elect of the United States. Another reckoning for young Muslims is as inevitable as the wildfires and rising sea levels; it may even come as a direct result.
So I am grateful that I can pray, and I do: that they’ve had enough time to remember not just where they were when, but who they were, and still are.