On a wet and windy day, during her junior year at high school as Najma Khan was holed up in the library, a photo flashed on her phone.
It showed a beheading by Islamic State militants along with a caption in red letters: “Go back to your own country.” Najma reported the incident but the school never tracked down the person who sent it.
It was not the first time she had been the focus of hatred, the 19-year-old who is my niece’s best friend said. With unshed tears at the corners of her eyes she narrated similar incidents, sitting next to her parents in their Santa Monica home. I noticed that a copy of the Quran was prominently displayed on a bookstand on the mantelpiece.
Najma who wears a hijab, (headscarf or other covering designed to maintain modesty) often gets angry glares from strangers and has had to endure questioning about whether she has a bomb in her backpack.
Asked when they thought such incidents became common, the Khan family didn’t hesitate.
“It started with 9/11,” said Najma’s mom, Hina, who immigrated to California from Pakistan in 1996.
“Overnight, we Muslims were no longer part of the great American ‘us‘—we were ‘them,’” Najma continues. She has a soft voice to match her paisley pink blouse, and her tiny gold hoop earrings wink in the faint sunlight from the window as she talks to me, while gesticulating with a set of pale pink fingernails.
“I was associated with the 19 hijackers even though they didn’t hail from Pakistan, but from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, United Arab Emirates, and Lebanon. And even though I was born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, I was told to go back to where I came from. Go back where, exactly? To Fremont?” she asks as she spread her palms in a gesture of disbelief.
In the months following the attacks, the difference between fiction and reality was irrelevant to a country gripped by chauvinism and Islamaphobia. The first hate crime was against someone who wasn’t even Muslim: Balbir Singh, A Sikh Indian gas station owner in Mesa, Arizona was murdered in the aftermath of the tragic events, because of his beard and brown skin. In my native Sikh community, my brother’s friend shaved his beard and stopped wearing a turban that Sep 13, after being assaulted at work. In 2013, the word “terrorist” was spray-painted on the walls of a Sikh temple in Riverside, only one year after a deadly shooting at another Sikh temple in Wisconsin.
Over the decades, younger generations of Muslim Americans have lived through terrorist attacks and witnessed an entire religion asked to decry every violent action done by every terrorist in countries they have never even visited in order to prove their people’s self-worth. Najma adjusts her cotton-candy-pink hijaab to make sure it is straight as she says, “on the radio and cable-news channels, non-Muslim ‘experts’ were talking about us as if we were exotic zoo animals, to be observed and dissected with equal doses of horror and curiosity.” She jokes about Hollywood’s portrayals of a Muslim woman falling in love with a white man and suddenly removing her hijab. Her laugh tinkles like chimes in the wind. “We don’t do that,” she finishes.
In 2001, the year of the terrorist attacks, nearly 500 anti-Muslim incidents of hate crime were documented in the U.S.—up from 28 the year before. The number has never returned to the pre-9/11 levels.
“If it’s a white shooter, he is mentally unstable. If it’s a brown shooter or someone who is Muslim, they’re automatically labeled a terrorist,” says Hasan Ali, my neighbor in Pleasanton, who migrated to the U.S. from Syria 35 years ago. “Seeing things like that is so frustrating.”
“It’s now been 20 years since 9/11. I’d like to think when I shop in a grocery store, people’s first impression of me isn’t, ‘I hope he’s one of the good Muslims.’ Instead, I hope they see a 55-year-old exhausted father of two and grandfather of one, who is trying his best to survive the pandemic, and who only happens to be Muslim.
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