by Kathryn Fossaceca
On September 11, 2001, the United States succumbed to terrorist attacks as the massive World Trade Center Towers, perhaps the best known symbol of America’s business prowess and world domination, crashed to the ground. Many non-Muslim Americans falsely deemed that the tenets of Islam advocated the heinous crime, and this heightened their prejudices against Muslims. In his novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Moshin Hamid imagines the effects of elevated levels of discrimination on the life of a fictional Pakistani Muslim character named Changez. Having moved to America to study at Princeton University, Changez lives happily until he has to deal with increased xenophobia and anti-Muslim sentiment following 9/11. He finds himself in the midst of an identity crisis, feeling torn between his Pakistani roots and his newly adopted American lifestyle. Initially, Changez chooses the latter, but he realizes that it comes with the burden of being perceived as a threat to mainstream American society. As the novel progresses, Changez is perceived as a terrorist, more and more often. He comments to an American observer, “It’s remarkable, given its physical insignificance […] the impact a beard worn by a man of my complexion has on your fellow countrymen” (130). At another point in the book, Changez details walking home from work and being called a “f___ing Arab,” a remark that is not only hateful but also incorrectly identifies his nationality. Toward the end of the novel Changez comments, “It seems an obvious thing to say, but you should not imagine that we Pakistanis are all potential terrorists, just as we should not imagine that you Americans are all undercover assassins” (183).
Following 9/11, many non-Muslim Americans grew more inclined to perceive groups of wholly innocent people as potential terrorists as a result of two tendencies: 1.) to collapse national identities together and 2.) to mistake Muslims as advocates of attacks against America. Suad Joseph argues that the American media incited this prejudice by portraying Muslims in ways that “enabled racial policing by associating them with terrorism” (Joseph 229). Joseph cites a New York Times report in which an author incorrectly used the term “Arab” to describe a Muslim from Pakistan, at no point correctly distinguishing the difference between the terms Pakistani, Arab, and Muslim. Joseph sees the reporter’s error as having resulted from the tendency to conflate national and religious identities of Muslims, which, he argues, characterized the mainstream American media’s coverage of 9/11 (236).
I was in the fourth grade on September 11, 2001, and, at nine years old, not everything made sense. I lived in New Jersey at the time, about an half an hour from New York. The collapse of the Towers left a smokey haze above my neighborhood for almost a week, but that haze cleared up; mine did not. I remember that day was weird. Many of my classmates went home early, and no one said anything about what happened, so we laughed every time the phone rang to signal a student out. On the bus ride home from school, all I thought about was telling my mom about the craziness of the school day, but I never did because she told me what happened first. The television showed words and images that I did not comprehend, but I put together my own thoughts: “Hijackers, crashed planes into the towers … hijackers are terrorists … they came from the Middle East … they are Muslim … and that is what a Muslim looks like.” The news report switched to a photo of Osama bin Laden. Watching the news, my thoughts grew more confused, and I believe that these same misconceptions infiltrated the minds of other kids in my generation.
After 9/11, many Muslims felt the effects of alienation and stigmatization from American society. The hostility included physical violence, verbal abuse, and hate stares. In Lori Peeks’ interviews with Muslims who were mistreated following 9/11, those on the receiving end of the stares describe them as “unbearable” (qtd. in Peeks 72). Non-Muslim New Yorkers targeted Muslims based on their appearance, and the subsequent discrimination encouraged Muslims to feel compelled to blend into mainstream American culture so that they would not seem like outsiders. Muslim women faced discrimination for wearing the hijab, which represents a Muslim woman’s purity and modesty, and Muslim men, who traditionally grow their beards to honor God and the prophet Muhammad, felt pressured to shave their beards for a ‘cleaner’ appearance.
Five years after 9/11 my younger sister, Sarah, in the sixth grade came home upset because boys were being mean to one of her friends, who started wearing a hijab. They called her “towel head,” and told Sarah’s friend she was a terrorist. Another example, last year Sarah told me how a boy in her class is from Afghanistan, and after Osama bin Laden was killed, other American boys remarked to him, “Sorry that your dad died.”
Of course the idea that Islam advocates terrorism is a total misconception. As Fuad S. Naeem explains, while terrorists who advocate jihad—and who interpret that word to mean militant holy war against the United States—are commonly perceived as Muslim fundamentalists, their belief systems do not align with true Islam doctrine (81). He argues that these terrorists are more appropriately termed nationalistic fundamentalists rather than religious fundamentalists. In Islamic Fundamentalism, Youssef M. Choueiri echoes Naeem’s argument. Choueiri explains that “[true] Islam views the entire planet earth as the abode of humankind, thereby dissolving all these contrived divisions” (132) whereas, on the other hand, “[n]ationalism is an irrational approach which destroys deeper bonds between human beings. It divides humanity into racial groups, [and] sets up barriers of languages within one single religious community” (131).
Last year, I joined the Muslim Student Association at Marymount University to better understand what it means to be Muslim. The media might tell me one thing about a faith or culture, but the truth comes from the people who are members of that faith and culture. I am a practicing Catholic, but my friends in MSA have educated me by showing me the beauty of Islam. They cleared up my haze, and answered my questions, something that the media blurred.
Choueiri, Youssef M. Islamic Fundamentalism: The Story of Islamic Movements. London: Continuum, 2009. Print.
Fuad, Naeem. “A Traditional Islamic Response to the Rise of Modernism.” Islam, Fundamentalism, and the Betrayal of Tradition: Essays by Western Muslim Scholars. Ed. Joseph Lumbard. Bloomington, IN: World Wisdom, 2004. 39-78. Print.
Hamid, Mohsin. The Reluctant Fundamentalist. Orlando, FL: Harcourt, 2008. Print.
Peek, Lori A. Behind the Backlash: Muslim Americans after 9/11. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 2011. Print.
Joseph, Suad. “Arab Americans and Muslim Americans in the New York Times: Before and After 9/11.” Race and Arab Americans Before and After 9/11: From Invisible Citizens to Visible Subjects. Ed. Nadine Naber and Ed. Amaney Jamal. Syracuse UP, 2008. 229-75. Print.