Sept. 11, 2001, is a day etched into many people’s memories — they remember where they were, what they were doing and how they felt. But people born after 9/11 are navigating a different experience.
Mariam Badr, an 18-year-old student at the University of Washington, Bothell, said each anniversary brings a slew of hate for Muslims, especially for women like herself who wear hijabs and are easily identifiable as Muslim.
“Why does this event that I wasn’t even present for affect my life up till this day?” she said.
When Badr was 9 years old, she sat in her Issaquah classroom as she would any other day. But the lesson plan that day included conversations about Sept. 11.
Badr remembers everyone in her class looking at her, as if she had something to do with the attacks, though they took place before she was born.
“I was beyond confused,” she said. “It felt like people looked at me differently.”
As soon as Badr got home, she asked her mom about it. She remembers her mom’s face scrunching up as if she was confused — then worried — about what her daughter might say next.
“It led to a conversation about ‘this is what happened’ and ‘this is why people hate Muslims,'” Badr said.
It was a lot for a child to come to terms with, and Badr said she took a few more years to fully understand the effects scapegoating had on Muslim American families.
Though it’s been 20 years since the 9/11 attacks, people still don’t understand that one person does not represent Islam and the Muslim community, Badr said.
People fueled by hatred and ignorance forget that Muslims are regular people who have families, pets and friends, and who face the same struggles they do, she said.
“Some really just see us as a terrorist threat … But Muslims that witnessed the attacks were just as scared — maybe even more,” she said. Her community would be mourning the tragedy while also facing fears of heightened Islamophobia, she said.
Shoaib Laghari, 18, said the fear of being treated as outsiders also permeated his family, who moved to the U.S. from Pakistan in 2006.
While growing up in Tennessee, Laghari, now a UW student, said his parents encouraged him to embrace his American identity because “it was the safe thing to do.”
But still, he said he noticed discrimination against his family when he was as young as 6 years old.
Laghari began to discuss Islamophobia with his parents as he grew older. His father told him he remembers a customer calling him racial slurs while he was working at a gas station. Laghari himself endured “jokes” about 9/11 and was called a terrorist by classmates — even friends — while growing up, he said. Young people make jokes about 9/11 even if their parents are politically affected by the U.S. response, he said, because the tragedy has become so normalized.
A recent poll conducted by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs shows 53% of Americans have unfavorable views on Islam, while 42% have favorable ones. Meanwhile, most respondents expressed favorable views of Christianity and Judaism.
The education around Sept. 11 and its effect on Muslim communities were lackluster, if there at all, Laghari said. Sometimes all children had were the opinions of their parents, he said, which meant they missed exposure to multiple perspectives and the understanding that religious extremism is rare and not the no
Born in a state of surveillance
The increase in surveillance following the attacks placed a heavier burden on Muslim American communities, Laghari said. It seems as though Muslims are “randomly selected,” for security checks far too often, he said, recounting the multiple occasions when his family has been delayed at airports as their bags were searched. While it may be random, he said, the frequency of these searches has left Laghari wondering if bias plays a role.
Younger people don’t have a concept of being able to just walk right onto a plane, said 17-year-old Seattle student Ava Golde.
“I’ve seen it in older movies and I’m just like ‘what?,'” Golde said. “We don’t know a world like that.”
“These heightened security measures feel like an uncomfortable reminder, but at the same time, in a way does also make you feel safe,” Golde said. But she wonders if she would even be thinking about security were it not for visible safeguards.
There’s a divide between older people who remember being able to walk onto a plane and younger people who never experienced that. To Golde, security seems “fundamentally American.”
The Muslim travel ban under the Trump administration highlighted the ongoing Islamophobia many face in the U.S., Golde said. While she has noticed more people are having conversations about bias, Islamophobia is still here, she said.
Learning about 9/11
For many born after the attacks, it’s difficult to pinpoint the exact moment they heard about 9/11, Golde said.
Learning about the September attacks seemed “cursory” for Golde. It wasn’t until she was 11 that she gained a grasp on the impact 9/11 had on the U.S. The visuals of the twin towers falling and hearing firsthand accounts from people left Golde with a deeper understanding, she said.
Many young people can only begin to understand the weight of 9/11 as they grow into adulthood, said 21-year-old Seattleite Galaxy Marshall. Conversations that sanitize and leave out context normalize the 9/11 attacks, she said.
Marshall was around 4 when she first learned of the 9/11 attacks. The last page of a children’s storybook she was reading with her mother noted that the twin towers were no longer standing. Marshall initially relied on her mother to fill in the gaps, but she was left with more questions.
When Marshall was in first grade, her mother sent her to school with the storybook. It was the fifth anniversary of the attacks.
At the end of the day, Marshall’s teacher told her to say “thanks” to her mom on her behalf, because she wasn’t sure what to do, “but this was perfect.” Marshall remembers thinking her teacher was grateful because she didn’t have a lesson plan for the day. Now, she wonders if her teacher had tried to craft a lesson plan, but had trouble figuring out how to talk to her young students about 9/11.
Marshall said she was interested in understanding the nuances of what followed the 9/11 attacks, from the spike in Islamophobia to the policy response that followed, because her parents were politically active and focused on civil rights.
As Marshall grew older she began to connect the threads. It’s hard for younger people to fully understand what it would’ve been like to witness the attacks, she said. During her teens, Marshall looked for news reports from that day, firsthand accounts, and other mediums, trying to understand.
Evan Rufert, a 17-year-old Snohomish High School student, has had a similar experience learning about Sept. 11. He remembers being at a University of Washington football game when he noticed the players’ helmets had a 9/11 tribute marker for the 10th anniversary. When Rufert asked his dad for more information, he began to explain what had happened.
As Rufert grew up, he said he had very few conversations evaluating the U.S. response to 9/11. Interested in politics and history, Rufert said he did his own research to gain perspective and develop his own opinions.
Most people don’t realize how long it’s been since the attacks, he said. “They just kind of assume that everybody either finds out about it on their own, or that they were around when it happened.”