Farhana Rahman
Farhana Rahman
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9/11: Experiences of a Muslim in New York

Reflections on her experiences as a New York Muslim coming of age in the wake of 9/11

As a young(ish) Muslim woman heavily tied to Jews both personally and professionally, many of my Jewish friends often ask to hear my thoughts on “the latest radical terror attack.”

What can I say each time that would be different from whatever I said last time? As a peace-loving Muslim, I hate each attack — not only because of the innocent lives lost, but because of the ripple effects that come out of them.

The Plan: Stay Quiet

It is now late at night in NY on September 11, 2016 as I write this. The 9/11 attacks happened 15 years ago. For the most part today, I avoided contact with people, as I do every year, and stayed quiet on social media. I didn’t want to be asked that same question again… about my thoughts on 9/11. I hate that it happened. But I had nothing to do with it. Neither did my friends, family, extended family, friends of extended family — no one. Who am I to offer input on it?

I ended up going on Facebook a few times, just to quietly go through my newsfeed. There were endless pictures of the Twin Towers being shared. Endless memories being shared. Endless recordings, articles, and quotes being shared. They were all heartbreaking, and of course must be shared. The more I went through the content (and ignored the requests of friends asking me to say something about 9/11), the more I thought, for the umpteenth time, what can I say that would be different from whatever I said last time? 

Change of Plan: WRITE

I ultimately decided to start on this post, and provide a glimpse of what I experienced on 9/11 as a Muslim teen in NY, and since.

Rewind: 9/11/01

I was in high school in the borough of Queens at the time. Quite a far distance away from Lower Manhattan. I got out of class, and a guy told me “The World Trade Center collapsed. Terrorists went through it with planes.” How ridiculously random does that sound? I didn’t believe it for a second. I remember replying something along the lines of, “Yeah okay, walk me to class.” As I sat in my next class, no one talked about it. That confirmed it was BS. However, by the following class, there was a lot of panic. Classes were dismissed early because there was chaos in the public transit system, and I was fortunate to be picked up by my father who drove all the way to my school.

In the car, he told me to not tell anyone I am Muslim. I asked him “Why not?” He repeated the same sentence again, only with an angry voice. So I stayed quiet.

We went home, and just watched updates on TV. I won’t go into details on the updates — by now everyone has seen the footage. But my mom was in Manhattan. Calls weren’t going through, but at one point my mom managed to reach us, and she said not to worry, that she is walking home. It was going to take a few hours, but it was the only way for her to get home. One by one, all my friends and distant friends in the area got back to me to let me know they were safe. Okay good — I was very fortunate to not lose anyone from 9/11. Most everyone else I knew had a first or second degree connection to someone who went missing in the Towers and the Pentagon.

Changes: Girls

I started to question my world beginning September 12th, 2001. My Muslim friends and acquaintances started to change. Many of the Muslim girls I knew decided to start wearing the hijab. They figured it would be wise to make this sharp transition to prove to the world that there are good Muslims out there. They told me that I should start wearing it too, to make a positive statement. I thought about it, and ultimately decided not to. I’m not saying I never will, I just didn’t want to at that point in time, for a couple of reasons:

  1. It should be done from the heart to please God, not to make a political statement or prove some kind of point. You can’t fake it. You need to mean it.
  2. I wasn’t ready to do other things as a full-time Hijabi. I wasn’t ready to give up on my short sleeved tees, or fast food joints, or hanging out with mostly boys. If anything, that would have been more insulting in the name of Islam. I didn’t want to be a hypocrite. I lost a few friends after saying that.
  3. I didn’t want to mark myself as a Muslim just yet. That was going to go against what my father told me. That was not the time for me to tell people I am Muslim.

Needless to say, some of those girls ended up regretting their decision to start wearing the hijab right after 9/11. They got stares. They got comments. They got denied service in places. They got escorted out of places. But since they had started wearing the hijab, it was kind of hard for them to stop doing so, because “what will everyone say?” So they continued, but, for the most part, not from the heart.

I still have every intention to start wearing the hijab, but again, not just yet. Perhaps shortly after becoming a mother, which I hope will happen sooner than later. Though I gave up on the fast food, I still love my short sleeves, and my many guy friends.

Changes: Guys

It wasn’t only the girls that were making changes at the time. It was also the guys.

There were guys at the mosque I went to who were the coolest guys ever. But they had those names. Those watch-list names. And many of them got their parents to help them begin the process to legally change their names.

Others just went by Americanized versions of their names. Mohammad became Moe. Osama became Sam. Nassir became Naz. Taslim became Taz. Bilal became Bill. Waseem became Wes. I could go on for days with these examples. Each of them began to disassociate from their cultural background almost immediately.

The name thing went beyond that. Muslim parents also started giving their kids super American names. I’m not judging, just pointing it out. Usually whenever a new Muslim child is born, and the parents give it a Muslim name, there would be wonderful conversations on the meaning of the name in Arabic, and stories of the original hero that bore the name being exchanged. In my world, that stopped for a while, and to be honest, I missed it. I love stories.

I’m glad to say that I am beginning to notice the Muslim names come up again in recent years.

Too Much Confusion

Oh, and let’s not forget — LOTS of Muslims (in my community at least) were quick to label themselves as agnostic or atheist. In response, many were quickly shunned by others. Me, personally, well it didn’t bother me, because I understood where they were coming from. It was a very confusing time. We were all emotional. We all have different coping mechanisms.

Conversations in Muslim communities were so mixed and so weird — to me at least. They seemed to be swayed by whatever the media was fixated on at the time. The conversations between seemingly intelligent people were pretty awkward and bothersome, so I decided to just stay away. But the one thing everyone agreed on was the fact that it was not the time for Muslims to be loud or vocal about anything, cause “everyone hates all of us now.”

I was privileged to not necessarily have a “Muslim-looking face.” At first glance at the time, most people thought I was from South America, or some kind of Filipino mix. I think that is why I was blessed to never personally encounter any kind of hate-treatment. No hate crime, no hate speech. Many who were close to me did have a few unpleasant encounters, thankfully nothing dangerous, but traumatizing nonetheless.

I did experience a little something a few years later during a blackout, while I was trapped at work with a colleague. She turned to me and said, “Farhana, please. You’re a Muslim and I have a young son. Please tell me if there is something going on. What’s going on? Why is there a blackout?”

I truly don’t remember how I responded to that, but I didn’t report her to HR or anyone for it, because I guess fear brings things out of people. She never spoke to me like that afterwards. She probably even forgot about it.

Coming Out as a Muslim: Post 9/11

I slowly started talking about being a Muslim during my university years. Interestingly enough, people seemed to love me more because of it. As I entered the job market, I’d purposely slip the detail in interviews, just so I could be rejected early on if that made anyone uncomfortable. Nope — everyone loved it. If anything, I’m pretty sure I landed a few gigs simply because I indicated I’m Muslim. It seemed to be like a good PR move for some companies, and a diversity requirement for others. Hey whatever, I was happy to land sweet gigs and get paid, while the economy was tanking.

Every 9/11, I withdraw from society a bit. I don’t even know why. Even though there have been some pretty bad hate crimes against Muslims in NY in recent years, I’d still say I have nothing to fear. That’s mainly because I don’t wear the hijab, don’t live in a Muslim area, don’t frequent the sketchier parts of NY, and am always home by 7 p.m. But there is still that worry — what if someone snaps? Better safe than sorry.

My husband doesn’t necessarily feel the same way in terms of safety. He has a very Muslim beard. No, not one of those unkempt beards. He keeps it nice and groomed, but it is kept the thick way as suggested in Islam. He doesn’t necessarily keep it for religious purposes, he keeps it because I just happen to love beards. But he does feel uneasy to step outside after radical terror attacks take place. I guess some form of fear just became heavily ingrained in all of us (American Muslims) since 9/11.

So here’s what I have to say about 9/11, based on my own experiences. It changed the lives of all Muslim Americans in some way shape and form, for better or for worse. The common thread between every one of us who were old enough to perfectly remember the details of that tragic day is that it shook us to the core. In some cases, it united us. In other cases, it divided us.

Me personally, I am mourning with you. I am mourning with the families of the victims. I say extra prayers for them, and I donate directly to the families of victims of terror attacks (in general) to the best of my ability.

If you’re reading this and you’re an Islamophobe, I don’t hate you. I understand the reasons you feel this way. Most of us really are good. Most of us are vocal in our own ways in our own communities about radical terrorism. I hope that one day soon, a kind Muslim will enter your life, and gently give you a change of heart.

About the Author
Farhana Rahman has been representing socially driven Israeli startups for over 5 years, and has been in the PR/Marketing industries for nearly 10 years. Farhana always makes time to assist startups in an advisory role with initiatives surrounding product launches, marketing campaigns, and social strategy. Additionally, she finds enjoyment in giving presentations on those topics in company events and roundtables. In the rare instances Farhana is not glued to her mobile devices, you will find her cooking gourmet feasts for her parents, playing mindless games with her brother, or running (Netflix) marathons with her husband.
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