Muslim youth in America: A generation shadowed by the aftermath of 9/11

Originally Published in The Los Angeles Times

Article by Brittny Mejia, Photographs by Irfan Khan  – September 3, 2021

Hanae Bentchich, 21, left, and Dalal Oyoun, 17, Muslim girls who were born before September 11.
Hanae Bentchich, 21, left, and Dalal Oyoun, 17, talk about growing up as Muslim Americans in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

On a rainy day during her sophomore year of high school, as Aissata Ba studied in the library, a photo popped into her phone.

The picture showed a beheading by Islamic State militants along with a caption in red letters: “Go back to your country.”

Ba reported the incident. Administrators never tracked down the person who sent it.

It was not the first time she’d been the focus of hatred, the 20-year-old said, betraying no emotion as she recounted incidents while sitting next to her parents in their Southern California home. A copy of the Quran lay, prominent, on the coffee table.

There was the boy in sixth grade who would say “Allahu Akbar,” Arabic for “God is greater,” and throw his backpack near her, pretending it was a bomb. The time in eighth-grade math class when a boy turned to her and asked how she could “be part of a religion of terrorists.”

When asked when they thought such incidents became common, the Ba family didn’t hesitate.

Aissata Ba a Mauritanian-American Muslim at her home in Aliso Viejo, CA.
Aissata Ba, a Mauritanian American Muslim from Aliso Viejo, recalls repeated anti-Muslim acts directed at her as she grew up.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

“It started with 9/11,” said Ba’s mom, Zeinebou, who emigrated to Chicago in 1999.

That September day in 2001 caused a chain of tragedies — for the nearly 3,000 people who perished during the attacks in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania; the young men and women who died serving their country in the wars that followed; and Muslims, and those perceived as Muslim, who became targets of hate.

Some Muslims in the United States think about their lives as having two distinct chapters — before two planes crashed into the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, and after. Then there’s a generation that has only known a world in which one terrible day changed their country.

In the Ba household — parents who immigrated from Mauritania in West Africa and three daughters born in the U.S. just before and after 9/11 — those realities exist side by side.

“Terrorism existed before 9/11,” Aissata’s father, Amadou, said. But “I think here people experienced it really with 9/11. That became just a rallying cry. It just changed the world so much.”

Despite the stares and comments, the parents don’t regret having migrated to the U.S.

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They pointed to places like France where some forms of Islamic dress are banned and the national Senate has voted to forbid wearing headscarves in public. Compared to other Western countries, Amadou said with a laugh, “it’s a cakewalk here.”

Still, like many American Muslims, the Ba family are acutely aware of how 9/11 changed the environment around them.

“Before that, you were just like a random person like everyone else,” said Zeinebou Ba. “And then, after 9/11, you go out and people look at you like you’re a terrorist.”

Dalal Oyoun, 17, left, and Hana Nashawati, 18, have dealt with discrimination for being Muslim.
Dalal Oyoun, 17, left, and Hana Nashawati, 18, have dealt with discrimination for being Muslim.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

For 18-year-old Hana Nashawati, who like Aissata Ba, wears a hijab — a headscarf or other covering designed to maintain modesty — that environment persists in angry glares from strangers.

For Dalal Oyoun, 17, it caused years-long embarrassment about identifying as Muslim and a sense of dread when talk in school turned to 9/11.

“Post 9/11, Islamophobia spiked,” said 22-year-old Salma Nasoordeen. That created, “kind of, like, a harsh environment for us to grow up in.”

Young Muslims growing up after 9/11 were “right in the crosshairs,” said Sabrina Alimahomed, associate professor of sociology at Cal State Long Beach, whose research focuses on the impact the war on terror had on U.S. Muslims.
“Islamophobia was present and predates 9/11, but it became so much more substantial in terms of the way it became rooted in our structures and our culture,” she said.

In 2001, the year of the terror attacks, nearly 500 anti-Muslim hate crime incidents were documented in the U.S. — up from 28 the year before. The number has never returned to levels reported before 9/11.

Aissata Ba seen at her home in Aliso Viejo, discusses growing up Muslim in America.
“You focus on putting energy into people that actually accept you,” says Aissata Ba.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

Alimahomed cited widespread surveillance in the Muslim community and a preemptive assumption of guilt before innocence, some of which pre-dated 9/11.

“If it’s a white shooter, they’re mentally unstable. If it’s a brown shooter or someone who’s Muslim, they’re automatically labeled a terrorist,” said Aissata. “Seeing things like that is so frustrating.”

To cope, she said, “you focus on putting energy into people that actually accept you and love you for who you are at the end of the day, because that’s the only way to survive.”

Mira Tarabeine, who was born in California, was a year old and living outside of the country during 9/11. But she dealt with the aftermath when her family fled the civil war in Syria and moved to the U.S. in 2012.

Mira Tarabeine, photographed in Beverly Hills, was a year old Sept. 11, 2001.
Mira Tarabeine, born a year before the Sept. 11 attacks, has relatives who were killed in a terror attack in Jordan and has also faced verbal assaults as a Muslim in the U.S.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

“I never understood when I first moved here why it was bad to be Muslim,” Tarabeine said.

There were jokes about 9/11 and questioning whether she had a bomb in her backpack. The little girl on the playground who, after learning Tarabeine’s sister spoke Arabic, pleaded “please don’t kill me.” The video that aired Tarabeine’s senior year in which a Middle Eastern student said, “I was called a terrorist — but I’m not Muslim.”

It all felt especially cruel because of the impact of terrorism on her family. In 2005, an Al Qaeda suicide bomber team attacked hotels in Jordan, including one at which Tarabeine’s grandmother and other family members were attending a wedding. Her mother’s stepfather and stepsister died in the attack.

“Arabs and Muslims tend to be victims of the same terrorists that did 9/11, but there’s no recognition of that,” Tarabeine said.

Over the decades, younger generations of Muslim Americans have lived through terrorist attacks and witnessed an entire religion asked to decry extremist violence each time.

They were alive when roughly a dozen states voted to ban Sharia law — even though it did not exist in the U.S.

Most recently, they experienced former President Trump’s ban on visitors and immigrants from several mostly Muslim countries.

“You didn’t have to live through 9/11 to experience all the ripples of Islamophobia since,” Alimahomed said. “To experience all those ebbs and flows of those moments when they’re targeted again, and they’re spotlighted.”

Because of their visibility, that sense of being a target can be acute for women, especially those who wear a hijab.

On a recent Friday night, nine girls gathered at the Islamic Institute of Orange County. They left their Converse high tops and Adidas sneakers scattered steps away from the carpet to not dirty the prayer rugs where the faithful would press their foreheads.

Sara Alamir, 18, Huda Saleh, 21, Arwa Khan, 22, and Salma Nasoordeen, 22, Muslim girls who were born before September 11.
Sara Alamir, 18, left, Huda Saleh, 21, Arwa Khan, 22, and Salma Nasoordeen, 22, take part in a group discussion last month at the Islamic Institute of Orange County in Anaheim.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

Some had been coming to a weekly youth group at the mosque for years, where they’ve talked about superstitions, coping with loss and the realities of marriage. After the sunset prayer, a few sat on the plush carpet in the ladies prayer room to talk with a reporter about 9/11, Islamophobia and growing up Muslim.

The women’s families hailed from all over — Syria, Eritrea and Sri Lanka — but they found comfort in a shared faith. They joked about Hollywood portrayals of a Muslim woman falling in love with a white man and suddenly removing her hijab (“we don’t do that”).

The women, seven of whom wore white, black and sky blue hijabs, talked about what it meant to be visible.

“Growing up, as a hijabi woman, you never really know why a person is staring at you,” said Nashawati, who had a pair of sunglasses perched atop her brown hijab, pinned to her hair with a pink clip.

“In my opinion that makes it more scary for us because when I’m walking outside, and I see a bunch of people staring at me, I’m like, why are they staring? Like, what did I do?”

A year ago, Nashawati was biking with a friend when she accidentally got too close to another woman on the trail. She apologized, but the woman looked at her for a minute before saying, “Go back to your country, you terrorist.”

Her friend, who is Muslim too, cursed at the woman. Nashawati was grateful for the support, but feared the act would reflect poorly on Islam.

Hanae Bentchich, 21, said that a friend wanted to wear the hijab but worried because she sometimes gets road rage while in traffic and didn’t want that put on her religion. For some in the circle, that weight felt like too much.

Hanae Bentchich, 21, discusses the discrimination American Muslims face.
“I’m not going to downplay what happened on 9/11,” says Hanae Bentchich, 21. “But also, don’t be putting it on us like … we’re gonna have to carry that our whole life.”
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

“When one person has that like one bad encounter with a Muslim, they’re like, ‘Oh well all Muslims are bad.’ I don’t want to give that bad idea to anyone,” said Oyoun, who wore a pair of sunglasses on top of her wildly curly hair.

Although some cited the stares they’ve received, they were quick to add that — “alhamdulillah,” thank God — they have never had their hijab pulled off like other Muslim women.

They rejected the idea that they’re oppressed by their faith. Bentchich noted that the Prophet Muhammad’s first wife, Khadija, was a successful businesswoman who proposed to him.

Then, they said, there’s the default association of Muslims and terrorism. Like many immigrant groups, they share a collective flinch when news comes of an attack.

“Is it just me or do your families, like, anytime there’s anything going on like a terrorist attack, they’re just like, ‘God, please don’t let it be a Muslim,’” Nasoordeen, the mosque’s youth coordinator, asked to a chorus of agreement from the young women.

Oyoun, who learned about 9/11 in school, dreaded the stares she would get in class when the topic came up. Layan Alasseel, 16, described sinking into her seat when it inevitably did.

“The way 9/11 is so highlighted, I just wish, like, other issues around the world are highlighted as well,” Oyoun said, as she pressed her black painted fingernails against her jeans. “America destroyed the Middle East.”

The girls were quick to point out that the U.S. had only just pulled troops out of Afghanistan — two decades after the attack.

“I’m not going to downplay what happened on 9/11,” Bentchich said. “But also, don’t be putting it on us like … we’re gonna have to carry that our whole life.”

Visibility makes a huge difference, as Amadou Ba quickly acknowledges. Because of his skin color, he said, he’s perceived as Black, not Muslim.

 Aissata Ba,19, a Mauritanian-American Muslim at her home in Aliso Viejo.
Aissata Ba’s father, Amadou, says his daughter and wife face more discrimination than he does because of their visibility as hijab-wearing Muslim women.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

“For me, sometimes it’s hard to understand what they mean when they say, look at how people look at them,” he said, referring to his wife and daughters. “I’m a minority here, but I’m not the minority of the minority. For them, it’s completely different. You see them, you know they are Muslim.”

Amadou initially didn’t understand why Aissata, who has worn the hijab since age 11, and her mom wanted to get Transportation Security Administration PreCheck, which allows known travelers to go through airport security with fewer obstacles.

For years, they’d dealt with ostensibly random screenings whenever they were at the airport.

“They see the head cover, and it’s like they have to extra-check you,” Zeinebou said.

On a school trip to Washington, D.C., when she was 14, Aissata was pulled out of line so her hands could be tested for bomb substances, she recalled. Five years later, her mother remains indignant.

After getting TSA PreCheck in June, the family took a trip. Aissata recalled walking through the metal detector and waiting.

“No pat down?” she asked a TSA agent.

No pat down.

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