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Muslims growing up post-9/11 still can’t escape the long shadow of that day

Rizwana Seeham said boxing makes her feel empowered.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

There’s a ritual I follow each time I travel back into the United States. Got my passport? Check. Grabbed my bags and wallet? Check. Recited every prayer I know before approaching the border official? Check, check, check.

The latter is a habit I picked up as a child in the early 2000s, a Muslim immigrant growing up in Canada and spending many holidays visiting family in the United States. Each road trip involved, at minimum, two hours of watching border officials aggressively question my father with such spite and hostility that it always frightened me to tears.

In those days immediately following 9/11, anyone from a Muslim country (Pakistan, in my case) or with a Muslim name (my dad’s last name is “Husain,” a few letters away from a certain dictator’s) was subjected to the deepest suspicion and scrutiny.

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Though I haven’t experienced an interrogation like that since I became a Canadian citizen at 13, those traumatic experiences, and the prayers we quietly recited to cope, have stayed with me, even now as a US resident and wife of a citizen. Our religion gave us strength to endure these episodes; it was also what attracted suspicion in the first place.

Twenty years ago, terrorists with political agendas invoked my religion when they murdered nearly 3,000 people in airplane attacks on the World Trade Center towers in New York, the Pentagon outside Washington, D.C., and the United Airlines Flight 93 crash in Pennsylvania. Countless families suffered incalculable losses and bear the scars to this day.

The country has never quite healed. The attackers’ actions triggered a demand for revenge. The formative years of a generation of Muslims became defined by this one event, our identities tied to the attackers’ without our consent, and despite our obvious horror, the same as anyone else’s, at what those men did.

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Whether it’s the freedoms we’re afforded, the way we’re viewed by others, or even the way we understand ourselves, Muslims who grew up post-9/11 are unable to escape the long shadow of that day, forever pushed to be on the defensive, to justify our place in this country.

“We grieve twice,” said John Robbins, executive director of the Massachusetts chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, or CAIR, a civil rights organization. “We grieve like all other Americans for the terrible loss of life. . . . And at the same time, we grieve again when the community experienced so much resulting discrimination and hate crimes.”

What followed the attacks was a war on terror that claimed hundreds of thousands of lives overseas, stripped our civil rights here at home, and caused enormous spikes in anti-Muslim violence.

Hate crimes targeting Muslims grew 1,600 percent between 2000 and 2001. They spiked again in 2016, when Donald Trump spewed anti-Muslim rhetoric on the campaign trail, according to FBI statistics.

Marwa Alnaal spoke about the impact 9/11 had on her as a Muslim growing up in America. Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

All of us have stories of how that shaped our lives. Marwa Alnaal, a Muslim woman born and raised in Worcester by Syrian immigrant parents, was 10 years old when the attacks occurred.

Even at that young age, she understood the scrutiny her faith would face and felt pressure to defend it. The next day at school, her teacher asked students to write a journal entry about their feelings and present it to the class.

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“My last sentence was basically like, ‘I’m Muslim, and I hope that people just don’t hold that against me,’” Alnaal recalled. Her teacher began to cry, she said, and rushed her to the school counselor’s office, where Alnaal was assured none of this was her fault.

Not long after, she saw someone spit at her mother.

It was a confusing time. Alnaal grew up with an understanding that the word Islam means submission and peace, a concept that clashed so fiercely with the images of men who called themselves Muslims deliberately crashing planes and killing thousands.

“It’s normal for everyone to go through a phase where they question their faith, any faith,” typically during tumultuous teenage years, Alnaal said. “Whereas we faced these problems earlier, like [age] 11, because we had to grow up overnight.”

Some of Marwa Alnaal's reading material.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Initially, Alnaal said, she was embarrassed to be Muslim, but her relationship with Islam ultimately grew stronger. In order to counter claims against her faith, she studied it more closely, and came to understand and appreciate it more deeply.

But as a hijab-wearing woman, Alnaal said she’s still always looking over her shoulder, aware of her surroundings in case she becomes the target of a violent attack.

She isn’t just being paranoid. Terrifying news stories of anti-Muslim violence coupled with her own experiences with hate, mean the fear isn’t abstract.

In 2015, three Muslim college students were shot to death in Chapel Hill, N.C., by a man who prosecutors said had made hateful comments to them in the past. In 2017, a shooter killed six people at a Quebec City mosque. Two years later, 51 Muslim worshipers were killed in attacks in Christchurch, New Zealand.

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This past June in London, Ontario, my home province, the driver of a pickup truck ran down a Muslim family of five, leaving a 9-year-old boy the sole survivor. Police said the family was targeted because of their religion.

Islamophobia does not just hurt Muslims. On Sept. 15, 2001, in what is believed to be the first hate-motivated murder in response to 9/11, a Sikh gas station owner was fatally shot in Mesa, Ariz. And in 2012, a gunman killed six people at a Sikh gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisc., before shooting himself. Experts suspected he believed he was targeting a mosque.

As a child growing up in Waterford, Conn., Ravjot Mehek Singh, a 26-year-old filmmaker, feared for her father, a Sikh who wore a turban and a beard. When her family first moved to town, a group of kids put a dead squirrel in their mailbox, and Singh said she was often referred to as “Osama’s daughter” when her dad came to pick her up from school.

“They all just had these bigoted opinions that anybody who has a turban, who has a beard, who is brown, is automatically a terrorist,” she said.

She refused to keep explaining that she isn’t Muslim. And as she grew older, Singh channeled her experiences into antiracist and anti-Islamophobia advocacy through the television episodes and films she directs, and in gallery exhibits exploring her complex feelings.

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“Distancing myself would have . . . cast doubt on the Muslim community, which is exactly the opposite of the truth,” said Singh, who lives in Wayland. “By standing with [Muslims] in solidarity, I wanted society to realize that extremist groups have no tie or correlation to overall Islam.”

Muslims and racialized groups are expected to answer for crimes they have no ties to in a way that white people never have to after a white supremacist attack. We aren’t seen simply as individuals, complex and varied, but as representatives of our entire ethnic or religious communities. It’s a burden that starts to take a toll.

While Alnaal and I wear hijab, which identifies us as Muslim women, Rizwana Seeham does not. The 31-year-old Framingham woman, of South Asian and Pacific Islander heritage, remembers realizing the negative stigma that came with identifying herself as a Muslim after 9/11. Her parents did, too.

Rizwana Seeham practiced shadow boxing while working out in her apartment’s clubhouse in Framingham. Erin Clark/Globe Staff

Her dad, named Mohammad, started going by “MD.”

But Seeham said her brother took the opposite approach, learning more about his religion, choosing to be proud of it, and growing a beard as part of his faith.

His decision came with consequences. Seeham said she once went to Logan Airport to pick up her brother, who travels frequently as a UMass medical school professor, and waited hours outside while he was questioned by authorities. This happened to him often, she said.

Still, in her brother, and in the wider Muslim community, Seeham sees hope: “It’s not all bad,” she said. “We have also become stronger and are standing up against [Islamophobia].”

As a young Muslim woman of color living alone in the city for college, Seeham empowered herself by learning self-defense and boxing. She now works in equity and diversity, fighting for all minority communities.

I’d like to believe there’s a more hopeful future for the youngest generation of Muslims, like my little brother, who was born in 2006, has no memory of 9/11, and is less attuned to the trauma it left behind.

But a CAIR survey of 200 Muslim public high school students in Massachusetts found that 60 percent reported being mocked, verbally harassed, or physically abused for being Muslim, 33 percent said they altered their appearance, behavior, or names to hide their faith, and 17 percent reported having their hijabs tugged.

Several years ago in Canada, my parents returned from a trip to the United States with my Pakistani grandparents. I asked how it went. My mother pursed her lips.

“The US officers were so rude to your dad that your brother started crying,” she said.

In that moment, I understood: I could not shield my young brother from the harsh reality of Islamophobia.

Twenty years may have passed, but for Muslims, the reverberations from 9/11 are far from history.


Sahar Fatima can be reached at sahar.fatima@globe.com Follow her @sahar_fatima.