The anniversary of the September 11th attacks is always a precarious time. Because this tragedy is wrapped up in nationalist sentiments, the memorializing of our national grief easily gets caught up in anti-Islamic sentiments. Grief and pain and nationalism all seems to get conflated and simplified during this time.
Anniversary times feels like a time of heightened vigilance for Muslims – it feels like we’re being watched so that our reactions to 9/11 can be evaluated and analyzed. This feeling of surveillance is a tool of Islamophobia. And while the concept of Islamophobia is nothing new, the attacks of 9/11 surely heightened the suspicion and hostility directed towards Muslims.
How can we approach the 9/11 anniversary without falling into Islamophobic traps? Good question. Most people are rightfully appalled when anyone commits violent acts – particularly if the targets of those acts are considered innocent. Our impulse, rightly so, is to vilify the people who carry out those acts. So yes, it is difficult to address and memorialize violent tragedy without maligning or demonizing the individuals who carried out the act. Well, it’s not that difficult if individuals carrying out the act are white and/or wealthy and/or law enforcement. Those folks are always and forever seen as individuals carrying out individual acts. But when violence is carried out by most others, they’re immediately presented as evidence that all/most folks from their particular religions/ethnic background/race/class are inherently violent.
I spend most 9/11 anniversaries feeling tension in my shoulders as I brace for the onslaught of “Never Forgets” coming at me and trying sort out the real and heavy feelings of loss and grief. I often wish we could all just focus on the loss and the grief without either losing ourselves in nationalist slogans or being horrified having to navigate all of the nationalist slogans.
A few years ago, as the 10-year anniversary of 9/11 was drawing near, The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) started a video campaign called “9/11 Happened to Us All,” in which 9/11 first responders who also happened to be Muslim provided emotional accounts of their experiences during and after 9/11. The touching campaign was launched as a tool to combat Islamophobia post-9/11. When I watch these videos, I’m moved by the stories, and for a moment, I’m able to just pay attention to the real feelings being expressed in the videos. But then I end up asking myself why these videos are even a thing. Why do Muslims have to spend the anniversary of 9/11 explaining 1) that Muslims were affected by the attacks; 2) that Muslims condemn the attack; 3) that Muslims are average Americans who have average jobs like being a firefighter or an EMT? It’s an exhausting loop.
I think the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks will forever be complicated here in the US, but here are some ways we can try to steer clear of Islamophobia in our memorialization.
Focus on the Victims and First Responders, Not the Perpetrators
The tragedy of the terrorist attacks can’t be denied. 2,753 people lost their lives in the attack. 403 of the people killed in the attack were first responders. Those numbers are staggering, and if we broaden our understanding of “casualty” to include anyone injured or affected the numbers just grow and grow. Think about how many loved ones and family members are still suffering from this sudden loss. Think about how many first responders are still dealing with respiratory problems and other health-related issues (both physical and mental) in the aftermath of the attacks. The weight of all of this alone is enough to occupy all of our attention.
If you’re still feeling unsure about how to avoid having your memorializing and mourning of 9/11 slip into Islamophobia, you can think about ways to turn your grief into action. You can follow the example of a group called September Eleventh Families for Peaceful Tomorrows – an anti-war, peace-based organization founded by family members of people killed on September 11th. Their work focuses on nonviolent and reasonable responses to terrorism, “both individual and institutional.” This group may not be perfect, but they’ve found a way to stand against both terrorism and the role the US has played in foreign politics that incite terrorism. And they do all of this without casting all Muslims as violent.
Remember that Muslims All Over the World, And in the US, Denounced 9/11
For years after 9/11, Islamophobic people kept asking every Muslim they spoke to directly and indirectly how they felt about 9/11. It didn’t matter that Muslims all over the world condemned the attacks. It didn’t matter that CAIR issued a press release condemning the attack hours after the WTC fell. Islamophobic pundits, critics, and essentially anyone who harbored anti-Islamic sentiments used this tragedy as an opportunity to bolster their claims that Islam is an irredeemably violent religion.
When the anniversary rolls around, it’s important to remember that a countless number of Muslims (individuals, institutions, and organizations) not only denounced 9/11, but regularly denounce acts of terrorism and violence carried out by Muslims. CAIR actually keeps a running tally of all their anti-terrorism campaigns. The list goes beyond CAIR and terrorist acts, though. In late 2016, Heraa Hashmi created an entire website listing all of the wrongdoings Muslims have condemned – all in response to a classmate (surprise, surprise) making a claim that Muslims don’t condemn wrongdoings.
More Radical Reads: We Been Here: Black Muslims in America
But You Know What???? Don’t Expect Individual Muslims to Constantly Denounce Terrorist Attacks Carried Out By Other Muslims
I have yet to hear white men being cornered into pulling a “but not all white men” when it comes to acts of white terrorism carried out by white men like Dylan Roof, the white terrorists who brutalized Deandre Harris in Charlottesville, Adam Lanza in Sandy Hook, James Holmes in Colorado, but who am I kidding? I know that’s never going to happen. And yet in mainstream US society, it’s perfectly fine to expect all Black and brown people, all Muslims, all immigrants to have to answer for and denounce the acts of other groups of people or individuals who happen to share their beliefs, ethnicity, skin color, etc. This is a set-up – for all of us, Muslim and non-Muslim. It’s a bunch of crap.
Don’t fall into this racist, xenophobic, Islamophobic, white supremacist trap on the anniversary.
[Feature Image: A photo of a person with a pink scarf over their head. Their back is to the camera so that you can’t see their face. Their hand is raised to their chin. Source: Frank Boston]