I was a student in New York City on September 11, 2001, in my first week of graduate school at Columbia University. I was giving a presentation when a classmate burst in to the room and said “someone flew a plane into the World Trade Center.”
It wasn’t until class was over that we understood what was actually happening. Like everyone around me, I frantically dialed everyone.
I remember what my father said once I got through to my parents: “Stay safe, son.”
He said that a lot in the years that followed — after last year’s attacks in Paris for example — and as Donald Trump’s rhetoric ramped up during the Presidential campaign. Were he alive today, I’d have woken to those words in a text message the morning after Donald Trump was elected president.
To understand what America’s Muslims are imagining lies in store for them in Trump’s America, you only need to know what happened after 9/11. The thing is, many people don’t know — or don’t remember.
Back then, we had to endure the terror of the attacks on the Twin Towers like everyone else, and then we immediately faced the wrath of a country that blamed all of us for what happened. People — including non-Muslim immigrants — were attacked in acts of revenge. Some were killed.
George W. Bush might have been more careful with his words but his administration turned to fear mongering to push forward its own agenda. To project an image of security in a country that was justifiably panicked, the government quickly put in place policies that targeted, humiliated, and terrified Muslims. Later, it ginned up racist hatred to win support for a war that the country has come to regret.
Both are scenarios we could face again.
This week, a year-old New York Times article titled “Donald Trump Says He’d ‘Absolutely’ Require Muslims to Register” began to circulate on Twitter, leading to fresh condemnation.
This is exactly what tens of thousands of Muslim immigrants in the US faced starting in the wake of 9/11.
In 2002, along with other Muslim-immigrant students across the US, I got notices from the university telling us that we had to appear at federal offices in lower Manhattan to be fingerprinted.
Called NSEERS, it was a program that required “registration” of men from 25 countries — almost all of them predominantly Muslim and Arab nations like Pakistan (where I am from) or Lebanon and Syria. North Korea was the sole exception.
Then we had to submit to being tracked. When I travelled overseas during school holidays, I had to register my departure on the way out by finding an office in the bowels of JFK airport and waiting for a border protection officer to wander back from his break.
When I returned a few weeks later, at immigration I was directed into a second room away from the main immigration hall, where I was again fingerprinted and photographed. I was told to fill out a form with details about my parents (who didn’t live in the US) and friends or relatives who lived in the country. My credit cards were photocopied.
This would happen every time I came and went. And it would mean I was detained for as much as four hours before being “cleared” to enter the country. Sometimes the old Dell computers used by the officers would break down, and I’d just have to sit there, on a metal chair, staring at George Bush and Dick Cheney’s pictures hanging on the wall and fuming.
And when I finished school and moved out of student housing in mid-2003, I had to be sure to let the government know where I was going to live — or face deportation.
‘First time in the US?’
Once, having been through the screening half a dozen times, I was greeted with a baffling “first time in the US?”
It wasn’t a joke. I could tell by the fumbled response I got when I said, “um, no.”
“Well, Mo, its better that they’re safe,” I was told by people trying to console me after particularly long detentions at the airport.
I understand the threat posed to all of us by Muslim radicals, and I might have agreed if I had any confidence that safety was an outcome of all this.
In 2012, a Department of Homeland Security review of the program determined that it relied on 17 different databases that were not integrated, and was seen as a waste of time by border patrol officers who also said “there was little value in the interviews.”
And no, there’s no evidence that it achieved anything in terms of added security.
The program was effectively suspended in 2011, but some things haven’t actually changed. Even though I am now a permanent resident (status which would have exempted me from the NSEERS program) and have lived, worked, studied, married, and raised children in the US for more than two decades, I still get to spend a little extra time in that room in the back, every single time I come across the border.
I still haven’t told my children the truth about why, when we return from a holiday abroad, they and their mother head to baggage claim, while I am led off by the immigration officer.
But for me the registration program wasn’t the worst thing about living in the United States back then. It was the fact that it all took place surrounded by a hateful conversation that was far more widespread than the crackpot theories of a presidential candidate today.
“Why do they hate us?”
That question became an obsession for some newsrooms immediately after September 11, 2001. When it’s asked today, the “they” typically distinguishes between extremists, like ISIS, and ordinary Muslims. Back then it didn’t.
I wasn’t a journalist until 2003, but I was fascinated with the news media, and my heart broke every time I turned on the television.
I remember Jerry Falwell on ’60 Minutes’ calling the Prophet Muhammad a “terrorist” without causing much alarm. I remember New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman in 2003, justifying the invasion of Iraq by saying Iraqis needed to see American troops go house to house across the country and tell the Arab world to “suck on this.”
I’m not so sensitive that I can’t watch an episode of Homeland, and I don’t mean to disregard all the people who did whatever they could to shield others and me from this hostility.
Of course, many Americans don’t think hateful generalizations are ok. I think many of Trump’s supporters are included in this group.
But for me, this environment was overwhelming. And I did leave, eventually. I spent 6 years overseas starting in 2007. I wasn’t fleeing — I left for an amazing work opportunity — but I was elated to be moving as far away from this environment as I could.
The day I left, in a van packed with luggage and a ear-to-ear grin on my face, I thought I might never come back.
But I am back — and the America I woke up to the day after this election seems different than it did in 2001 — in a good way.
Yes, there’s racism, and lazy generalizations, and fear of radical Islam that sometimes turns into an irrational fear of all Muslims. And yes, Donald Trump used all of this to win votes and ultimately the presidency.
But there’s also something else going on. Trump’s false claims that that thousands of Muslims in New Jersey were dancing on rooftops as the Twin Towers fell weren’t met with a deafening silence like they might have been back in 2002. They were met with swift outrage and repudiation.
There are two Muslim congressmen and one of them may soon be running the Democratic National Committee. Ilhan Omar, a hijab-wearing Somali immigrant, was just elected to the Minnesota state legislature. Khizr Khan, the father of a Muslim American soldier who was killed in the line of duty, did more to stand up to Donald Trump’s tyranny than anybody when he spoke at the Democratic National Convention.
And there are people in the streets trying to make sure this president understands that if he speaks bigotry, he is not speaking for them.
I know that attacks on Muslims and minorities are rising, and that some people in the Muslim community are more alarmed than I am. But we are hearing that alarm loud and clear because they have a voice they did not have 15 years ago.
I could leave. But the world doesn’t become a better place if we retreat into our camps, and abandon Khan and Omar and all the other people who intend to stand up for the rights of all minorities. Turning our backs on a problem will not make it go away.
And that’s why, the day after the election, when my American wife — who is not a Muslim — turned to me and said, “Mo, you know that if it gets bad, we can go,” my answer was clear.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.