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This opinion originally appeared in Medium.
By Nisa Sheikh, Programs Manager
August 16, 2021
My first day of 8th grade fell on 9/11/2001. I was starting the school year a couple of days late. My parents had gotten an exception from my principal because we were on a religious pilgrimage and the trip back was quite lengthy. Approximately 48 hours before those planes hit the World Trade Center, I was with my family in the holiest of lands for Muslims, Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia. My mother came to the school to pick me up, and even though school officials assured her that everything would be okay, she waited outside until school let out. When I came home that day and we drove to an elevated part of my town and saw the bellowing smoke coming from New York City, I knew that my life had been changed forever.
The weeks that followed 9/11 were devastating. I was watching TV and reading the newspaper and learning about what had happened. My parents asked my sister and I to be vigilant at school and let them know if I felt unsafe. Why would I feel unsafe? At that point, I didn’t quite understand. All I could think about was all those people who were gone or missing. We were all one community, all races and religions, bonded by this awful event. Islamophobia was not a term I had ever heard of. I was oblivious to the impact this would have on my community and my religion.
Slowly, the impact that 9/11 had on the Muslim community began to come to light. FBI statistics show that in 2001, the number of anti-Muslim hate crimes jumped from 28 to 481. Our mosque started having police presence at Friday prayer after it had been vandalized; a family friend who lived in town was attacked outside of the high school, my mother was harassed at a local store, and women in our community were removing their hijab to protect their families. These incidents clearly arose out of fear and hatred of Muslims. I just recently came to know about an incident very close to home. My father-in-law, a well-known businessman in the community, became the subject of a “random” identity check by federal agents who came to his home unannounced and checked his passport, telling him that his identity may have been compromised. They asked him and my mother-in law to remain in the country until further notice. It was unclear why this investigation was happening, but it was very clear that it was not random at all. After our marriage, my husband’s name flagged him on every airline list even though he was born in New York City and raised in the US. In another incident, while returning home from a normal vacation, the agent at John F. Kennedy airport (NYC) asked me why I had traveled to Pakistan recently and why I would want to go there. Wasn’t it filled with dust and crazy people? As Sheikh Qadhi explains , American for Muslims was not the same. The phrase, “you don’t belong here” had now become all too common.
I have two children now, a boy and a girl, ages 1 and 2.5. They will learn about 9/11 in school, in their textbooks and through documentaries, but surely they will ask me about it. I worry about the day I will have to explain what mass murder is and the difference between the beautiful religion they have learned about and religious extremism. However, I do look forward to teaching them about the peace building, solidarity, and awareness that have come over the past 20 years. 9/11 was a great tragedy that reached beyond New York City, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania. I want them to know the stories of those who lost their lives and to honor them. I can only hope that they will take what they learn and live the years to come promoting compassion, empathy, and acceptance.
Nisa Sheikh is a Programs Manager of Islamic Networks Group (www.ing.org), a peace-building organization providing face-to-face education and engagement opportunities that foster understanding of Muslims and other misunderstood groups to promote harmony among all people. She earned her BA in International Relations and Diplomacy with minors in Arabic and Political Science from Seton Hall University. Nisa has over 10 years of experience in the non-profit sector and has worked with community-based organizations including, The Legal Aid Society of New York, The Center for American Women and Politics and Fair and Just Prosecution. She has worked both in direct advocacy services as well as program and administrative management with the goal of drawing awareness to important issues impacting marginalized communities.
ING’s mission is to promote peace among all, by fostering a deeper, more nuanced understanding of Muslims and other faith-based, racial/ethnic, and cultural communities, through teaching, learning, and engaging across differences.
 Kuek Ser, K. K. (2016, September 12). Data: Hate crimes against Muslims increased after 9/11. Retrieved from https://www.pri.org/stories/2016-09-12/data-hate-crimes-against-muslims-increased-after-911
 Finding Your Roots: “Rick Warren, Angela Buchdahl, and Yasir Qadhi” https://ny.pbslearningmedia.org/resource/fyr12.socst.us.1950pres.facster/facing-muslim-stereotypes-after-september-11/