The “Tribute in Light” memorial lights up lower Manhattan near One World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2018, in New York City. The tribute at the site of the World Trade Center towers has been an annual event in New York since March 11, 2002. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Inas Younis was born in Mosul, Iraq, and emigrated to the United States as a child. She is a writer and commentator who has been widely published in various magazines, websites and anthologies.
Twenty-one years later, I can still recall with faithful clarity where I was that morning. The disintegration of the aircraft through the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, marked a terrible loss. Not just a loss of life, which was devastating enough, but also the loss of sanctuary and order.
In time, I came to the realization that terrorism is not just an event but the commencement of an insidious process. It is a kind of biological warfare designed to alter the expression of a nation’s genetic code.
We only feel safe to the extent that there is some rhyme or reason to why and how violence occurs. When violence of this magnitude takes place outside of a war zone, our instinct is to take actions in response to our worst fears.
As an American Muslim of my generation, the actions of those 19 hijackers altered my life in ways that I am still struggling to understand. It took me longer than most to register the implications. I had my own personal challenges at the time. I was nine months pregnant with my youngest son, and my middle son had just been diagnosed with a serious neurological condition. I was, for a whole host of personal reasons, already in survival mode. Initially, I tried to seek consolation in my faith, until that too began to crumble under the weight of so much interrogation and public scrutiny.
In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, Muslims were forced to evolve in complicated ways. Many rushed to the podium promising a protestant-style revolution. Others packaged the rhetoric of female emancipation with everything from terrorism control to Islamic reform.
But these self-appointed leaders failed to have any genuine impact because they had almost no grounding in religious tradition or any understanding of the people they professed to represent.
Meanwhile, the demonization of Muslims continued. Haunted by Islamophobia, we scrambled to demonstrate our humanity to fellow Americans. Social justice became a serious rallying cry in the Muslim community. The traditionally conservative gravitated left, which was understandable considering that Democrats, historically the champions of social justice causes, opened their arms to the Muslim community in ways that made us want to “burn our bras” while still clinging to our headscarves.
I struggled with this embrace. I found the idea of empowerment through an admission of powerlessness theoretically problematic, a kind of Catch-22. For me, the plot was lost when the phrase “moderate Muslim” quickly devolved into a kind of moral and political agnosticism.
But the shifting political landscape that started with 9/11 and continued up until the Trump presidency has forced many Muslims to press the fast forward button on what should have otherwise been a decades-long process. We found ourselves scrambling to define who we are, with religion as a kind of hurried footnote.
The shifting political landscape that started with 9/11 and continued up until the Trump presidency has forced many Muslims to press the fast forward button on what should have otherwise been a decades-long process. We found ourselves scrambling to define who we are, with religion as a kind of hurried footnote.
– Inas Younis
We skipped the growing pains of slowly steadily defining ourselves and our community, as so many other minorities in America had done in the past, and to paraphrase novelist Toni Morrison, we kept explaining ourselves and our reason for being, over and over again.
While my faith was being weaponized by extremists and mischaracterized by the news media, Muslims labored to disabuse others of the misconceptions surrounding our faith. But despite our efforts, people continued to think the worst of us.
This was frustrating but not surprising. An extremely profitable industry was evolving around anti-Muslim political activity. A study titled “Fear, Inc.” revealed that 40 million dollars from eight foundations was going to a small network of misinformation experts, including Daniel Pipes, Frank Gaffney, Robert Spencer and Steven Emerson.
Their anti-Muslim rhetoric was then disseminated by a host of grassroots organizers and activists, including Brigitte Gabriel, David Horowitz and Pamela Geller, whose claim to fame was a series of bus ads with slogans like “Yesterday’s moderate is today’s headline.”
This heavily funded enterprise continued to fuel the delusion that moderate Muslims were not speaking out against extremism because they were concealing their true identities as radicals. This of course was not only absurd but demoralizing. For many of us, speaking out against extremists had become a full-time job.
I was routinely cross-examined for not speaking out enough. It was dehumanizing and exhausting. In fact, on one occasion, I spoke out so passionately at a rally near the World War I memorial in downtown Kansas City that I ended up hyperventilating. I read the remainder of my speech sitting down, clasping a paper bag.
At some point, the apology tour had to come to an end. At some point, it dawned on me that I too was acting in response to my worst fears; that my own genetic code was being altered by the strain of so much gaslighting. It dawned on me that enemies of liberty wanted “moderate” Muslims persecuted to the extent that the values of life and liberty would be reduced to abstractions, which no longer applied to us.
The American model is precious to me. It’s a place where faith and freedom not only survive but can also thrive.
But as an American who aspires to lead her life with intellectual honesty, I cannot help but wonder if the rise in hate crime, the deep partisan divides, the extremism taking root in our homeland and the ensuing culture war, was not precisely what the foreign enemies of America were determined to inspire with their reign of terror. It has always been the strategy of foreign engineers to reinforce their malevolent view of humanity by proving that people, even the freest people on earth, will rush toward illiberalism when properly threatened.
When Trump’s signature campaign issue of banning Muslims and creating a Muslim registry made the headlines, I opted for moral clarity — not moral panic. As an heir to the American experiment, I was not going to allow my freedom to be conditioned on the actions of foreign governments or any group of people.
To be American meant that we judge one another as individuals, not as members of some tribe. We judge based on actions, not the actions of others. As Americans, we don’t believe in collective punishment or privilege. To be American means we are not bound by herd, but by a commitment to principles.
Ironically, America remains the one place where my faith was allowed to flourish. Many Muslims, myself included, only discovered our identities after we left Muslim majority countries. I grew up in Saddam Hussain’s Iraq, where secularism, not religion, was forcibly enforced and shoved down our throats.
America was our first introduction to faith without fear, and for that I will forever be grateful.
God bless America.
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