On Sept 11th, 2010, I found myself in a very surreal experience: Traveling to New York City on a bus full of non-Muslims nine years to the day of 9/11. As a Muslim-American, I can’t even tell you the pain we feel on the 9/11 anniversary. Not just for what happened on that day, but for all the consequences of it, from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, to the millions of people killed, to the FBI round up of Muslims, hate-crimes against Muslims, discrimination and bias, to the anti-Mosque Islamophobia Quran-burning crusades of today. All of these events have somehow inexplicably led me to being on a bus heading to the very spot 9 years later…
To us, September 11th, 2001 is a defining date in our lives. There was life before 9/11 which seemed happy and promising, and life after 9/11, full of constant defenses against attacks and painful experiences. At one time we thought America could be the place where we could practice our religion freely, raise our children and live good fruitful lives. I can’t help thinking that those who landed on Plymouth Rock had the same idea. Leaving England for a New World, they hoped to practice their religion freely and establish an equal society.
The bus I traveled on was sponsored by a few organizations in this area including a local Mosque, the Muslim solidarity committee (a group of almost all non-Muslims which have been constant supporters of us in this area), and Project Salam (an advocacy group pursuing all the wrongful prosecutions of Muslims). Not surprisingly, there were only a handful of Muslims on the bus. This upsets me, but I’ve learned the vast majority of Muslims in the US are pained and saddened by what’s happening but they have steadfastly refused to do anything about it. They sit in their homes, continue to watch television, buy their BMWs and pretend that life is like pre-9/11 until something happens to them. How long this denial will go on, I don’t know. And perhaps it’s too late now for us.
Arriving at the planned site of the counter rally in New York City we found it swarming with reporters from all over the world. Organizers were still setting up and there were pre-made signs with slogans like ‘No to Racism and anti-Muslim Bigotry’, ‘Islam has been in NY for 400 years’, and ‘Muslims are Welcome here’. These were heartening to see. As soon as I and another Muslim sister stepped off the bus wearing Hijab, reporters immediately started asking us questions and interviewing us. This was really surprising because we were expecting to attend a really and not actually be interviewed by anyone! We weren’t really prepared and I’m not sure if our answers were the best ones. I’m sure everyone knows by now that being interviewed by the media is a double-edged sword. They tend to take the one or two phrases we say, what they think will go best with the angle they are going for and use it, they almost never convey what you wanted to. The trick for us is to get across how/what we want to present in as few sound-bytes as possible. I think they were attracted to us because we were visibly Muslim. I did want our viewpoint to be heard, but I also wanted them to interview non-Muslim Americans who were supporters.
Some reporters were actually very aggressive like one who asked me if I thought the 9/11 hijackers were Muslim. I said that their act was one of terrorism and did not follow the beliefs of Islam, but he continued to ask “But ARE THEY MUSLIM?” with the camera and lights in my face. I should have said ‘This isn’t relevant to what we’re doing here today’ and bring up the real points, but I guess you live and learn. I also didn’t have exact figures of how many Muslims there are in America (3-6 million) or how many Muslims died in 9/11 (62 names are known, 60-100) or exactly what floor Muslims used to pray in the World Trade Center (17th floor south tower). Next time I think it’s a good idea to go over these things on the bus going down in case anyone asks us. Mostly I talked about how Muslims used to work and pray in the World Trade Center and also died on 9/11 and asked why it was such a big deal now to have a cultural center two blocks away. Also a lot how Islam doesn’t equal terrorism or all Muslims aren’t terrorists. How I didn’t think the Pastor from Florida represents all of Christianity or all Christians, and the same should be said for the perpetrators of 9/11.
There were about 2000-2500 supporters at the rally, and we were located at least four or five blocks away from the rally against the Mosque/Tea partiers group. There was also another rally of a couple hundred of some religious group, not sure what that was about except they had a lot of signs about how homosexuality was a sin and that “Islam was a lie”. The 9/11 memorials earlier in the day were also placed closer to Ground Zero than we were. At our rally, we heard some speeches from various speakers about the anti-Islam phobia that was spreading across America, about religious rights and how important support of Muslims was right now. The people in attendance were mostly non-Muslims from all walks of life…teachers, students, older people, peace activists, war veterans, Christians, Hispanics, African-Americans, babies… Many smiled at us and were extremely kind. A very strange experience as a Muslim Hijabi in New York City I can tell you! We then marched a few blocks around the park holding up our signs.
A few of our bus group went over to see what was going on at the anti-Mosque rally and reported back that they were in one open block and seemed like 1000-2000. They also had a humongous flat screen TV jumbotron to broadcast the speeches (compared to our truck and megaphone). They also had signs like ‘Bigots are Americans too’??!?! Many supporters went over there to see what was going on, unfortunately creating confrontations and shouting matches that were pounced upon by TV cameras and shown in the media and also maybe increasing their numbers so some reports said there were a lot more anti-Mosque protesters than there were supporters!
On our side we had maybe one or two anti-Mosque protesters walking by who yelled ‘Traitors! Go back home!” There was also one Hispanic/Italian woman standing nearby as we were leaving with a small sign that said “Islam=Terrorism” saying ‘Izlam,Terrorists’, ‘Izlam, Terrorists’ over and over again in a heavy accent. I went up to her and said “I’m a Muslim and I’m not a terrorist”. She wouldn’t look me in the eye and continued repeating that. The only other negative incident I had was when we went to the McDonalds nearby to eat something and an African-American woman came up to me and started showing me a book of printed photographs of 9/11 and said she was in one of the towers. She then started talking about “Shariah law and stoning in Iran”. I told her that we lived in the United States and that had nothing to do with us and then she started quoting (misinterpreted) verses of the Quran. I told her you can’t take verses of context and misinterpret them and then at that point I just realized there was no point, and left.
Unfortunately, this seems to be the main problem. The anti-Mosque people are not against the Mosque. They are against ALL OF ISLAM. They really hate Islam, Muslims and everything to do with us. They are “anti-Shariah” which is the stupidest thing I’ve heard of in the world. No country in the world has complete Shariah law (which is actually extremely flexible and wholesome) yet these people think Muslims will take over America and impose Burkas on them. It’s just so ridiculous. I can’t imagine anyone intelligent actually really thinks this, but they just use it to propel their dialogue of hate. They also equate Islam with terrorism. They say all Muslims are terrorists and that Islam teaches terrorism and that we want to take over the world, etc etc, whatever. They just hate all Muslims and want to expel us from the United States. Their message is so neo-Nazi I’m waiting for the day they come up with their own symbol and hail.
I really wished I had told that woman at McDonalds and the Italian woman to walk over to the Tea partiers and see how they treated them. At the last rally a non-Muslim African-American man had been walking passed them and they thought he looked foreign and surrounded him and started harassing him!! They hate all immigrants and all people of color and I found it sad that those women didn’t realize that.
There is so much misinformation and outright lies being spread about Islam. This is one of the roots of the problem. Unfortunately our lack of Dawah (teaching about Islam) really is an extreme weakness and perhaps downfall right now. We need to open our Mosques, we need to have interfaith programs, we need to teach our neighbors. We need alliances. We need to do so much work just to prove our right to exist. The right of Islam to exist. But again, Muslims are too busy going to medical school (so they can buy that luxury SUV), trying desperately to fit in and be the least visibly Muslim or active they can.
After the rally was over, we walked back to the bus and on the way home took turns sharing our stories on the microphone. One of the reporters earlier in the day asked me how I felt being at the rally. I said ‘I was actually sad, sad because I had to be there’. It wasn’t a good day. To see so much hate and malignment of our religion is a very difficult thing.
The only highlight of my trip was praying freely on the sidewalk in New York City on one of the protest signs on the ground, surrounded by supporters. I was very impressed with the non-Muslims who were so supportive and defending Islam better than most Muslims. They kept repeating “Assalam Alaikum, Muslims are welcome here”. It just proves my point that we just need to teach people about the basics of Islam. We do not need to convert anyone. The acceptance of it and psychological space can lead people to their own conclusions. No one has to AGREE with Islam, its beliefs or practices, but as Americans we should all realize the hope and dream of Plymouth Rock. We should all be able to live and practice our religions in peace.
See all the pictures here: http://jannah.org/gallery/main.php?g2_view=slideshow.Slideshow&g2_itemId=4601