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Please god, let it not be the Muslims
By Aisha Khan

US Muslims of subcontinental origin caught in a terrible cliché after terrorist air-strikes

Saturday, September 15, 2001:
New York: I was woken by a phone call at 9 am on that fateful Tuesday morning when terrorist attacks brought down the twin towers of the World Trade Centre and a section of the Pentagon.

It was my husband; his office was a couple of blocks away from the World Trade Centre and he heard the crash. He was frantic and wanted to know if we had heard from his sister, who worked in the Securities and Exchange Commission housed there.

I switched on the television and couldn’t believe my eyes as I saw a second plane crash into the other tower. And then the Pentagon. Clearly this was no accident.

I could feel a knot in my stomach as I thought, "Please God, let it not be the Muslims." My father-in-law watched the news with me in a silence only broken by an occasional plaintive expression of hope that a disciple of Timothy McVeigh had perpetrated the horror.

But even before there were any suspects, many Americans, white Americans, seem to have made up their minds who it was. For Muslims in America and for the approximate 3.5 million Arab Americans it was deja vu all over again. With hours of the Oklahoma bombings, Arabs and Muslims had been singled out as culprits by an irresponsible media and a revenge-hungry public.

By 9:30 am, my husband, who works in a government office and was evacuated from his building, too had got a firsthand taste of this. He walked northward and watched in terror and awe as the two towers collapsed before his eyes. At the same time the crowd he was walking with was chanting "Death to Arabs," "Death to Muslims."

Someone in the crowd pointed at him, "He’s a terrorist." My husband has no beard, no skullcap, none of the outward signs that may be associated with a Muslim male. But to that crowd the colour of his skin and his hair was enough evidence. Another man asked him, "Did your people do this?" One man got a police officer to ask my husband to show the contents of his bag. My husband refused and walked away; luckily the cop let him go.

On the television, long before the FBI had come up with any leads, news channels had already begun talking of Islamic terrorism. It was strange that though the last major carnage in American was carried out by a home-grown boy, none of the channels even explored the possibility. Everyone had latched on to the Osama bin Laden story.

On New York radio stations, callers shouted slurs against Afghans and Arabs, demanded they be killed and called for war against Afghanistan.

Experts started streaming in and out of TV stations purporting to explain the "Muslim psyche." Watching from my living room I felt overcome by frustration and anger as a religion of over a billion people worldwide was reduced to the fanaticism of one man and his associates.

I spoke to friends and family in New York. The fear and tension was palpable. We were all going to be lumped into the same category, assumed guilty on the basis of our religion. It doesn’t matter that you were born here, or that on the basis of speech and dress you are practically indistinguishable from other Americans.

A friend told me how his mother, a 70 year-old Pakistani was heckled and cursed by a man in New York. Another in Austin, Texas told me that a mosque had been shot at and that some friends of hers’, Indians in Chicago, were surrounded by an angry white mob shouting at them to leave the country.

Even Sikhs are being harassed. Americans have always been notorious for their ignorance and they showed it once again, thinking that the Sikhs, with their turbans and long flowing beards have something to do with the ayatollahs of Iran!

It barely matters that Muslim and Arab organizations around the US and the world have condemned the attacks as an assault on humanity that is not condoned by any religion, leave alone Islam.

With the end of the Cold War, Islam is the bogey that best arouses fear and patriotism in the American mind. Experts on the television talk of how Islam is the diametric opposite of everything the West stands for. One can see how the public can easily be swayed by such simplistic and erroneous opinions at a time of such emotional turmoil.

The older generation of South Asian Muslims, many from Pakistan, who have been here for nearly 30 years are caught in an indescribably sense of loss and agony. Once again they have to prove their loyalty and patriotism. It does not matter that they have served the country for numerous decades in their different ways, living peacefully and building their own version of the American dream. In a sense they belong nowhere. They fled India at the time of partition for Pakistan. They fled Pakistan to come to America, the land of immigrants, and once again they find that in spite of their best beliefs and efforts, they are still seen as outsiders.

For the younger generation, it is more a sense of bewilderment. They have known no other land but America. They grew up just as any other young American kid, listening to the same music, hanging out at the same spots, wearing the same clothes, cheering the same teams.

And now they are singled out for weird looks, shouted obscenities and told to "go home." But home for them is America.

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