4785 days later: On the challenge of buying an apple strudel in America

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Zaeem Zafar, born in 1989, studies Communications and Marketing at Eastern Michigan University.

New York City recently commemorated the 13th anniversary of 09/11. In the aftermath of the attacks, people with Arab family background commonly faced retaliation attacks. 13 years since then: not long enough to challenge stereotypes. “Even under the Bush Administration, Muslims didn’t face the opposition they face now”, Zaeem Zafar says. 

On 11 September 2001, Zaeem Zafar was 12 years old. Zaeem was born and raised in the US. His parents are originally from Pakistan and moved to the US when they were young. Like many people in the United States, Zaeem recalls 11 September 2001 pretty well. He was in 6th grade and he was working on a class project for his Social Studies class, when one of his teachers came in and said that “something had happened in New York”.

Like for many other people, Zaeem’s life changed after that day. But unlike many other people, that day changed how people treat him personally. “Before 09/11, I was just Zaeem”, he said. “Afterwards, I noticed that people would approach me differently because they found out that I am a Muslim.”

The immediate aftermath of the attacks was a time of fear of discrimination, arbitrary arrests and the horrors of retaliation attacks committed against their families and businesses for many people with Arab family background and many Muslims in the United States. Moustafa Bayoumi, associate professor of English at Brooklyn College, the City University of New York, in his book “How Does It Feel to Be a Problem? Being Young and Arab in America”, recounts the story of then 18-year old Rasha from Brooklyn, who was born in Syria and whose family emigrated to the US 13 years before the attacks.

About five months after 09/11, Rasha, her siblings and parents were arrested in the middle of the night in their own home and spent the following three months in jail – without ever being charged with a crime.

Arbitrary mass evictions after the attacks

 Rasha’s case, Bayoumi writes, was no exception: “We may never know how many were arrested. (On November 5, 2001, the Justice Department announced 1,182 arrested, then stopped providing a tally.) The inspector general’s report acknowledges 762 people detained on immigration charges between September 11, 2001, and August 6, 2002, as a direct result of the terrorist investigation (including 24 already in prison before September 11). It also says that of these 762 only 6 percent had received a final deportation order prior to their arrest. In other words, people were picked up randomly, through traffic stops, or by tips of nervous neighbours and ‘snitches’, usually petty criminals offered leniency for any information that would push the September 11 investigation forward. (Such information is often wildly unreliable, and Rasha suspects a snitch in her case.)” Immigration law, Bayoumi cites law professor David Cole, in these days served as a convenient pretext for targeting millions of people.

Linda Sarsour, head of the Arab American Association of New York, in an interview with Brooklyn-based online magazine BKLYNR, on the other hand, recounts her mother’s fear of putting her headscarf on in the afternoon of 11 September 2001: “Literally, I’m walking into my mother’s house and my mom’s running out of the house; she’s not wearing her scarf. And I’m like, ‘Where are you going?’ And she said, ‘I’m going to go get your brother from school.’ My brother went to M.S. 51, which is in Park Slope. And I’m like, ‘You forgot to wear your hijab.’ And my mom said, ‘We can’t wear it right now.’ And I’m like, “What the hell?”’

Discrimination persists – and seems to be getting worse

The fact that the fall of 2001 was not a good time to be Muslim or Arab, or even just to look like you might be, in the US, is no news, of course. However, the said news is that things don’t seem to have gotten much better today, 13 years (and a month) after 09/11.

Everyday discrimination against Muslims 13 years after the attacks seems to have gotten worse in comparison to the early 2000s – a view that both Linda Sarsour in the interview with BKLYNR and Zaeem Zafar in our conversation share.

Both suggest a similar explanation. “Being that Obama was the first racially minority President, it struck a chord with some conservatives”, Zaeem says. “Bush didn’t visit Cairo and give a speech to thousands of Muslims like Obama did. Not saying that that says anything against either President, but the tension behind Obama is apparent. The fact is that Muslims have been scrutinized more during the Obama administration”.

Similarly, Linda Sarsour describes the Obama presidency as a “turning point” for the United States. “The right wing was over there, but they came out literally from every rock they were under, and I think this new wave of Islamophobia came out. And it came out in a much more uglier form than it did right after 9/11”.

With a president who travels to Cairo to deliver a speech the New York Times called “empathetic toward Palestinians” and who decided to grant work permits to undocumented immigrants who came to the US before they turned 16 years old and meet certain conditions, it is left to citizens themselves to scrutinise Muslims immigrants in the country – following Zaeem’s explanation, this may about be the thoughts rushing through the head of many people when they spot a woman wearing a headscarf or a man with a beard. Zaeem’s cousin for her part, could witness the “uglier form” of Islamophobia that Linda Sarsour refers to, when she was featured on ABC’s “What would you do” in 2008, the year Obama was elected president, testing with a hidden camera the reactions of people when a shopkeeper (who is really an actor for the show) declines to sell her an apple strudel because she is wearing a headscarf.

Zafar urges fellow Muslims to “talk to their neighbours”

13 years after the event, the mere fact that the world has commemorated another anniversary of the 09/11 terror attacks is no big news. What should alarm us, however, is that fear of Muslims and stereotyping doesn’t seem to get better over time.

Ultimately, the development of discrimination and islamophobia and its impact on the mental health of Muslims in the US are difficult to measure scientifically, particularly because, according to researcher Mona M. Amer, few studies prior to 09/11 exist. Therefore, it is difficult to construct any reliable baseline. But it seems to me that fear of Muslims in the US is a societal wound that doesn’t heal – on the contrary, current events like the rise of ISIS just scratch it open again and again, consolidating the fears and stereotypes too many people carry around with them.

There’s only two things that can make it heal: Knowledge, in the sense of factual knowledge about Islam and its many varieties, and Knowledge, in the sense of getting to know each other. Author Mustafa Bayoumi powerfully contributes to this by portaying in great detail the lives of 7 young Americans with Arab background growing up in Brooklyn. Zaeem, on his part, urges both the media and fellow Muslims in the US to make a change. “Being an American-Muslim, we also have a duty to step up and voice our opinions. A lot of us have done so in the past, but the media hasn’t really covered it”, Zaeem says. “Nonetheless, Muslims should make more effort to talk to their neighbors, show them what true Islam is all about.”

Me, as somebody who doesn’t know nearly as much about Islam as I would like to, and as I hope to know one day, would add: Those neighbours Zaeem refers to need to contribute their part, too – by being open to learn about what people like Zaeem can show them.

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