Reflecting on 9/11, 20 Years Later

by The CAIR Oklahoma TeamSep 10, 2021

Twenty years ago, the tragic events of 9/11 rocked our world and forever changed the experience of what is means to be Muslim in America. Below are video and text reflections from your CAIR Oklahoma team as we look back in order that we may look ahead.

Uneasiness in the Air by Natasha Saya

I was six years old when tragedy struck this country. I do not remember how it affected me back then; I lived in Austin, Texas, and was in kindergarten. My mom told me that she pulled me out of class early that day and all I was thinking at that time was how happy I was to be going home early. I remember how I watched the plane crash into the towers on television and how every news channel was showing the same scene repeatedly. My parents watched the news every day, as usual, but I knew there was something ‘off’ and there was uneasiness in the air. However, being a kid at that time, I did not know anything besides the fact that a plane crashed in New York which was over a thousand miles from where I live. In fact, my paternal aunt had her baby the night before; my cousin was born in the middle of the night and within a few hours that morning, 9/11 happened. That day was as normal for me as any day, besides the little moments of happiness of coming home early from school and having a new baby cousin. Little did I know, that it was one of the most tragic days in American history and in the world.

As I got older, I began to see how much of an impact 9/11 had, even in my hometown of Austin. We eventually left Austin and moved to Oklahoma City where I started second grade. Though I never had firsthand experiences of hate and racism because of 9/11, I knew my parents did. My immigrant parents were hardworking business owners (they owned convenience stores and gas stations) in Arcadia. I remember their hesitancy of being non-white business owners and bosses to white employees in (at that time) semi-rural central Oklahoma. There were no immigrants out there in Arcadia – just white farmers and their families – “true” Americans living in the country with their guns and beer. My parents are citizens, my sisters were born in America and we are American, but at that time, no one around us thought so. My parents were always walking on eggshells with their employees, business partners, and customers because they didn’t want to get in any trouble. They knew they were the only ones who looked different on that side of town, and they kept their head down and managed their gas station in Arcadia without complaining. It was to the point where a family friend of my father was in desperate need of a job, but my dad hired him ‘unofficially’ and as someone who just swept and mopped floors because they were too afraid to hire him to work the cash register with their other white employees in fear of adversity. Even though I was young at that time, I was observant and understood what was going on; life was difficult for my parents, and being Muslim was even more difficult.

American Muslims faced the brunt of 9/11. I remember hearing of horror stories of inquiries and interrogations of Muslims by the government and the tortures that innocent Muslims were going through. I also remember how airports had completely changed and how the “random” security checks were almost always assigned to Muslims and those who looked Muslim. Movies, books, and TV shows flooded the media about 9/11 being a tragedy and how Muslims and Islam were the faces of terrorism. Still to this day, Hollywood has not wavered from depicting Middle Eastern/South East Asian actors as terrorists, bombers or any other roles that portray them as primitive and backward. Hundreds of documentaries have been made about 9/11 and people began to know more about countries such as Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. The rhetoric around Muslims and Islam had forever changed. The judgment towards Muslims became more visible, and consequentially, more unconscious as well. It became a norm to stare at those who visibly looked Muslim such as headscarf-wearing women or men with long beards. Discrimination towards Muslims increased every day and still continues, even twenty years later. Muslims, mosques, and Islamic organizations have to publically and apologetically condemn terrorist attacks in order to protect their communities and it is expected for them to do so since 9/11 was perpetrated by individuals who claimed to do so in the name of Islam. We have to continuously prove our good faith and the positive work we do to ensure Americans that our faith or persons do not associate with terrorism. What happened on 9/11, was a tragedy for us too. We were just as shocked and just as devastated as all Americans were on that day too. We were hurting too. And we were upset and angry too at those terrorists too. If it was only that easy to understand though.

It has been twenty years since 9/11 and much has changed. Did the War on Terror that started twenty years ago come to success? Is the United States considered a safe place knowing that there has been an exponential amount of domestic threats each year – and from white Americans? Is it only considered terrorism if it comes from the other side of the world? Ups and downs with our government administrations, especially the last four years, have increased discrimination against Muslims. We have come a long way, but there is still so much to be done. Organizations like CAIR continue to protect the civil liberties of Muslim Americans and portray Islam in a positive light. However, we can do better. Muslims have been paying the price for 9/11 since the day it happened, and we still continue to do so. We have to realize that terrorism has no distinct face and has no religion. We can do better – I know we can.

A Dark Moment in American History by Veronica Laizure

On Sept. 11, 2001, when the first plane flew into the North Tower of the World Trade Center, I was in my 8th-grade classroom in Tulsa. I was 13 years old. I think we were planning for some upcoming classroom events. This was before we all had smart phones or even cell phones, so I’m not sure where the first information came trickling in. It was surreal – standing around a small TV to watch the chaos and confusion, not fully understanding what happened but sensing fear and deep grief in the adults around me.

I don’t think I realized the full impact of what happened for several weeks. I had never been to New York City and never seen the buildings that were being shown in ruins on TV screens. I was a sheltered child with a safe and loving home; the idea that one person could form the intent to cause so much massive damage and the pain was honestly incomprehensible. If I’m being honest, at first, it felt all so removed from reality, almost like a bad movie or TV show. I was sure that I’d wake up and it would be over and the world would go back to normal.

Like many American children, I thought of the U.S. as the center of the world and the source of justice and freedom. I didn’t have deep knowledge about the painful history of American presence in the world, or even of the deep trauma of our own country’s abuse, torture, and genocide against Black and indigenous people. I was not able to completely process what a terrorist attack meant until a long time after the dust and smoke cleared, the tallies of the dead listed on TV screens for weeks, the full losses calculated in numbers that made so little sense to me.

The more insidious impacts of 9/11 snuck into my consciousness alongside my growing understanding of what it meant to be a person of color in America. I am old enough to remember flying on an airplane without having to take my shoes off or take all the liquids out of my bag, or being pulled aside for special screening, or having my bag “randomly selected” for further searches. I was a teenager before there was a Department of Homeland Security and before Joint Terrorism Task Forces ran amok. I was alive in a time before we found it acceptable for agents of our own government to come into schools and churches and homes to tear people away from their families. Many of the intrusions of the government upon our privacy are very, very new. Some happened quickly; other aspects of our current surveillance state grew on us so quickly and quietly, like vines on a sagging fence, that we didn’t see the danger until the lines of protection between us and the power of the state blurred and fell. We are the guinea pigs for a whole generation of governmental surveillance technology, and much of it is happening without our knowledge.

If we look back on the last 20 years, we can recognize visible changes in ourselves and our communities. We develop wrinkles and gray hairs; our kids grow up, some faster than others. Our neighborhoods change, sometimes to be more reflective of America’s diversity, and some tightening up to be even more homogenous than before. But some changes are more subtle and even more dangerous. Our relationship to power, our trust in the inherent goodness of humans, our abilities to connect through shared experiences, have all been strained by 20 years of suspicion and fear, and anger. The erosion of our civil liberties did not start on 9/11, but it has been accelerated over the past 20 years as we have been distracted by a conflict-fueled, entertainment-based 24 hours news cycle and the growth of social media technology that spreads misinformation and propaganda in the blink of an eye.

But the last 20 years have also brought shining examples of selflessness, courage, and love. We have overcome our mistrust to forge new connections of friendship and family. We have poured into the streets, calling for justice and equity and an end to oppression. We have lobbied, and run for office, and won elections, and lost gracefully, having spread the good news: a better world is out there if we are only willing to fight for it. 9/11 was a dark moment in American history, one that was followed by many more blots in our long, tattered past. But it was not the end – not of our hopes for a safer, healthier, more just country for all, and not of my belief that human beings are inherently good, and that we can always find reasons to work together in the service of humanity itself.

We Are All Human by Lani Habrock

Twenty years ago I was sitting in a middle school typing class. An addled and shaken teacher from next door came in and turned on a bulk TV hinged to the corner of the classroom. Someone has flown into the Twin Towers she said like we were supposed to know what or where those buildings were. None of us kids understood the magnitude of the attack. We changed class periods and I went to drama where the TV in that classroom was on as well. We watched in horror as a second plane flew into the building over and over again on a Fox25 news loop.

“Who would do this?” I asked. “Well there are a few people in the world who would do this,” she said. “One guy tried to blow up the Towers a few years ago. It was probably him.” “But who would want to start a war with the United States?!” I exclaimed with profound 10th-grade arrogance.

In the coming days, I remember seeing reporting of attacks on Muslim women who wore hijab. I didn’t know any Muslim students at Yukon Public Middle School, but I remember thinking about how targeted I would feel if I had to wear a head covering to school.

Later when I would go to college in NYC one of my friends would tell me how her mom was working in the city on 9/11. She said everything and everyone was covered in ash. You couldn’t tell the race or religion or anything else that sets us as humans apart. We were all one in our horror and confusion.

Here we are twenty years later, the fear and hate from that day still reverberating into the present. I think the most important lesson we can learn from 9/11 is that we are all human. When one of us suffers, we all suffer. And in the words of the Dali Lama, “Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them, humanity cannot survive.”