In Our Own Words: Reflections on the 15th Anniversary of 9/11

By Deepa Iyer Sep 09, 2016

This Sunday, the nation marks the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which killed nearly 3,000 people in the United States and sparked the sweeping War on Terror. In the wake of 9/11, Muslims, Arabs, Sikhs and South Asians began to report unprecedented levels of hate violence, profiling and discrimination. Further exacerbating this climate was a set of government policies that to this day target people from particular national-origin and faith backgrounds in the name of national security. Divisive narratives in media and political discourse have become commonplace.

As we reflect on this anniversary of 9/11, Colorlines contributor Deepa Iyer asked a group of Muslims, Arabs, Sikhs, South Asians and allies to share their own 9/11 stories, what they think has changed over the past 15 years, and how they see visions for the path forward. All reflections have been condensed and edited for space and clarity and we acknowledge that this curated set is not fully representative of all the experiences and identities affected by the post-9/11 climate.

Maheen Ahmed, student director of Muslim Students Association (National)

I was in my third-grade classroom on 9/11 when the principal read a statement by then-First Lady Laura Bush, assuring us that we were safe and should not be scared. As the daughter of a Pakistani, Muslim Air Force veteran, my family was deeply troubled by the attack on our nation. But none of us predicted the immense shift on our lives as Muslim-Americans due to the rise in Islamophobia after 9/11. At the same time, I’m inspired by the Muslim leaders who have stepped up over the past 15 years. This includes Muslim youth who are much more actively mobilizing in their communities and on campuses—because our identities have been shaped in the post-9/11 world. I am committed to amplifying the student voice and supporting the mobilization of Muslim students on campuses.

Debbie Almontaser, educator and board president of Muslim Community Network (New York City)

On 9/11, I was teaching in an elementary school in Brooklyn. Within hours of the attacks, my whole life changed. I was a prisoner in my own home for almost a month; I was afraid to go out in public alone because I wear the hijab. Fifteen years after 9/11, our communities continue to face discrimination and violence. In 2007, the Khalil Gibran International Academy, the first Arabic dual language public school in the U.S., made front-page headlines as a so-called publicly funded madrassa seeking to train homegrown terrorists. In 2010, the announcement of the Islamic Cultural Center in lower Manhattan drew national controversy. In 2011, Congressman Peter King called a hearing on Muslim radicalization in the halls of Congress. Moving forward, we must begin to see our struggles as one, so that we are equally committed to fighting bigotry, racism, sexism, xenophobia and homophobia.

Sharmin Sadequee, prisoners’ rights activist, organizer and anthropologist  

In the years after the attacks, my family was personally affected by the government’s War on Terror. My brother, Shifa Sadequee, who was born and raised in America, was kidnapped from Bangladesh just days after his wedding in 2006 at the behest of the U.S. Since then, I have been documenting the movement to free post-9/11 Muslim prisoners. Looking ahead, our nation must release those imprisoned on manufactured FBI cases, including the prisoners held in Guantanamo. I am committed to keep fighting for the liberation of all political prisoners and all communities repressed under oppressive state power.


Kalia Abiade, advocacy director for Center for New Community (Chicago)

On 9/11, I was a senior in college at the University of Florida. As a copy editor at the student newspaper, I became focused on writing and editing pieces related to the tragedy. At the time, I was considering converting to Islam, and was concerned about how my Muslim friends would be affected by the immediate aftermath. Sadly, over the past 15 years, it has become politically acceptable and advantageous to demonize and scapegoat Muslims and people perceived to be Muslims. For Black Muslims in particular, we often endure the triple impact of being criminalized and marginalized—subjected to policing and violence as Black people in America; to surveillance and profiling as Muslims in the post 9/11 climate; and anti-Black racism within our own faith community. But, we can find many sources of strength and guidance if we connect our current advocacy to the long legacy and struggle of Muslims right here in the United States, The issues our communities are facing today are not new ones in the Black Muslim community: surveillance, entrapment, over policing, criminalization of activism all pre-date 9/11. Recognizing this and building meaningful intra-community relationships is the foundation for true and lasting solidarity. Moving forward, we have to zoom out of the crisis mode that we have been in for the last 15 years, and we need to reframe what are typically thought of as “Muslim” issues—it goes beyond security and anti-hate to include education, jobs, healthcare access and more.

Tuhina Verma Rasche, associate pastor of Grace Lutheran Church (Palo Alto, California)

As a South Asian woman, life became increasingly complicated after 9/11. From that day on, I have become increasingly aware of the skin I inhabit and am uneasy in public spaces. As an ordained minister, I serve a predominantly White Protestant denomination—which can be complicated as a Brown woman navigating post-9/11 America. I believe a large part of my call to ministry is to be a change agent and a disrupter. Part of that means upsetting the status quo, getting people to not simply think differently, but to act differently. I am committed to truth-telling, to showing up and working with others to strive for justice and equality.

Valarie Kaur, activist, lawyer, filmmaker and founder of the Revolutionary Love Project at the University of Southern California Office of Religious Life (Los Angeles)

On 9/11, I was 20 years old, sitting in shock on the floor of my parents’ bedroom, watching footage of the Towers coming down. But I did not have a chance to grieve. Within moments, the picture of turbaned and bearded bin Laden filled the frame. Like Sikhs across the country, I realized that America’s new enemy looked like my family. Then, on September 15, a family friend (Balbir Singh Sodhi) was murdered in the first of dozens of hate crimes. But his story barely made the evening news. I grabbed my camera, got into my car, and crossed the country to chronicle stories of hate and hope in a film called "Divided We Fall." I thought the film would document just one chapter in U.S. history—a brief explosion of hate toward Muslim- and Sikh-Americans. But, today, bigotry has become part of daily life. Racial profiling is embedded in our immigration and national security policies; candidates running for office incite hate as a political tool; and Sikh- and Muslim-Americans continue to be targets of violence. But one thing has changed: We are now telling our own stories and organizing on the ground and online. We are writing articles, making our own films, building new organizations. We are no longer victims or bystanders.


Mohamed Shukri, executive director of New American Development Center (Nashville)

I was 13 years old when 9/11 happened. I felt what everyone was feeling—confusion, anger and fear. But looking back, I also know that I felt that I was blamed for the attacks and asked for apologies for actions that have nothing to do with my faith or me. As a refugee, a Black man and a Muslim, the past 15 years have affected me deeply. My multiple identities, in combination, are what many people in America hate. While in the past 15 years, opportunities for conversations and unity have begun to occur, we still need to address White supremacy and racism in the United States—especially at a time when the election discourse includes talk about a ban on Muslims. Moving forward, I think we need to look through the eyes of empathy and humanity. I’m committed to never standing on the sidelines.

D’Lo, actor, writer and comedian

I was a performing artist living in New York City when 9/11 happened. I participated in a silent art action organized by the Artist Network of Refuse and Resist in Union Square and Times Square. We wore medical masks (as people were doing because of the asbestos and other flying debris), and held placards that said, "Our Grief is not a Cry for War." Educating ourselves about the lies we have been told that justify war, profiling and deportations is a critical first step. My personal commitment as an artist is to create work that speaks to the current climate of fear, and hopefully inspires folks to action—whether that involves challenging someone on their bigotry or moving them to get involved at some level.


Asha Noor, advocacy specialist for Take On Hate and the National Network for Arab American Communities (National)

When 9/11 happened, I was sitting in Mrs. Morgan’s sixth grade English class in Falls Church, Virginia. My initial thoughts were that of fear for my father who worked a block away from the White House. The moment of calm I experienced upon knowing my father was safe was soon replaced with both immense mourning and fear of backlash. My parents discussed what it meant for my sister and [me] to wear the hijab. My community was scared. Sometimes I feel we have not fully recovered. Moving ahead, I believe that it is vital to learn from African-American Muslims who have endured the struggles for freedom from the inception of this nation to modern-day racism. While today, we are dealing with policies like CVE (Countering Violent Extremism), these are just new names for old systems of oppression and control. 

Ameena Ghaffar-Kucher, University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education (Philadelphia)

The aftermath of 9/11 is what led me to decide to focus my research domestically. While there has certainly been more awareness and understanding about the impact of conflating Muslims with terrorism over the past 15 years, we still need to recognize, name and combat Islamophobia. I’m committed to the work I do with teachers to raise awareness, and to find ways to cultivate the civic engagement of Muslim youth so that they feel that they are valued and are part of the nation.

Gurjot Kaur, attorney, activist and  former senior staff attorney at the Sikh Coalition (National)

When 9/11 happened, I was in my dorm room at SUNY-Binghamton.  As pictures of Osama Bin Laden splashed across the airwaves, I knew, amidst the horror and grief, that the world had permanently changed. Fear filled my stomach, but it wasn’t just fear for our nation, but also fear for my family, for my turbaned Sikh father, for all Sikhs, for Muslims. In 2012, I joined the Sikh Coalition—an organization created immediately after 9/11—as an attorney and worked with the community in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, in the aftermath of the most brutal act of violence against Sikh-Americans to date. The most profound changes that I have witnessed over the past 15 years include the growth of community organizations, stronger laws to protect religious minorities, and the creation of a civil rights movement accessible to all. To move forward, the Sikh community needs to put the offensive “mistaken identity” rhetoric behind us. Sikhs are not attacked because people think we are Muslim. We are attacked because of racism and xenophobia. And to stop violence against Sikhs, we have to also end violence against Muslims, Latinx, African-Americans, Indigenous and LGBTQ communities. What happened to African-Americans in Ferguson is intrinsically connected to what happened to Sikhs in Oak Creek, to Muslims in Chapel Hill, and to the LGBTQ community in Orlando.


Ayesha Wahidi, sophomore at Bellarmine University (Louisville, Kentucky)

I was 6 years old when the 9/11 attacks occurred. Since 9/11, many Americans have given into the fear of Muslims and used it to justify their hate and prejudice. I think the best way to address anti-Muslim backlash is to build individual relationships and connections. That’s what we have been doing at Bellarmine with Better Together, an initiative that focuses on building bridges through service and dialogue. We focus on creating brave spaces for tough conversations. I’m committed to dialogue and action that can move people outside of their personal bubbles, and change their hearts and minds.

Monisha Bajaj, associate professor, of International & Multicultural Education at University of San Francisco

As the horrific events of 9/11 were unfolding, I volunteered at the armory where services were being centralized. I remember how family members—including Urdu, Hindi and Bengali speakers—were bringing in toothbrushes and combs with DNA to match with the body parts that recovery workers were finding in the rubble. In the 15 years since 9/11, the unity among South Asian, Arab, Sikh and Muslim communities has been a positive outcome. For many years, these groups bought into the myths of meritocracy and the "American Dream"—that each individual can succeed if they just work hard enough. The post-9/11 backlash has been a wakeup call. As a professor of education, I am committed to raising awareness and creating resources for teachers and schools to combat intolerance, xenophobia, and the criminalization of South Asian, Arab and Muslim youth.

Azadeh N. Shahshahani, legal and advocacy director of Project South; past president of National Lawyers Guild

I was a law student when 9/11 occurred—and it set the direction of my career. After graduation, I worked with the ACLU of North Carolina to conduct Know Your Rights presentations at mosques and cultural centers, and to train a network of attorneys on how to represent Arab- and Muslim-Americans who were approached by the FBI.  But 15 years after 9/11, the repression continues, and Islamophobia is at an all time high. In Newtown County, Georgia, for example, we are seeing backlash to mosque construction. What I think has changed for the better is that our communities are fighting back in unison with other communities of color and immigrants. I am committed to this joint struggle in the U.S. and in the Global South.


Manpreet Kaur Teji, law student (Chicago)

I was 11 years old on 9/11. In the following weeks, my family kept a low profile given the incidents of violence targeting Sikhs. We stopped going out to dinner and sporting events and canceled a religious event at our house. My heart churns every time my dad is called “Osama Bin Laden” or is pulled over for secondary screening at the airport. In the 15 years since 9/11, there has been progress: Advocacy organizations have emerged, and there are improved policies for hate crimes tracking. But Sikhs, Muslims and many other communities of color are not safe from violence—the tragedy at the Oak Creek gurdwara occurred just four years ago after all. I am committed to being an advocate for oppressed communities and to utilize the legal system to seek justice.

Sasha W., organizing director of National Queer Asian Pacific Islander Alliance; co-founder of Queer South Asian National Network

Growing up in post 9/11 America, I learned what it meant to be “South Asian,” not just Lankan. I realized that I was racialized – not only with people from South Asia, but also with people from the Middle East and North Africa. In the 15 years since 9/11, this country’s infrastructure of surveillance has grown stronger, broader and more frightening—and led to the Patriot Act, expanded reach of the NSA, wire-tapping, fusion centers, and the exponential growth of surveillance practices. To push back against the policies that legalize our profiling, harassment and incarceration, we need to lift up the most marginalized in our communities—including those who are queer, trans*, working-class, and at the intersection of multiple identities—and build long-lasting solidarities. At the same time, we must center Black liberation in our solidarity work and address anti-Black racism within our communities.

Jaideep Singh, lead scholar, National Sikh American Discrimination/Hate Crimes Survey 

As a co-founder of the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund (SALDEF), the community advocacy work necessitated by the attacks took over my life for several months after 9/11. Over the past 15 years, the Sikh-American community has developed an effective advocacy structure. However, as the terrifying cluster of hate attacks against Sikh-Americans in late 2015 (after the attacks in Paris and San Bernadino) verifies, little else has improved. Sikhs still contend with state-sanctioned, routine ethno-racial profiling at airports, and unwarranted and illegal scrutiny. We also face limits to free worship, due to the resistance to sacred-site construction around the nation and attacks such as the one at the Oak Creek gurdwara in 2012. Looking forward, our communities must support others who are organizing for racial justice, especially the movement for Black lives. We must demand accountability together on issues of racial equity and justice.


Riyah Basha, student at University of Michigan

I was just 3 years old on 9/11, but September 11th has defined the Muslim community and still continues to pulse in our collective memory. September 11th marked the beginning of a public reckoning over whether my people belong in this country. I appreciate the many Muslims who immediately recognized the need for self-definition, increased civic engagement, and a commitment to Islam in America. At the same time, the price for security seems too steep; it involves trumpeting American exceptionalism, hailing foreign invasions, and sanctioning profiling and targeting. I commit to being as loud as possible in challenging the surveillance state.

Luna Ranjit, co-founder and executive director of Adhikaar (Queens, New York)

When 9/11 occurred, I had been in the U.S. for only five years. I thought I was in the U.S. temporarily and did not identify myself as an immigrant. But, during the period right after 9/11, my identity as a South Asian, an immigrant, and a person of color solidified, and I started focusing my work on immigrant rights and racial justice issues. In the 15 years since 9/11, we have seen the harmful effects of a cultural narrative that equates Muslims with terrorism. At the same time, amazing organizers are challenging this status quo and building bridges with other communities here in Queens and around the nation. At Adhikaar, we have been engaging the Nepali-speaking community in difficult discussions surrounding race, religion, class and privilege in order to build understanding and support for Muslim and Black communities. Moving forward, we must push for both policy and culture changes, and engage new immigrants in the broader struggle for racial justice.


Rashad Robinson, Executive Director, Color of Change

The 15th anniversary of 9/11 is not just a historic moment. It ushered in an array of harmful government policies and cultural narratives. While the immediate impact has been focused on Muslim, Arab and South Asian communities, all people of color, including Black people, have been affected by the alarming breadth and scope of law-enforcement practices. Moving forward, and especially given the political climate that we are currently facing, it is critical for Black and Brown folks to build the type of collective political and cultural power that holds decision makers accountable. Together, we must advance the vision of the Movement for Black Lives and address Islamophobia and xenophobia. Our histories—and our futures—are intrinsically linked, and we must resist any racial wedge narratives that attempt to tear us apart.

Tania Unzueta, legal and policy director, Mijente

On September 11th, 2001, I had a flight to Washington D.C. to testify in support of the DREAM Act, which would have given undocumented students like me a way to become U.S. citizens. My flight was canceled, the Congressional hearing was indefinitely postponed, and all immigration discussions shifted to immigrants as potential terrorist threats, particularly if they were Muslim, Arab or South Asian. Fifteen years later, the rhetoric of immigrants as threats to national security is still used as a justification for the record-breaking deportations, incarceration and criminalization, and violations of immigrants’ due process and civil rights. We need to work towards dismantling the systems that were created in the name of preserving national security, starting with the two agencies born 15 years ago after 9/11: the Department of Homeland Security and Immigration and Customs Enforcement.


Greg Cendana, executive director of Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance

As we mark the 15th anniversary of 9/11, we face a polarized moment as a nation. So much of the rhetoric in the election, media and mainstream narratives has been plagued with xenophobic sentiment, and some people are conflating what it means to be American with anti-Muslim hate. For Asian Pacific Americans, it is vital that we stand in solidarity with South Asian, Arab and Muslim communities in the struggle for justice. From the Chinese Exclusion Act to the Japanese American internment to the Southeast Asian deportation crisis, our communities have endured the impact of profiling, criminalization and scrutiny. We are in this struggle together. Moving forward, we need to train and uplift more leaders at all levels of government, in our community, and in our schools who will stand up against all forms of xenophobia, racism and anti-Muslim hate.

Rich Stolz, executive director, One America (Seattle)

I see an abundance of fear.  September 11th remains a constant justification for our militarized surveillance state. Sometimes violent political rhetoric aimed at Muslims, undocumented immigrants and refugees has sowed fear and isolation in already marginalized communities, reminiscent of shameful episodes of our past. Yet we’re also living in a period of remarkable resistance and the rise of peoples’ movements. We need more courage, greater capacity, and deeper connections across contemporary movements for immigrant rights and racial justice, and we must strive to bridge the divides between religious and racial minorities and a shrinking, yet not monolithic, White majority.

Dara Silverman, Movement 2016; founding director of Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ)

On 9/11, I was in Boston. I watched the second tower go down as I huddled with my co-workers in front of a computer screen. I felt shock, sadness and grief. In the weeks after 9/11, I saw the attacks on Muslim, Arab and South Asian communities, which ended up being just the beginning of the violence to come. September 11th and its aftermath have forced White folks to get clear on our stake in ending White supremacy. The greatest challenge of our time is build multiracial movements that challenge the economic and political power structure to win real changes in peoples’ lives. White folks must organize our communities and participate in these movements—for our own humanity depends on it.


Vince Warren, executive director, Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR)

Fifteen years ago, we at CCR knew something was up. After the tragic events of 9/11, the military began to claim broad authority to detain people around the world it thought were, or could be, threats to the United States. Men were rounded up—far from any battlefield—and were jailed, abused and tortured. More than 700 were brought to Guantanamo, which the government claimed the rule of law could not reach. And the unconstitutional, social-control practice of racial profiling and stop-and-frisk came back with a vengeance, but not just with respect to African-Americans, Latinos, immigrants—Muslims and Arabs were targeted as well. In sum, the last 15 years have ushered in a potent new era of the criminalization of entire communities of color, and our challenge, as noted by the court in CCR’s and Muslim Advocates’ case Hassan v. City of New York, is to "see with foresight what we see so clearly in hindsight." The first step for us is solidarity. The second step is activation and demand. We must commit ourselves full time to dismantling the structures that criminalize us, be that through advocacy, litigation, activism, or art. And we must do so with the historical understanding that demands for justice are often met with great resistance by the structures that need to be changed. 

Deepa Iyer is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Social Inclusion. Her book, "We Too Sing America: South Asian, Arab, Muslim and Sikh Immigrants Shape Our Multiracial Future," is a 2016 American Book Award selection. Iyer is also former executive director of South Asian Americans Leading Together.