On September 11, 2001, I was in the air headed to Miami when the attacks on the World Trade Center happened. By the time I landed, my world had changed forever. I desperately tried to reach my mom through jammed cell phone lines and when I finally got hold of her, what I heard left me cold. She told me that the white managers at the day care center where she worked demanded to know what “her people” were doing to their country. That’s how she found out about the attacks. She knew that I was flying that day; she did not know if I was okay.
I grew up in Pakistan and was raised Muslim but had not really thought much about my Muslim identity after immigrating to the U.S. when I was 16 years of age.
However, on that day, at the age of 24, I suddenly became nothing but Muslim.
And as the days passed, while I was stuck in Miami, unable to leave, the reports started coming in about protests at mosques and hate crimes against Muslims and those perceived to be Muslims. It became impossible to not step into the Muslim identity that had given me my first understanding of this beautiful world, that had me craving the mesmerizing sound of the azaan recited five times a day as a reminder to pray, and reminiscing about dragging my dad all over Karachi on the occasion of Eid to get henna and blingy glass bracelets.
I tried to recall these memories almost as a talisman against the thousands of images on media asserting that all terrorists are Muslims and all Muslims are suspects.
The socio-political developments that arose from September 11th led to significant human rights violations, the reverberations of which have undoubtedly been amplified today. From the Patriot Act of 2001 that severely curtailed civil liberties to the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS) established in 2002 that required registration of men and boys from predominantly Muslim majority countries (ultimately about 84,000 people) to the occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq, Muslim communities both in the U.S and abroad are simultaneously under attack.
What made these developments even more heinous to me was the tacit as well as overt support from certain parts of the feminist and LGBTQ communities, communities I had embraced. This included the Feminist Majority Foundation’s support for the occupation of Afghanistan as a vehicle for the liberation of women. In the Feminist Majority Foundation’s view, liberation of women in Afghanistan from the oppression of the Taliban was through “peacekeeping” forces but these were still combat soldiers, an indication of war.
As Malalai Joya, the former Afghan parliamentarian and renowned women’s activist has constantly reminded us, bombs and war can never liberate women.
An example of how Muslims became conflated with terrorists even within the imagination of the LGBTQ community is when, a few years after September 11th, a Muslim LGBTQ group was “jokingly” announced by the MC of the pride parade as the “most famous group at the Al-Qaeda conference.”
Those early years after 9/11 haunt me still. Sadly, it’s not surprising to me that 16 years later, the hatred of Muslims that was stoked on September 11th helped propel Donald Trump into the White House. His campaign strategically tried to use LGBTQ and women’s communities as a proxy to advance Islamophobia as can be seen by his call for the Muslim ban after the tragedy at the Pulse gay nightclub in Orlando, and his fulfilling of that promise just a few days into his presidency. The executive order claims to protect Americans, from “those who would oppress Americans of any race, gender, or sexual orientation” and from those who perpetrate “‘honor’ killings, other forms of violence against women.” This coming from a president who has continued to disrespect women and has significantly pushed back LGBTQ rights since coming into office.
I knew this was coming but I couldn’t have predicted the ferocity of this hatred.
I take heart knowing that the resistance is strong. I was fortunate to find my calling to activism early on, and September 11th brought me into the fold of LGBTQ Muslim activism. Even in those early days of mass hysteria, our community stood resolutely against war and refused to be used as a wedge issue against our own people.
We have been fighting ever since, knowing how our stories can be easily manipulated as a tool to advance Islamophobia and war. This was especially important after the Pulse tragedy in Orlando when gay Islamophobes such as Milo Yiannopoulos were happy to support Trump in advancing a pro-gay but anti-Muslim agenda.
We fight back on this hateful rhetoric by creating our own spaces, including the annual LGBTQ Muslim retreat, which draws more than 100 people. We build bridges between LGBTQ and Muslim communities and speak up about our own simultaneous experiences of Islamophobia, transphobia, and homophobia.
While on the phone with my mom recently, she said that at one of the community events where she was leading prayer, she was asked to also pray for the community to be protected against Trump.
Even for my usually apolitical mom, these are tough times. Though she understands what’s at stake, she has never faltered from her Muslim identity when going to the mosque and engaging in any other “Muslim” activity that can be potentially unsafe.
And I, her political daughter who, on a terrifying September 11th, came to understand myself as Muslim in a very different, very queer way, will always fight to keep my mom safe.
Urooj Arshad is a member of the steering committee of the Muslim Alliance for Sexual and Gender Diversity and the Director of international youth health and rights Programs at Advocates for Youth, and a Ford Foundation Public Voices Fellow at The OpEd Project.