‘It felt like the world stopped’: As the tenth anniversary of Sept. 11 approaches, the Muslim community reflects on a decade of change
Published: Thursday, September 08, 2011, 11:00 AM Updated: Thursday, September 08, 2011, 11:41 AM
GENESEE COUNTY, Michigan — Muna Jondy was watching cartoons on her birthday with her daughter in her apartment in Winnipeg in Canada.
In Flint, Maryum Rasool was about to start training for her first job after graduating from college.
Abed Khirfan was in his Flint Township financial office, getting ready for the work day.
And in the dental clinic at the University of Detroit, Niman Shukairy was treating patients.
In the midst of a normal morning, out of a clear, blue sky, the first plane struck one of the twin towers at the World Trade Center in New York City.
Like millions of other Americans, Jondy, Rasool, Khirfan and Shukairy became glued to their televisions, watching in horror as a second plane hit the other tower.
“It felt like the world stopped,” Khirfan said.
But none immediately realized the ripple effect that Sept. 11, 2001 would soon have on their religion.
“It was the first time as an American-born Muslim and American that I really felt outside and it wasn’t a pleasant feeling,” said Jondy, now 35 and a Flint lawyer.
A rising trend
The day after the 2001 attacks, a local pastor was at the doors to the Flint Islamic Center’s mosque in Clayton Township, holding flowers and offering support, said Jondy, who drove back to Flint a week after the attacks.
In Flint, several of Khirfan’s clients called to make sure he was OK. And at about 3 a.m. on Sept. 12, Rasool received word that a friend who worked in the World Trade Center was safe.
But as the nation grieved and details of the attackers began to emerge, shades of gray began to disappear.
Some who may have held a neutral opinion about Muslims began to change their minds — some becoming anti-Muslim, others becoming curious, Jondy said.
The Flint Islamic Center considered hosting a candlelight vigil after the attacks but decided against it because of safety concerns.
“That’s the one thing I’m angry about … we didn’t have a time to (grieve),” Jondy said. “It was too late, my country was done grieving and now it was (time to act).”
Muslims felt they had to immediately differentiate themselves from those who committed the attacks.
“We had to put our religion on defense and defend our identity as Americans,” said Khirfan, 48.
The sting of Islamophobia and discrimination became more tangible for many Muslims, said Dawud Walid, executive director of the Southfield-based Michigan chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
“Right after 9-11, there was a collective fear in our society. As Americans, we all were nervous about a potential second attack but as it pertains to Muslims, we also were concerned about people taking unfair retaliation against American Muslims,” Walid said. “The long-term effect we’re seeing is the mainstreaming of Islamophobia in the American socio-political discourse.”
A decade later, the crimes committed by the 19 terrorists in the name of Islam have continued to plague the Muslim-American community, Jondy said.
“I think there is more hate than before,” she said. “I don’t ever feel like I’m going to get attacked (but) I would say it’s more an attack on my dignity than on my physical well-being.”
To combat stereotypes about their religion, the Muslim-American community has had to engage in a campaign of openness, Jondy said.
The Islamic Center now holds open houses once every few months. Before the attacks, the open houses were 18 months apart, Jondy said.
Members are reaching out more, too. Rather than simply inviting church groups and advertising in the newspaper about the open houses, members of the Muslim community now invite neighbors, friends and coworkers individually in an attempt to foster conversation, Jondy said.
“We try to build bridges with the local community,” said Shukairy, 36, a Flushing-based dentist and secretary of the management board at the Islamic Center, one of three mosques in Genesee County. “That’s something we try to work on, to open the mosque to anybody who wants to come in.”
The U.S. Census does not track religious groups, but Shukairy estimates there are about 400 Muslim families in the Flint area.
Attendance at the open houses usually ranges from about 100 to 200 people, Khirfan said.
“(Before Sept. 11) we didn’t bother anybody, we didn’t have a problem with anybody. We figured it would be good enough,” he said. “After 9-11, when people started to define Islam to us, we realized we’re not doing a good enough job.”
Discrimination, opposition to the building of mosques and community centers and tangles with federal law enforcement elsewhere have marked the past decade as well, Walid said.
“We’re living in a society based on the rule of law and order but it appears … federal law enforcement agencies have a standard for Muslims and a standard for everyone else,” he said. “A lot of my constituents have said, ‘We didn’t emigrate from Egypt or Syria to have American law enforcement treat us the same as the secret police treated us back in our mother countries.’”
That suspicion is hurtful to many Muslims. According to the Council on American-Islamic Relations, 32 Muslims died in the attack, with one of the deaths unconfirmed.
Despite the changes since Sept. 11, Rasool believes there will soon be an end to the fear.
“We just have to bring people out of the mob mentality, just educate them,” she said. “Look, we’re not crazy. I’m your neighbor, I’m your cousin, I’m your brother, I’m your sister. You know, I’m the same person I was before.”