I hadn’t the slightest idea that my life would change. It was two weeks into my freshman year of college. I was living away from home for the first time. And then the September 11 attacks happened. It felt like a double tragedy to me—as an American, of course, but also as a Muslim. Not only did they do this; they did this in my name.
Before Osama bin Laden became a household name (a quaint thought in retrospect), it wouldn’t have occurred to me that my faith would soon become inextricably linked to terrorism in the public’s imagination.
In high school, there was that one time when a kid named Dan called me a “terrorist,” but I don’t recall it being a big deal. No one really cared that we were Muslim. Sure, we were brown. I was different, in an overwhelmingly white school. But we were more a curiosity and not quite a threat. In retrospect, I’m impressed that Dan was sufficiently aware of global affairs to have already perceived an association between Islam and terrorism. He was ahead of his time!
Going into college, I knew I wanted to do something vaguely international, but it hadn’t occurred to me to make the Middle East into my life’s work. I thought I could make money as an investment banker or something similarly soul-crushing. It’s odd to think that the actions of those 19 hijackers would alter my future so decisively. I ended up living in Jordan for a year and a half and, later, Qatar for four years. Meanwhile, Egypt became my home away from home. I wanted to spend as much time as possible in the Middle East, in the hope—probably misplaced—that I could make sense of that day, and all the days after it.
Twenty years later, I, like my country, haven’t been able to escape the legacy of September 11. All my presidents were defined by the attacks and what they wrought. George W. Bush will be remembered foremost for the Iraq war and other post-9/11 blunders, excesses, and abuses. Barack Obama came to prominence in large part because he opposed those abuses. His successor, Donald Trump, announced himself by attacking the post-9/11 foreign policy consensus while also drawing on a distinctly post-9/11 fear and paranoia. It is easy to forget it now, but Trump appeared oddly preoccupied with Muslims and Islam. His signature campaign issue, after all, was a pledge to ban Muslims from entering the United States. It was Trump who memorably, if somewhat inexplicably, said, “I think Islam hates us.” And now Joe Biden’s foreign policy legacy will be indelibly shaped by how Americans remember (or forget) the botched extrication out of a once permanent war.
It didn’t have to be this way, but it was. Despite only numbering around one percent of the U.S. population and anywhere from 0.2 to 8 percent in European countries like Hungary, Germany, and France, Muslims became key protagonists (and antagonists) in the stories of Western democracies. For better and worse, everyone seems to have an opinion about us now. As I write this, “Sharia Law” is trending, although it’s not entirely clear why.
I wonder how different my life would have looked had something gone awry in the plans of the 9/11 masterminds and hijackers. Certainly, the United States would have been better off, having avoided at least one war, and possibly two. The Middle East would have still been important, but not as important as it became, which would have been a boon for the people of the region. Despite occasionally having good intentions—briefly during George W. Bush’s “Freedom Agenda” in 2004 to 2005 and during Barack Obama’s early, if guarded, optimism around the Arab Spring in 2011—the United States ended up leaving a trail of destruction in its wake. And so I’m tempted to imagine a counterfactual history, in which the relative boredom of the 1990s might have continued. We wouldn’t have known better, and Muslims, at least in America, could have remained a relatively quiet, if idiosyncratic, minority.
Henry Kissinger once said that “the history of things that didn’t happen has never been written.” They didn’t happen for a reason. Now that Biden has ended our longest war, we can perhaps try to turn the page on a tragic chapter. I suspect it’s too late, however. It’s been too late for almost two decades. Because of that day, the Middle East has haunted this country for the near entirety of my adult life. We have been living with the consequences, and I worry that we will continue to live with them, despite our persistent hopes to the contrary.
Shadi Hamid is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and the author of Islamic Exceptionalism: How the Struggle Over Islam is Reshaping the World.