Muslims will “never forget” 9/11 for very different reasons. The fact that even writing that sentence feels blasphemous speaks to the guilt that Muslim Americans have been conditioned to feel for the last 20 years. It’s in large part due to our collective treatment at the hands of mainstream media post-9/11 that my whole life up to this point has been a reaction to this event in my early childhood. The media created a generation of “other 9/11 kids”—not the children of the direct victims in the attack, but rather the millions of us that grew up being blamed for it.
When I wrote my first book, Muslim Girl: A Coming of Age during the Trump election, it felt like the first time I could finally process and release this burden of Islamophobia that I was forced to carry on my juvenile girl body. I was in elementary school when it happened, that day dressed in my cutest outfit and sparkliest shoes with the rest of my classmates in excitement for Yearbook Photo Day. The morning quickly changed as we noticed subtle changes around us, as children often do, like that all our television sets were turned off for our usual morning announcements, or that our math teacher broke down in tears in the back of the class. Soon, we heard over the PA system that Yearbook Photo Day was canceled, and our parents were coming to pick us up for an unscheduled early dismissal.
Enter: an entire new-age propaganda war in a digital era, with a hailstorm of irresponsibly racist headlines, vile rhetoric, and collective condemnation that indicted my religion and anyone that followed it. My parents (an immigrant from Jordan and a refugee from Palestine) knew far sooner than I would realize that that event happening just 30 miles away would change our lives, and my childhood, forever. As the world around us went up in the flames of misguided information and prejudice, so did our little world in New Jersey: our family’s home became the target of regular toilet paper and water balloon raids from neighborhood kids; our electronics store in the local market became targeted as the other vendors launched a petition to kick out Muslim businesses; I experienced my first racial slur in school.
It’s hard to reconcile the lewd media coverage of those times with the reflective alms from the same traditional media this week for the 20th anniversary. Now in the midst of our own reckoning with civil rights, media biases, and an unequal justice system, and on the other side of the “facts on the ground” that birthed our failed foreign policy, enough time has passed to look back at the media coverage during the War on Terror and gasp in shame and horror. It reminds me of the first time we learned about World War II anti-Japanese propaganda in high school and our shock at what some of our beloved Disney cartoons got away with at the time.
When I saw last week’s Newsweek cover with the headline “The Rising Power of American Muslims,” featuring photos of visible Muslim Americans like Hasan Minhaj and Ilhan Omar, I flashed back to their explosive “Muslim Rage” cover from barely a decade ago. While today’s cover would have been a welcome reprieve of affirmation ten years ago, what we got instead was a cover showing the stereotypical image of two angry, bearded brown men and a story by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, an anti-Muslim personality that expressed sympathy with Norwegian terrorist Anders Breivik for wanting to “save Europe from Muslim takeover.” Similarly, the Anti-Defamation League recently published a retroactive apology for their efforts against the establishment of Park51, an interfaith institution near the World Trade Center that, at the time, the media frenzy hysterically condemned as “the Ground Zero mosque,” launching negative press coverage around the clock attacking the audacity of New York Muslims.
At the same, we are still coming to terms with our media misrepresentation of Muslim women and girls being oppressed and needing to be saved by the West—a concept whose seeds were sown to rally public support around the War on Terror as a humanitarian effort, and began to reemerge once again in recent weeks in the midst of our shoddy exit from Afghanistan.
It cannot be understated that the media, widely regarded as “the fourth branch of the government,” established the Islamophobic climate that made American Muslim children feel like not only outsiders in our own home, but also perceived enemies of the state. Unsurprisingly, reported anti-Muslim hate crimes skyrocketed in 2001, only to be surpassed in the midst of the Muslim Ban in 2016. It was the post-9/11 media frenzy that almost justified programs like NSEERS, an actual database requiring the registration of Muslim men in the United States from a list of Muslim countries, laying the groundwork years before Trump’s time. Media misrepresentation pulled the veil over our eyes as our government robbed us of our civil liberties in the name of national security, as it has done many times before. And we are positioned to have history repeat itself again if our media culture fails to honor the lessons from 9/11 beyond superficial 20th-anniversary commemoration.
This is not to say that redemption is unwanted or impossible. In fact, this level of reflection and amends for our American media culture is a mandate. But, we don’t need your celebratory cover stories for existing or a highlights reel of our seemingly shocking accomplishments. All we ask is that traditional media commits to responsibly covering stories related to Muslims at large and other misunderstood communities. It didn’t take long for us to see the same media behavior in response to Trump that subjects a whole new generation of children to grow up under Islamophobia.
Many of my Muslim peers have distanced themselves from engaging in stories about 9/11 because we have become so tired of spending our whole lives associating with and disassociating from an event that had nothing to do with us. But the truth is, whether we like it or not, that the media cemented our intimate connection to this day for a lifetime. We are the other 9/11 kids—but at least we’ve grown up to tell our own story.
AMANI is an author, activist, and pioneer in modern media representation. She is the founder and editor-in-chief of the award-winning MuslimGirl.com, the premier online platform for Muslim women’s voices in Western societies.