Shahana Hanif, a community organizer strongly favored to win a seat on the New York City Council, at her home in Brooklyn. As a 10-year-old walking with her little sister, she was accoste after 9/11 by a man who say the two young girls wearing their hijabs and spat an epithet their way: “Terrorist!” | Emily Leshner / AP

For American Muslims who grew up in the shadow of 9/11, there’s ‘this sense of being Muslim as a kind of important identity marker regardless of your relationship with Islam,’ says Eman Abdelhadi, a University of Chicago sociologist.

A car passed, the driver’s window rolled down, and the man spat an epithet at two little girls wearing hijabs: “Terrorist!”

It was 2001, weeks after the World Trade Center fell, and 10-year-old Shahana Hanif and her younger sister were walking to their mosque from their Brooklyn home.

Hanif still recalls her confusion over how anyone could look at a kid and see a threat.

“It’s not a nice, kind word,” she says. “It means violence. It means dangerous. It is meant to shock whoever … is on the receiving end of it.”

She has become a community organizer and is strongly favored to win a seat on the New York City Council in an upcoming election.

Like Hanif, other young American Muslims have grown up under the shadow of 9/11. Many have faced hostility, suspicion, questions about their faith, doubts over their Americanness.

They’ve also found ways to fight back against bias and build bridges.

University of Chicago
Sociologist Eman Abdelhadi.

There is “this sense of being Muslim as a kind of important identity marker regardless of your relationship with Islam as a faith,” says Eman Abdelhadi, a University of Chicago sociologist.

Mistrust of Muslims didn’t start on Sept. 11, 2001. But it dramatically intensified with the attacks.

America’s diverse Muslim communities were foisted into the spotlight, says Youssef Chouhoud, a political scientist at Virginia’s Christopher Newport University.

“Your sense of who you were was becoming more formed, not just Muslim but American Muslim,” Chouhoud says. “What distinguished you as an American Muslim? Could you be fully both? Or did you have to choose? There was a lot of grappling with what that meant.”

For Hanif, there was no blueprint.

“Fifth-grader me wasn’t naïve or too young to know Muslims are in danger,” she wrote in an essay about 9/11’s aftermath. “Flashing an American flag from our first-floor windows didn’t make me more American.”

A young Hanif gathered friends to write a letter to then-President George W. Bush, asking for protection.

“We knew,” she says, “that we would become like warriors of this community.”

But being warriors often carries a price.

Ishaq Pathan, 26, remembers, when he was young, a boy telling him he seemed angry and wondering whether Pathan was going to blow up their Connecticut school.

He remembers feeling helpless when taken aside at an airport for additional questioning on returning to the United States after a college semester in Morocco. The agent looked through his belongings, including the laptop in which he kept a private journal, and started reading it.

“I remember having tears in my eyes,” Pathan says. “I was completely and utterly powerless.

Ishaq Pathan, 26, works in Oakland for the nonprofit Islamic Networks Group, trying to help young people grow up confident in their Muslim identity.

“You go to school with other people of different backgrounds and you realize … what the promise of the United States is. And when you see it not living up to that promise, then I think it instills in us a sense of wanting to help and fix that.”

He now works as the San Francisco Bay area director for the nonprofit Islamic Networks Group, trying to help younger generations grow up confident in their Muslim identity.

Born in Somalia, Shukri Olow fled civil war with her family and lived in Kenyan refugee camps before eventually finding home in a public housing complex in Kent, Wash., south of Seattle. After 9/11, she says she was confused when a teacher there asked, “What are your people doing?”

Today, she’s seeking a seat on the King County Council.

“There are many young people who have multiple identities who have felt that they don’t belong here, that they are not welcomed here,” she says. “I was one of those young people. And so I try to do what I can to make sure that more of us know that this is our nation, too.”

Karen Ducey / AP
Shukri Olow (right), a Muslim woman who is running for Washington’s King County Council, campaigns outside the Islamic Center of Kent. She says the aftermath of the attacks has helped motivate her to become a community organizer and to run for office in Washington state.

After 9/11, some American Muslims chose to dispel misconceptions about their faith through personal connections.

Mansoor Shams has traveled across the United States with a sign reading: “I’m Muslim and a U.S. Marine, ask anything.” It’s part of the 39-year-old veteran’s efforts to counter hate.

In 2019, he spoke with students at Liberty University in Virginia. Some still call him with questions about Islam.

“There’s this mutual love and respect,” he says.

Shams wishes his work wasn’t needed but feels a responsibility to share a counternarrative he says many Americans don’t know.

Jessie Wardarski / AP
Mansoor Shams at his home in Baltimore. Shams, who served in the Marine Corps from 2000 to 2004, was called names like “Taliban,” “terrorist” and “Osama bin Laden” by some of his fellow Marines after 9/11. In recent years, Shams has used his identity as both a Muslim and a former Marine to try to dispel misconceptions about Islam.

Ahmed Ali Akbar, 33, came to a different conclusion. Shortly after 9/11, some adults in his community arranged for an assembly at his school in Saginaw, Mich., where he and other students talked about Islam and Muslims. But he remembers being confused over some of the questions. Like: Where is Osama bin Laden? What’s the reason behind the attacks?

That period left him feeling like trying to change people’s minds wouldn’t always work. So Akbar eventually turned his focus toward telling stories about Muslim Americans on his podcast “See Something Say Something.”

“There’s a lot of humor in the Muslim American experience as well,” he says. “It’s not all just sadness and reaction to the violence and…racism and Islamophobia.”

Jessie Wardarski / AP
Amirah Ahmed, 17, outside her home in Fredericksburg, Va. Born after the 9/11 attacks, Ahmed feels she was thrust into a struggle not of her making.

Born after the attacks, Amirah Ahmed, 17, says she feels she was thrust into a struggle not of her making.

A few years ago at her Virginia school’s 9/11 commemoration, she felt students’ stares at her and her hijab.

For the next anniversary, she wore her Americanness as a shield, donning an American flag headscarf to address her classmates from a podium.

Ahmed spoke about honoring the lives of those who died in America on 9/11 and also those of Iraqis who died in the war launched in 2003. She says it was a “really powerful moment.”

But she hopes her future children don’t feel the need to prove they belong.

“Our kids are going to be [here] well after the 9/11 era,” she says. “They should not have to continue fighting for their identity.”

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