Persevering prejudice

Despite being over a decade since the events of 9/11, North American Muslims continue to face hatred and distrust

Farheen Fatima was a New York City student in her eleventh grade history class when the events of 9/11 occurred.
Farheen Fatima was a New York City student in her eleventh grade history class when the events of 9/11 occurred.

Farheen Fatima

Eleven years ago today, news of horrific 9/11 attacks on the twin towers came to me while I sat in grade 11 history class in my New York City high school.

At that time, I had no clue that what had just happened would change the course of history and how people like me would be treated to this very day.

There was a sense of confusion and uncertainty as details weren’t clear. Television coverage wasn’t shown to students in order to maintain calm, but there was a sense of gloom in the air.

While discussing tragic events of the morning with us, my history teacher noted, “They are saying Palestinians are behind the attacks.” Scanning the classroom, she caught eye of me — a visible Muslim girl wearing a hijab — and quickly added, “but not all Muslims are bad.”

On that tragic day 11 years ago today, over 2,600 of my fellow New Yorkers along with hundreds of others lost their lives at the World Trade Centre. Among the victims were innocent Muslims.

People of all faiths came together in grief, to call for peace, tolerance and restraint. Political leaders emphasized that Islam and American Muslims were not the enemy. Islamic leaders and organizations condemned violence and terrorism.

Many Americans recognized that the terribly misguided actions of a few shouldn’t taint an entire community and reached out to their Muslim neighbours and colleagues to offer support.

Yet following 9/11, the number of hate crimes against Muslims, Arab Americans and even Sikhs rose dramatically. An annual report released by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in Nov. 2002 found that there was a 1,600 per cent increase of reported hate crimes against Muslims in 2001 compared to 2000.

Although there was a steady decline in reported hate crimes against Muslims between 2002 and 2008, reported incidents of hate against Muslims have been on the rise since 2009, according to figures released by the FBI and Statistics Canada.

One of the early victims of these hate crimes was Rais Bhuiyan, a Dallas gas station attendant of Bangladeshi origin. Ten days after 9/11, he was at work when he was asked “Where are you from?” and shot in the face. Bhuiyan survived — but was blinded in one eye.

The shooter, white supremacist Mark Anthony Stroman had killed two others in an attempt to exact revenge for the 9/11 attacks. Bhuiyan famously forgave Stroman and campaigned to have him taken off death row, but to no avail.

Stroman was executed in July 2011 after Bhuiyan’s lawyers lost a final appeal in federal court to stay the execution.

Although the attacks on the twin towers and the incidents of hate crimes have made many Muslims conscious about their identity, these tragic events have also presented an opportunity to educate others about their faith.

Many Muslim groups across North America, including the Queen’s University Muslim Students Association (QUMSA) and the Islamic Society of Kingston have taken concrete steps to build bridges and promote understanding.

Greater civic and community engagement, open houses at mosques and joint efforts with our interfaith partners have helped reduce misunderstandings and stereotypes.

Luckily, I was never a direct target of hate, but even a decade after the attacks the effects are still being felt.

A 2011 Gallup study on American Muslims found that a “significant number of Americans of diverse faiths report distrust of and prejudice toward US Muslims, more so than toward any other major faith group studied.”

Signs of that distrust and prejudice are becoming more and more visible as rhetoric against Muslims and Islam heats up.

Last month, a man opened fire at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, claiming six innocent lives. Media commentators went to great lengths to clarify that Sikhs were not Muslims — as if shooting Muslims rather than Sikhs would be a bit more justifiable or understandable.

Here in Kingston, a Muslim woman had her hijab yanked without provocation at a local grocery store in January. Kingston Police made an arrest in the case in May and charged a local woman with assault.

In 2008, there were a series of hateful anti-Muslim acts here at Queen’s, including defacement of posters, threats and harassment of hijab-wearing women.

This was countered by an anti-Islamophobia campaign led by QUMSA and endorsed by 103 individuals, organizations and clubs, including Queen’s Principal and Vice-Chancellor at the time, Tom Williams, the AMS and the Canadian Federation of Students.

We all have roles to play in this effort. Since hate and intolerance weaken the very foundation of our society and in the long run affect us all, we have to be the promoters of peace and tolerance as members of society.

During my first week as a student at the Faculty of Education, I was delighted to witness teacher candidates being taught cultural sensitivity and tolerance.

I, along with my colleagues, am learning about equity and inclusiveness in the classroom so that we can nurture our children in a healthy environment where individuality and differences are accepted and celebrated, not feared nor hated.

I pray that we never witness tragedies such as the attacks of 9/11 ever again, but if I’m ever faced with a similar situation, I hope I’ll be able to handle the situation more wisely than my history teacher.

Farheen Fatima is a graduate of the City University of New York and is currently enrolled in the Teacher Education program at Queen’s Faculty of Education. She moved to Canada in 2006 and now resides in Kingston.

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