Arab Spring: Inspired by 9/11?

Published 09/12/2011 on Huffington Post

It’s been 10 years. Why should I write about 9/11? It has consumed my life for 10 years. Isn’t that enough? Sometimes I think 9/11 took away the best years of my life.

Maybe I sound like the same 16-year-old high school junior I was on this day 10 years ago. I remember sitting in AP U.S. History listening to my favorite teacher, Mr. Bent, lecture us on chapters of American history that have nothing to do with the Middle East. We heard the announcement and he turned on the TV. We all just watched in silence from our group circle. It was a small class filled with bright students, the creative-honors type. We were discussing the Marshall Plan or the qualifications to be the antitheses of Britney Spears, as class discussions often went off-topic.

I wanted to make sense of what was going on. What was the point, what was the reason behind the terrorist attack? People don’t just attack nations like that, right?

I remember certain news outlets suggesting Libya did it. Great, as if being associated with Gaddafi isn’t enough, I thought, and sunk lower in my chair. On that day I didn’t associate Islam with it, and I had no idea everyone else soon would.

I re-discovered Islam after that. I studied it. I read everything I could get my hands on. I wanted to be able to defend my religion and to defend myself against false accusations. I began writing political poetry to channel my anger as the world started to turn on me. If modesty was the underlying theme of Islam, 9/11 was the backdrop of mine. I became more defiant. I became more pro-Palestinian. I became more Arab. I became more Muslim.

I didn’t become less patriotic, I became aware.

I remember Muslim community leaders urging American Muslims to see the silver lining; that the tragedy encouraged people to learn about Islam, to discover its beauty. “Islam is a peaceful religion” was repeated by Muslim leaders over and over again, but the loud speeches from Osama bin Laden and George W. Bush kept drowning them out.

Looking back, I guess there was a silver lining. I didn’t hate Islam after 9/11. In fact, I started to love it. I became obsessed with the notion of being Muslim and understanding what that meant in order to understand my place in the world. I couldn’t just be me, you see. Like so many Muslims, I felt a higher-calling. I felt an urgent need to do something to prove my humanity and in doing so I believed I was serving Islam.

Two years later, when I enrolled in university, I joined every Arab, Muslim friendly activist group I could think of. I was a member of the Muslim Students Association, Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee, Council on American Islamic Relations, Muslim Public Affairs Council, Students for Peace and Justice in Palestine, Alliance for Peace and Justice in the Middle East and the Middle East North African student group. I participated in countless discussions and faith-based community projects. I started writing op-eds in community papers and I went to interfaith potlucks with Jewish and Christian groups on campus. I went to one of the biggest party schools in the U.S. but I didn’t often feel care-free enough to party. I was attracted to scholarly analysis. I don’t think I had decided on a major yet, when I signed up for Islam and Shariah law, a course only open to master’s students.

I spent a good amount of the best years of my life worrying about my identity. As awful as it sounds, I don’t regret it. It kept me out of trouble, it made me understand the politics of the East and the West, and it brought me closer to Allah. It was the start of a complicated love/hate relationship, a complicated attempt to understand my faith and identity, topics I mention in “Capitol Hill Diaries” my essay on the irony of being an Arab and Muslim public servant in a post-9/11 environment.

You can’t listen to stories of discrimination against a group you belong to, against friends and family or against you and pretend you aren’t affected. I came of age during 9/11. I developed a thick skin. I became a strong Muslim woman. More than anything, 9/11 made me who I am now. It made me realize I wanted to live in a better world. It made me aware of the inequality and injustice against Arabs and Muslims around the world, and it turned me into a revolutionary.

My best friend in high school was Iraqi. We were sitting at Starbucks with her father on the evening before the U.S. invaded Iraq. I remember feeling anxious and nervous and incredibly turned-off by what it meant to be an American. 9/11 didn’t change everything. The U.S. invasion of Iraq did. The political hostility towards Muslims in the U.S. and around the world, both as a result of the terrorists’ extreme ideology, and the hypocrisy of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, made it difficult to mention the tragedy of 3,000 dead people and a nation attacked, without automatically thinking of the disastrous aftermath of U.S. foreign policy, which had a direct result on the daily life of U.S. citizens.

On this day, 10 years later, as I write this from the Arabian Gulf, I can’t help but wonder. Would the Arab Spring exist without 9/11? Wasn’t 9/11 the catalyst that made Muslims around the world publicly and vehemently reject extremism? Aren’t the Arab revolutions about freedom of expression, freedom from tyranny and rejecting one man speak for an entire country?

On this day, 10 years later, having lived through the violent and inspiring, life-changing North African revolutions, I look back at my life and finally feel like it is starting to make sense. I’ve seen 16-year-olds try to make sense of terror. I’ve seen Arab Youth reject Islamic extremism. I’ve seen Libyans yell “Allahu Akbar” and welcome western assistance.

My favorite response to 9/11 was when Tunisians ousted their dictator in January of 2011. On this day, a decade later, we should stop seeing the world through the lens of 9/11, or the War on Terror, but rather, through the universal call for Freedom.


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