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Why the "War on Terror" Felt Like a War Against Me, an Ordinary Muslim

After 9/11 it was easy for people to lash out in fear. Ordinary Muslims like me, despite sharing the same panic and dread as everyone else, became cast as murderous villains.

The following is an excerpt from Shelina Janmohamed's new book, Love in a Headscarf (Beacon Press, 2010).

It was an average Tuesday at work. In the office our row of desks looked out of the full-height glass windows of the fifth floor. We were perched above the Thames and could see the Houses of Parliament at one end, and past several bridges and into the blurry, crowded money-scape of the city at the other end. Behind us was a busy London street.

The weather was averagely autumnal; dry, crisp leaves colorfully littering the streets; collars now upturned on the city types who click-clacked their smart city shoes on the gritty pavements as they rushed home on the ever-so-slightly-closing-in September evenings; thicker and longer than average coats on the slick all-in-black media women.

I sat next to Emma, an unpredictable Anglo-German woman of highly strung intensity and brow-furrowing naivety. Behind me were Elaine and Nicola, two women, about my age, who were excited about moving to London after graduating from their university. Opposite me was handsome, well-traveled, courteous Jack. He was a tall, affable all-American college boy who charmed effortlessly and unknowingly, pulling wonky faces at managerial nonsense and participating in peer-to-peer banter with good will and kind heart. Jack was optimistically American and realistically New York savvy. His humorous self-deprecating cynicism meant he had blended in nicely in London.

We sat punching away at our keyboards, post-lunch, pre-home time. E-mails flew backward and forward, the Internet was surfed, and digital decisions were made. On the other side of the room there was a whisper.

Heads lifted across from me and I heard a voice shout, “A plane has crashed into the World Trade Center!”

I looked up. The room was full of agitated rustling, eyes squinting, eyebrows rising. Everyone was restless but there was as yet no sense of shock or fear.

I heard the words again: a plane has crashed. I imagined it to be a small glider and wondered how it could have entered a well-monitored area like Manhattan and then lost control. I didn’t imagine it to be anything other than a horrible accident.

I carried on typing. Suddenly, there was a loud, frantic shout:

“Oh, my God, I think we should watch this on the large screen in the canteen!”

Chairs scraped, shoes clattered, and bodies moved hurriedly. We raced to the open space where we sat and ate our lunch every day. As we ran, our eyes remained glued to the large television screen above us that was playing a live news feed. The camera was static on the stark image of two of the world’s most famous buildings standing tall against the autumn blue sky. We were stunned: the World Trade Center had swathes of menacing black smoke billowing out of it.

We remained frozen with horror. It was completely unbelievable; we couldn’t understand exactly what was happening. Then, before our eyes, a second plane came into view and crashed into the second tower.

I was in shock as they kept replaying the second crash. This can’t be true, I thought, this is just a sick Armageddon Hollywood blockbuster.

No one knew what to say. The events were inexplicable. Nothing like this had ever happened before. This was the first attack of its kind on America that we could remember during our lifetimes. After we could no longer bear to see the same crash scenes anymore, we returned to our desks. We couldn’t make sense of what had happened.

Jack and I searched the Internet in a frenzy to find out more, something, anything. The BBC Web site was down, CNN was down, CBS was down, Fox News was down. They had all been broadcasting from the Twin Towers, and those that hadn’t were just unable to cope with the number of visits to their Web sites and their servers froze up. We were among millions of people looking for information, and right now we didn’t have access to any at all. Jack had friends who worked in the building. My friend’s fiancé worked there, too. There was panic on our floor as everyone recalled a friend or colleague who worked at the Twin Towers.

Who could have done this? A Palestinian group claimed responsibility, seeing an opportunity for raising awareness of their organization. Then they withdrew, realizing that the pretense was more than they could handle.

I returned home, and stayed glued to the television screen, like all of my friends and colleagues. London fell into a stillness that none of us was used to. The minutes ticked by and still we had no news, nothing was clearer. We sank into a chasm of fear and distrust. Which city would be next? There was so little information about who had carried out this attack or what their motivations were that we assumed London would soon be a target.

George W. Bush announced the culprit was Al-Qaeda. Al-Who? I had never heard of them. The world’s most wanted man was suddenly Osama Bin Laden. I’d never heard of him either. We were told that Bin Laden and his associates had carried out the attacks. They were Muslims and had declared jihad on the West. Nine days later George W. Bush announced his own war in response, the War on Terror. It felt like it was declared on me, on us as Muslims. I felt stigmatized and cornered. It was not the autumnal air that gave me chills.

Just like the rest of the public I felt angry and frightened. It was easy for people to lash out in fear, and ordinary Muslims like me, despite sharing the same panic and dread as everyone else, became cast as murderous, hateful, barbaric villains. Double whammy, I thought to myself. We now faced fear on two sides.

My headscarf was suddenly a neon flashing light as I walked along the wide-eyed fearful streets. The horrific tragedy in New York and the thousands of innocent deaths were, it seemed, my fault.

Every channel was full of discussion, debate, and analysis. Jack returned from a short visit he had made to New York to ensure his friends and family were okay after the attacks. He described how groupthink patriotism had spread itself over the tragic remains of Ground Zero.

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