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.

“Why do people hate us?” was the question Americans were asking, he told us. He also said that to do what he was doing now—questioning, analyzing, wondering what could have led to this awful situation— was socially forbidden. People first needed to grieve.

We were told that the perpetrators had been inspired to carry out their hideous actions as “jihad,” based on the belief that they would become martyrs for their faith and then reach paradise. I was horrified. As a result of this, the whole world seemed to think Muslims believed their religion encouraged killing innocent people. This was incomprehensible to me and to most other Muslims, whose fundamental belief is to ensure peace and harmony in the world around us. Even the very name “Islam” means peace. It was hard for us to come to terms with the question: how could people who called themselves Muslims do something like this?

Jihad had been terribly mistranslated by Western commentators as “holy war.” It had been terribly twisted by the criminals who claimed that they were Muslims and that their violent acts were jihad against their “enemies.” Jihad actually meant “spiritual struggle.” It meant doing your best to live the highest moral and ethical life. It had its own place in religious terminology because it was an activity in its own right, and a tough one at that. It was a fight to stop the dark side of your conscience from behaving in a way that prevents you from being fully human. The only time jihad was allowed to become a physical struggle was if you were required to defend yourself from attack. Jihad did not permit the killing of innocent civilians.

As the hours and days progressed, the investigations into what had happened continued. We learned that there were nineteen men involved. We also found out that in the last hours before embarking on their plans, these men were busy getting drunk and having intimate relationships with unknown women. It didn’t make sense. If they were the dedicated puritans that the media described, they would not have engaged in these activities that were outside the bounds of Islamic behavior. And if their acts were not motivated by religion, why would they blow themselves up along with thousands of other people?

The shock that America experienced brought the world to an emotional standstill. On their home soil this huge and powerful nation had been attacked, and its citizens had never experienced such a thing before. They were in deep turmoil and anguish, and the world was with them. All other countries put their own devastation and pain into second place to share America’s moment of bereavement. Innocent people had been killed and this was intolerable. Islamic—human— etiquette demands that even a single innocent death must be mourned, irrespective of who that person is. The value of a lost person is not dependent on what else is happening in the world. One human life lost, wherever or whoever, is the loss of the whole of humanity.

Muslims from around the world sent heartfelt messages of condolence and denunciation, but it was never enough. No matter how much we condemned the atrocious acts, we were informed that we were actually supporting them. We were told that we ought to condemn them more fervently and more passionately. So we condemned them some more, and then we were told we were insincere. When we tried to explain the peaceful humanitarian principles of Islam, we were told that we were being false—otherwise how could these men have carried out their atrocious activities saying that they were “Islamic”? We also explained that their interpretation of the teachings of Islam was erroneous and they were criminals trying to justify their disgusting actions any way they could. Speaking out just attracted more attention, more vitriol, more hatred. But keeping quiet was not an option. Keeping quiet would allow others to suffer and the War on Terror to spiral out of control. I felt frightened—as though I had been identified and badged as “evil” and a “terrorist.”

I was fearful of what lay ahead for me as a Muslim.

This was the first time that I was encouraged to say “not in my name.” It was demanded of me as a Muslim to denounce what had happened, distancing myself from something that was not my responsibility. I wholeheartedly rejected the outrageous attacks, and it came from my very soul to state my horror at the deaths. I denounced the actions as a human being, as a citizen of the world who abhorred violence and the killing of innocent people, and the willful destruction of people, property, and symbols.

“Not in my name” as a human being was a universal statement. But I felt angry that it was expected of me to say “not in my name” as a Muslim. Even though I was a Muslim, I had no connections to the evil men who had done this, so why should I have to say “not in my Muslim name”? Why should I create a link that didn’t exist? I was as little involved as anyone else. I had been taught only peace and harmony. That was the very fundamental basis of faith—to be at peace with the Creator, at peace with one’s self, and at peace with others.

“Not in my name” still echoes after July 7 in London, and is still demanded whenever a Muslim is linked to violence. I am asked to become an apologist for the actions of others, connected to me only as much as anyone else in the six degrees of separation. But I should only be held responsible for my own actions: that is a human principle, an Islamic principle.

After September 11, 2001, and again after the events of July 2005 in London, my color, my name, and my headscarf marked me out and tagged me with the label “terrorist.” It was September 11 that marked the date of the very first time that I felt subhuman in Britain, and the first day that I felt scared to live in my own country.

Many days before the awful events in New York, I had arranged to meet with a group of Muslim women to build a Muslim women’s social network. This was to have been our first meeting. Our purpose was to drink tea, eat muffins, and make new friends. It was September 12 and the girls felt nervous.

“Not sure we should be out,” said Sara.

“I’m feeling scared,” said Noreen. “We’ll be exposed and in danger. People will be watching us, wondering what a group of Muslim women is talking about.”

I was worried too: we could be targets. Would we be attacked verbally or even physically? My uncle had two fingers aggressively thrown up at him; my father had been jostled by two men in the supermarket that morning.

Everyone was frightened to be out in public—what if London was next? The streets stank of fear, people were eyed suspiciously, and footsteps rattled swiftly across pavements to take their owners home to safety and the never-ending stream of news analysis on which we were now all fixated.

We were the same as everyone, just as worried, just as fearful. But we carried a double burden: targets for the terrorists and targets for those who were now boiling with anger and fear because of the attacks on the Twin Towers.

We took a decision to meet anyway, in a small coffee shop. There were five of us who refused to be cowed by the fear that the terrorists had invoked in all those around us, five of us who refused to be targeted by those who stereotyped us as terrorists, too. Five of us who needed a strong cappuccino and some marshmallows. We were just as shocked as the rest of London, just as horrified and just as opposed to the violence. But we had to get on with life.

My faith had been quiet and broadly unknown, but suddenly Islam was discussed constantly. Some commentators reiterated our vehement arguments about Islam’s opposition to violence and the killing of innocent civilians. Politicians outlined new policies under the mantle of the War on Terror. Afghanistan was the first casualty, and would be bombed to evict Bin Laden. We despaired for the innocent civilians who would be killed there as collateral damage to find him. Their deaths would not bring back the innocent Americans who had died. It was awful to contemplate that one attack on the United States meant thousands and thousands of innocent civilians being killed in Afghanistan. Soon Iraq was to follow.

It became difficult to engage in ordinary activities if you were a Muslim. If you were boarding an airplane, you would be subjected to extraordinary and unwarranted checks if you had a Muslim name, even if you didn’t fit the simplistic descriptions of what a Muslim was supposed to look like. My friend Shahnaz was stopped 10 times in one multi-destination trip “for no reason.” She was told it was “just routine.” Another friend was detained on his way to an interview “for no reason.” He told them his interview time, and was then held back and released deliberately a few minutes after his appointment. My friends who worked in banks were told to freeze accounts of people with “Muslim-sounding names.”

As I disembarked from a flight returning to London after a work trip, a woman from immigration was waiting with intent at the exit of the plane. She barked at me to step aside, uninterested in any of the other passengers. She insisted on looking at my passport, and I asked why I was the only one being checked, as hundreds of others walked past me. She repeated her demand. I asked her again why she wanted to see my British passport but she ignored me. “If you don’t show me, we’ll have to take you for questioning. Who knows how long that might take,” she whispered ominously.

One morning later that winter, Emma pulled me to one side as I arrived in the office. I was wearing a black headscarf to coordinate with a smart black suit that I had just bought. Since it was an icy November morning, I had pulled on my long black winter coat to keep out the cold, as most of the other men and women in the city had also done. I hadn’t thought twice about the combination of black headscarf and black coat. It was cold midwinter and black was the order of the day.

“I really don’t think you should dress all in black,” Emma whispered.

I was baffled. Was wearing black now a fashion faux pas?

Her eyes crinkled with concern. “People might get the wrong impression, you know, with all the stuff going on in the news. You might get hurt.”

Emma meant well, of this I was certain. She was someone who cared about the fact that I was a Muslim. She cared about whether I got hurt. She saw what other people perhaps didn’t see: I was a person like everyone else underneath. I loved her for this.

“Thank you, Emma, I really appreciate your concern.” I smiled warmly at her and gave her a gentle hug. “Consider the all-black French spy look gone and forgotten.”

“You don’t mind me saying anything?”

“Of course not. I like it that you are concerned for me.”

Emma’s comments reassured me that things could get better, that we could aspire to a society where we treated individuals on their own merits and cared for their well-being. I was hopeful that there were other good-hearted Emmas out there. The world needed more people who looked out for each other.

Her comments made me worry, too: would it be enough to avoid wearing black? Those who ignorantly held me responsible would seek out vengeance, whether their target was marked clearly and stereotypically in black or not. If I removed my headscarf, that would make me less noticeable. There was discussion about whether women who wore the headscarf would be advised to remove it for their own safety. I was adamant that this was not something I would consider. I was firm in my belief and I would stand up for it. I refused to change the way I practiced my faith or to let fear stop me from carrying out what I believed in. If I did that, I would have failed in my duty as a citizen.

I worried about the stereotypes of Muslims that were being perpetuated. Emma’s idea that those who wore black coats and black headscarves would be seen as terrorists was one of those stereotypes. I was deeply touched that she was worried on behalf of my safety. And I understood her dilemma about whether to convey the stereotypes that other people might have of me. But by conveying those stereotypes, she was in small part accepting them and even reinforcing them. How was I to change the world if even the good people who were concerned about me couldn’t help me reject the prejudice that was out there? Accepting the inherent prejudices that people had would make me live my life in fear, constantly worried about how people were seeing me. I needed to be brave and shatter those ideas.

It wasn’t easy. Fear and violence were affecting all of us. One of my headscarf-wearing friends was punched and her nose broken as she sat quietly on the train home. Her aggressor muttered profanities about her faith and her “terrorist activities” as he went on to terrorize her himself. He inflicted shattering pain on her face and then walked off at the next station. Even when he was gone, the other passengers left her to bleed.

As a Muslim who believed in peace and dialogue, I had to face fear and aggression from several quarters. Those who had conducted the attacks on the Twin Towers had attacked the very core of Islamic belief that we should be working toward peace. They claimed aggressively that people like me were weak “moderate” Muslims. Paradoxically, as had been my experience over the previous weeks and months, I was associated with those who had perpetrated the acts, labeled as “violent” and “extremist.”

In among all of these stark opinions were the ongoing discussions about the position and treatment of Muslim women. The views that I had seen on television as a young child, painting Muslim women as oppressed and abused, had changed very little in the intervening years. Islam was held almost entirely responsible for all the violence conducted in non-Western countries against Muslim women, even though such horrible acts were usually driven by culture, the cycle of underdevelopment and a lack of education. The suffering that women in these areas had endured was compounded by wars that left them in poverty, barely able to survive. As for me, even though I had chosen to wear the headscarf, the public discussions about Muslim women—which rarely included the voices of Muslim women themselves—identified me as too repressed to know my own mind; so repressed, in fact, that I wasn’t allowed  to speak for myself in these debates. By wearing the headscarf, I was said to be participating in my own oppression.

So many labels were stuck onto me:
               Oppressed, repressed, subjugated, backward, ignorant
               Violent, extremist, hateful, terrorist, jihadist, evil, radical
               Weakling, moderate, sellout, self-hating, apologist.

Labels and boxes, I hated all of them. I was none of the above.
                My search for love offered me no escape from the boxes either:

                Nice Asian girl
                Overly pious, sour-faced Muslim hijabi
                Smarty-pants bossy-boots
                Boring, always praying, stay-at-home dullard
                Non-traditional, modern rule-breaker, independent,
                     unsuitable, unmoldable.

I was weighed down by expectations and labels from so many cultures and narratives, each trying to tell me what I should or should not be, each pretending to speak on my behalf. As just one person, how many stereotypes could I shatter?

I resolved to create a voice—my own voice—that would stop people speaking on my behalf, and that would be dedicated to answering the questions: Where does the truth lie? What is the right thing to do?

I broke all the boxes that people wanted to put me into with one
simple statement:
    I am me.

The different cultures, histories, religions, and heritages of being a British Asian Muslim woman had made me who I was. Those different strands were not burdens, but instead gave me a unique perspective so that I could see things from many different angles. I could bring together my cultures, my faith, and the clear vision that Islam offered to start building a more hopeful future.
I felt abandoned trying to deal with these huge questions on my own. My heart was disintegrating in the solitude, in my increasingly lonely, empty inner world. Would I be able to find a man to share these questions with? Where was the one who could empathize with me on this journey, who was also determined to throw over the stereotypes and live his own path?
    I am me, I reflected again, but who is he?

Reprinted from Love in a Headscarf, © 2010 by Shelina Zahra Janmohamed. Reprinted by permission of
Beacon Press.

Shelina Janmohamed, the author of 'Love in a Headscarf,' is a commentator on British Islam and Muslim women.
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