Muslim youth in America: A generation shadowed by the aftermath of 9/11

Hanae Bentchich, 21, left, and Dalal Oyoun, 17
Hanae Bentchich, 21, left, and Dalal Oyoun, 17, talk about growing up as Muslim Americans in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)
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On a rainy day during her sophomore year of high school, as Aissata Ba studied in the library, a photo popped into her phone.

It showed a beheading by Islamic State militants, along with a caption in red letters: “Go back to your country.”

Ba reported the incident. Administrators never tracked down the person who sent it.

It was not the first time she’d been the focus of hatred, the 20-year-old said, betraying no emotion as she recounted such incidents, sitting next to her parents in their Southern California home. A copy of the Quran lay prominently on the coffee table.

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There was the boy in sixth grade who would say allahu Akbar,” Arabic for “God is great,” and throw his backpack near her, pretending it was a bomb. And the time in eighth-grade math class when a boy turned to her and asked how she could “be part of a religion of terrorists.”

Asked when they thought such incidents became common, the Ba family didn’t hesitate.

Aissata Ba a Mauritanian-American Muslim at her home in Aliso Viejo, CA.
Aissata Ba, a Mauritanian American Muslim from Aliso Viejo, recalls repeated anti-Muslim acts directed at her as she grew up.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

“It started with 9/11,” said Ba’s mom, Zeinebou, who immigrated to Chicago in 1999.

That day in 2001 caused a chain of tragedies — for the nearly 3,000 people who perished during the attacks in New York, at the Pentagon and in Pennsylvania; for the young men and women who died serving their country in the wars that followed; and for Muslims, and those perceived as Muslim, who became targets of hate.

Some Muslims in the United States think about their lives as having two distinct chapters: before two planes crashed into the World Trade Center and after. Then there’s a generation that has known only a world in which one terrible day changed their country.

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In the Ba household — parents who emigrated from Mauritania and three daughters born in the U.S. just before and after 9/11 — those realities exist side by side.

“Terrorism existed before 9/11,” Aissata’s father, Amadou, said. But “I think here people experienced it really with 9/11. That became just a rallying cry. It just changed the world so much.”

Despite the stares and comments, the parents don’t regret having migrated to the U.S.

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They point to places like France, where some forms of Islamic dress are banned and the national Senate voted to forbid the wearing of headscarves in public. Compared with other Western countries, Amadou said with a laugh, “it’s a cakewalk here.”

Still, like many American Muslims, the Ba family is acutely aware of how 9/11 changed the atmosphere around them.

“Before that, you were just like a random person, like everyone else,” said Zeinebou Ba. “And then, after 9/11, you go out, and people look at you like you’re a terrorist.”

Dalal Oyoun, 17, left, and Hana Nashawati, 18, have dealt with discrimination for being Muslim.
Dalal Oyoun, 17, left, and Hana Nashawati, 18, have dealt with discrimination for being Muslim.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

For 18-year-old Hana Nashawati — who, like Aissata Ba, wears a hijab, a headscarf or other covering designed to maintain modesty — that environment persists in the form of angry glares from strangers.

For Dalal Oyoun, 17, it caused years-long embarrassment about identifying as Muslim and a sense of dread when talk in school turned to 9/11.

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“Post-9/11, Islamophobia spiked,” said 22-year-old Salma Nasoordeen. That created “kind of, like, a harsh environment for us to grow up in.”

Young Muslims were “right in the crosshairs” after 9/11, said Sabrina Alimahomed, associate professor of sociology at Cal State Long Beach, whose research focuses on the impact the war on terrorism had on U.S. Muslims. “Islamophobia was present and predates 9/11, but it became so much more substantial in terms of the way it became rooted in our structures and our culture,” she said.

In 2001, the year of the terrorist attacks, nearly 500 anti-Muslim incidents of hate crime were documented in the U.S. — up from 28 the year before. The number has never returned to the pre-9/11 levels.

Aissata Ba seen at her home in Aliso Viejo, discusses growing up Muslim in America.
“You focus on putting energy into people that actually accept you,” says Aissata Ba.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

Alimahomed cited widespread surveillance in the Muslim community and a preemptive assumption of guilt before innocence, some of which predated 9/11.

“If it’s a white shooter, they’re mentally unstable. If it’s a brown shooter or someone who’s Muslim, they’re automatically labeled a terrorist,” said Aissata. “Seeing things like that is so frustrating.”

To cope, she said, “you focus on putting energy into people that actually accept you and love you for who you are at the end of the day, because that’s the only way to survive.”

Mira Tarabeine, who was born in California, was 1 year old and living outside of the country during 9/11. But she dealt with the aftermath when her family fled the civil war in Syria and moved to the U.S. in 2012.

Mira Tarabeine, photographed in Beverly Hills, was a year old Sept. 11, 2001.
Mira Tarabeine, born a year before the Sept. 11 attacks, has relatives who were killed in a terror attack in Jordan and has faced verbal assaults as a Muslim in the U.S.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

“I never understood when I first moved here why it was bad to be Muslim,” Tarabeine said.

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There were jokes about 9/11 and questioning whether she had a bomb in her backpack. There was the little girl on the playground who, after learning that Tarabeine’s sister spoke Arabic, pleaded, “Please don’t kill me.” There was the video that aired during Tarabeine’s senior year in which a Middle Eastern student said, “I was called a terrorist — but I’m not Muslim.”

It all felt especially cruel because of the impact of terrorism on her family. In 2005, an Al Qaeda suicide bomber team attacked hotels in Jordan, including one at which Tarabeine’s grandmother and other family members were attending a wedding. Her mother’s stepfather and stepsister died in the attack.

9/11 changed life for U.S. Muslims and continues to loom over them — even those who weren’t yet born when the events took place.

“Arabs and Muslims tend to be victims of the same terrorists that did 9/11, but there’s no recognition of that,” Tarabeine said.

Over the decades, younger generations of Muslim Americans have lived through terrorist attacks and witnessed an entire religion asked to decry extremist violence each time. They were alive when roughly a dozen states voted to ban sharia law — even though it did not exist in the U.S. Most recently, they experienced former President Trump’s ban on visitors and immigrants from several mostly Muslim countries.

“You didn’t have to live through 9/11 to experience all the ripples of Islamophobia since,” Alimahomed said. “To experience all those ebbs and flows of those moments when they’re targeted again, and they’re spotlighted.”

Because of their visibility, that sense of being a target can be acute for women, especially those who wear a hijab.

Huda Saleh is 21.
Huda Saleh, 21, talks about repercussions from 9/11 during a group discussion in Anaheim.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

On a recent Friday night, nine young women gathered at the Islamic Institute of Orange County. They left their Converse and Adidas sneakers scattered steps away from the carpet so as not to dirty the prayer rugs where the faithful press their foreheads.

Some had been coming for years to a weekly youth group at the mosque, where they’ve talked about superstitions, coping with loss and the realities of marriage. After the sunset prayer, a few sat on the plush carpet in the women’s prayer room to talk with a reporter about 9/11, Islamophobia and growing up Muslim.

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The women’s families hailed from all over — Syria, Eritrea, Sri Lanka — but they found comfort in a shared faith. They joked about Hollywood portrayals of a Muslim woman falling in love with a white man and suddenly removing her hijab. (“We don’t do that.”)

The women, seven of whom wore white, black and sky-blue hijabs, talked about what it means to be visible.

“Growing up, as a hijabi woman, you never really know why a person is staring at you,” said Nashawati, who had a pair of sunglasses perched atop her brown hijab, pinned to her hair with a pink clip. “In my opinion, that makes it more scary for you, because when I’m walking outside, and I see a bunch of people staring at me, I’m like, why are they staring? Like, what did I do?”

A year ago, Nashawati was biking with a friend when she accidentally got too close to another woman on the trail. She apologized, but the woman looked at her for a minute before saying, “Go back to your country, you terrorist.” Nashawati’s friend, also Muslim, cursed at the woman. Nashawati was grateful for the support but feared the act would reflect poorly on Islam.

Hanae Bentchich, 21, said that a friend wanted to wear the hijab but worried because she sometimes experiences road rage while driving and didn’t want that put on her religion.

For some in the circle, that weight felt like too much.

Hanae Bentchich, 21, discusses the discrimination American Muslims face.
“I’m not going to downplay what happened on 9/11,” says Hanae Bentchich, 21. “But also, don’t be putting it on us.”
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

“When one person has that, like, one bad encounter with a Muslim, they’re like, ‘Oh, well, all Muslims are bad.’ I don’t want to give that bad idea to anyone,” said Oyoun, who wore a pair of sunglasses on top of her curly hair.

Although some mentioned being stared at, they were quick to add that — “Alhamdulillah,” praise God — they had never had their hijab pulled off, as some Muslim women have.

They rejected the idea that they’re oppressed by their faith. Bentchich noted that the prophet Muhammad’s first wife, Khadija, was a successful businesswoman who proposed to him.

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Then, they said, there’s the default association of Muslims with terrorism. Like many immigrant groups, they share a collective flinch when news comes of an attack.

“Is it just me, or do your families, like, anytime there’s anything going on like a terrorist attack, they’re just like, ‘God, please don’t let it be a Muslim?’” Nasoordeen, the mosque’s youth coordinator, asked, to a chorus of agreement from the young women.

Oyoun, who learned about 9/11 in school, dreaded the stares she would get in class when the topic came up; Layan Alasseel, 16, described sinking into her seat when it inevitably did.

“The way 9/11 is so highlighted, I just wish, like, other issues around the world are highlighted as well,” Oyoun said, as she pressed her black-painted fingernails against her jeans. “America destroyed the Middle East.”

The girls were quick to point out that the U.S. had only just pulled troops out of Afghanistan — two decades after the attack.

“I’m not going to downplay what happened on 9/11,” Bentchich said. “But also, don’t be putting it on us. ... We’re gonna have to carry that our whole life.”

Visibility makes a huge difference, as Amadou Ba quickly acknowledged. Because of his skin color, he said, he’s perceived as Black, not Muslim.

 Aissata Ba,19, a Mauritanian-American Muslim at her home in Aliso Viejo.
Aissata Ba’s father, Amadou, says his daughter and wife face more discrimination than he does because of their visibility as hijab-wearing Muslim women.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

“For me, sometimes it’s hard to understand what they mean when they say, ‘Look at how people look at them,’” he said, referring to his wife and daughters. “I’m a minority here, but I’m not the minority of the minority. For them, it’s completely different. You see them, you know they are Muslim.”

Amadou initially didn’t understand why Aissata, who has worn the hijab since age 11, and her mom wanted to get Transportation Security Administration PreCheck, which allows known travelers to go through airport security with fewer obstacles. For years, they’d dealt with ostensibly random screenings whenever they were at the airport.

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“They see the head cover, and it’s like they have to extra check you,” Zeinebou said.

On a school trip to Washington, D.C., when she was 14, Aissata was pulled out of line so her hands could be tested for bomb substances, she recalled. Five years later, her mother remains indignant.

After getting TSA PreCheck in June, the family took a trip. Aissata recalled walking through the metal detector and waiting.

“No pat-down?” she asked a TSA agent.

No pat-down.