So we are 20 years from that infamous day 9/11 when lives were turned upside down all over the world. The reverberations across the world over the last two decades are simply too enormous to recount, and the tragic pictures coming out of Afghanistan in the last few weeks a testimony that 20 years on, not much has changed. The world is not any more safer than it was 20 years ago, in fact it is perhaps more unsafe. Identities are more polarised as the “us vs them” has become more institutionalised. Much is to be discussed there on how the world was reshaped that day and perhaps continues to be reshaped that day. But what about on the personal scale, what has been the personal effect of that.
what are the personal stories of 9/11?
As someone who experienced the fear of being a young Muslim in rural south England in the aftermath, delivering pizzas as a side hustle in between university and getting proper work, dealing with the public, 9/11 was a rude wake up call. A rude wake up call because on the one hand, it caused me to be more aware of my own faith, to dig deep into the traditions to see whether there was any justifications for the tragedy that had just happened. On the other hand it made me more aware of the deep cleavages within society where your colour and name automatically reflects a power imbalance and a hierarchy.
These were the cleavages that basically made you out to a suspect and the ‘other’ who was not to be trusted or worse a security risk. So when people talk of ‘those Muslims’ you know they refer to you because you can see it in their faces. When they troll you on social media, you know there is no chance of a civil conversation, because to them you are not welcome, because you look different, your name is different and you worship differently.
the “good” ones
The past 20 years has been a journey that has no destination. You quickly realise that the journey is fraught with obstacles as well as different external expectations of what the destination is. Day in and day out, you are confronted with that expectation to justify that you are one of the ‘good’ ones. You are expected to be that representative of the religion and apologise if a lone mad person attacks some innocent people some where on the other side of the world in the name of Islam and even then you know it doesn’t really make a difference. This is because everyone who has read anything they can get on the internet, has made up their mind about you and the religion you follow, even without meeting a single Muslim. Even if no one around you says anything, you quickly develop that paranoia that ‘they must be thinking it’, so you proactively act to disarm those notions, so much so that depending on the
It is a journey which doesn’t give you any favours much like those journeys in the sixties in America, that many black people used to take with only selected pitstops where you were welcome. You realise that there is a double standard where someone of another faith or community can carry out an attack on civilians but the rest of the adherents of that faith or from that community aren’t expected to apologise.
It is a journey that you know will take extra time, because you are always randomly searched in airports or you have the famous ‘SSS” on your boarding card which means you get invited to the ‘special’ room after immigration at airports. So travel always adds an additional couple of hours.
Somehow you find yourself in a car hurtling down a highway at 100mph towards a destination that you do not know, with everyone except you seeming to know the destination. Either you are with us or against us starts to resonate highly. You need to be with us, show us that you ‘adhere to our values’, that you are not them. Otherwise you are against us and with them because you don’t share those values. The problem with this black and white argument is that both sides have the same expectation on you.
Finding the moderate optimum speed on this journey becomes very hard. It is hard to offer a third way to the ‘either with us or against us’ narrative that says ‘I am not against you, I am totally against what happened to you at 9/11 but I am against the action being undertaken in response’. In offering that third way which at the heart of it defines that ‘violence does not beget violence’, you offer the chance to reflect and ponder and think about justice. Yet it is not a popular stance and it was not a popular in 2001 when we joined 1000s of others against the invasion of Afghanistan. There was another way where justice could have been obtained and perhaps thousands of innocent lives would have been spared. The incidents over the past few weeks just get me frustrated as to whether the last 20 years was worth it?
So this is a journey of searching over the last 20 years to who you are, what you stand for, how do you articulate what you stand for without it becoming a threat to the other?
it has been a journey of fear, frustration but also one of hope and friendship. Because just as there are those who sought to move away from you, there have been those who have chosen to come to you in solidarity and friendship, determined to see you for you. Like the friend who I hadn’t spoken to in about 5 years suddenly calling me out of the blue on 9/11 and offering me a safe place to stay because in his words “things will get bad for you”; or the chaplain at the local hospital who reached out in compassionate offering words of comfort when he knew you were facing tough times; or those who marched in solidarity in anti war marches in London, against the invasions of Afghanistan because they knew it would result in more deaths. That hope was apparent in the 10 year anniversary of 9/11 which coincidentally I was in the US for, where I saw many communities come together in reflection of a possibility of what could be and choosing to build bridges and break walls. Yet in the last 5 years exacerbated in the last 2 with the pandemic, that hope has become thin as racist and exclusionary ideologies dominate the narrative. This has to change and be countered.
Undoubtedly the 3000 + innocent lives that were lost 20 years ago should not be forgotten, but we can not reflect adequately if we also do not reflect on the ethics and morality of
Guantanamo, the profits of military-industrial complex, surveillance and reconnaissance, white nationalism, drones, hundreds of thousands of murdered Iraqi and Afghan civilians, and corrupt alliances. If we cannot ask these questions, then we can not and should not commemorate because these are all linked.
This is the spirit of resilience and hope that needs to be part of the reflections of 9/11 20 years on, and this is part of the continual journey of searching for belonging, respect and understanding. So the question is not “where were you on 9/11?” but more “where have you been over the last 20 years since 9/11?” What has been your journey?