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9/11 and the Death of the American Muslim Dream

by Anisa Noormohamed , Guest Blog Contributor & Founder of Nur SkinCare

Today marks the 19th anniversary of a day that changed so many of us profoundly. I often wonder what the trajectory of my life would have been had the events of that day had not happened, or even if the perpetrators hadn’t been Muslim. But that day did happen, and not only did this single event radicalize our entire nation, it changed forever the way that Americans saw Muslims as well as the way Muslim Americans saw themselves.

It all began when, shortly after 9/11, the Patriot Act was passed and although it was positioned in the name of National Security, it was nothing less than a retaliatory war on all Muslims. Prior to this I had experienced many forms of racism in America, but this was the first time I was looked at as the enemy. If ever there were a moment that changed life forever for Muslims, it was this one. We were targeted and surveilled by the government, while our neighbors side-eyed us. Slowly and little by little in the years that followed, many of our liberties were stripped.  Where we traveled, with whom we kept company, to which organizations we donated money, and the mosques where we prayed were all monitored in the name of keeping Americans safe.  Never mind that we too, were Americans. It all seemed strangely nostalgic to the Japanese American experience post-Hiroshima.  “It’s just a cycle, this too shall pass”, some said, but it has been almost twenty years now and we are still on the outskirts of American life, many of us still pledging allegiance to the US, still trying our best to demonstrate our loyalty in the hopes that beyond the color of our skin and the god which we worship, we too can someday assimilate.

 Within the next year or two following the passage of the Patriot Act, my father’s business, a small currency exchange, was targeted. Many of the customers he acquired throughout the years were cab drivers, like him, who sent money to their loved ones back home. In the post Patriot Act world, several had come under scrutiny simply for being Pakistani and/or Muslim. Some were rounded up and thrown in jail for long periods without being charged with a crime, and those who had overstayed their visas were immediately deported, often separated from their families. My father’s currency exchange supported approximately eighty percent of Chicago’s Pakistani Muslim immigrant community, most of whom were hardworking laborers or cab drivers who sent an average of $1000 or less per month to their families back home.  So many of them had the same story as my father – they were sent by their families to America to find a better life because that promise had been whispered throughout the streets of Karachi and Lahore by families who had sent their own sons abroad and were reaping the benefits. 

 The “better life” they aspired to was indeed better than the two rooms shared among ten siblings and a set of parents, living in slums with open sewers and no electricity, but it was no walk in the park. The first wave of Pakistani immigrants in Chicago lived like sardines with roommates, often slept on cold apartment floors, and worked several labor jobs. Still, it meant that they had a shot at having a warm home, a job, food on the table, maybe even a car, but more importantly, their kids might have a shot at the American dream. They lived their lives humbly and gratefully, and they formed communities. At one point, my father rented out a gymnasium on weekends as a side hustle allowing friends to gather together and watch old Indian and Pakistani movies, where they would reminisce about the lives they left back at home. Despite the hardships, America gave them a glimmer of hope to have a better life than the one they left behind.

 The first time I visited Pakistan I was eight. We never went prior to that because it was impossible to afford tickets for the whole family. I now wonder what it must have been like for my parents to migrate to a place where everything was completely foreign to their way of life, and not be able to connect to their loved ones except by “snail mail”, which would often take 30-40 days to arrive if it didn’t get lost. I remember my parents eagerly awaiting letters from their families and reading them with tears in their eyes. In the 1960s and 70s, phone service was rare, expensive, and shoddy at best. It took eight years for my parents to save up enough money for us to all visit Pakistan. My brother and I had to skip school for a couple of months because my parents wanted to make sure we got our money’s worth out of the expense. For me, the experience was a culture shock. The people in the villages where we my family lived shopped in open markets every day because they didn’t have refrigerators. Homes were shoddy and crowded, and every room served multiple purposes. My parents gifted my grandparents a VCR  “from Amrika”, which they covered for safekeeping. Their home became the hub where neighbors gathered to watch movies. It was a treat that symbolized upward mobility.

 It took years of working laborious jobs for my father to finally open his small currency exchange. He acquired one customer at a time, often after long days of cab driving, until he had the Chicago market share. It was all of this hard work, and my mother’s support of every aspect of our lives, that put food on the table and allowed me to pursue my education. After I received my B.S. in Chemical Engineering, I worked as a consultant for a top firm in Chicago, and one day I received a call from my brother, who had already quit his job (also a consultant for a top accounting firm) to help my father’s business. He said that our assets had been frozen and that the government was filing a lawsuit because they were investigating one or more of my father’s customers, and since the customer’s money was being passed through our business, we were tied to the investigation. He told me that in order to complete the enormous amounts of paperwork required by the government to prove that there was no wrongdoing on our part, he would need more staff and that we couldn’t afford it, so he could use my help.

 It was at first supposed to be a short sabbatical from work, but more lawsuits came. We hired expensive lawyers, and I was neck deep in paperwork, visits to court and meetings with attorneys. Our bank accounts were drained. To prove our innocence took time and money – lots of it, and we were running dry. Eventually, we realized that was the tactic. We were being scapegoated to prove that someone was doing their job, “cracking down on the war on terror”, while the real terrorists ran amuck. We were an easy target – we had all the elements that would satisfy a terrorist witch hunt – brown people, Pakistanis, Muslims – check, check, check, and being a small business, it was easy to either scare us off or run us dry of funds to defend ourselves, and that’s exactly what happened.  During the several years that followed, although we were eventually proven innocent of any wrongdoing, the family business was drained of all resources and forced to close down. The trauma associated with those years of fighting the government merely to prove our innocence remains with us to this day.

 My career and dreams were thrown off track. Instead of socializing, traveling, or dating, I spent several years of my life battling court cases and providing supporting documents. With each hearing as I sat in the courtroom where our fates were being determined, I started feeling less and less American and more and more an outsider. My circles now consisted primarily of Muslims, because those were the only people who understood, and in an effort to understand more about my own culture and religion, I applied to pursue my Master’s in Middle East Studies.

 I learned a lot about American foreign policy and how it affected the Muslim world – how America pillaged, plundered, occupied and colonized the Muslim world to gain access to resources. My studies filled a gaping hole in my previously revisionist understanding of American history, and it was not a pretty picture. My desire to learn more led me to understand more about American hegemony and its victims only after I had become one myself.

Fast forward to present day. I have my own family now and I am still afraid of what the future will look like for my daughter. As people of color, the fantasy we once had of attaining the American dream, if ever that was real, was forever shattered. We enrolled her in an Islamic school – something I never thought I would do – not because we are particularly religious but because we felt that she needed to have a solid understanding of the part of her identity that will be used against her as she navigates her own life, because even though she is born and bred in the US, she will never really be fully American like her White counterparts.

 I do not shelter my daughter from the injustices we hear, read about, or see in the world today. We cannot afford that luxury. Instead I talk to her about the ways things should be – that policies and laws should be based on human rights first and foremost. Even at a tender age, she knows that all humans are equal regardless of skin color, religious or personal affiliation and we teach her to stand up to injustice wherever it may be, so that regardless of our experiences today, we can hope for a better tomorrow. Without justice and equality for all, there can never be peace.

*originally published on Nur Skincare