This past weekend, many Americans commemorated the tenth anniversary of September 11th. Some retold the stories of losing loved ones amidst the constant buzz of news stations replaying the images and sounds of planes hitting buildings. Others celebrated the vicious assassination of Osama bin Laden and death of Saddam Hussein as proof that we are, in the inspirational words of George W., “kicking ass” in the War on Terror. Underlying all this pageantry was an almost cultish romanticization of American democracy and freedom. But these commemorative moments of neologistic patriotism were not felt equally by all: for me and other brown-skinned Muslims, Arabs, and look-alikes in this country, our memories of 9/11 have been clouded by what has happened since that fateful day.
The day after airplanes full of civilians from my homeland were hijacked and crashed by terrorists from my motherland, I arrived at Portage West Middle School to find that my locker had been broken into and most of my belongings stolen. Later on in the day, I was asked to report to the Vice Principal’s office, where most of my belongings were strewn across the floor. Whatever remained of my overpriced but underused graphing calculator, extensive collection of rainbow gel pens, and outdated textbooks was beyond repair. In what was most likely a pre-pubescent frenzied mess of patriotic post-9/11 R.A.T.M. (Rage Against The Muslim), my things were smothered in and dragged through the mud in the woods behind my school, where a jogger eventually found them. Absent any evidence at all, the school administrator proceeded to accuse me of staging the hate crime as an attention-seeking ploy, implying that I was a twelve-year old sociopath.
I was nothing of the sort – at least not then. If I did suffer from anything remotely pathological, it was shame for my name. Born on the eve of the Gulf War, my parents named me Hussain, and so my first grade peers nicknamed me Saddam. I was even asked by my fourth grade teacher to explain to our social studies class the Arabic translation of “Saddam” – because I was named Hussain, like Saddam Hussein, the late Iraqi dictator who was both partner to and victim of U.S. American political powerbrokering.
I know now that I am also named Hussain, like Hussein ibn Ali (RA), the youngest grandson of the prophet Muhammad (S). Hussain, like Barack Hussein Obama, the first black man to be elected President of a country that was built on the stolen sweat and tears of black bondspeople and felons. Hussain, like the name printed on the boarding ticket that is always ‘randomly’ selected for special security screening. Hussain, like the faded, muddied Hussain that I had etched in powder blue gel ink onto the back of the calculator that I supposedly trashed for added attention – as if an outspoken, dark-skinned, flamboyantly gay Muslim pre-teen named Hussain living in a mostly white, mostly straight, mostly Christian Midwestern city needed any “added attention.”
But the added attention that Muslims have since been paid is anything but a feigned distraction. It has ranged from the resurgence of fringe racial epithets like sand nigger and camel jockey to the random TSA strip-searching of teenage Muslim hijabis to the democracy-building military occupation of Muslim countries in the Middle East. This has all been justified, or at least rationalized, as the collateral damage of the War on Terror – a war declared in supposed defense of American freedom in the days following 9/11. Many Americans felt united and whole in this War on Terror, which they saw as a godly pursuit in the name of democracy and liberty. Many felt proud to be free and united against the perceived existential threat to American existence. But for me, for the hundreds of Muslims imprisoned and tortured at Gitmo, and for the thousands more that lived in fear of being indefinitely detained, freedom has been forever tarnished by what happened on 9/11 and the decade that followed.
What I most remember of those days was being twelve years-old and blamed by my Vice Principal for trashing my own belongings for attention on the day after people with my name, skin color and religion attacked the country I was born in. I remember feeling a confounding sense of guilt and shame each time the media replayed video clips of airplanes colliding into buildings. I remember being made to feel responsible. I remember the odd but subtle clicks in dial tone and abrupt breaks in conversation on my family’s home phone line. I remember praying for the safety of my family and friends overseas – for my ummah, my Muslim community – during the initial U.S. American military strikes on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. I remember drinking chai with my nine year old Iraqi friend Hamza, who had travelled to the U.S. to be fitted with a prosthetic limb after his leg and intestines had been blown off by an American missile. I remember being detained when I flew through my homeland’s capital to attend my namesake’s Presidential inauguration in 2008. I also remember being detained when I drove to Springfield, Illinois to visit Abraham Lincoln’s Presidential Museum on the 144th anniversary of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. I remember being told to “go home” when I was in my own backyard.
These memories will not fade, but they can be improved. In a decade from now, I hope to be able to commemorate 9/11 the way most mainstream Americans have: without feeling guilty for practicing my faith; without feeling the threat of impending detainment for having a certain type of name; without feeling like I have to apologize on behalf of my community for not “reaching out” to the rest of U.S. America. Until then I can only pray for a new version of freedom that is worth defending, one that does not equivocate murder with justice; a version of freedom that is open to a world undivided by militarized borders; a version of freedom that the thousands of U.S. Americans and tens of thousands of Muslims who perished on and since 9/11 would be honored to have died for. Or even better, a version of freedom that no one must die for.
Inna Lillahi Wa Inna Illahi Raji’oon – to Allah we belong, and to Her we shall return.
Hussain Turk holds a B.A. from Kalamazoo College in Political Science with specializations in modern and contemporary political theories of radical feminist and racial liberation. He now serves as Program Coordinator for the Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership in Kalamazoo, MI. As an activist, he is most passionate about building racial solidarity and community across different non-white racial and ethnic identities, and organizing around social injustices that affect queer people of color. In his free time, Hussain enjoys fitness and exercise, traveling, and pretending to talk on his mobile phone while singing in the car