I was walking west through Midtown Manhattan’s urban canyons and admiring the cloudless September day when I met a small, disparate group of distressed pedestrians looking skyward. They told me a plane had crashed into one of the Twin Towers. It was such a clear day, but could it have been an accident?
Minutes later when I came to Madison Avenue, I found people lining both the sidewalks. They were all looking downtown at the flames and smoke billowing from the North Tower. By that time a second plane had hit the South Tower. It was clear that this was no accident.
At the office, we pieced together information from the radio, Internet, and frantic phone calls. Within minutes we knew the planes were hijacked commercial passenger planes, and that New York was not the only target. Needless to say, the gravity and uncertainty of the situation multiplied in minutes.
As we hurriedly accounted for off-site colleagues, on-site colleagues meandered and slowly made their way to a partner’s office. We were just about assembled when a colleague screamed and covered her face. The South Tower crumbled before our unbelieving eyes.
Within minutes, we all left the office. Although we left without the official word from management, we didn’t leave without sticking post-its on our doors with contact information for stranded colleagues. My colleague and I walked back to my apartment silently with throngs of other stunned New Yorkers, all trying to make sense of the situation. When we got home, my doorman told me the North Tower had collapsed too.
I was very lucky that day. I got home without a scratch and had no trouble reaching my family and friends.
The days that followed were hard. The city was silent, flights were grounded, and even taxi drivers weren’t honking. We were numb, yet anxious; and our guard was down, at least with each other. Total strangers asked after, and assisted each other in neighborhood bodegas, office hallways, and apartment lobbies alike.
My friends asked me to host a gathering at my apartment the Sunday after 9/11. I agreed. I was heavy-hearted and welcomed the opportunity to be with friends. We soon realized the only way to comfort each other and to channel our deep sadness was to serve the needs of our fellow Americans. We had to act — and quickly. We had to assist New Yorkers, many of whom, like us, were trying to make sense of this senseless tragedy.
My 9/11 story isn’t unique. I am sure you have heard similar ones before. I was one of many Americans who desperately wanted to help in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, as evidenced by the fact that the blood banks were full, and Americans contributed an unprecedented $2.2 billion towards assistance and victim relief.
It’s true. I am just an average American who responded to the tragedy of 9/11 by getting involved in my community.
Except for one thing: I am also Muslim.
Does the fact that I am Muslim change your view of me in any way? I hope it doesn’t, but I know that the statistics are not in my favor.
The assistance organization we started was called Muslims Against Terrorism. For almost two years after 9/11, we worked with the Auburn Seminary and the Tanenbaum Center among others. The hijackers, by brutally killing innocents, defaced our religion. They were not Muslims and their actions were not in accordance with Islam. We said this again and again in the two years post-9/11. We knew we had to tell people this, and that we had to educate about Islam and Muslims in the media, schools, community centers, corporations, churches, and synagogues.
We weren’t theologians. We were corporate, non-profit and government professionals who wanted to help America heal post-9/11. Our voice as American Muslims was needed. It still is.
I took a break after Muslims Against Terrorism disbanded in 2003 and became involved with the American Muslim community again in 2007. I accepted a national role with CAMP (Council for the Advancement of Muslim Professionals).
I got involved again because I believed that six years after 9/11, the American Muslim community had to be proactive and hopeful. I felt that a positive message would resonate with Gen X and Gen Y Muslim Americans, particularly young professionals, and would encourage them to get involved. Largely, it has worked out that way.
We can only move forward with vision and purpose, and that is always my goal, but the American Muslim community still faces significant challenges ten years after 9/11 that hold us back. Ask any American Muslim advocate, activist, or community organizer about the ground reality. They will tell you just how hard the last 10 years have been. To summarize, American Muslims’ civil rights and civil liberties are being breached every day; Islamophobia and anti-Muslim hate is real; and the anti-Sharia movement is too.
We are inching forward, though. Within the American Muslim community, I credit social media, increased philanthropic funding, and programs like AMCLI (American Muslim Civic Leadership Institute). Better communication platforms and less dependence on private donations are helping our organizations become stronger and more professional. Simultaneously more American Muslims are coming into their own and forming trusting, collaborative networks. Outside the community, I credit our supporters. Most recently, Governor Christie was outspoken in his support of superior court judge appointee Sohail Mohammed against “the crazies.”
But we do need your help. As this sad day of remembrance approaches, and we move into the second decade of trying to make sense of this senseless tragedy, I have a sincere request from one American to another. Please seek out stories about American Muslims through friends, in print, on film, and on stage. We need you as our allies and friends more than ever before.
Zeba Iqbal is the executive director of the Council of American Muslim Professionals. She also works for Princeton University as a program manager for off-campus real estate development.