Ten years ago Monday, Americans shared a collective experience of horror as we gathered around our televisions with our families and friends. With our hands clasped over our mouths in shock, we cringed as we watched the Twin Towers topple down like a dusty, soot covered house of cards. After the shared bewilderment, came grief, quickly followed by anger. The free floating rage and resentment needed a target and Muslims, American and otherwise, fit the bill; after all, Osama bin Laden’s band of men had taken their own lives, along with 2,819 others, in the name of Islam. One would hope that this misplaced anger against all Muslims and wholesale demonization of Islam were simply a reflexive reaction, and would die down soon enough. Well, it seems that even a decade later, Muslim Americans continue play the role of the perennial villains. We have not only the criminal acts of a deluded, hateful minority to blame for our typecasting, but also our own failure to take ownership of our narrative.
Muslim Americans can take a page from Egypt’s book when it comes to taking control of one’s narrative. The Egyptian revolution toppled a dictator yes, but just as important was the story it told—Egyptian men and women descending upon the streets in a peaceful grassroots movement to reclaim their democratic rights. For the past decade, when the West heard the word ‘Muslim’ it automatically triggered images of swarthy, bearded men in the mountains of Afghanistan brandishing rifles and chanting “Death to America!” The spring of 2011 challenged this picture and replaced these dark, frightening snapshots with a new mental movie, that of bearded young men and hijab-clad women braving tear gas as they determinedly marched into Tahrir Square holding Qur’ans next to crosses, chanting “Muslim, Christian, we are all Egyptian!” Egyptians took control of their story and, in doing so, gave the West a glimpse into the contributions of Muslim citizens to their nations.
Muslim Americans need not mount a wholesale revolution like in Egypt, but we must put an end to this pattern of reacting to threats instead of defining ourselves before small-minded bigots do. The most high-profile example of our tendency to bury our heads in the sand is that of the construction of an Islamic Center (now known as Park51) near ground zero. Park51 caused skirmishes across the country as protesters tried to shut the door on a faith seen as a singular threat, shouting that the center amounted to the desecration of hallowed ground. While the protesters did not go unanswered, far too often Muslim Americans were sluggish to organize in comparison to their opponents, giving their challengers the opportunity to flood the airwaves with their narrative first (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/08/us/08mosque.html).
On the tenth anniversary of 9/11, we will remember the Americans whose lives were taken needlessly and violently, but as Muslim Americans we must also begin to shed the specter of that day which seems to loom over us. And the best way to that is by reclaiming our story. We cannot afford to remain ensconced in our isolated communities and wait out the storm; we must share our stories in our own voices. Some have already begun the process of articulating their experiences and perspectives as Muslim Americans. Among them is Willow Wilson, whose 2011 memoir “The Butterfly Mosque” beautifully chronicles her struggle to carve out her unusual identity as an American, a Muslim convert and a journalist living in Egypt, all the while falling in love for the first time. Wajahat Ali’s national play “Domestic Crusaders” follows three generations in a Pakistani American family also grappling with their place in a post-9/11 world. The play’s dialogues are sprinkled with accusations, laughter and confessions, much like the acclaimed American play “Long Day’s Journey into Night.”
Both Wilson and Ali channeled their personal experiences into works of art that are now pieces of the larger American narrative, but our stories need not only be told by individuals willing and able to single-handedly produce a novel or a play. We can also document our journeys in a more collective and interactive forum. An online magazine called http://www.altmuslimah.com uses a combination of analysis and personal stories to go beyond the sound bites on hijabs and polygamy that inspire distrust of Islam, and instead brings into sharper focus the concerns and stories of ordinary Muslim-American women. As editor at Altmuslimah, I help Muslim writers– largely female– crack open issues like domestic abuse, infertility and body image in the Muslim community, and I see that the more stories they mine, the more apparent it becomes that their experiences mirror those of all Americans.
On the cusp of the tenth anniversary of 9/11, Muslim- Americans are acutely aware of the sad fact that entire populations are often represented in the public by their worst elements. Now we must harness the power of narratives to right that imbalance. By taking ownership of our story, we can begin to paint our piece of the American mosaic in nuanced strokes rather than surrender the brush to someone who will use broad, lazy ones.