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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Ripples of 9/11, as felt by a Muslim

Published: September 9, 2011
Section: Opinions, Top Stories

“Osama destroyed the Twin Towers! This is a victory for Muslims all around the world!” exclaimed my middle school math teacher one warm September morning in 2001.

It’s quite unsettling; I encountered more people who shared her view than I had the stomach for. I was in Dhaka, Bangladesh, during my 9/11 experience. Yes, everybody in my generation has his or her 9/11 story. In mine I was around people who were happy about the haunting tragedy.

I was a 10-year-old Bengali boy with an American passport. With most of my young childhood spent in the United States, my parents and I held a special connection to the country that had warmly accepted us and given us equal opportunities like the rest of its citizens. When I woke up on Sept. 11 and got ready for school, the expression in my mother’s eyes was rather melancholic. She looked at me and told me that there was a terrorist attack at the World Trade Center. Both of my parents expressed sorrow regarding the event. At the moment, I did not quite grasp the importance of the issue.

When I arrived at school, this seemed to be all everyone was talking about; all the children, all the teachers and all the administrators. I was surprised, however, that an overwhelming number of them, unlike my parents, were celebrating it. Bangladesh is not known as a country that fosters terrorism against the United States, yet, it seemed that this horrific stunt by Osama fired up an inner hatred against the West in many of my peers. Looking back at it now, what disturbs me further is the realization that most nine- or 10-year-old children form their opinions about major political and social events from their parents. This means that most of my peers’ parents held the same celebratory mentality. Many of my teachers went so far as to express joy about scaring America during class. Needless to say, I was a very confused child.

That night after dinner my parents and I sat down with a photo album. They showed me pictures of me with my father in front of the Twin Towers. There was also a photo of me standing on the highest floor of the building looking out the window. My 10-year-old brain realized that anyone could have been on the same floor, on the same spot as I was standing in that photo. I also realized that there were many Muslim people in there that day as well. When I mentioned that to my friends and teachers, they exclaimed that all the Muslims who died during 9/11 were martyrs and we should be proud of them. I told them: “I was in that building myself once and I would not see any glory in dying in such a way.”

Most of my friends and teachers in Bangladesh are Muslim but they are not terrorists. Thus, to this day I am still astonished by the speed with which they jumped on Osama’s anti-Western bandwagon. Besides the verbal spreading of hate, I thought that the people surrounding me were not causing much direct damage, especially not to me. Years later, however, I realized the damage they had really caused to me.

In 2008, I was a high school junior in the United States. My father had a flight booked to Bangladesh to visit my sick grandmother but two days before his flight he broke his leg. He still did not want to skip seeing his very ill mother so he still planned on flying. We went online and tried checking in early to avoid hassle and also to pick a front-row aisle seat so my dad could have some more leg room to rest his injured foot. At the very end of the process, an error message popped up saying that we needed to check in at the airport and could not pick out a seat. We were frustrated. At the airport we approached the counter and inquired about our incident and the officer told us that it was because of my father’s name: Babul Ahmed. Now my family is on some kind of a special list and we cannot check-in early or choose our plane seats in advance. All this just because our last name is Ahmed.

Now as an adult, I am contemplating dropping the despised “terrorist” last name, Ahmed, because of this incident. That is the only way in which I will be free from possible suspicion from airport officials and also avoid references from Jeff Dunham’s “Ahmed the Dead Terrorist” comedy skit.

I wish 9/11 had not happened. I despise Osama bin Laden for committing such a horrendous crime, fostering such hatred against the West and giving Muslims a negative reputation. By taking those two towers down, he did not only harm the United States, but he harmed me and many others like me who are associated with terrorism simply because we have Muslim last names. Islamophobia has been a major issue for Muslims all around the globe in this post-9/11 world. As much as that upsets me, I cannot get myself to feel any anger whatsoever because my mind jumps to what Osama did in 2001.

The unfortunate part in all of this is that I am caught in the middle of a situation I have no part in. I never fostered any kind of hate-speech against the United States and I have always condemned Osama for what he did. For this, my Bengali peers were not my biggest fans; however, now I am associated with having a terrorist last name in the United States. For a while I felt unaccepted by both the places I call home. I felt as if I were floating uncomfortably between the two ends of the spectrum.

The spring of my first year at Brandeis, however, I took a class with Professor Jytte Klausen from the politics department. The course was called “The Islamic Challenge: Politics and Religion in the West.” This was the first time I had the opportunity to speak about these complex issues in an academic setting. This was also the first time I ever gained the courage to share my story publicly. The class gave me strength, knowledge and a sense of ease regarding the complex issues of terrorism and Islamophobia in Western society. At the end of the day, I know I am an individual with no tolerance of or association with Osama and his cause. I believe that no one has the right or justification on any ground, even religious, to commit such a crime.