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"9/11 changed my life forever"

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9/11 didn’t just devastate New York. One decade on, British Muslim author Zaiba Malik tells Stylist how, for her, the terrorist attacks changed everything.

It’s hard to recall a world before 9/11, although of course everyone remembers the moment they heard the news. I was in an edit suite, putting the final touches to a documentary about racism for Channel 4. I had gone undercover as a shopkeeper in a small Midlands town, spending four months being verbally abused about my race. While I was watching the footage we’d shot a TV played in the corner of the room. It was one of those end-of-the world blockbusters, or so I thought. But the bursts of flame, plumes of smoke and disbelief on the faces of passers-by looked so real. Then I realised it was real. Who would do such a horrific thing? By the end of that day American intelligence had established that responsibility lay with Al Qaeda, an Islamist militant group. It was a name I had never heard before. My work for the past few months, and the ugly attitudes towards my race that I’d uncovered during filming, already had me feeling vulnerable. In an instant things changed. I went from being British Asian to being, first and foremost, a Muslim.

Like the rest of the world, everyone with me in that tiny edit suite was in shock at those awful images. Looking back, it was probably the first time any of us had watched news happen in real time. Four years later, the 7/7 bombings and the homegrown terrorists who carried out their suicide missions may have had a more personal impact for British Muslims, but we only saw the terrible aftermath of their actions. On 9/11, we watched history unfold before our eyes, as that second plane hit the South Tower of the World Trade Center. I watched the news constantly for the next few days and weeks. As more details emerged about those 19 men, I felt people’s gazes fix on me – in the shops, on the bus. Was I being paranoid? Maybe, but I knew that the events of that day would have consequences that reached far beyond Manhattan.

I was relieved and heartened that the newspaper coverage wasn’t hysterical. Maybe the facts were so shocking that embellishment was unnecessary. There was, of course, huge confusion about what Islam stands for. Even as someone who was brought up by a father as learned as many imams, I could sympathise with that. I was asking exactly the same questions as most non-Muslims. But still I felt I had to apologise for my existence when actually all I wanted to do was get on with my life. Even though there was widespread condemnation of what the terrorists had done from political and religious leaders worldwide, people now openly described Islam as being an evil religion, one that advocated hate and murder. Muslims themselves became the victims of violent retribution. The FBI recorded more than 480 brutal anti-Islamic attacks following 9/11. Half of the UK’s mosques and Islamic centres have suffered at least one attack since that date. I’ve been told about women’s hijabs being torn off, pigs’ body parts being nailed to the doors of religious buildings. I heard about a man being force-fed bacon and an imam being blinded in an attack. I have heard Muslims talk about Islamophobia: not being able to get jobs or being sworn at or physically abused.

RELIGIOUS MATTERS

I looked to my father for condemnation of those 19 men, for reassurance that this was not something our peaceful religion would support or tolerate. Thankfully, he provided it. Dad was a devout man who didn’t let anything get in the way of his five-a-day prayers, even if bowing down to God meant having his head perilously close to the wool machines he operated at the textile mills, or having to park up on the motorway to roll out his mat on the hard shoulder. “These people are not Muslims,” he said. “Their actions show they know nothing about their faith. Murder is not allowed in Islam.”

I was furious on my father’s behalf. He was kind, educated and, unlike many first generation immigrants in Bradford, spoke English. He had made huge efforts to integrate himself into the wider community. Since he arrived from Pakistan in the early Sixties, he had spent his life making Britain his home. I worried that these extremists, claiming his religion as their justification, had ruined it all for him. My mother, who normally paid little attention to the news, said, “They will send all of us back home. They won’t want us here if they think we’re trouble.” That was exactly what she used to say when I was much younger, in the Seventies, during the National Front marches. Then, I laughed. I was born here. They couldn’t throw us out. But as Al Qaeda proclaimed jihad, a holy war, against non-Muslims, I wondered if she was right, and that time had come.

On 9/11 we watched history unfold before our eyes, as that second plane hit the World Trade Center

Friends and colleagues questioned me about my faith. At school, I was the only Muslim in my year and my father’s devotion to the faith had often meant I stood out. I had to fast during Ramadan and I wasn’t allowed to go to assembly to sing hymns. I wanted to read Agatha Christie, not the Koran. When I left Bradford in 1989 to study at Nottingham University, I knew that in the secular world, where there were no rules or strictures, there would be no role for my faith. For me, going to university wasn’t so much a learning curve as a cliff drop. Life in the outside world decelerated the flow of Islam in my veins. I turned off the radio every time I heard REM’s Losing My Religion.

I got a job working in television, had plenty of friends and nobody to judge me. I did what I wanted – including discard the trousers I’d had to wear underneath my school skirt to hide my legs. As a journalist, I was no longer the Muslim girl. I was just me. After 9/11, I found myself being repeatedly asked what I was – British or Muslim. Because now, it appeared, I couldn’t be both. I had spent my entire life avoiding this question because I had no idea how to answer it – the two had conflicted in me for as long as I could remember. It wasn’t something just being posed by my white friends and colleagues. Young, British-born Muslims were asking me to choose too. Some, a generation younger than me, had no hesitation; they were Muslim. They saw 9/11 as an opportunity to assert themselves and create their own identity – one that was based solely on religion.

I also came across Muslims who believed that 9/11 was a conspiracy which the American government had set up to provide an excuse for the ‘War On Terror’, which they interpreted as the ‘War On Islam’. I was appalled to find a small minority who felt that the suicide attacks were justified. “The West has oppressed Muslims for so long. Now this is our revenge,” one teenager said to me. I couldn’t understand where his hatred had come from. I tried to reason with them, but felt like I was banging my head against a brick wall. To extremists, Muslims who had slotted into Western society obeyed its laws, and observed it social codes were as much the enemy as non-Muslims.

A PERSONAL TRAGEDY

My sorrow for what had happened on that Tuesday gradually turned into anger – a rage I had no outlet for, apart from to write. In big news stories, the personal can get lost. People wanted to understand Islam, so I told my story, of growing up as a Muslim in Britain. The reaction to my book was amazing. In my experience, people don’t want to think badly of a whole religion, they want to understand. That gives me hope. Ten years later, I know what I am. I am both British and Muslim. I have reclaimed my faith from those who corrupted it with radicalism, extremism, militancy and violence. From the 9/11 bombers.

We Are A Muslim, Please by Zaiba Malik (£12.99, William Heinemann)

Picture credits: Rex Features

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