This week marks the 17th anniversary of 9/11. Not only did the attacks take 2,996 lives, but they changed the world forever. London-born Romanna Bint-Abubaker, 35, explains how, for Muslims, life has never been the same since that horrific September day
Everyone remembers where they were on 11 September 2001. It’s etched into our memories; a grim conversation that’s repeated on the same date, year after year. But 17 years ago, at 1.46pm [GMT], as the first skyscraper rushed to the floor in a cloud of ash, fire, bricks and metal, I was 18 and on a plane back to London from Malaysia, oblivious that the whole world was changing forever right at that moment. And I certainly didn’t realise that as a British Muslim, this was the last time I’d sit on a plane or walk through an airport feeling completely carefree.
When our plane unexpectedly stopped its descent and started circling above Heathrow instead of landing (presumably after news of the New York attack crackled over the pilot’s radio), we all simply shuffled in our seats. Despite the aching-legged impatience of a cramped 13-hour flight, no-one asked the air stewards for reassurance. Flights were largely safe back then. Accidents were rare, hijacks only really happened on TV – and my religion wasn’t considered a ‘threat’. Yet by the time we eventually landed 20 minutes later, the second plane had torn through the remaining tower, ripping away thousands of lives. Unaware of it all, we strode through the airport, happy to be home. Queuing for passport control, I saw a TV screen grey with smoke.
Islam didn’t come into it immediately. I don’t remember exactly when it did. ‘Terrorist’ wasn’t a word I’d heard before, nor was I familiar with ‘al-Qaeda’. We sat around watching the footage of the attacks on repeat, shocked and overwhelmed. I felt as if the world had changed dramatically while my own life remained exactly the same. At least, I did until the tabloids started broadening their targets. The terrorists were Muslim, headlines told me when I left the house to buy milk. Nineteen extremists had killed 2,996 innocent people ‘in the name of Islam’. ‘But that’s not what Islam teaches,’ I thought to myself. Just as I imagine Christians don’t relate to the right-wing campaigners who murder abortion providers in the name of their religion, I felt confused by the connection. I figured everyone else would soon see that, too.
I was wrong. As quickly as we all accepted emptying our make-up into clear, plastic bags without thinking twice, so people started joining dots that I couldn’t see between 9/11 and whether or not we needed to ban the veil in the UK. Suddenly TV shows like 24 started portraying the bad guys as Muslims. When Britain invaded Iraq in 2003, I followed events with multilayered concern. I knew people who had family there. Their Islam didn’t condone mass attacks or terror any more than mine did. Hijab-wearing friends would talk of being viewed with suspicion whenever they walked down the street. I heard of women in their 60s taking off their headscarves out of insecurity rather than choice. The number of attacks on American Muslims soared by 1,700% within the first year following 9/11, but the vast majority of us weren’t doing anything differently. One of my friends was sitting quietly on the Tube one day when a man started yelling at her to ‘go home’. She was born down the road.
I became grateful for living in the city. My parents grew up in Uganda and Malawi, but I’d been born in London, and 12% of its population is Muslim. Occasionally someone would shout at me in the street – ‘digestive biscuit’ was a common one, referencing the pale brown colour of my skin – but that was rare. It was only when I’d leave that I realised how much things were changing elsewhere. On a day trip to the Surrey countryside, my friends and I were met with cruel stares. I remember being in a restaurant with my family and seeing people on a neighbouring table pointing in our direction and scowling. Those looks eat away at you. They make you feel different, like you don’t fit in.
Then, in 2005, the 7/7 attacks happened in London – and the feelings of fear, horror and incomprehension were turned up a notch as news unravelled of bombs that killed 52 and injured more than 700 people. Sitting on the Tube one day, I was shocked to realise I too was staring at men – men with long beards or large rucksacks, men who might be extremists – with suspicious eyes. I couldn’t believe how easily these fears take hold – nobody is immune. I was so angry at myself. But that’s how terrorism works – it makes us separate off into tiny groups, scared of the things we can’t relate to or don’t understand.
If leaving London after 9/11 was eye-opening, then leaving the country was even worse. That flight home from Malaysia was one of the last times I flew without being taken aside to have my luggage unpacked before boarding a plane. Once I started wearing a hijab (a decision I made as my faith became more important to me), flying became even harder – especially to the US, which I visit at least once a year. Now, I was identifiably religious and would be taken to one side for a full body scan, while watching white women walk through undisturbed. Getting married changed things even more. My husband had also grown up in the UK, but was born in Iraq, plus his name was Mohammad, which I don’t think helped. Flying to New York with him saw us both hauled to a side room for in-depth questioning before we could enter the country. Ever since that trip, I’ve noticed I’m questioned more – even though we’re now divorced. I often wonder what comes up by my name when they scan my passport.
Meanwhile, Mohammad is resigned to factoring in a couple of extra hours to allow for inevitable airport interrogation – it’s par for the course. Security increased after 9/11 for everyone, and checks are supposed to be random but I know from experience that often they’re not. It’s racial profiling, and it’s wrong.
We all know 9/11 was just the beginning of a catalogue of terror attacks over the last 17 years. And after each attack, Islamophobia would spike. When I heard of the Paris shootings last year, I felt sick, but had to reluctantly turn off the news. I already knew what the headlines would say. Whenever a white man in America shoots a school of children, we learn his name – not his skin colour. If a German man flies a plane into a French mountain, we report his state of mind at the time. But ever since 9/11, if a Muslim man – or woman – commits a crime, their religion is the first and last thing anyone sees. And the next few weeks become even harder for the millions of us who believe in Islam because it preaches peace – not violence.
September 11 was a terrible day. Thousands lost their loved ones within the space of 17 minutes, and nothing can ever make amends for that. But I hope society can make a conscious effort to change its attitude to Islam. Women in hijabs are being pushed in front of trains and the number of attacks on Muslims in the UK is increasing year on year. Post-Brexit, it feels like things are only getting worse. Recently, one of my friends went to her local butchers to ask if they had any halal meat in stock, and the woman behind the counter slammed her knife down into the chopping block and yelled at her to leave.
Islam is about unity and togetherness – helping those less fortunate and doing everything you can to support others in your community. And, 17 years after that horrific day, I’d say we need that now more than ever.