The Middletown Press (Middletown, CT)
9/11 changed the lives of these Muslims, spurred need to educate
When Abdul-Rehman Malik watched in horror as the World Trade Center towers fell, he knew “the world had changed.”
“As an activist, as a Muslim, as a teacher … I knew. I knew right away – in my bones, in my gut,” Malik said. “The fear for me was … that in addition to those precious lives that were lost to 9/11, that communities of color, Muslim communities, people who looked like Muslims, would be targeted, and that the response to violence would be more violence, and that there would be a bloodlust that would be unleashed.”
The day that changed the course of history also shifted the individual trajectories of Connecticutbased Muslims.
Malik, who 20 years ago was a high school history teacher in Toronto but now heads up the Muslim Leadership Lab at Yale University, said he felt a “great responsibility” in the wake of the attacks.
“There were those … who wanted to commit murder to achieve a political end, and they wanted to do so in the name of my faith,” he said. “That was not acceptable to me.”
That feeling would shape a career in which Malik traveled the world to support religious scholars standing up “against theological and ideological extremism,” he said.
Meanwhile, Sept. 11, 2001, moved Reza Mansoor, a cardiologist at Hartford Hospital and president of the Islamic Association of Greater Hartford, toward outreach work in which he would educate the public about Islam and concepts such as Shariah.
Once rarely mentioned by non-Muslim Americans, “Shariah” took on an almost exclusively negative connotation in the United
States after the attacks, Mansoor said.
But in Arabic the word literally means “the path,” and in the context of Islam it describes the path to success or salvation, according to Mansoor.
Early Islamic scholars defined Shariah as a set of six general principles, broad guidelines for society to follow, Mansoor said. They include the right to the protection of life, family, education, religion, property and human dignity, he said, adding that those guidelines have parallels to American values.
While different interpretations of Shariah have led to the creation of legal systems, Mansoor said, there is no such thing as “Shariah law.”
But in mainstream American culture the term Shariah, frequently used to describe the practices of extremist groups like the Taliban, “has been completely bastardized,” he said.
As inquiries poured in seeking clarification about Shariah in the wake of 9/11, Mansoor began a quest to educate others about Islam.
He wrote a book, “Stigmatized! From 9/11 to Trump and Beyond: An American Muslim Journey.” It featured an appendix about Islam, he said.
Omer Bajwa, director of Muslim Life in the Chaplain’s Office at Yale University, also would take up the task of educating others about Islam.
In 2001, he was a graduate student at Cornell University.
“Somewhere along the way, because I was so active with my (Muslim Students Association) … our phone started ringing off the hook,” he said. “You fall into the public outreach work … in the aftermath of 9/11 … I was doing so much public speaking, so much interfaith engagement.”
Though he originally had hoped to become a journalist, Bajwa decided to shift his focus to Islamic
studies and ultimately became a chaplain.
He described 9/11 as “the major inflection point” in his life.
The same applied to many of Bajwa’s peers, as 9/11’s aftermath prompted some to do amazing community work and led to burnout for others, he said.
“There was such an overwhelming need but also such hostility and ignorance” and “really terrifying levels of Islamaphobia that were stoked post-9/11,” he said.
“I’m very visibly Muslim. I’m brown-skinned … I used to have a big bushy black beard, you know, that I wear for religious reasons. … I’ve been called Osama and Taliban more times than I care to remember in the last 20 years,” Bajwa said.
At the airport, Bajwa said he has been pulled into Transportation Security Administration screening rooms on multiple occasions, he said, attributing the experience to profiling based on his Muslim identity.
“The levels of harassment, even through official channels … and discrimination that we’ve had for 20 years, it’s demoralizing,” he said.
Lisa Kinney-Bajwa, the student services coordinator at Yale Divinity School, is married to Omer Bajwa, and the two were together on Sept. 11, 2001.
It was “just a devastating day,” Kinney-Bajwa said. “As an American it was a devastating day and then being Muslim on top of it you’re like … this is bad, because the repercussions of this are just gonna be devastating.”
Kinney-Bajwa, who converted to Islam as a young adult, did not have much experience living as a Muslim prior to the attacks. But afterward she experienced a heightened selfconsciousness about her identity and fear of how the public would respond to her.
She asked readers to remember that “American Muslims felt the pain of 9/11 just like the average American felt the pain of it,” she said. “To be able to express that pain about it doesn’t happen as much as it should because we’re usually too busy apologizing.”
While 9/11 might have sparked a new career path for her husband, KinneyBajwa felt differently affected.
She has a degree in art therapy but did not pursue a career in it, partly because she worried clients would take issue with her headscarf, she said.
“I let being visibly Muslim kind of hinder what I think I want to do,” she said. “I feel like I’ve definitely held back professionally.”
Only recently did Kinney-Bajwa start a job at Yale.
I’ve been called Osama and Taliban more times than I care to remember in the last 20 years.” Omer Bajwa, director of Muslim Life in the Chaplain’s Office at Yale University