The period after 9/11 was frightening for most Americans, but for Muslims — and members of groups commonly mistaken for them, such as Sikhs — the fear was more complicated.
Shohda Morsy was in elementary school when terrorists flew planes into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field. “I was confused,” recalled Morsy, now 18, who grew up in Burlingame but was born in Egypt. “I asked my parents, why did Muslims attack the twin towers?”
Click the picture for a graphic on anti-Muslim hate crimes.
Although they shared the nation’s grief, Muslims wondered whether they would be attacked by people who believed they were terrorist sympathizers. Would they be the targets of hate crimes of prejudice?
While Morsy’s sister Nosiba, now 23, does remember being taunted once at school after 9/11, the sisters say the attacks generally brought out the best in their classmates and neighbors.
“I had so many students who weren’t even my friend say, ‘We support you,’” Nosiba Morsy said. “The principal said, ‘Come to me if anything happens.’”
Many Muslims, Middle Easterners and South Asians now worry that the 10-year anniversary of 9/11 might give bigots an excuse to lash out against their communities, said Veena Dubal, a staff attorney with the Bay Area’s Asian Law Caucus. After all, she noted, last September a burned Quran was found in a trash can outside a San Francisco mosque.
“Everyone is bracing themselves,” Dubal said. “There’s a lot of talk about what should we do to commemorate this awful, sad time. How do we prove our patriotism when it’s always being challenged?”
Yet although hate crimes against Muslims made headlines after 9/11, local Muslims said the Bay Area felt fairly safe.
“San Francisco is a very liberal city, and people are understanding,” said Abdo Abdella, 54, after finishing afternoon prayers recently at Al Sabeel Mosque in the Tenderloin. “I have friends who experienced incidents — verbal profanity, insults — but it’s gotten a lot better.”
But though The City might be a Mecca of tolerance, civil rights groups said Muslims, Middle Easterners and South Asians must still be on guard. “There is always the sense that you have to be careful,” said Rabab Abdulhadi, a professor of ethnic studies at San Francisco State University. “There is always this radar.”
Government policies that target Muslims for surveillance, as well as politicians who paint all Muslims as potential radicals, remain a major concern for civil rights groups, Dubal said.
“I have people every day who call me because they have been visited by the FBI at their home or their work,” Dubal said. “They’re asking really insidious questions about their religion, where do they pray, how often. It’s scary to be afraid of your own government.”
Mohammed Allababidi, the general secretary at Al Sabeel, said his mosque makes a point of reaching out to non-Muslims.
“The majority of the things we have to do is work really hard to balance the rhetoric of the conservatives and Fox News,” he said. “We try to have dialogue, openness.”
Allababidi said that passers-by occasionally stop by the mosque, asking questions like, ‘Why do you hate us?”
“We wind up coming down, having tea,” he said. “We talk. How to respond properly is the biggest challenge.”
Although he has been in federal prison for most of a decade, the man who became known as the American Taliban remains controversial.
Was John Walker Lindh, who spent his teenage years in Marin County and attended mosques in The City, a traitor who traveled to Afghanistan to kill Americans? Or was he a religious idealist who got in over his head?
In November 2001, U.S. forces in Afghanistan discovered the young American fighting on the side of al-Qaida. The 20-year-old Lindh was dirty and unshaven, and it soon emerged that he had traveled to Afghanistan earlier that year to wage jihad.
Lindh’s father, Frank, who serves as general counsel of the California Public Utilities Commission, has been a vocal critic of his son’s prosecution. Although he declined an interview, in a New York Times opinion piece earlier this year he said his son’s case was based on emotion rather than evidence.
“John was a scapegoat, wrongly accused of terrorism at a moment when our grieving country needed someone to blame because the real terrorist had gotten away,” Frank Lindh wrote.
Johnny Spann feels differently. His son Mike, a CIA agent, became the first American to die in the Afghanistan War when he was shot during an uprising at the prison where Lindh was being held after he was captured by American allies.
“John Walker Lindh knew what he was doing,” said Spann, of Wakefield, Ala. “He was with a terrorist group. He was aiding and abetting them. There’s no way to get around it.”
In 2002, John Walker Lindh pleaded guilty to supplying services to the Taliban while carrying a weapon. Now 30, he is housed at the federal prison in Terre Haute, Ind. and scheduled for release in 2019.
— Amy Crawford
After the Sept. 11 attacks, men who sported long beards were suddenly looked at differently. But beards have since regained their popularity, perhaps thanks to the growing number of hirsute sports stars and competitive beard growers.
But Osama bin Laden changed things for Americans with beards.