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‘This was an attack on my United States and my religion’ — Utah Muslims reflect on 9/11 and its aftermath

They endured profiling, harassment and bullying — though the Beehive State generally has been kinder and more welcoming.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rubina Halwani in Sandy on Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2021. The Muslim woman says she "hated the [9/11] terrorists, but now everyone hates my faith and my people. All of us, lumped together. "

On top of the thousands who lost their lives Sept. 11, 2001, another massive loss took place that day — American Muslim innocence.

Muslims from many nations had lived in the United States for decades and believed themselves to be part of this country’s pluralistic pattern. Overnight, they were treated as if they were terrorists, traitors, extremists or, in some fundamental way, “other.”

Fear and misinformation gripped the country in the attack’s aftermath, almost as if it were a religious war.

Rubina Halwani heard “lots of theories about the perpetrators, but then the names of the hijackers were released — Muslim names,” she says. And then Osama Bin Laden and al-Qaida claimed responsibility for it amid his call for an “Islamic jihad.”

“That’s it, we’re screwed,” Halwani thought then. “I hated the terrorists, but now everyone hates my faith and my people. All of us, lumped together. "

While they mourned the dead like all Americans, Muslim women in headscarves, known as a hijab, were insulted and assaulted. Muslim men were treated with suspicion on airlines, at train stations and in shopping malls. Muslim kids were bullied at school. Elderly Muslims were shunned in senior centers.

A 7-year-old Utahn whose name happened to be “Osama” was so stunned by how his second grade pals treated him that within a few years after the bombing, he changed his name to Eric.

In the days, weeks, months and now 20 years later, “being Muslim in America has been difficult in many ways,” says Halwani, an educational consultant who has been in the Beehive State for 10 years. “We’re racially profiled, misunderstood, hated, bullied, harassed, murdered, threatened.”

Muslims had to “fight to move into communities, build spaces of worship, and sacrifice freedom of speech,” she says. “We were all painted with the same ‘terrorism’ brush. You hear this word, you automatically assign this to Muslims and no one else. We lost a lot of our freedoms. We were imprisoned. and homelands were destroyed from war.”

Every anniversary reminds them “of this horrible time when we are excluded from what it means to be a ‘patriotic’ American,” Halwani says. “Muslim Americans weren’t American enough. I felt American before 9/11 but after, I am never sure on any given day. And that hurts.”

Utah Muslim Lejla Ramic, a nurse practitioner, echoes that feeling.

“My heart goes out to all those who lost their lives and their families,” Ramic says. “But I shouldn’t be blamed for this event because this hurts me, too. This was an attack on my United States and my religion of Islam.”

‘It put us in the spotlight unjustly’

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Imam Shuaib Din tours the site of the half-finished mosque going up in West Jordan at 984 W. 9000 South in 2019. Din says 9/11 forced Utah Muslims to "come out of the closet."

Shuaib Din was serving as imam at the Khadeeja Islamic Center in West Valley City when planes hit the twin towers and the Pentagon.

“I was alone in the mosque when I got the call,” Din recalls. “I didn’t find it out from the TV but from a business owner who called me.”

Looking back, from a Muslim perspective, “the limelight was shined on us. It put us in the spotlight unjustly,” he says. “It has forced us to ‘come out of the closet.’ I don’t think we would have even 20 years later if it weren’t for 9/11.”

Since that infamous day, the number of Muslims in Utah has steadily risen to more than 30,000 believers, says Din, now the imam at Utah Islamic Center in Sandy, and the number of mosques has grown from two to 13.

That’s largely due to the arrival of refugees from countries with conflicts like Iran, Iraq, Burma, Bosnia, Somalia and, of course, Afghanistan.

During Donald Trump’s presidency, Utah was the only state where elected Republicans didn’t engage in anti-Muslim rhetoric.

And when Trump called for a ban on immigration from Muslim countries, the state’s predominant faith, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, issued pointed statements in defense of religious freedom. Later, the church embraced a sweeping program, called “I Was a Stranger,” to help members welcome refugees.

Utahns have been pretty sympathetic to us, Din says. “I would say about 60% have positive views, while 40% don’t like Muslims no matter what we do. And a small minority — like 1% or 2% — believe Islam is a violent religion.”

Din plans to take part in the national mourning for those who died on 9/11, including Muslims who lost their lives.

“The Muslim community in America was also hit pretty hard, and I don’t think we have recovered from that yet,” the imam says. “Fallout from Islamophobia and the anti-Muslim industry is continuing.”

A symbol of faith

A month before Sept 11, Ramic decided to start wearing a hijab. Two weeks after the attacks, she was going to go back to work after maternity leave and was terrified.

“This was a true test of my faith,” she says. “My mother begged me to take my hijab off. She was worried for my safety, as President [George W.] Bush announced that all those wearing Muslim attire should take precautions. I asked God for strength and guidance and came back to work with the hijab.”

She was greeted with “curious looks but also with great support from my supervisor and manager,” Ramic says. “I continue to wear hijab. I have experienced several uncomfortable encounters with co-workers due to my hijab, but nothing that couldn’t be resolved through human resources.”

Laleh Ghotbi, who teaches at an elementary school in Salt Lake City, woke up to news of the attack. She and her family were as shocked and saddened as anyone else.

“When we went shopping that day, people were giving us dirty looks,” recalls Iranian-born Ghotbi, who always wears a headscarf, “associating us with the events and people associated with it.”

Before that day, Utahns usually smiled at her, “even if they didn’t mean it,” Ghotbi says. “After that, they couldn’t hide [their distrust] anymore.”

From that day forward, when she went into a store, clerks often would ignore her as if she couldn’t speak English or because “they didn’t want to deal with me,” she says. And when she goes on an airplane, she is “randomly” pulled out of the security line and patted down.

(Courtesy photo) Laleh Ghotbi, left, with daughter Fatemeh.

Her daughter, Fatemeh, who is in high school, was born years after the tragedy. Yet going to elementary school on Salt Lake City’s east side, Fatemeh experienced regular bullying.

“I was called a terrorist. My school posters were vandalized. And when I wore a headscarf to third grade, I was choked ... with it on the playground,” she says. “I wore a scarf once to soccer practice, where I played as goalie, and I was treated like I wasn’t even human.”

She switched to a nearby school and still was insulted, had a drink thrown at her, she says, and was told to “kill myself.”

Her worried parents got a therapist for Fatemeh and found yet another school.

Because she didn’t wear a hijab, she also didn’t fit in at the mosque, either. She felt unwelcome in both worlds.

Standing for something

In September 2001, Suzanna Montgomery, a convert to Islam, was recently divorced from her Palestinian husband, who didn’t want her to wear a headscarf.

After the marriage ended, she was so happy “to feel the freedom to be able to wear it,” Montgomery says. “I was never going to let anyone or anything stop me from wearing it again.”

Her hijab, she says, is my “security, empowerment and identity.”

The visible symbol has prompted many observers to ask about her faith, Montgomery says, so I feel lucky that I’m able to help share the truth about Islam and eliminate the Islamophobia.”

Utahns have been “great overall in how I’ve been treated here,” says the Davis County mother. “My kids had no bad treatment either. I feel blessed.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Muslim Zeynep Kariparduc of the Salt Lake Interfaith Roundtable meets Greek Orthodox Archbishop Elpidophoros of America at the Cathedral of the Madeleine in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, July 20, 2021. Kariparduc says 9/11 "created a huge misunderstanding toward Islam and what Islam really is.”

Zeynep Kariparduc, originally from Turkey, was living in Romania in 2001 when the attacks occurred. She has been in Utah for a decade or so and is grateful for her life here.

“I have had a few poor experiences, but overall I am being treated with respect and dignity,” says Kariparduc, who proudly wears a headscarf. “On the other hand, I am very aware of the fear and bias against Muslims. Sept. 11 has ruined thousands of lives, and it also created a huge misunderstanding toward Islam and what Islam really is.”

The religion has “nothing to do with violence,” she says. “Muslims are expected to be representatives of peace, respect and love. This is what my faith teaches and what I have learned. Nothing changes this reality even if terrorists associate themselves with my faith.”

Being a “hijabi woman,” though, affects her acceptance in the community, she says. “In some cases, I see people hesitating to talk with me, becoming friends with me, and being reluctant to offer me jobs. I experience bias and fear at every level of the community. … But this situation does not discourage me from wearing the hijab at all.”

She knows some Muslim women in the state who have decided to take off their hijab or who are considering doing so.

“They are tired of the dilemma between their religious practices vs. social norms and acceptability,” Kariparduc says. “I understand their choice because it is hard to bear this responsibility.”

A better future

Utah communities are trying to understand the root causes of the tragedy, “trying to recover from it many years later and improve their understanding of Islam,” says Kariparduc, who now leads the Salt Lake Interfaith Roundtable. “I am referring to concerned citizens, who I think are the majority of the population and who can be wise and stay calm.”

After 20 years, “I can see the improvement in understanding Islam,” she says, but the Muslim and non-Muslim communities “should work harder to create unity and harmony amongst us.”

To that end, Kariparduc dedicates her free time “to create love, harmony, and understanding among people of different faiths/cultures.”

Muslim communities throughout the state are working with other faith organizations on several 9/11 National Service Day projects, she says, “where I will be volunteering with my kids.”

Kariparduc hopes to “mitigate barriers between different groups,” she says. “I would not want any faith group to be exposed to what the Muslim world has gone through.”

As a Muslim, she feels responsible “to contribute to the healing process.”

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