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President of Milwaukee Muslim Women's Coalition Reflects On The Islamophobia That Followed 9/11

A commemoration ceremony is held for the victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on Sunday at the National September 11 Memorial and Museum in New York City.
Spencer Platt
Getty Images
A commemoration ceremony is held for the victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on Sunday at the National September 11 Memorial and Museum in New York City.

Saturday marks the 20th Anniversary of the September 11th attacks on the United States. Close to 3,000 people were killed in the plane crashes, which were carried out by al-Qaida, a radical Islamist group.

Millions of people were outraged. But some misdirected their anger by lashing out at Muslims, including in Wisconsin.

Janan Najeeb remembers what that time was like. She’s president of the Milwaukee Muslim Women’s Coalition.

Najeeb says on the morning of 9/11, she had just dropped her daughter off to her first day of her freshman year of high school. Back home, Najeeb was having breakfast & watching the news. She says she remembers that day very distinctly.

"Word started coming out -- and it was coming out by known Islamophobes before anything had even been determined -- but they were saying that these were terrorists, and they were using the word Muslim to basically say that they're specifically that faith. That's where, you know, the terrorists are."

Najeeb says her daughter called to be picked up from school because she was feeling the stress of everything. "I recall my husband calling and saying you know you guys might not wanna go out today because there's just a lot of things going on and we don't know if there's some crazy people out there."

The attacks also changed how Najeeb did her work. She regularly did speaking engagements to promote cultural & interfaith understanding, but something was different. "Suddenly here I am, I'm pregnant and I’m going all over the place, talking about how these are individuals that do not represent Islam and Muslims, and I suddenly felt that every Muslim just overnight became responsible for refuting this narrative."

Najeeb says the 9/11 attacks made most Americans feel unsafe — especially Muslims. "I had never thought that I had to constantly watch my back, so to speak. Even going into a grocery store, or, you know, going into the post office or wherever it was that I needed to go, but suddenly I felt that we had to be very careful there were, you know, a lot of crazy people out there."

Najeeb says it was an ugly time. "I think, at multiple levels, not just the fact that here we also were mourning as Americans what happened in our country," she added, "but we [Muslims] were suddenly seen as the other even though we were, you know, established and many people had been here for a long time, and many were professionals. But suddenly they were being seen and treated as the other."

Najeeb says compared to 20 years ago, at the height of the attacks -- Islamophobia has worsened, especially under former President Donald Trump.

"Whereas before it was, you know, to some extent there was this emotional rage that was going on, and some of it was coming from that, but then, after a period of time it started to slowly kind of dissipate to some extent. But I think what's happened over the years is it's become institutionalized, and I think that's really problematic."

However, Najeeb says, the number of Muslim allies has grown since 9/11.

"Whereas right after 911, we kind of felt like we were the only targets, what has happened over the years is that we've realized that some of these same individuals that have institutionalized Islamophobia, well, they're not just Islamophobic, they're also anti-black, they're anti-immigrant, they are anti LGBTQ. There's in some cases anti woman."

"They're anti a heck of a lot of stuff except people that you know, look and think like them," Najeeb added. "And so rather than us suddenly being, you know, kind of marginalized. We’ve got some great allies and we're in really good company with a lot of individuals that don't think that way."

Teran is WUWM's race & ethnicity reporter.
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