I was sixteen years old, and found myself in the sixth form common room alongside my classmates. During this early stage of life I lived in a predominantly white town as a non-Muslim. Both I and my peers were brimming with excitement of a new school term, naive and unaware of the politics, the current affairs, or the impending War on Terror. We simply watched on as onlookers; we were completely removed from the situation, geographically distant, and clueless at an intellectual level. I remember feeling utter shock when witnessing the visual images of the towers infused with smoke, dust, and shrapnel. It was even more painful to witness the huge structures crumble and collapse; it did not feel real. It was even harder to comprehend the people within those buildings, the lives lost, the injuries sustained, and the lifelong trauma inflicted upon innocent people.
We talked about it for days, and expressed sadness and alarm at what this all meant. There was also confusion as well: what do they mean by terrorists? For many in my college (myself included), this was the first awareness we had of Muslims, Islam, or of anything ‘other’ than the white middle class bubbles that we lived within. Coming from a blended family with two older mixed race brothers, I understood very well that difference came at a cost. I had an openness towards people of colour that others around me did not seem to register. But even then, I was still so sheltered from the ‘real world’ and from the richness and diversity that existed outside of my small and very narrow minded town. I am ashamed to say that 9/11 did not go much further than this for me at the time, as I focused on my school studies. I also devoted my time to learning how to drive, attending parties, and preparing for the next chapters of my life. Ultimately, 9/11 in my mind became something of a bad event that occurred, but it had not happened to me.
Two years later, I left that small town to embark on my university studies in London, with all the innocence of a young adult with the soft curiosity of a woman wanting more. I knew I was different. I never understood why people spoke negatively about different races or religions I found people embracing; I was drawn in by stories and heritage, family dynamics, and culture. I wanted to learn, grow, and to gain a better understanding of the world and the people within it. I felt strongly that God had created us all in a unique way, with none of us being superior or inferior. Instead, every one of us was an island in their own right, waiting to be explored and appreciated.
I loved everything about London: the opportunity that lay between the cracks of the cobbled streets, the train destinations, the borders, the art, the inspiration, and most of all, the people. Generally speaking, the city had a wonderful, eclectic, vast, and beautiful array of people. I listened to voices far and wide, tasted food dishes from every origin, immersed myself in fusions of languages, and brushed with many tones of skin. As a motto, I have always said, “The North made me, but London raised me”. And for that I am truly grateful.
But did I think back to that day when the passenger planes frightfully plunged into the twin towers? Protected by my own privileges, it was not something that I thought about often. I vividly recalled the anniversary dates, and when the news headlines forced me to pay attention. Whilst I had the awareness and concern for what was unfolding globally as a result of this catastrophic event, the overall impact upon my day-to-day life remained fairly unchanged.
Fast forward another few years, with a little more life experience behind me. It was at this latter stage in life where I met a North African man, who was a Muslim; so began a journey of me gently questioning everything I had ever known. We did not speak of terrorism and war, or unpick Islamophobia and how people like him were treated here in the UK. Instead, we talked about life, morals, and what we hoped the world could be. We talked about family, community, God, the state of the world, and the purpose of this life. These discussions were not new to me, as spirituality had always been a part of who I was. But something this time felt different; a light had been ignited and I could not ignore what it stirred within me. This man became my husband, and two years later I took my shahādah and wholeheartedly embraced Islam.
As the world marks twenty years since 9/11, I personally mark ten years of being a Muslim. Now I see things under the light of my religion, a religion that I chose despite how much it was being grossly misrepresented across the world. My choice was met with apprehension from those who knew and loved me, but it became my mission to show them what Islam is, rather than spend a lifetime in defence of what it is not. I now stand shoulder to shoulder with Muslims that have been outcast, attacked, interrogated, threatened, or even silenced and shamed as a result of what happened on that fateful day. I have prayed alongside women who have experienced discrimination and abuse, and who live in fear because of what others portrayed them to be.
Islam and terror will never coexist in my mind. But one thing I have learnt over the years as I have grown in my faith is that revisiting trauma rarely ever serves us; it only makes us stagnate due to the pain associated with it. We have to look back at traumatic events, whether they touched us directly or not, and see the good they propelled into the world. This may seem difficult or even insensitive to suggest for those whose hearts were pierced on that day. But I truly believe that it is only through acceptance of God’s plan – and an acknowledgement of our place within it all – that we can truly live in peace.