Whispering As-salaamu Alaikum
Aditi Adve, Narrator A warning: this program contains graphic descriptions of the attacks of 9/11 and events following, and may not be appropriate for all listeners. This September marks the 22nd anniversary of the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001. To understand how an event that happened over 800 miles from Champaign-Urbana continues to impact our community, the Uni High Oral History project collected perspectives from community members who lived in Champaign-Urbana, New York, and Washington, DC on 9/11/2001, members of the local Muslim community, veterans who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, and university experts. Through the podcast series, “800 Miles from Ground Zero: 9/11's Impact on Central Illinois,” we hope to better understand how 9/11 both divided and brought a nation together. This is “Whispering As-salaamu Alaikum,” the fourth in our series. The events of 9/11 saw a rise of Islamophobia in the United States. In this episode listeners will hear the experiences of Muslims living in Central Illinois on September 11, 2001 including the challenges they faced post 9/11, the support they received, and how, twenty-plus years later, they are part of a growing and thriving Muslim Community in Central Illinois. From Uni High, I’m Aditi Adve, a member of the Class of 2023. According to the PEW Research Center, about 3 and a half million Muslims live in the United States today making up about 1.1% of the nation’s population. The first Muslims in America are believed to have been brought here as slaves during the colonial period. Most Muslims living in the United States today, however, immigrated after the passage of the 1965 Immigration and Naturalization act which reformed the immigration system to allow for more immigrants from Asia and Africa. Imad Rahman, former president of the Muslim Student Association at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, talks about his experience growing up as a Muslim in Springfield, Illinois during the 1990s. Imad Rahman Probably 1989, I was like 10 or 11 years old. I remember being called like a camel jockey, a rag head, and a sand “n-word.” I mean, I remember those types of words. I remember one summer, the mailman was dropping off the mail at our house. I was playing basketball in the driveway and he kinda started talking to me. He's like, “Are you related to some of those people we’re fighting over there?” Aditi Adve, Narrator Fauzia Rahman, former University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign student and active member of the Central Illinois Mosque and Islamic Center, touches on the Islamophobia she experienced and witnessed while growing up during the 1990s as well. She specifically touches on the difficulties of being a Muslim woman and the blatant disregard of her rights. Fauzia Rahman My sister in high school, when she first entered high school, a teacher told her to take off her head scarf. And my sister is like, “Why?” and she's like, “Well, we have a rule, you can't wear hats in our school,” and she's like “It's not a hat.” She's like “You have to take it off right now or else you have to leave my class,” and she's like, “Well, I'll just leave your class.” So, that's one that really sticks out in my mind quite a bit. When things would happen anywhere in the world and the news here would choose to report that. And if it happened to be a predominantly Muslim country, or sounding Muslim-like, we definitely felt it. My dad would feel it in the hospital, too, with colleagues. Patients would talk about — they’re like, “Oh, but you're not like that. You're different. You know, your people are just kind of off.” And just like that's not acceptable to say. And my dad was very active and writing to the newspaper, to the Sentinel, it’s called Centralia Sentinel. He'd write like sort of opinion pieces. And as I grew older, he'd have me do it. He’d be like, “Sit down, write something,” and I’d be like, “Okay, fine.” But in school spaces, my parents were very hesitant about us being too vocal. You know, it was like, “your grades, this is your future, what if this happens or that happens?” I remember in university, I was in a class and I was just talking, I was responding to a question. Afterwards he came up to me, and he must have been in his 30s or 40s. He's like, “I just want to ask you a question.” He's like, “Where did you learn English? What software did you use? Because your English is just amazing. And I have some students who are from different countries and I think that they would really benefit.” And I was like, “Oh, no, I'm American. I–” and I literally told, I told him this and I tell people this, I was like, “I dream in English. I don’t dream in any other language. Like, that's my first language.” And he's like, “Oh.” He's like “No, but where are you from? Like, where are you really from?” And I said, “I grew up in Southern Illinois, I was born in Cali–” He’s like, “No, where are you from? Like, I said, “Okay. What do you mean?” He's like, “Okay, but your parents?” I said “Okay, my parents are from Paki–” He’s like, “Oh, yes. That's what I'm talking about.” Aditi Adve, Narrator 9/11 was a traumatizing experience for all Americans, but Muslims in particular shared fears about what it could mean for their small and vulnerable community. Waleed Jassim, immigrant from Iraq and board member of the Central Illinois Mosque and Islamic Center, shares what he experienced on the day of the attacks as he was working his job at a chemical plant in Tuscola, Illinois. Waleed Jassim I was on top of the reactor deck at the plant, which is about approximately, maybe, 50 to 60 feet in the air. Somebody called me on the radio, saying to me,“Did you hear about what happened?” like I did something wrong. “No, what are you talking about?” He said the issue about planes hitting the World Trade Centers and things like that. I thought he was just joking — he’s a joking person all the time. I thought, “He’s just joking.” And he said, “No it’s true, come down.” I went down and went to listen to the news from my car, and it was something really big happening. So, I went back to my office. Basically I was paralyzed, because I didn’t- I couldn’t think at that time to have some horrible things happen. And we knew we're going to be accused for what happened. Aditi Adve, Narrator This sense of fear was shared by many other Muslims. Fauzia Rahman talks about the atmosphere during a University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign history class discussion on September 11th, 2001, after news of the attack was known. Fauzia Rahman I didn't hear a single Muslim say anything, in my class at least. We were just like, “What is going on? Is this like a dream?” And as news kept coming, like, “Oh, this is happening now. This is happening now.” And so I just remember sitting in the class just feeling very, just — you know when you’re in, like, a theater production, and all of the sudden, all of the lights go off, and it’s just like the spotlight’s on you? But it’s not on you, like, ever. It just feels like you are very isolated. And you’re just in this moment, and you’re not really thinking about how to respond, but just sitting there kind of numb. Aditi Adve, Narrator This feeling of isolation was a common sentiment shared among Muslims at the time. Ammar Bhutta, an immigrant from Pakistan and current professor at Eastern Illinois University, describes life post-9/11 in Champaign-Urbana, where he lived and worked while attending graduate school at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. At this time, many Muslims treaded carefully, understanding that some people would continue to blame them for the actions of the terrorists. Ammar Bhutta It was carried out by folks who claim to be Muslim. So, and Muslims started to become – almost like a guilt-by-association. “Ok, if you're Muslim, then you must be either with them, or you either support them, or you sympathize with them.” And that became very common perception driven from the media, whether it is TV, talk radio. And that started to put most Muslims that I know of, personally as well, on the edge, that we were careful outside not to obviously identify ourselves as even Muslims. One of the not-so-great memories I recall is the Muslim greeting, usually saying “as-salaamu alaikum” when you meet someone, the peace be upon you. This is a fairly common. It's just like saying “hi,” or the Jewish community says “shalom,” and you meet a fellow Muslim. So people started to avoid saying that in public. Standing in the checkout line in Walmart, these days, we don’t care, we say, “Oh, as-salaamu alaikum, How are you doing? How's everyone in the family?” We don't care about it. At that time, it just shut down. People would look away, knowing the person standing next to you, you actually met at the mosque, people didn’t want to identify. So that was the environment of fear, and most people around us had no idea about it. Aditi Adve, Narrator This sense of fear was not unwarranted. Following 9/11, a noticeable rise in Islamophobia occurred throughout the United States. According to Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, the percentage of hate crime incidents directed towards Muslims increased by over 500 percent between 2000 and 2009. Some of the scariest of these crimes were attacks on mosques. Waleed Jassim describes some incidents that happened after 9/11 at the Central Illinois Mosque and Islamic Center in Urbana. Waleed Jassim We've had people throw eggs at the mosque. That comes in very limited. We've had some phone calls, threatening phone calls. And we had one person — he threatened the mosque once or twice. And, I don't know how, but they found out who it was. And he ended up in, I think, 9 months in prison for his threat because they had the proof on that. With the mosque, if they asked us, we would have said, “We forgive him, don't worry about it.” But the government insisted that he has to be. So basically, he lost his job and he ended up in prison for a few months. Aditi Adve, Narrator Due to the increase of threats and attacks on mosques in the United States, police assisted to help keep mosques safe as described by Imad Rahman. Imad Rahman So, police presence, in general, is really good. Like, on Fridays, right, when we have our congregational prayer, typically, we work with local law enforcement to just have a little bit more presence. There was a time where we actually had, like, a squad car, a cop car, that would sit in the parking lot, like, the entire duration of our congregational prayers. Aditi Adve, Narrator While the sense of fear felt by Muslims after 9/11 was very real, they also experienced a lot of support locally from the non-Muslim community. Waleed Jassim shares his memories of Central Illinois reaching out to Muslims during this difficult time. Waleed Jassim We had phone calls from people in the community. Because Muslim women wear scarves or head cover. So, they did not want them to be a target. So, we had calls from people saying, “If you want to go to the grocery store, if you wanted to do anything, we will either come with you — we're willing to come with you to the store — or we will shop for you and bring it home for you.” So, that was really nice, because many women who wear the Muslims scarf, they were worried about it. And they were targeted. Some of them were used to just verbal abuse. That was not really that common, but it was enough to worry about it. So, we have that. One of the secretaries — I worked in Tuscola, as I mentioned — one of the women came to my office and she said, “Waleed, I want you and your family to come stay with us at our farm.” She lived in a farm. “On the farm,” she said, “You come over to the farm and lock your house. And, that way be safer at our house, at our farm, than to be in Champaign-Urbana.” It turned out to be, we didn't have any problem. But I took her up on it. I said, “I will call you if we decide to come over and move with you.” We had five children in the house, so it was dangerous if we have anybody that does some foolish thing. And really in the end of it — because of Champaign-Urbana is more educated than other parts of the country — we had confidence that people are not going to do something foolish. Aditi Adve, Narrator Imad Rahman served as President of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Muslim Student Association in 2001. He recalls his memories of the university campus in the days after 9/11. Imad Rahman We were working with kind of the local mosque and stuff, trying to figure out plans of keeping everybody safe, especially, people who were more overtly Muslim, like if a woman happened to be wearing a hijab on her head. Even, like, we had some guys that had longer beards, right? And that kind of got associated with that, Muslims. And, of course, there's non-Muslims. I mean, there were Sikh people that were attacked because they were wearing turbans, right? I mean, the ignorance had no limits. So people are just kind of getting attacked. Nationally, we would hear these stories. We were, again — and this is why I love Champaign — all in all the experience in Champaign, there were some incidents of violence here, but they were very limited. I mean, the administration moved so quickly to kind of assist and diffuse, assure our safety. We had such a great interfaith community here. I mean, I remember like the day after 9/11 or a couple days after. I don't know if maybe it was like the first Friday after the Friday prayer, that the Mosque was full of flowers, from local churches, from the Jewish temple. I mean, we almost felt guilty about it, right? Because we weren't the ones that were attacked, that happened in New York. But just because they understood that we did have this apprehension and this fear of backlash. And the whole community really came to our support. We were very fortunate that we felt comfortable here. All in all, there were a few incidents of Islamophobia, of physical violence on campus where people got attacked. Certainly across the country there were a lot of situations like that unfortunately, but Champaign-Urbana being, maybe just because it's more progressive town, more educated, whatever, we fared very well. And I feel very blessed about that. Aditi Adve, Narrator Counteracting the hate and anger directed towards Muslims also took the form of educating non-Muslims about misperceptions of Islam and U.S. foreign policy. Karen Medina, a local anti-war activist, describes local efforts to educate the community after September 11th. Karen Medina They immediately started inviting the public in for open houses and things like that right after 9/11. That was really smart. The university started having a lot of panel discussions around topics around the Middle East and terrorism and things like that, and would almost always have a Muslim on that. One of the things that the mosque also did was, they started teaching Arabic classes on Saturdays. And Stuart and I both took Arabic classes there and it was really cool. And then there was, like, a whole committee of AWARE that was to fight Islamophobia and help educate people about what Islam was. I remember one event where they invited three women, Muslim women, local Muslim women, to talk about why they wore hijabs. Aditi Adve, Narrator Debunking the myth that Islam promotes violence became crucial to the education efforts. Waleed Jassim In Islam, if you kill somebody unjustly, it means — it is as though you have killed all mankind. It's a big sin in our religion, so. And if you save somebody's life, it’s like you have saved all mankind. So, it’s a big thing. And for people who were involved in that September 11th thing — to go and kill all these people on the planes and people in the buildings and all that — it has nothing to do with Islam and our view. So we needed to convey that to the people, that Islam is not a religion of violence. In the Quran, it specifically says, if somebody wants to make peace, make peace with them, not fight them. So, that was one of the important things. And also we started to stress to the children, Sunday school children, about the importance of practicing our belief. Not just think about it, it needs to be in practice. Aditi Adve, Narrator Ammar Bhutta shares what he would like non-Muslims to know about Muslims. Ammar Bhutta I think it's a broader question that's not just tied to knowing about Muslims. It’s about knowing about any fellow human being from a different culture, or a different religion, or a different perspective. So it's the idea about — Muslim-Americans want the same thing as what, say, a Christian American, or a Jewish-American, or a Hindu-American would want, which is a better life, more understanding environment around you, more opportunities. So having, I would say, hopefully relegated that link, or guilt-by-association, what 9/11 brought about Muslim Americans in general. “Those terrorists were Muslim, so any Muslim, most likely will be a terrorist.” I'm hoping that's behind us. Maybe being too much naive about it, living in a city like Champaign-Urbana. Maybe it’s not the case in other parts of the country. You do have tendencies of what we're seeing of extremist, far-right organizations popping up in the U.S. They may try to again amplify that four years, eight years down the road, in another presidential campaign. That risk is always there. So I think talking about getting educated more about other religions or other cultures, Muslim Americans or any other aspect, and for Muslim Americans to also be reaching out more. That’s the way forward. Aditi Adve, Narrator Despite the increase in Islamophobia after September 11th — including ignorance, hate crimes, and attacks on their religion — the Muslim community in Champaign-Urbana prevailed, and is currently thriving today. Fauzia Rahman and Ammar Bhutta share their observations and hopes for the future. Fauzia Rahman Women were getting their hijabs pulled off. I mean, there was no way not to be scared. Unless you were sort of living in, like, your own island somewhere or you were completely unaware. I don’t know how you could be, but I guess there are ways. To live under a rock somewhere. But yeah, no, there was- it was fear. It was a lot of fear. But we were still showing up. And I think that's a testament to the community, is that we were still sending our kids to school. The minute after 9/11 happened, the kids that went into those public schools in small town America, you can’t imagine. They went in there, and even if they didn't want to go, their parents were like, “You have to go to school today, because you're going to get an education.” And that sort of determination, I think, is a big testament to the strength of our community. And I'm very proud of that, that we didn't disappear. We became more active, and vocal, and involved in local politics. That's a big thing. I think that's one of the big lessons that the Muslims can use. Ammar Bhutta I think it had, yes, an initial wave of fear or feeling discriminated against or a perception of what may happen was much more prevalent to my generation, or the first-generation immigrant, compared to second-generation. My son is in high school, the other one is going into sixth grade. I saw a lot of Muslim activism, or Muslim-Americans, who were not, say, running for offices or being involved, but who grew up post-9/11 or even born post-9/11. They felt like, and rightly so, you know, it’s their country as much as anyone else's country. Instead of anyone defining us, we are going to define our part in this community. So, the net impact, I said, you have Muslim representation in Congress now that was not there before 2018. And I see several candidates that are running, even in Illinois here as well now, for Congress, in the Chicago area. That was not there a few years ago. So I think the impact on the new generation is, they are much more integrated with the local community. They know how to protect their rights and they know what do they need to do to get engaged and be part of the government and the decision-making process. Be part of the discussion, rather than someone else defining what Muslim-Americans should be looking for, they're coming to the table, or they’re wanting to come to the table. “This is what we want our issues to be defined as.” I think that's been the net positive out of it. Aditi Adve, Narrator Thank you for listening to “Whispering As-salaamu Alaikum,” the fourth and final episode of “800 Miles from Ground Zero: 9/11's Impact on Central Illinois,” a student-produced podcast by Uni High’s oral history project team. Each episode in this series focuses on an aspect of American life post-9/11, including memories from the days and weeks following the attack, military and anti-war efforts, changes to domestic policy, and rising Islamophobia. All interviews featured in this podcast were conducted in Spring 2022 by Uni’s eighth-grade class. If you’d like to listen to previous episodes of “800 Miles from Ground Zero: 9/11's Impact on Central Illinois,” check out the WILL website at will.illinois.edu/illinoisyouthmedia!
In this final episode, Whispering As-salaamu Alaikum, we focus on how 9/11 impacted the lives of Muslims across the country and locally in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois. We cover the struggles that many Muslims experienced due to 9/11 and how they have overcome these challenges and continue to thrive in America today.
Imad Rahman provides insight on the local Muslim community, his connection to the University and stories about hardships on campus.
Fauzia Rahman provides perspective of a Muslim woman and a univesrity student living through 9/11.
Ammar Bhutta provides insight on the national perspective of Muslims before and after 9/11 and the general feelings of the Muslim community.
Waleed Jassim, local mosque leader, helps provide information about the local Muslim community.
Karen Medina, an anti-war activist, describes how the University of Urbana-Champaign helped fight Islamophobia by educating people about topics related to the Middle East and how the University helped the Muslim community.