‘Muslim Americans shouldn’t have to feel and act this way’: 20 years later, reflecting on the 9/11 attacks and hate that followed

With a new year about to start at his children’s Sunday school, Mansoor Shams volunteered to handle logistics for the youth group’s semiannual field trip.

Calling ahead to a hotel in Niagara Falls, New York, he was asked what day they’d arrive. And he realized something that made his stomach churn: Organizers had planned a trip for Sept. 11.


“I found myself saying we were from a ‘house of worship,’ not a ‘mosque,’ so as not to arouse suspicions,” said Shams, a U.S. Marine veteran who worships at Masjid Bait-us-Samad in Rosedale. “Twenty years later, Muslim Americans shouldn’t have to feel and act this way. But we do.”

Saturday marks two decades since the day on which 19 al-Qaida terrorists crashed jetliners into the World Trade Center in New York City, the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field, killing nearly 3,000 people.


Beyond the initial impacts, the destruction struck one small segment of the U.S. population with uniquely disorienting force: the roughly 1% of Americans who identify as Muslim. Law enforcement infiltrated mosques, built no-fly lists, and engaged in various forms of racial profiling. Bias incidents and hate crimes soared.

Though U.S. Muslims sought to emphasize that terrorism violates their core beliefs, most say they’ve felt the sting of prejudice. And most say they still struggle with a question the attacks blew into the open: how to live an authentically Islamic life and feel American.

The “Muslim Marine”

Mansoor Shams of Pikesville, a U.S. Marine veteran, served during 9/11.
Mansoor Shams of Pikesville, a U.S. Marine veteran, served during 9/11. (Kim Hairston/The Baltimore Sun)

The past few weeks have been a time of conflicting emotions for Shams, 39, of Pikesville.

He moved to the U.S. from Pakistan with his family at age 6, later joined the Marines to escape a broken home and became a hard-core patriot during boot camp.


He was 19 and stationed at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina on Sept. 11, and as the news unfurled, he was “shocked and angered as an American.” Later, though, when buddies he’d trained with started ragging him as “Osama,” he realized he wasn’t the compadre he’d thought he was.

He served four years before leaving the service. “I’d been so naive,” he said.

Shams earned an MBA at Johns Hopkins University before finding his new calling: working to bridge the gap between Muslim and non-Muslim Americans. As “the Muslim Marine,” he speaks, writes columns for national publications and appears on TV to express an idea he calls essential: that Islam calls Muslims to be loyal to the country where they live.

He has written of his 12-year-old son being bullied over his faith. It unnerves him to wear traditional Pakistani garb to his mosque. News of the deaths of 13 U.S. troops in Afghanistan last month left him sobbing at the “confusion” and “waste.”

“How far have we really come?” he said.

The facilitator

Zainab Chaudry of the Maryland chapter of the Council on American–Islamic Relations.
Zainab Chaudry of the Maryland chapter of the Council on American–Islamic Relations. (Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun)

Zainab Chaudry was settling in for a chemistry lecture at the University of Maryland School of Pharmacy on Sept. 11 when a messenger entered and whispered something to her professor, who canceled class.

Before she’d even heard news reports, her father called: “Take off your head covering,” he said. “I’ll explain when you get home.”

Chaudry, then 19, removed her hijab, the veil some Muslim women wear, out of deference to her father, a Pakistani immigrant who feared a backlash. Days later, she put it back on.

“Taking off the hijab, it felt like I was admitting that the actions of these terrorists did reflect my religion,” she recalled. “I felt like it was my duty to reclaim my faith.”

Such seemingly small choices, the Baltimore native said, were pivotal for the millions who were put on the spot by hijackers who “twisted our faith to justify these terrible acts.” Seeing Muslims Americanize their names or shave their beards inspired her toward social activism.

Now state director for America’s largest Muslim advocacy group, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, Chaudry works long hours publicizing hate crimes and bias incidents. She promotes responses to bullying and discrimination, lobbies lawmakers and organizes fundraising and relief efforts. These days she’s working with area mosques to provide supplies and social support for refugees from Afghanistan.

“I wouldn’t change the course of my career for anything,” she said.

The organizer

Nabeehah Azeez worships at the Muslim Community Cultural Center of Baltimore during a Friday service.
Nabeehah Azeez worships at the Muslim Community Cultural Center of Baltimore during a Friday service. (Lloyd Fox/Baltimore Sun)

Nabeehah Azeez absorbed early the teachings of Elijah Muhammad, the self-proclaimed “messenger of Allah” who popularized the Nation of Islam, and his son, Imam W. Deen Muhammad, who spliced in elements of the faith’s Sunni branch.

To Azeez, a community organizer from West Baltimore, both men advanced Islam among African Americans, boosting pride in a religion that enslaved Africans brought to America in the 17th century.

As Muslims from the Middle East and elsewhere began pouring into the U.S. starting in the 1960s, though, little communication developed across cultural lines, leaving America’s older Muslim communities isolated from their brethren. That, Azeez believes, is why the 9/11 attacks affected Black Muslims differently: Mainstream America generally spared them backlash.

But the sudden spotlight on Muslims of Middle Eastern heritage left many with the impression that other Islamic cultures didn’t exist or didn’t matter.

“It almost delegitimized the struggles of African Americans that were already taking place,” said Azeez, adding that there’s a “big issue with racism and segregation in the Islamic community, especially in America, where we’re so diverse.”

To Azeez, 34, Islam can be empowered if Muslims focus on its goals — promoting peace, helping the needy, building moral communities. She works as an administrator with the No Boundaries Coalition, a nonprofit that seeks to empower youth, foster community leadership and bolster voting.

“We should see ourselves as one community,” she said. “If I’m the only Muslim that a person meets, and I give a good impression, that helps.”

The professor

Homayra Ziad is the director of the Islamic studies program at Johns Hopkins University.
Homayra Ziad is the director of the Islamic studies program at Johns Hopkins University. (Courtesy of Homayra Ziad)

Ask Homayra Ziad about 9/11′s impact, and prepare for a multilayered lecture — fitting for the director of the Program in Islamic Studies at Johns Hopkins.

To Ziad, 44, a Muslim American born in Pakistan, the first step toward healing is to establish a sense of what Islam is and isn’t.

“Despite the fact that we have a historically diverse community,” she said, powerful forces on the post-9/11 landscape are incentivized to promote stereotypes of Muslims as “foreign,” “violent” and “people who hate the U.S.”

Ziad cites the military-industrial complex as one that exploits such portrayals to build support for wars like the 20-year Afghanistan conflict. The result, in her view: thousands of battlefield deaths and countless ruined lives, but also acceptance of civil rights violations ranging from the surveillance of mosques to inappropriate deportation and torture.

That, she said, makes accurate teaching of Islam “a matter of life and death.” As part of a course she’s teaching on 9/11′s effects, she’s teaming with a community-based nonprofit, the Justice for Muslims Collective, to illustrate how such concessions promote Islamophobia.

The growing number of people committed to such work makes Ziad largely optimistic.


“I have a lot of hope,” she said.


The diplomat

Imam Mohamad Bashar Arafat is the founder and president of Civilizations Exchange and Cooperation Foundation in Columbia.
Imam Mohamad Bashar Arafat is the founder and president of Civilizations Exchange and Cooperation Foundation in Columbia. (Courtesy of Civilizations Exchange and Cooperation Program)

A year before 9/11, Mohamad Bashar Arafat, then campus imam at Johns Hopkins and Muslim chaplain of the Baltimore Police Department, grew dismayed at the notion that Muslim and American cultures were so different they would inevitably collide.

“I was extremely bothered by this, because to me, even though there might be a clash of interests, civilizations have always borrowed from each other,” said Arafat, 59, a religious leader who studies how ideas migrate across cultures.

So the Syria native created a program to promote understanding between Muslims and people of other faiths. The Civilizations Exchange and Cooperation Foundation, now a partner of the U.S. State Department, has hosted students from 70 countries and held symposia at 47 U.S. embassies.

Its idea — that dialogue promotes peace and is more far more affordable than fighting — bears weight in the wake of the war in Afghanistan, which Arafat said kept going far longer than it should have.

“I feel so sad now when I see what has happened,” he said. “I knew from the get-go this was a war of ideologies. Now, after 20 years, we’ve replaced the Taliban with the Taliban. We need something beyond F-35 [jets] and Tomahawk missiles.”

CECF has partnered with local universities to found a degree-granting program, the School of Religious Diplomacy for Leadership Development, which Arafat hopes will open for business from its Columbia headquarters. Arafat sees it as a way to prevent another 9/11.

“We have funded wars enough for 20 years,” he said. “It’s time to fund peace.”