Islamophobia post 9/11: an interview with Lena Ragab

Catie Byrnes
  Features Editor

September 11, 2016, marks the 15-year anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. As this country comes together to mourn and remember those lost in the tragedy that is 9/11, it is important to note that certain people in this country have a uniquely painful experience with this day.

These people are Muslim Americans, many of whom experience a heightened sense of fear of violence and harassment, due to the degree of Islamophobia which has permeated the media as well as American culture as a result of 9/11. This writer spoke with Lena Ragab, UNCG senior and Muslim Student Association member, regarding her experiences with Islamophobia in this country in a post 9/11 world.

1. As a Muslim woman who wears hijab, how has this influenced the degree of Islamophobia and misogyny targeted at you as a Muslim and a woman?

As a woman who wears the hijab, I feel as though I’m wearing a big sign on my forehead that says “I am Muslim.” Of course wearing the hijab comes with difficulties because I stand out in a room full of people, and this only makes me a target for hatred. Growing up wearing the hijab after 9/11 — I was 10 when I started wearing it in 2002 — I felt isolated, and kids were afraid to approach me, and when they did it was never to spark conversation but to comment on my veil. ‘Why do you wear that on your head?’ ‘Do you shower with that on?’ ‘Are you a terrorist?’ ‘Were you forced to wear that?’ I never felt like people were interested in getting to know me, they just wanted to comment on my beliefs. I always felt alone, being the only Muslim in my school, and I felt misunderstood. I was an American like everyone else and I enjoyed all the same things but somehow I felt like an alien. I chose to wear the hijab when I did, but what I didn’t know was how much backlash I was going to get for my choice. I wore the hijab through elementary school and middle school; eventually I was tired of being isolated. I wanted to look like everyone else, I was tired of feeling different. The day I took it off, I felt like a completely different person. I felt normal. Even when I didn’t wear the scarf people felt more comfortable talking to me versus when I did.”

2. As a Muslim woman, especially with regard to the amount of hate and Islamophobia present in this country post 9/11, do you feel safe in America?

Islamophobia is still quite prominent in this country and the sad thing is people are still being targeted every day. Every day when I walk out of my house, I force myself to be oblivious to the stares and comments, but in reality I live in fear; fear that one day someone will approach me with a weapon or try to hurt me. Being a woman, I always ask myself, how will I defend myself? If I was ever targeted by someone what would I do? Recently people have been going into Mosques armed and threatening Muslims in their place of worship. You expect that to be the safest place, but in fact that has been a popular target. Do I feel safe? No. With recent political leaders inducing fear on Americans, it feels as though Islamophobia will always exist. 

3. Have you had particularly damaging experiences with Islamophobia after 9/11, and do you think the discrimination and hate you face has been compounded by this tragedy?

A day that I will never forget that has impacted me till this day, is when Our Three Winners [Deah Barakat, Yusor Abu-Salha and Razan Abu-Salha] were shot in Chapel Hill. It was too close to home and this has made me fear for my community.

Sometimes when I walk in a room, I feel like the elephant in the room. One day in particular, I went to the bathroom in a Starbucks in DC, an older woman felt the need to speak up, [and say] ‘That Muslim terrorist is holding up the line to the bathroom.’ I looked around expecting someone to say something and there was silence. I was more hurt at the silence than the comment. I walked away in total embarrassment. I was speechless and had no words for the woman. This happened only a couple of months ago during Spring Break. That day I held back tears in realization that Islamophobia still exists.

Something I always dread is the first day of classes. As I choose a seat in the room I feel like everyone stares at me; I force an awkward smile on my face and sit down. As people walk in, there are always empty seats that surround me and people choose those seats last. Luckily I am an extrovert, and try to break the ice with the people around me so they feel comfortable. When I introduce myself I try to crack a joke. I feel as though I have to act a certain way so people don’t feel uncomfortable. I would like to say this is all in my head but I always get comments at the end of the semester when I am parting ways with some of the students, ‘I was honestly afraid to talk to you, I am glad you approached me first.’ It is in that particular moment that I realize that people really do feel uncomfortable because they only know what they have been told, through media, etc.

4. Do you feel as though a lot of 9/11 memorabilia and general sentiments in this country tends to be Islamophobic, and does this make you uncomfortable as a Muslim on 9/11?

When I was younger and when anyone would mention 9/11, I always felt like everyone would stare at me. The subject always made me feel uncomfortable, because I always felt like the blame was put solely on my beliefs. I don’t think that 9/11 memorabilia purposely has Islamophobic sentiments, but it does seem like some interpret it that way. Like, looking back at documentaries of that day, when you look at the news headlines, a lot of the blame was put on Islam, and not so much on the people who did it.

5. How is it, that you think the Islamophobic stigma associating Muslims and 9/11 can be broken, when this is such a prevalent and tacit narrative present in this country? As a Muslim woman, how do you navigate this stigma and the way it is tied to Islamophobia in your everyday life?

I think it is important for all Muslims to share their narratives, educate people about their religion and most importantly show the community that they are in fact peaceful, tolerant people; this includes getting involved in community service…we try to build bridges among different faiths, hold educational events, and we constantly volunteer in the community. As a Muslim woman, I can only navigate this stigma by being an example [of] what it means to be Muslim; [through] forcing myself to be in uncomfortable situations so that I can break barriers, [and] educating people so I can break stereotypes. Through my journey I have been resilient and I haven’t let the negativity bring me down, it has only inspired me to want to do more to help the Muslim community around me, by inspiring the youth to do the same, so their generation doesn’t have to navigate through the same difficulties that I, and many others have experienced.

Categories: Features, Uncategorized

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