What New Jersey Muslims Were Actually Doing on 9/11

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Smoke and debris rushes through the Wall Street area near Trinity Church, after the first tower collapses during the World Trade Center attack.
The first tower collapses during the World Trade Center attack.Photo: Jerry Arcieri/Corbis

Over the last few weeks, Donald Trump has repeatedly insisted that he saw footage of “thousands and thousands” of Muslims celebrating in New Jersey after the September 11 attacks, despite his inability to locate any video, news reports, or credible witnesses indicating that the supposed celebrations took place. On Monday, the Republican front-runner reached new heights of Islamophobia by calling for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” With Trump unlikely to abandon his (thoroughly debunked) 9/11 claim, Daily Intelligencer asked some New Jersey Muslims to describe what they were actually doing on that day. Unsurprisingly, it wasn’t cheering in the streets.

We were crying and trying to comfort people.”
I was in seventh grade. I lived in Newark, but I went to school in Teaneck, at a private Islamic school. I just remember sitting in class, and one of the students ran in. She was freaking out; she said one of the Twin Towers just got attacked, a plane just crashed into it. I just remember the shock on everybody’s faces. One of my closest friends, her family lives in New York and her dad worked at the World Trade Center — she was panicking. And then my cousin, who was in class with me, her dad — my uncle — worked at a bank right next to the World Trade Center. Her face — she was freaking out. I don’t know if I fully grasped what was going on, but knew it was something bad.

I remember my cousin’s mom, my aunt, showed up, and she was like, “We’re leaving right now.” My aunt was crying hysterically. She was trying to get a hold of my uncle, and she couldn’t. My cousin was crying. I just remember being really scared. The thought of terrorism didn’t occur to me. All that mattered was, what’s going on? Is everyone okay? Is my uncle okay? I didn’t really think about the implications.

My uncle ended up calling maybe six, seven hours later to say he was okay. He didn’t make it to work that day. He was running late, so he was in the area but not in the building, which was a huge relief. I remember him being there the next day, and we were all hugging, happy. And then on the other side, a man from our community who had two sons died at the World Trade Center. I remember thinking, Here’s my uncle, who showed up, and their dad never showed up. I felt like it was a little selfish of us to be so relieved. I felt so guilty being relieved. I remember we were there at that family’s apartment almost every single night for like two weeks, just really trying to be there for them.

After 9/11, I know that a lot of girls took off their headscarves — they felt threatened. Sometimes at school in Teaneck, there would be random people driving by and they’d be like, “Oh, are you related to Osama bin Laden? Are you his cousin or his niece or whatever?” But honestly, I’ve never taken it to heart, because I feel like I don’t have to apologize for wearing a headscarf or for being a Muslim. All those things that my religion teaches me aren’t the things you see in the media. The same thing I’ve been taught, that the only way you can have people accept you is to show them who you really are.

I feel I’ve been so blessed. I feel like because Newark is so diverse, and people are so open, and there are so many Muslims here that cover and practice — random non-Muslim people will come up to you and say, “Salam alaikum.” I do feel like there’s no judgement. People understand me because they know so many Muslims; they’re not ignorant to our beliefs. The exposure they get isn’t just through the media — it’s through interacting with us every day.

I hate that Donald Trump said the Muslims in Jersey were celebrating, when we were actually crying and trying to comfort people who lost people in the World Trade Center. —Wafiyah Nasir

I was in a state of shock.”
I was in Jersey City, dressed and ready to go to work, and I heard the noise outside. I literally saw when the plane hit the World Trade Center. I turned the TV on, then I went outside. I was in a state of shock that this could happen right in the beautiful city of New York — I’ve been living across the river for almost 33 years.

I did go to work in the city that day, to my practice in Astoria. I was stopped on the road, on the highway, at the Holland Tunnel. When I explained to the police that I was a physician, they understood and they let me go to my office. There were police and security everywhere. Of course, many appointments were missed, but I saw the patients who showed up for appointments that day.

Later, I and other people went to the mosque. The imam prayed for everybody, prayed for all the people in the United States of America. Nobody was on the streets — people were really scared. Two days after September 11, there was a fund-raiser in Jersey City for the firefighters who died at the World Trade Center. I said, “I definitely have to go, I’m part of the community.” So I went and gave my check. —Rafiq Chaudhry

At Rutgers, even  friends started behaving differently.
I grew up in Plainsboro, New Jersey, in a Bangladeshi-American household. My parents are both scientists, and while they’re both practicing Muslims, Islam wasn’t ever the focus of our household. We still practiced; we didn’t drink or eat pork or anything, but it wasn’t front and center. I went to Rutgers, which is where I was on 9/11. I was 20 years old. I lived in an apartment with six guys, and out of us there was probably four Democrats, one kind of middle-of-the-road guy, and one staunch Republican. When the news broke on September 11, I was sleeping in my room. Our Republican roommate kind of pounded on the door and immediately turned on the TV. He was kind of pointing in my face, saying, “The terrorists are back at it.” Now, “back at it” — this, in my point of view, was the first time there had been a terrorist attack on United States soil, so I didn’t know what he meant by that. He was looking at me, pointing at me.

After the attacks, there was speculation on campus that at least one of the attackers had come through Rutgers University, or used Rutgers as an entry point into the U.S. People were asking, “Could there be Muslim Rutgers students planning attacks?”

The night of September 11, the roommate I mentioned before marched up and down our hallway with an air rifle. He was going to the front door, going to the porch, telling us that if he sees a terrorist he’s gonna kill them. And mind you, this is New Brunswick, New Jersey.

I understood that it was fear, and that really shocked me. This was a guy I was genuinely friends with. We had a lot of political conversations in our friendship, and at no point did I ever feel that he was threatening until I saw him afraid. I remember a few nights later, I was sleeping in my bed again and I woke up and he was standing there with that rifle, pointing at me. He was just trying to let me know he was watching me. Again, this was a guy I considered a friend — we’d known each other maybe four or five years.

It was the first time in my life that I felt like the Muslim part of me was all that people saw. —Mushfik Nabi

My wife and I were just in dismay, we couldn’t even eat dinner.”
I was at work in Pine Brook, New Jersey, when the news came around the office that a plane had flown into the World Trade Center. Of course, everybody was in total disbelief. I was worried about the people in the building, in the surrounding area — just the thought of their sorrow and pain. I was upset and angry. My wife and I were just in dismay, we couldn’t even eat dinner. We were in shock and numbness, like when someone passes away that you don’t expect to — it was that feeling. I had my kids with me, and maybe that made it even worse, because I was thinking, The people in the towers are daughters and sons and fathers and mothers. How worried are all these parents? And there are obviously kids who are going to be by themselves now, orphaned — who’s going to take care of them?

It’s still so sad. And to hear people accuse us of celebrating the death of innocent people, so many innocent people? It’s so horrible. I don’t understand. —Mike Rahim

We had long prayers for the safety of our country.”
I remember I came to my office at around 8:30. I’m a pharmacist and the chairman of the NIA Masjid & Community Center mosque in Newark. I received a call from my wife, who was telling me that the towers were on fire. And I was like, “Okay, something is happening in our country. Something is wrong.”

It was just a day of horror: calling neighbors in South Orange, trying to call friends and family around Newark, people from our center. People were missing, people weren’t answering their phones, some people didn’t have cell phones.

That first week was just trying to figure out what is happening within the country and listening. It was a lot of prayers, I remember in the evenings we were having long prayers just for the safety of our country. I was just listening to the news, trying to see what was happening, trying to see what we could do, trying to register and volunteer and donate blood. Our mosque is pretty well-known in the Newark area — we have about 500 families. We reach out a lot in the area. We have monthly soup kitchens; we do stuff with the kids; we work along with the city of Newark on a lot of projects; we’re part of many clergy groups. So it’s always bigger than just our congregation.

Soon after the attacks there was a massive candlelight vigil in South Orange, thousands of people. A Christian guy spoke, a Jewish guy, and I all spoke. Folks were quoting from their scriptures about life and death and tragedies and tests, these things in life. I think I spoke about how the Koran says whoever takes a life, it’s as though you’re taking the life of the entire mankind. I was trying to show that in case anybody was thinking the attacks had to do with Islam — that they had nothing to do with that. But it was more prayer. It was focused on prayer for the community, for those who suffered, for the families who lost folks — asking God to give them strength. —Ashraf Latif

I tried to go over to New York to help people, but I wasn’t allowed in.”
On September 11 I was in Jersey City, about to go to my office. All of the sudden, I heard boom, boom — the World Trade Center. Beyond imagination. I’m a physician, and I have a practice in the Bronx. I tried to go over to New York to help people, but I wasn’t allowed in. 

Over here, the community was in shock. I’m the president of the Muslim Federation of New Jersey, and we had members working in the area. What Donald Trump is saying, it’s ridiculous. I can’t imagine that a human being, that anyone could react like that.

The Muslims in Jersey City, we’re as patriotic as anybody — there’s no doubt about that. We love this country. And we believe that if one innocent is being killed, that’s the killing of the whole humanity. That’s the teaching of Islam. —Arshad Chatha

I feel like talking about it helps, even though it still makes me cry.”
I was living in Newark and commuting to school at Long Island University in Brooklyn. I was going to my next class, and I saw a group of students standing by the TV, just looking. I wanted to see what they were looking at, so I stood behind them, and I saw they were replaying the footage of the plane hitting the tower, and I was like, “Oh my God.” 

Classes were canceled, and so I was thinking, Let me go home. And then I realized, it’s the World Trade Center — that’s what I walk through to go to the train to get to Brooklyn. I was like, Oh my God, I don’t know any other way to get home. My uncle worked in the Bronx, so I thought, Let me call home and find out if my aunt can get in contact with him, to see if he can pick me up because I didn’t know any other way.

I went across the street, by Junior’s. I used the payphone over there, and I called, and I kept calling, and I wasn’t getting through. So of course I’m getting scared, thinking, I don’t know what I’m gonna do. And then I see all these people walking across the Brooklyn Bridge, coming into Brooklyn with soot on their faces and bodies. That was what really tore me up.

I just kept calling and calling, and finally I got through to my aunt. I gave her the number to the payphone, and she called me back and said my uncle was on his way home but that he was going to come back and get me. Finally we got home late that evening.

People came to my aunt and uncle’s house, people that my family had known for years. We started calling people we knew that worked in the area. We had a close family friend who used to work at the World Trade Center, a lot of people that we knew working in New York were working in the World Trade Center area. We were calling the families to see if they’d heard anything.

Sometimes I feel like talking about it helps, even though it still makes me cry. —Kameelah Abdul-Haqq

I ran to the school and stood there for two days.”
That morning I was in my office in Journal Square in Jersey City, trying to start work. A friend of mine called me and said, “Please turn the TV on, something’s going on.” I was shocked, it was unbelievable. Right away, there was speculation about Muslim extremists. The minute I heard such a thing, I feared for the children in school at the Islamic Center of Jersey City. I worried there would be some kind of backlash against them. We have a full-time school, about 200 students, young kids. I left my office, ran to the center, and stood there for two days. I lived at the center.

We called the parents to pick up their kids; we tried to send the kids home. Some of the parents who came from Staten Island and Brooklyn couldn’t get back. Some of them didn’t want to leave — they didn’t know what to expect on the roads, so we had to host them. Some of them slept over at the center; some people hosted some at their homes. It was a little chaotic.

Now more than ever, the Muslim community has to say, “We are a part of American society, we are here to stay. We are American, we are proud of being American.” In Jersey City, our community is nice and quiet; many are newcomers who just came to the United States to seek good jobs and good standard of living and raise our families. We have a very educated community, a community rich in scientists, engineers, etc. We came here to flee persecution, the struggle for democracy and human rights. This is where we found freedom. We enjoy it, and we have to protect it, like any other American. —Ahmed Shedeed

It makes you feel like nothing you say will have any impact.”
I grew up in New Jersey. September 11 was during my senior year at a boarding school there. When the towers started to fall, it was kind of a sinking feeling. It seemed like all the air went out of the room. I had a friend whose dad was in one of the buildings, and we were all trying to console him. He was being pretty tough about it. He was kind of trying not to let it shake him — I can only imagine what was actually going on his head. His dad passed away, but we wouldn’t find that out until later. I remember we were all trying to call our parents, call each other to see if anybody we knew was being affected. The cell networks were so overloaded that nobody could actually call out.

Growing up in a Muslim household, the idea that Muslims were violent or that Islam was violent was not something that entered our heads. At no point on September 11 did a single person I know of in the Muslim community on campus or in New Jersey in general express even the slightest bit of positive feeling about the attacks themselves.

I could not have foreseen that Islamic terrorism was going to be such a big deal for the next 15 years. I think about how it was for me being a Muslim when I was growing up, it was kind of fun. The most visible Muslims in American culture were Muhammad Ali and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and everyone loved them.

Now it can be kind of tiring to even talk about these issues. Recently, during a conversation on a friend’s Facebook wall, someone suggested that people like me should be talking to would-be jihadists before they join terrorist organizations. There’s just this reality disconnect. What am I going to do? Call them up and say, “Hi, this is a Muslim in America. I think you shouldn’t do this,” and they’re going to be like, “Okay, cool.” It makes you feel like nothing you say will have any impact. —Wamiq

These responses have all been condensed and edited.