On September 11, 2001, I was a senior in college in Berkeley, California. I was a member of the Muslim Student Association who played NBA2K on his Sega Dreamcast with other chai-drinking dorks. Before 9/11, the plan was simple for people like me, a descendant of upwardly mobile Pakistani immigrants: Work hard and play by the rules, and you could become a “model minority” (in contrast to all those “bad minorities”). After 9/11, that path was foreclosed forever.
Overnight, we Muslims were no longer part of the great American “us” — we were “them.” I was associated with the 19 hijackers even though they didn’t hail from Pakistan, but from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, United Arab Emirates, and Lebanon. And even though I was born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, I was told to “go back to where I came from.” Go back where, exactly? To Fremont?
I was suddenly a foreigner in my own country. For Muslim Americans of my generation, 9/11 represented a fork in the timeline. In a parallel universe where 9/11 didn’t happen, many of us would have clung to the hope that our model-minority status would protect us. In the universe in which we actually live, America reminded us, sometimes violently and always cruelly, that no such protection was guaranteed, for anybody.
The odd thing is that, despite all the hardships and frustrations of post-9/11 America, I’m glad that at least we were startled awake from the model-minority dream.
America’s bloodlust after 9/11 showed us that even doctors, engineers, and business entrepreneurs would be accepted only provisionally into the pantheon of whiteness. All our bona fides — our advanced degrees, our stable credit, our SUVs, our votes for George W. Bush in 2000, our traditional values, and our safe suburban communities — availed us nothing. Despite these credentials, we had to prove, over and over, that we could meet the bare requirements of citizenship, which came in the form of a seemingly benign concept: “moderation.”
We were often asked: “Where are all the moderate Muslims who condemn terrorism?” I was supposed to join others in a sort of “condemn-a-thon” in which I had to disavow every violent action done by every terrorist in countries I had never even visited in order to prove my people’s basic self-worth. I was expected to be the cultural ambassador of 1,400 years of Islamic civilization. I was asked to explain and defend, in detail, Islam, the Quran, the Prophet Muhammad, Sharia law, the Middle East, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Hamas, honor killings, and the hijab. Any mistake on my part would be counted as a strike not only against me, but also this entire fictional place called “the Muslim world.”
The difference between fiction and reality was immaterial to a country gripped by chauvinism and Islamophobia. The first hate crime was against someone who wasn’t even Muslim: Balbir Singh, a Sikh Indian gas-station owner in Mesa, Arizona. Law enforcement interviewed thousands of Muslim Americans, surveilled mosques and Muslim community centers, prosecuted Muslim charities, and, well before Trump’s Muslim ban, established a Muslim registry called NSEERS that shattered families by deporting nearly 13,000 immigrants from Muslim-majority countries. Congress held multiple hearings on the radicalization of Muslim communities but turned a blind eye to white supremacy, the number-one domestic-terror threat in America.
But this hazing also awakened a 9/11 generation: a group of Muslim Americans, inspired by a progressive political consciousness, who sought to create alliances with communities that had endured their own hazing and othering.
Thrust into a role that I hadn’t anticipated playing, I changed my identity, and my idea of what it meant to be American changed along with it. Many of my older millennial friends decided to pursue professions in which they could work in solidarity with other minorities to push for recognition, diversity, and tolerance. Some went into politics, others law, while a few brave, masochistic souls decided to pursue comedy and journalism.
The fallout from 9/11 jolted me out of a middle-class, suburban cocoon of complacency and safety. I picked up a pen: to write, and to fight. On the radio and cable-news channels, non-Muslim “experts” were talking about us as if we were exotic zoo animals, to be observed and dissected with equal doses of horror and curiosity. We were brought on to these shows for “gotcha” interviews, and asked to condemn terrorism, of course. We were only useful if we could help national security and combat terrorism, which usually involved the racist practice of dividing “good Muslims” from “bad Muslims.” In pop culture, “the good Muslim” was a magical unicorn who helped Jack Bauer or Claire Danes thwart the seething hordes of “bad Muslims.”
To be a Muslim storyteller back then was a long, lonely, uphill journey, with few mentors and little encouragement. We had to find role models from other cultures, and this, too, was one of the paradoxical boons of the destruction of the Muslim model-minority myth. When I was in college, I took a short-story writing class with Ishmael Reed, who impressed upon me that the way he and other people of color survived in this country was through art and culture. He encouraged me to write a traditional kitchen drama, following in the footsteps of classics like A Long Day’s Journey Into Night and A Raisin in the Sun, but focusing on a Pakistani Muslim family trying to navigate the chaos of a post-9/11 America.
So, I wrote a play about three generations of Pakistani Muslim Americans. My intention was to not only entertain, but also forge connections with other communities that had experienced the joys and sorrows of living in a country that didn’t love them back. (After all, Italians and Irish Catholics and Jews weren’t considered “white” back in the day; they were also called invaders.) But bridging divides is easier said than done. The tastemakers in the theater industry told me “the mainstream” wouldn’t care about the stories of “ethnic characters.” They told me to add white characters, remove all the Urdu and Arabic dialogue, and introduce terrorism plots. One producer even suggested I cast the actor Ted Danson as the middle-aged Pakistani immigrant father.
I ignored their advice and decided to keep all the mirch and masala. When The Domestic Crusaders was finally produced as an Off Broadway play in 2009, the response was overwhelming. The play sold out shows, garnered international press, and won over diverse audiences who recognized themselves and their neighbors in a story of an American family struggling to integrate while preserving its own identity. It’s strange to think that this play, which changed my life, might not have happened were it not for 9/11.
It’s now been 20 years. I’d like to think that when I walk down the airplane aisle, or say “Inshallah” in the grocery store, people’s first impression of me isn’t, “I hope he’s one of the good Muslims.” Instead, I hope they see a 40-year-old exhausted father of three, who’s trying his best to survive during a pandemic like everyone else, and who just happens to be a Muslim.
If America has made progress on this front, it is thanks to Muslims who stood up for themselves and refused to be stereotyped. There is now greater Muslim representation in the arts, journalism, politics, entrepreneurship, and academia. Even the video-game characters have become more diverse: On PS4, my kids play as Kamala Khan, a Pakistani American superhero who goes by the name of Ms. Marvel. And two of the country’s most prominent Democratic congresswomen — Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar — are not only Muslim, but part of a famously multiracial Squad that represents exactly the sort of progressive politics that many Muslims embraced in response to 9/11.
Unfortunately, the white-lash to our emergence has been equally significant. It’s certainly one of the factors that led to Donald Trump’s presidency, and social media and Fox News have amplified hateful rhetoric and dangerous conspiracy theories that continue to divide this country. The enduring lesson of 9/11 is that Muslim Americans cannot change anything by working hard and playing by the rules. We have to be part of a movement.
A new edition of Wajahat Ali’s play, The Domestic Crusaders, is being published this month by McSweeney’s. His memoir, Go Back to Where You Came From, will be published by W. W. Norton in January 2022.
More on 9/11: 20 years later
- Where the Meaning of Flight 93 Can Never End
- The Great Maritime Rescue of Lower Manhattan on 9/11
- The Woman in White