For many Muslim Americans, 9/11—and America’s complicity—has never ended
“NOLAASHO wa waax adag, laakiin wa in aan horay u soconaa.”
“Life is full of difficulty, but we must move forward,” my mother says to me in Somali on the phone just a few days after the election. I am numb from the political regression which has taken place overnight, one that had been growing alongside an anxious, sickening knot in my belly for the better part of a year now. The republic had given birth to my worst nightmare in the form of Donald Trump and in a moment of clarity, I sought my mother’s words on the matter. When she speaks, I am reminded instantly that her life and that of her siblings--my aunts and uncles--were already once upended by an autocrat, a military strongman and a socialist named Siad Barre. She knows many things about hardship. So does my father, who was a political prisoner in his youth. But she reminds me that my family started new lives in new places: Canada, America, England, the Netherlands, Sweden, Germany. At a great cost, they were able to begin again as refugees. They started over, in exile, and for the most part were unable to return home. I think about how my parents speak Somali as it was spoken in the 1970s--their dialects frozen in time like their memories of home.
I can’t help but wonder if I too will leave, if the leaving is generational, if the leaving is an inheritance. Will we always be leaving? I know my Jewish friends, many of whose ancestors died not so long ago, feel similarly. The cynic (or perhaps realist) in me knows that while leaving might minimize the fallout, I will still live on planet earth. As borders become insignificant and climate change hastens the geopolitical landscape rearranging itself to accommodate scarcity, I will feel the fallout. We all will.
In the wake of Trump’s victory, Masha Gessen published a widely-circulated guide for those of us newly living under an autocrat. Gessen, a queer journalist, lived under a regime in Russia that took special care to crush not only a free press but gay rights. She qualifies her advice by reminding us that while autocrats topple the institutions we hold dear--the “free” press, the courts, and so on--it is prudent to remember that in America, these institutions are built on a foundation that is stronger than what exists in many countries. I take some fleeting relief in this. Protest and sustained outrage, she insists, are essential actions against the normalization of what is so far from normal.
I think of my dear friends’ parents, who lived under Marcos in the Philippines, attending their first protest this weekend. This is heartening. I think of my partner’s parents, whose lives, along with those of so many other Black Americans, were destroyed under Reagan. They are still picking up the pieces and yet, they attended their first protest in the wake of the election too. I take heart in the fact that people are organizing in bigger numbers and with wider coalitions than ever before.
As we move forward into the Trump regime, I am most afraid for my Muslim sisters and brothers. So many of us Muslims no longer have homelands to return to: Somalis are targeted by drones, fighting off slaughter in the form of Al Shabaab’s brutality, dying of thirst by the hundreds of thousands, and killed in the diaspora from gun violence, gangs, and broken hearts. I wonder how much more we will be asked to endure. I suppress the bitterness, the rising nihilism. I think of my own brother, no longer with us, and the sacrifices my parents made seemingly in vain, to leave their homeland and bring us here, where we will die anyways.
Before Donald Trump was ever elected, just the prospect of his reign inspired murderous hate. I remember that I was scared shitless, texting my Muslim friends while white radicals posted to Facebook that there was no difference between the candidates. The difference was paid in blood: Bengali Americans begged us to notice that they were being gunned down in broad daylight. This was in Queens, New York, the borough Trump calls home. Few outside of the Muslim community paid attention. As a movement, we were forewarned that the Trump campaign was a siren song for the hate we thought had been relegated to the fringes. We ignored the signs. That naïveté can’t continue--it’s part of why we’re here in the first place.
Please don’t tell me that you, as a non-Muslim, will sign up for a Muslim registry: that is a useless gesture. The surveillance apparatus in the U.S. is a behemoth which is not only pointed squarely at Muslims but also cannot be tricked so easily. Try, instead, to listen to communities; ask them what they need. Many of the Muslims who are your neighbors and colleagues and friends lived through the aftermath of 9/11--and as Linda Sarsour, head of the Arab American Association of New York, reminded us before the election, people during that time were disappeared off the streets. Those are the stakes. Friends of mine had their middle-aged parents detained for no clear reason. We know, having been asked to register ourselves before, that it was an unmitigated disaster--a hollow, bad faith gesture from the U.S. government. Now is the time to learn from Muslims what experiences they have already had and how they managed to survive them. Many Muslims feel that our non-Muslim community members didn’t show up for us before. The time to show up was already then; it’s also now.
Now is the time to uphold journalism like that of my friend Aviva Stahl, an incredible ally to Muslims, or of my colleague Talal Ansari, one of few journalists reporting on the Islamophobic bloodshed that took place this past spring and summer. Now is the time to give money to the people defending Muslims against state sanctioned violence: CUNY Clear, DRUM, and Witness Against Torture are all groups doing good work on a smaller scale that anyone can support. And yes, the ACLU often does this work too. But even more importantly, when the time comes, use your own body to protest and vocally interrupt any prospect of renewing a registry; intervene with your body if you see someone experiencing harassment. Learn to de-escalate. Especially if you are visibly non-Muslim. Understand that where anti-terror legislation begins, the rights of Muslims, even citizens, end. Begin to take risks in solidarity with your community; know that wherever you are, Muslims are a part of that community.
I hope the movement we build will be one that all of the aunties can plug into without feeling alienated or isolated; I hope that the tías show out alongside the asymmetrical haircuts and floral half sleeves and studded black denim. I want this to be a movement that will include elders and young people and people of all faiths. I want to see hijabi sisters welcomed into the fold, the mainstream movement has held them at a distance for too long. I want to see the movement grapple with its Islamophobia and anti-semitism, and include those who seek to offer a corrective to these ills. I hope too, that as a movement we build a legitimately antifascist coalition across political difference. I want to see the three-arrowed circle tagged over the swastikas that are popping up everywhere. I want us to rise up because passivity and heedless cooperation only earn us betrayal and death. Inshallah, we will survive this--but we need to be able to count on one another.