And the next 20 could be harder
On 9/11/2001 I reached my office in London having just got back from a business trip to Islamabad. My team was gathered around a desk drafting a proposal for a project in Kenya. We were nervously to take a flight to Nairobi two weeks later. There was a commotion in the office, and news that something major was going down that moment. We huddled around the TV screen watching the events unfold, muted as if watching a horror movie. As we stood there, confusing thoughts started smashing together in my jet-lagged mind. Feelings for my American friends, calculations of how many might be dead, fear of what could happen next. But I was also hit by a realisation that things had just got a whole lot worse for over a billion Muslims all over the world. Innocent people in far-flung countries such as Afghanistan were now to suffer for years to come. This was obvious.
What was also obvious is that Western Muslims were now to be thrust into the role of chief explainer of why 9/11 had happened. Many of us now became the focus for daily scrutiny, finding ourselves pushed into a corner to explain, or answer for, terrorism and Muslim fundamentalism and why these might be compatible with Islam. Everybody has to play chief explainer at some point or other, for example white people often have to explain the origins of racism. But for Muslims the responsibility came with the predetermination that somehow our faith and beliefs were guilty, at least in part. A thesis began to emerge that Islam’s core principles weren’t compatible with those of a liberal Western society, and this caught on with political leaders and media outlets. The subsequent singling out of Muslims and the rise of Islamophobia in Western countries is history.
As a bearded Muslim named Mohammad and who took over one hundred flights a year, I was treated differently immediately. In the decade post 9/11, I was stopped and searched at least fifty times in airports and railway stations, refused entry visas to certain countries, put on no-fly lists, driven once to a shed in the back of an airport for cross-examination and put through numerous other frightening interrogations. I developed a neurotic paranoia that I was being looked at, even when I wasn’t. Worried that I might make people around me tense when moving around I stopped carrying a backpack on the London tube and desisted from getting up to go to the toilet during flights.
I recently asked myself whether Islamophobia is on the wane. This positivism was fed by the outpouring of Western grief for Muslims murdered by a terrorist attack in Christchurch, New Zealand, by novel Western criticism of how China is treating its Uyghur Muslims and the emergence of Muslim heroes such as Sir Mo Farah (UK), Zinedine Zidane (France) and Mesut Ozil (Germany).
Watching events unfold in Kabul, I feel I am mistaken. With Afghanistan abandoned by the Western allies and left to the devices of the same extremists they sought to neutralize for over, there is a possibility that Islamic fundamentalism and the fear of terrorism on Western soil will rise. And the bad actions of isolated Muslim groups and individuals acting as terrorists is likely to feed further Western people’s mistrust of Islam and reinforce that chief explainer role all over again. What now happens in Afghanistan will cast a new shadow on the trust in Islam, as will what happens in Iraq, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Yemen.
I am deflated as I watch two decades of ill-conceived Western intervention in Afghanistan unravel. It feels like we are stuck with the threats of terrorism, extremist regimes and Islamophobia for a while yet. Western Muslims need to stay the course of building trust with the people we live and work with around us.
Mohammad Chowdhury is an author and management consultant based in Melbourne, Australia. Border Crossings: My Journey as a Western Muslim is his first book, available now in UK bookstores and online, and globally in bookstores later this year. Publisher: Unbound, ISBN: 9781783529698. Pages: 320.