Victims Or Villains: Moving Beyond Post-9/11 Narratives

I was in the midst of a grueling eight hour written exam at the University of Chicago when the department chair came into the room and, alongside standard announcements, suggested we stay away from any television or radios. "Things are not good in America," he said as he walked out. He was hoping to keep us focused on the exam but like most Americans that day, I watched, listened and sat in shock and horror as the day went on. And like most Muslims, I was equally as preoccupied with the immediate impact this would have on the lives of Muslims in this country.

My late father was calling incessantly from his small apartment in Amman convinced that my younger brother was in lower Manhattan that day and going crazy because he couldn't get a hold of him. Meanwhile, the tone of the national discussion started to creep out through emails, public statements and the media. The larger American Muslim organizations rushed to send out condemnations. In the days that followed, large sectors of the broader American Muslim community desperately used whatever public forum they could to assert their "American-ness" and to implicitly or explicitly assure their American colleagues, friends and neighborhoods "we are not with them."

They were responding to one of the most disempowering and unfortunately pervasive threads of the emerging post-9/11 narratives, one which broadly paints American Muslims as either victims or villains. As villains, we were all remotely connected to or somehow aligned with those that attacked us that day, and as a result, became subject to intense suspicion, scrutiny and loathing. As victims, we were depicted as unjustly complaining of civil rights erosions or of being manipulated into following some intolerant and violent interpretation of Islam.

I instinctively fled from that narrative and deep into community spaces like Marquette Park, on Chicago's Southwest Side. There were certainly concerns of backlash and other troublesome incidents for young Muslims in schools in the area but there was also a significant presence and history of American Muslims working alongside other faith communities to make this low-income and diverse neighborhood a safer and more equitable place to live and raise a family. For a neighborhood with a conflicted history of racial tension and poverty like Marquette Park, the idea of struggling for a more tolerant and dignified quality of life was something we had been committed to for some time. In other words, in Marquette Park I could exist and assert my voice outside the victim-villain framework. There, I wasn't asked to apologize for or condemn acts I had nothing to do with nor was I pitied or painted as a victim in need of salvation from a backwards and violent religion. Instead, we were respectfully asked by neighbors, community allies and partners what, if anything, they could do to make certain the larger Muslim community didn't feel targeted that day.

On Sunday morning I will be standing back on the steps of a Catholic Church across the street from the IMAN headquarters in Marquette Park with many of these same people. There, I will be participating in a multi-faith program of remembrance and solidarity with diverse religious leaders from across our community. These are people who have been working in the trenches together since before that fateful event ten years ago, to fight foreclosures, create safer neighborhoods and to improve the quality of health and life for the diverse low-income families that live and work in the area.

This weekend there will be many other inspiring events across the country where Muslims alongside friends and community members of all faiths will be involved in programs and activities that seek to put the villain/victim narrative behind us. My hope, as we move beyond the ten year marker of 9/11 and into the heat of another political season, is that our efforts are successful in forging a new narrative of American Muslims as transformative, committed and, yes, complicated agents of change, hope and stability in turbulent times.