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Amal Ali

For a Muslim mother, a post-9/11 world of worry

by Haia Radwan
Dec 07, 2010


Amal Ali, a Muslim mother from the Chicago suburbs, sees the fallout from 9/11 through the eyes of her young children.
Something changed that September morning in 2001 when 18 extremists targeted symbols of American power in the name of Islam. For many Americans, Muslim became a tainted word. These days, nearly 10 years later, Ali finds herself reaching quickly to lower the volume on the car radio to protect her oldest son from what he might hear.
“I never wanted my child to hear the words ‘Muslim’ and ‘terrorist’ or Muslim and anything negative that actually contradicts what he understands Islam to be,” Ali said, reflecting on a hard year in a difficult decade. When the words filter through in talk of suicide bombings and the concept of holy war, she tells her son that these are “fake Muslims.”
For American Muslims like Ali, who was born in Arizona, the recent rise in anti-Islamic sentiment is disorienting and disheartening. What she calls the “post-9/11 world” is a place where she struggles to cope with an animosity that she had not known. Whether she is driving with her children or leading workshops about mainstream Islam for schools and church groups, she is aware that the events of 9/11 prominently shaped the next 10 years of her life.
She vividly recalls driving with her husband along a road in Bridgeview, a Chicago suburb, in the days after the terrorists struck.
“I remember driving through a mob of angry people holding signs like, ‘Bomb all the Arabs!’” said Ali, who wears a traditional Islamic headscarf.  “I had to duck, and I never had experienced anything like that. The same road that I had driven through since I was five years old. Here I was at 25, and I was potentially being attacked.”
She continued, “This is the Muslim experience with 9/11. We were all just in shock at the whole event itself, let alone being able to handle the shock of the anger then being directed towards us.”
At that time, she had taken some time off from her graduate studies at the University of Chicago to raise her eldest son who was then a year old. Her second son was born in 2002. As they grew, she began to evaluate their surroundings. Fearful that they might be exposed to prejudice, she wanted them near people who accepted or welcomed differences.

“I found myself in this juggling act of always assessing their environment whether it’s a school they’re going to, or a sports league they’re joining, a library activity,” Ali said.

She tried to hide her efforts from the children.

“I wanted them to grow up as normal kids,” Ali said, “not too conscious of being part of a minority group.”

Ali’s boys knew that they were both Muslim and American. They were attending private schools at the time, and she made sure that they understood the tragedy of 9/11 as Americans first. She did not tell them that the attackers were Muslim extremists.

In 2009, Ali put her oldest son in a public school. On Sept. 11, teachers and students commemorated the attacks. While she was glad to hear that her son was learning to be patriotic, she worried that someone had mentioned Muslims during the event.

“I really wanted to beat them to that conversation with my own child,” Ali said.

Her son came home and told his mother what he had learned.

“So when I asked him, who do you think did that to us?” said Ali, he responded, “I don’t know, I think it was the Japanese.”

 Ali carefully pointed out that it was not the Japanese, but she did still did not tell him that Muslims were behind the assault.

It was at a Montessori school later that year that her son pulled a book off the shelf. It was about 9/11. When he opened the book, he saw a picture of Osama bin Laden for the first time. He was still stunned when she picked him up from school.

“The boy was jaw-dropped, eyes-bulged,” Ali said. “He got into the car and said ‘But mama, he looks just like the ammos [uncles] in the masjid [mosque] who pat me on the back after prayers, the really nice men who give me candy.”

 Ali said her son had always associated a beard and a turban with the Islam that he knew.

“So when he saw that image, it really confused him, as I expected,” Ali said. “The best way that I could explain to him was just to say that these are people who claim to be Muslim and obviously, they are very, very bad Muslims, and they don’t embody the principles that we believe in or that the Quran teaches.”

She spoke to her son about it. To help him understand the differences between mainstream Muslims and the extremists, she went over the verses from the Quran that they had always studied at home and at the mosque school.

“The killing of one human soul without a just cause is like killing the entire humanity,” she quoted, “and saving one life is like saving all of humanity.”

Ali did not want to shelter him needlessly, but she did not want him to feel responsible.

“I don’t need to apologize or defend or explain something that I have nothing to do with, nor do I want my children to ever feel like they have to do that,” Ali said.

Ali said every time she turns on the television and hears about another attack by extremists, she gets very frustrated: “I feel like every time we make a hundred steps, something like this happens and it takes us back to square one.”

Before 9/11 Ali was a community activist. She worked with Muslim groups and led workshops about Islam for schools and church groups. After 9/11, demand to explain Islam skyrocketed.

 “Rightfully so, they wanted to understand the faith group that these attackers associated themselves or claimed to be a part of,” said Ali, who reported that some wanted introductions to Islam while others wanted to start a dialogue.

 “A lot of the activities helped not just in community building between faith groups, but also just the healing process after 9/11,” Ali said. “People were just surprised that we had more in common than they expected.”

Now she is a youth organizer for the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago. She continues to work with American Muslim children. She also works in youth devolpment in areas of civic engagement, interfaith relations and service learning.

“I hope that our experience becomes really equivalent to the experiences of other ethnic groups who struggled before us,” said Ali. “To the point that one day, it’s just a piece of history, and our children can be really confident American Muslims who value their American and Muslim values.”

She said she feels like racism towards Americans has increased this year with the controversy over the proposed Islamic cultural center near New York’s ground zero and the Quran-burning threat from a Florida minister. Amid the rising tensions, Ali tried not to worry.

“It’s easier to say this than do this, but I am very much of the opinion that this is not our burden,” Ali said. “I know that to a large extent, I need to just let go.”