Still today, I get nervous every time I have to fly within the country. Still today, some American Muslims face discrimination. Still today, some American Muslims are attacked and slandered. Still today, the religion itself, along with its Prophet, is maligned and smeared. Even at the most recent Islamic Society of North America conference held in Chicago, my wife was verbally abused by non-Muslim pedestrians. Despite all of this, however, I am grateful for the change effected in me after September 11, 2001. On that day, the person who I was disintegrated in those two towers. The person I was on September 10 was forever crushed and destroyed...and I am full of gratitude to God for that.
I recently took Beliefnet's "What Sort of Muslim Are You?" quiz: I scored in the "Progressive" range. For those who've known me for a long time, this would be utterly shocking. For quite some time in my life, I suffered from the fevers of religious intolerance. I burned in the fires of arrogant religiosity. I was possessed by the demons of narrow-minded thinking. Although my affliction began in earnest relatively late in my life (in my early 20s), the incubation period--or time it takes for a disease to fully manifest its symptoms--took many, many years.
It began when I was in kindergarten. From the very first day of school, I faced extreme dislike because of my skin color. The first time I ever boarded the school bus, I sat next to a child, someone I had never met before, and he frowned at me. Another time on the bus, two girls said in unison, "I don't want to sit next to Hesham!" The most hurtful incident, however, came in the first grade. One of my schoolmates grabbed and pushed me, with his eyes full of hatred, and screamed, "Go back to your country!" This was very confusing to me, because, this was my country.
As I progressed in my schooling, the dirty looks, sneers, and anger did not abate. In fifth grade, I remember two girls opening up a dictionary and reading aloud the definition of the word "alien" and applying that definition to me. Even the kids next door joined in: they spent an entire afternoon hurling curses and yelling at us despite our having done nothing to them. As I got older, this kind of cruelty eased considerably. The problem was, however, taunts for my skin color were replaced by jeers about my religious beliefs.
I have always been religious, and my religious commitment only deepened as I got older, especially in high school. Although I wanted to pray the daily prayers on time in school, I would never dare do so. This stems from the time I attended a summer camp at the age of nine. I was praying in my cabin, and two of my cabin-mates came in on me and began to laugh. When I was in prostration, one of them slapped my behind with a towel. When I finished the prayer, I left the cabin almost in tears.
Perhaps the one thing that drew the most ridicule, however, was the fact that I did not date. Islam does not allow dating in deference to this command by God: "And do not approach adultery, for it is an obscenity and an evil way" (17:32). Dating is "approaching" fornication and adultery, for the dating couple will in all likelihood end up sleeping together. I was waiting for marriage, and this was absolutely unfathomable to my classmates. I still remember being surrounded by my track teammates--with sheer astonishment in their eyes--and being "interrogated" about my abstention from dating and sexual activity.
Although things are different now, when I went to high school, if you did not date and engage in sexual activity, you were "weird." I stuck out like a sore thumb. On top of this, many of my schoolmates still treated me badly because of my skin color. I still could tell they hated me. Furthermore, I did not drink or go to parties, also in deference to Islam's rules, and this made me even more "different," and I hated feeling different. I hated feeling left out.
These feelings came to a crisis level during the first Gulf War. I was sixteen years old when Saddam Hussein sent his tanks and soldiers into Kuwait. I learned of the invasion while vacationing in Florida, in fact. After coming home, I watched Baghdad get "bombed to the Stone Age." All around me, especially at school, patriotic sentiment oozed from the walls. I started football season, and all my teammates asked me for whom I was rooting in the war. "America, of course," was always my answer, and I truly meant it. I would never root against my own country in a time of war. Yet, I also was not happy to see fellow Muslim innocent civilians be killed, either. I could have cared less about Saddam Hussein and his band of thugs and monsters. When the war finally came to a close, I was so happy. I was happy that no more innocent blood will be shed, and I was happy that I no longer had to face the questions from fellow Americans who were suspicious of my patriotism and loyalty.
This process of alienation from America was very difficult for me to handle. You could not pay me to relive my adolescent years. This process of alienation helped set up my plunge into the darkness of arrogant intolerance; it left me susceptible to catching the fevers of arrogant religiosity. Yet, I did not wake up one day and decide to be a narrow-minded fool. Something had to happen. That thing occurred during my freshman year of college: I had a spiritual crisis, a crisis of faith. I left the religion I loved so dearly. I abandoned the religion of Islam. Although my sojourn outside of the faith was ever so brief, it was still the most telling experience of my life. And one I will write more of in a later column.
I eventually came back to Islam, and I rededicated my life and committment to the faith. I also sought to rebuild my badly beaten faith, to my utter disaster. I became arrogant, narrow-minded, intolerant. I was not a very pleasant person. I alienated my family, my friends, and my colleagues. I became so harsh, so hard-hearted, that it took the worst terrorist attack in American history to cure me of my affliction. Which is why every anniversary of the September 11 attacks is such a significant event for me. Facing the horror of that day, I found I had nowhere left to go. I was alienated from my country and fellow citizens because of my early childhood experiences and because of my later intolerance. My religious intolerance had also alienated me from my Muslim brothers and sisters. I was tired of being alone; I was tired of being alienated. It was high time for me to join my country, my people--Muslim and otherwise--and join my society. On that day, I became fully American; on that day, my country forever became "America," even if some Muslims sneered at this. Egypt returned to its rightful place: the land from where my ancestors hailed, but it was not my country. On that day, I embraced my obligations as an American Muslim and took my rightful place in society.
The changes that have rippled out from that terrible day are too extensive to describe in a single column. But it is fair to say that in the aftermath 9/11 I have found a new, more tolerant and more meaningful faith, and a place for myself in this country I would never have imagined. As this year's anniversary passes, I am not only reminded of the worst act of terror in the history of my country, but I am also reminded of how I was forever changed, and changed for the better. And whenever I think of this, I can only thank God.