WASHINGTON – Osama bin Laden’s many victims include, first and foremost, those who died on Sept. 11, 2001, and their grieving families, the soldiers sent to war and the loved ones they left behind, and a new generation forced to grow up in a more polarized and paranoid world. For all of them, bin Laden’s death must bring a sense of relief, of justice finally served.
But his victims also include millions of American Muslims — or Americans suspected of being Muslims — for whom the al-Qaida leader’s death means something different: the chance to finally reclaim our faith and our identity.
In the fall of 2001, shortly before the terrorist attacks, I left New York City to attend business school at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. As a 25-year-old Muslim man with a dark complexion, I fit the stereotypical terrorist profile perfectly — and after al-Qaida struck, the world never let me forget it. On Sept. 12, my new roommate asked me what my religion was. He moved out the next day. A week later, a menacing mob of men chased me and two female Hindu classmates of mine for three city blocks, yelling that we were “Taliban.” And the week after that, my parked motorbike was smashed by a car that, according to a witness, drove over it again and again.
The harassment would soon get worse. At San Francisco International Airport in October 2001, a Northwest Airlines pilot refused to let me board his plane; according to Northwest’s gate agents, he thought my name sounded suspicious. Even after the police, airport security and the FBI verified that I posed no threat, the pilot still refused to let me on the plane, and Northwest Airlines added me to a no-fly list. From then on, every time I tried to fly, the FBI was contacted. My arrival at an airport triggered such an extensive security rigmarole that I didn’t fly for more than a year. I decided not to visit relatives in Bangladesh. I missed my parents’ 30th wedding anniversary. And I logged many, many miles on Amtrak and in my Subaru.
I could not understand this. I was born in the United States and had worked as an investment banker in the very buildings that were destroyed on 9/11 — the World Trade Center and the Deutsche Bank building next door. New York was full of my friends, family and coworkers. I am Muslim, but beyond that I have nothing in common with the psychopaths who flew planes into buildings.
So I did what any American would do when faced with injustice: I sued.
With the help of the American Civil Liberties Union and the D.C.-based law firm Relman, Dane & Colfax, I filed a claim against Northwest for violating my civil rights. The lawsuit lasted three years and was brought before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit — one step below the Supreme Court. The case was stymied when, in 2005, the Justice Department decided that my questions about watch-lists ventured too close to sensitive security information and that no evidence supporting my complaint would be shared in court. Though in late 2002 my name was removed from the no-fly list and I could board planes again, I was denied a full hearing.
During my lawsuit, I met men and women who had suffered far worse at the hands of the government or their neighbors, and were no less innocent. All of us were victims of the ignorance and fear that followed 9/11, emotions that stemmed from an act orchestrated by one man: Osama bin Laden. That’s why, because I value peace as well as justice, I am glad bin Laden is dead.
Bin Laden’s violence and rage brought out the worst in his followers and his enemies alike. Worse yet, he became the face of Islam for much of the world. People such as my Pittsburgh roommate knew nothing of Islam before 9/11. (When he asked me my religion, I answered, “Islam.” He said, “Oh, good — I was worried because I thought you were a Muslim.” He left when he realized they are one and the same.) For many people in the United States and elsewhere, a 1,500-year-old religion became forever intertwined with terrorism and with one man’s twisted interpretation of his faith.
And that view of Islam was unlike anything I had ever seen or heard. I grew up in Glastonbury, Connecticut, attending Islamic school on Sundays. I visited Mecca in 1997. I go to prayers with my family during such holidays as Eid al-Fitr. At no time was violence, intolerance or hatred part of my Islamic experience or education. Islam was mundane, and my religious education probably little different than Sunday school for a Christian child or Hebrew school for a Jewish one. My childhood mosque’s biggest concern was hyper kids running around unsupervised, while my biggest concern was seeing the girl I had a crush on. Islam is a major religion practiced by more than 1 billion people of many different cultures. Unfortunately, its militant minority has come to represent us all.
Islamophobia in America seemed to hit a fever pitch in recent months with the controversy over the mosque in Lower Manhattan and congressional hearings on whether American Muslims were becoming “radicalized.” Yet, neither terrorism nor Islamophobia will end with bin Laden’s demise. In the short run, prejudice may get worse. The press’ and the public’s fascination with the gory details of his killing — and the demand for more details and images — reflect a nation collectively fantasizing about killing bin Laden and, by extension, Muslims. This past week, a Portland mosque was vandalized with messages such as “Osama today, Islam tomorow (sic)” “Long live the West” and “Go Home.”
Despite this, I’m hopeful. Bin Laden’s death is symbolic, but symbols matter. Islam has long been burdened by its association with one angry man. Now this weight has been lifted. In time, Muslim Americans like me may no longer be linked to two burning, crumbling towers, but to Muslim youth throughout the Middle East revolting against tyranny. After all, the protesters in Egypt and Syria are demanding things that America celebrates: freedom, respect and equality. Maybe now, Muslim Americans can enjoy them, too.
Arshad Chowdhury, an entrepreneur, is the chief executive of ClearGears, a performance-review software company.
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