Skip to content
Inside Beat

Internalized Islamophobia: 9/11's insidious aftermath

Studies have shown that Muslim Americans are more likely than any other religious group in the U.S. to experience racial and religious discrimination, according to  – Photo by Wikimedia

Jan. 16, 2000: My two newly-wed Muslim Pakistani parents immigrated to Canada to start their new life together. Packing a few suitcases, they left everything they knew –– their friends, family and the only place they called home –– behind.

My mother didn’t wear a headscarf and my father didn’t have a beard. On the surface, no one could see their faith, and that worked in their favor.

In their pursuit of the "American Dream," my parents hid their Muslim identities and became upstanding citizens of the Western world. They kept their head down, obeyed the law and quietly blended into the crowd of Hindu Indians, biting down their ancestor’s tongue when they spoke.

Back then, Islamophobia was wanting to take on the debt of being a Hindu more than the liability of being a Muslim.

Sept. 11, 2001: My father paced back and forth in the living room as he watched the CNN recaps of the planes crashing into the Twin Towers. Plumes of smoke filled the screen behind him, as he tried to mentally prepare for what his non-Muslim colleagues would say to him at work the next day.

My mother held me, her first-born daughter, in her arms a little bit tighter as she realized this was the beginning of the end –– the end of a life where we wouldn’t have a target on our backs. 

Islamophobia was accepting defeat before the war had even begun. 

Sept. 12, 2006: My parents immigrated to America, where any illusion of genuine acceptance was broken. At recess, I sat with my friend, Zuri and we played mancala, tucked away in the corner of the room.

The classroom was always noisy, but that day, hearing the sound of my classmates calling my one Muslim friend, Bilal, a “terrorist'' and “Osama” was the loudest.

All the kids laughed at him. Bilal laughed too, but not because he wanted to. I didn’t find it all too funny and told them to stop. They stared.

Islamophobia became learning to laugh instead of fighting back. It became staring at the name tag on your desk after recess and wondering why your parents couldn’t pick a name that sounded “less Muslim.” 

Growing up Muslim post-9/11 was knowing you'd never be accepted, that you'd be fighting a never-ending battle against systemic injustice for the rest of your life.

Nineteen years later and Islamophobia is so profoundly ingrained into us and our systems that most of us don’t even process the extent to which it pervades our everyday lives. We've learned to laugh at the "bomb jokes" and numb ourselves in its presence, to keep our pain to ourselves.

But in the effort to cope with the pain, we've become indifferent.

Now, we watch refugees dying on our screens and continue to scroll down our feeds. We ignore the eyes burning holes through our scarves on the way to Jummah and say, “Wow, that sucks,” when we hear our hijabi friends complain about the looks they got from old men at ShopRite. We silence the adhan on our phones before class because, God forbid it went off, the others would stare at us as if we had atomic bombs in our backpacks. 

This apathy, the subtle ways we dismiss our Muslim identities to conform, is the modern day war against Muslims: internalized Islamophobia.

According to the Yaqeen Institute for Islamic Research, internalized Islamophobia is “the ingestion of problematic notions about the religion by Muslims themselves, particularly those of the younger generation who are experiencing multiple attacks against their faith.” 

In simplest terms: Islamophobia is when non-Muslims discriminate against someone for their Muslim identity, and internalized Islamophobia is when Muslims perpetuate this discrimination.

Internalized Islamophobia is what my parents fell victim to in hopes of being accepted in an unforgiving America, when Bilal laughed when he really didn’t want to, when we continue to scroll and distance ourselves from religion and our mother roots because they aren't considered “cool.”

This isn't to say the youth, my parents or Bilal are at fault –– they did what they thought was right, what would allow them to survive. After being chewed up and spat out a hundred times by a world who would rather see us dead than equal, it's hard to keep fighting and it's easier just to fit in.

But then we also ought to check ourselves and realize that this submission inherently makes us part of the problem.

We are quick to drop the “racism card" when we get looks and blame Westerners or non-Muslims for the deaths of our brothers and sisters in the Middle East, but stay silent when the jokes are made because we don’t want to “cause trouble.” 

We are angered by non-Muslims for not caring about our lives, but barely care about the lives of Muslims ourselves. 

How can we expect anyone to fight for us when many of us won’t fight for ourselves? 

Obviously, this doesn't apply to everyone –– there is no shortage of brilliant, bold Muslim activists who are making shock waves in the political space for Muslims and are dedicated to bringing awareness to our struggle. 

But like many systemic battles, this will not be won by a few “woke” bloggers or reposts on Instagram. Relying on sensationalized media and hashtags will never bring us the justice we seek, only uprooting injustice will.

Ultimately, the antidote to this issue is a generational decision to stop letting these daily injustices happen, to stand up for the Bilals in our classes and to resist apathy.

If we continue to go down this path we are currently on, our indifference as a Muslim community will be our undoing. To continue to acquiesce the oppressive systems that diminished our ancestors will be the biggest betrayal of our time. 

But if we can learn to be introspective and recognize the ways that we have been indoctrinated and eradicate our own Islamophobic ideologies, we can fight the systems intended to subdue us from the inside out.

The cards are stacked up against us and racism is a very real issue that plays a major role in this problem. It's going to take decades to even begin to reverse the damage and pick apart the truth from the Western propaganda that we've subliminally taken in.

For those of us whose Muslim parents made such bold sacrifices for us to get a chance at a better life, the pressure to undo the damage feels insurmountable. But remember this: We are 1.1 billion souls stitched together in the name of Islam. It’s about time we used our voices again and remember what we are fighting for.


Join our newsletterSubscribe