A couple of days after Sept. 11, 2001, a man walked into the Wiggins convenience store owned by Muaatasem Ibrahim and and started making disparaging comments about Islam and Muslims.
The gas station just outside of Fort Morgan sold knives and fantasy swords, and the man told Ibrahim he wanted to buy three of them. Ibrahim refused the sale, leading the man to get more irate. Ibrahim’s 6-year-old daughter and wife were in a room in the back, watching it on the security camera, though they couldn’t hear what was happening.
“Somebody told him in the restaurant (next door) that I’m a Muslim,” Ibrahim said. “That’s why he came here.”
Another customer told Ibrahim he’d called the authorities about the angry man, and police arrived before anything else could happen.
Many of Colorado’s American Muslims experienced that type of animosity and Islamophobia after 9/11, particularly in the immediate aftermath of the attacks perpetrated by Muslim extremists in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania and the subsequent U.S. wars with Afghanistan and Iraq.
Coloradans shared stories with the Post about getting bullied in school, or being expected to constantly denounce those behind the attacks despite how angry and sad they were. Women who wore hijabs were stereotyped as oppressed. Some feared the government was secretly surveilling their mosques or wondered whether their acquaintances were informants.
Much has changed in the U.S. and in Colorado in the two decades since the attacks, but one thing is certain: 9/11 thrust a spotlight on Muslims in the United States. It spurred Muslim communities in Colorado to educate the public about their religion and push back against bias as a way to take back their own narratives and better define who they are. They’re still doing that outreach today, and while it’s helped to get more Muslims involved in public and policy-driven roles, some members of the faith say the hostility hasn’t gone away.
A Pew Research Center report this month said that as the Muslim population in the U.S. has grown by 1.1 million between 2007 and 2017 and received “an unprecedented amount of public attention” after Sept. 11, “many Americans know little about Islam or Muslims, and views toward Muslims have become increasingly polarized along political lines.” Muslims made up about 1.1% of the U.S. population in 2017, the latest data available. In Colorado, more than 70,000 people identify as part of the faith community, according to History Colorado.
“A wakeup call”
Imam Abdur-Rahim Ali of the Northeast Denver Islamic Center believes Muslims were gaining more acceptance prior to 9/11, particularly in Denver, which had a “live and let live” attitude. Black Muslims, he said, had been sharing information about Islam with various interfaith groups for decades.
Then came 9/11. His mosque and its members became a target, adding to the struggles that Black people already face in the United States.
“For African American Muslims, it’s like getting tag teamed. … it’s like getting a double dose of hatred,” he said.
In addition to fears about curtailed civil rights, Ali said, he saw Muslims getting tangled in the immigration system. There were also long waits for visas and citizenships because of heightened security concerns and extra screenings at airports. International students at local universities began returning to their home countries.
Other Muslim communities in Denver and across the country began to realize that they, too, needed to have a larger public presence, said Imam Shafi Abdul Aziz of the Islamic Outreach Center in Denver. More mosques began to host open houses, Muslim groups connected with other faith groups and leaders gave presentations at schools and conferences.
“It was a wakeup call,” Abdul Aziz said. “God was sending a message that Muslims … (you need to) introduce who you are to people.”
Safaa Elemam was living in New Jersey during 9/11 and remembers a mix of emotions: sadness for those who lost their lives and anger at those who claimed to share her religion but terrorized people.
She decided to take every opportunity she could to honor the lives lost and teach people about the faith that she believes was grossly misrepresented. She led an open house event at her local mosque where anyone could come in and ask questions about Islam. She attends vigils and events that mourn victims who died on Sept. 11, 2001.
“Let’s take that power and the energy and turn it into a positive,” said Elemam, who moved to Denver in 2011. “I need to reach out more to let people know who we are. I need to teach my kids that this is your country, that’s who you are. Keep your identity, your religion.”
A new path
Colorado state Rep. Iman Jodeh was a student at the University of Denver when the attacks happened. She watched the footage on TV with her mom and brother, in shock. They knew their lives would never be the same again.
“9/11 changed everything forever,” she said.
Jodeh’s mom, who wears a hijab (or headscarf), avoided going out for a little while. The Colorado Muslim Society that Jodeh’s family went to received so many threatening phone calls and letters that they had to increase their police presence during services. At one point, attendees found a pig’s head at the gate.
“That’s where my life shifted,” she said of Sept. 11. “As a sophomore, (my major) wasn’t declared. … This happened, and two weeks later I was declared (in political science).”
Jodeh’s brother-in-law, Kamel Elwazeir, was in his mid-20s on Sept. 11, 2001, and working at a dot-com company in Colorado Springs. Days later, the company shut its doors. On the day of the attacks, Elwazeir recalls how his colleagues and friends stopped talking to him as Fox News stayed on in the conference room.
Despite it all, Elwazeir rejected caving to the fear that had gripped some others in his small Muslim community. He kept going to the mosque. He kept his beard.
“We have to live our lives,” he said. “You cannot stop or hide or just be in the homes, fearing that we’re going to be a target.”
And Ibrahim, who still runs the gas station in Wiggins, sat his children down and told them they had a choice: They could either hide their identities as Muslims and as Arabs, or they could be proud of who they are as American Muslims and commit to educating their communities.
Following her parents’ lead, Nadeen Ibrahim, now 26 and a community activist in the Denver area, chose the latter.
Two decades later
In some moments, Ibrahim said it feels like Muslims have made a lot of progress — like the election of Jodeh, the first Muslim woman in the state legislature. Coloradans also often rallied behind their Muslim neighbors when they faced threats, like when the mosque in Fort Collins was vandalized in 2017, or when an attack by extremists occurs. People are more willing to have tough conversations, she said.
Ali, who has lived in Denver for 31 years after moving from Chicago, sees it, too.
“You see more Muslims in the media, you see more Muslims in entertainment and sports,” Ali said. “And now the media doesn’t lead off with making assumptions that (every) terrorist act was committed by a Muslim,” as was erroneously reported about the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, he said.
But, Ali added, “it’s still a struggle.”
Ibrahim said hateful rhetoric toward followers of Islam was revived after former President Donald Trump proposed a Muslim registry early in his tenure and implemented a ban in 2017 to prevent immigrants from several majority-Muslim countries from entering the United States.
Even before Trump’s election, between 2015 and 2016, FBI data showed hate crimes against Muslims in the United States nearly doubled from 2001 levels. They did go down in 2017, though advocacy groups say a vast number go unreported.
Stronger relationships between Muslims and their neighbors — be it from mosques’ outreach efforts or just personal connections — helped counter some of the rhetoric, Ibrahim said. But she believes the real the key to ending discrimination is in instituting new hate-crime policies at the state and federal levels and not letting something like the Patriot Act, which opened the door for harassment of Muslim communities, happen again.
To have their concerns taken more seriously, Colorado’s Muslim communities believe more Muslims must be elected to office or get involved in public careers. Jodeh pointed to the election of the first two Muslim women to Congress in 2018 — Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar — saying she didn’t think it could happen 20 years ago and is the direct result of the foundation that immigrants and refugees laid for their American children.
Jodeh herself is at the forefront of state legislation that calls for more public assistance for immigrants and refugees, including with the creation of Colorado’s Office of New Americans.
“I hope by seeing things that I do, that other people are doing … that it kind of builds community and builds a solid foundation for the next generation to go even further, just like our parents did for us,” she said.
The next generation
For Muslims who are too young to remember 9/11 or weren’t even born yet, the effects of the attacks linger.
Nadeema Safi was born in New York less than a year before Sept. 11, and now lives in Centennial. Growing up, her parents, who immigrated from Afghanistan in 1994, told her about the difficulties they faced in the U.S.
She can’t count the number of times she’s been called a terrorist. After Osama bin Laden was killed in 2011, classmates asked whether she was sad that her “uncle” was dead.
Still, Safi said, she believes things have been getting better in Colorado for Muslims and she credits much of that to an increase in the Muslim population and more knowledge about what Islam represents.
Elwazeir also tries to engage in conversations with his kids and his community — even though Colorado Springs is “transitional” because many people move there for jobs related to the military but don’t end up staying, he said.
“We’re going to continue our prayers and the acts of goodness in order to turn the hate of yesterday into a better future for our next generation, for the young generations, for the generation of tomorrow,” Elwazeir said. “So, we’re not going to stop praying. We’re not going to stop believing.
“And we’re not going to stop being who we are, no matter what happens, but our role is to try to educate the public, especially people that don’t know anything about the Muslim community.”
This content was originally published here.