I’m back from a long weekend away (my wife and I celebrated our 28th wedding aniversary) and I’m still getting caught up on four days of unchecked email. But this note from our friend Nadia Hassan, of the Villa Park Peace Coalition, jumped out at me. I’d encourage everyone to read it, especially Villa Park council member Deborah Pauly.
How 9/11 impacted my life: Story #1
On the morning of September 11, 2001, I was in my hotel room in downtown Washington DC, packing my bags and getting ready to head out to the airport. My husband and I were on our honeymoon. For the honeymoon, we planned to drive up the eastern coast and tour the ocean cities from DC to Boston. From Boston, I booked a flight back to LAX to gather the rest of my belongings. I informed my mother that I’d be flying in from Boston International Airport on Sept 11, 2001 and to pick me up from LAX airport.
Before we reached Boston, our travel plans changed and we headed back to Washington DC to finish out the rest of our honeymoon. I re-routed my airline ticket for that very same day (Sept 11) back to LA but now I would be leaving from DC instead of Boston.
On the morning of 9/11, as I zipped up my luggage, my husband was on phone with his client who was in NY and after hearing a very loud sound, his client says, “OMG, I just saw a plane fly into the twin towers”. Within 30 seconds, all the news stations were on the scene filming footage of the terror attack. My first thought was, “how did the media get there so quickly”. My heart sunk as I watched people jump out of the twin tower. It was obvious I wasn’t flying anywhere that day. And then the second tower was hit. I sat quietly in a state of hysteria. And then, it happened, my whole life flashed right before my eyes. The media reported and confirmed that both of the planes that flew into the twin towers had taken off from Boston International Airport and were headed for LAX, exactly where I had originally booked my flight. I went numb. All I could do is imagine what it would have been like to sit inside of a hijacked plane and not know your fate at the end of the day. I couldn’t talk, I couldn’t think, I couldn’t move, I couldn’t feel. On that day, I experienced a very rude awakening that would change my life forever. When I finally regained some awareness, I grabbed for my cell phone to call my mom only to find that all the communication lines had been shut down on the east coast. After hours of trying to reach my family, it occurred to me that I had forgotten to mention to them one minor detail. I had neglected to inform them that I had re-routed my flight and that I was no longer flying out from Boston International airport.
As for my family, well, you can only imagine what they went thru having thought that I may have been on one of those planes.
On that day, we lost thousands of our fellow Americans, some Muslim and many not. I could have been one of them. As an American, I am grateful to God for each and every day that I am alive to be able to share this story with you. The terror attack of 9/11 was a horrific experience for everyone, including American Muslims like me. I cried, and cried and cried and for months, I re-lived that moment of terror in my mind over and over. As the years went on, I had to find my own way of coping with the pain. And now, 10 years later, the wounds are still fresh and the images are still alive and vivid in my mind.
How 9/11 impacted my life: Story #2
Seven years later, as fate would have it, I had a second encounter with Islamophobia. On Christmas day 2008, the underwear bomber attempted to detonate an explosive in an airplane over the state of Michigan. Thankfully, I was not on that plane; however, that very same week, I was flying out of Washington DC’s Dulles International airport on my way to LAX. My daughter and I went thru security, but before we reached the conveyor belt, a very tall woman (over 6 feet), dressed in TSA uniform, ran up to us and said “maam, I need you to remove your headscarf”. I looked up at her, and I stared her straight in her pupils and said to her, “no, I will not remove my head scarf but you are welcome to pat me down or do whatever it is you need to do to make yourself feel comfortable.” Stunned by my response, she returned back to her post without saying anything further. We unloaded our luggage onto the conveyor belt and crossed thru the metal detector without an alarm sounding. On the other side, the same 6ft tall TSA woman was waiting. She asked me step over to the side for a public full body pat down as my daughter and four TSA men stood within feet of me and watched. What bothered me the most was not what was happening to me but it was the frightened look in my daughter’s eyes as she nervously watched what was happening to her mother and yet she was unable to express herself. Along the back wall, our luggage was going thru its own security check. For what, you ask? For Bomb Making Materials. My daughter’s crayons, coloring books, games, dolls and every item in our luggage was unpacked and swiped in an attempt to detect any bomb making substances and all because I am faithfully observing the modest dress of my faith; the very same dress is observed by nuns and the mother of Jesus, the Virgin Mary. I was livid but I made sure to stay calm and keep a level head. An older TSA officer must have felt sorry for us when he said, “Im so sorry mam that you have to go thru this; but as of this morning, TSA changed security procedures on us”. Inquisitively, I asked, what might that be. He said that the new regulations mandate that anyone wearing a headscarf will have to go thru this type of search. I questioned whether this old man understood the implications of his statement. It’s one thing to discriminate against a person but it’s an entirely different thing to tell someone that its now being written into law. I was angry but not at the older TSA worker, or at any of the other TSA personnel because I knew they were merely just following orders and doing their jobs.
Immediately upon my arrival to LAX, I called CAIR to inform them about the new TSA rules and regulations and to let them know about the airport security profiling that was about to take place against the Muslim community. When I made the call, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. And before I could rise the next day for my morning prayer, my voicemail was flooded with calls from the media. My story gained national attention and was featured in print, on the radio and on Television.
I was frightened. Not so much for myself but for my Muslim sisters who would travel and encounter a similar occurrence.
How 9/11 impacted my life: Story #3
As fate would have it, I encountered Islamophobia for a 3rd time, except this time; Islamophobia came knocking on my front door.
On February 13, 2011, a group of local right wing Republicans organized an anti-Muslim hate protest in Yorba Linda, CA outside of an ICNA fundraising event. Of the many organizers and speakers, the one who stood out the most was none other than a Villa Park City Councilwoman by the name of Deborah Pauly who delivered an inflammatory, anti-American speech as she stated, “I know quite a few marines, including my son and his buddies, who would be happy to give these terrorists [Muslims] an early meeting in Paradise”, while pointing to the guests who would be attending the event. I was shocked that such words could be spoken by an elected official. As the daughter of a US Marine (my father fought in the Korean War) and as a native Villa Parkian and lifelong resident, I was concerned for the safety of my family, my daughter and for my Muslim friends who reside within the city limits of Villa Park. Villa Park has always been a quiet and peaceful city. We have always enjoyed ethnic and religious pluralism. And now Deborah Pauly, will go down in history as the councilwoman who disrupted our peaceful coexistence. She’s angered Muslims, non-Muslims, and atheist and her hateful remarks have drawn nationwide criticism from both Republicans and Democrats alike.
It was this experience that finally shook me up enough and finally got me to do something. I reached out to anybody who would give me an ear. I started the Villa Park Peace Coalition in order to counteract hate in OC. I spent my days and nights forwarding the video and raising awareness with in the community. And before I knew it, the message, the video, and the issue went viral. With the help of the larger OC community, we organized a protest outside the VP city council where about 500 So Cal residents came out to condemn Deborah Pauly for her racist, anti-Muslim rhetoric. People from all faiths and ethnicities came out to say “NO TO HATE”. Muslims, Christians, Jews, Seikhs, Native Americans, Japanese and Pacific Islander, Democrats and Republicans. I was so proud to see us all stand together in solidarity against hate and stand up against injustice. The group that inspired me the most was the young guys from the army and the US Marines who came out to say “shame on you Pauly” for using the US military to perpetuate hate in our county. I was so proud to see that our Marines still displayed the same dignity, integrity and honor for this country, as my father did as a veteran of this county.
From that moment on, I’ve been religiously attending and encouraging others to attend city council meetings and I’ve been speaking out against the lies that are being spread against our faith. In one of the city council meetings, two women stood up and addressed me by name and thanked me for clarifying the Islamic perspective on freedom of speech and Shariah Law. They didn’t know any better because they just assumed that what the media reported about Islam and Muslims was true.
This was an eye opener for me; it reminded me of my duty to my Lord and my duty to my country of how important it is to be involved and engaged in our local communities. Before this incident, I had never been to a VP or YL city council meeting. And now, after just a few months, I am on a first name basis with the Mayor and all of the city councilmembers. The shocker for me was the first time Councilman MacAloney called me on my cell phone. I wasn’t expecting a call from him so I had to ask him “is this really the VP city councilmen”? He called me to thank me for the work I’ve done in VP. At one of the meetings, I publicly thanked him for being a man of conscious and a man of principle after he publicly reprimanded Deborah Pauly for bringing undue embarrassment to our city.
These experiences have taught me a lot. I’ve grown tremendously and I’ve learned that it doesn’t take a lot to make a difference in the world. If we just follow the teachings of our faith and actually implement them in our public life and more importantly in our private lives, then we can make that difference.
I’ve learned the true value of our brothers and sisters from the interfaith community. Thru my work with the VPPC, I have met some of the most wonderful and endearing people. And I realize how much they really care about us. They stood by us in Yorba Linda, the stood by us in Villa Park, they stood by us when the OC Human Relations was being threatened for honoring Dr. Muzammil Siddiqi. And they stood by us when we were protesting against CCIR (a hate group) when they honored Deborah Pauly for her anti-Muslim hate rhetoric. From the bottom of my heart, I thank the interfaith community for being there for us.
And the most prevalent lesson I think that I’ve learned is that despite the adversity, Islamophobia has presented a great opportunity for our community. The greatest opportunity we have today is the opportunity to have a conversation. Now notice, I didn’t say dialogue. I said conversation. A conversation happens every day of our lives and it is the opportunity to tell the world who you are and what you stand for. A conversation happens on your front lawn, with your neighbor, in the mall restroom, on an airplane, and with the mailman.
On a final note, I’d like to mention that we the American Muslim community, need to define our own narrative, that being one of an Islamic narrative. And the only way for us to develop our own narrative is that we have to tell our own story. We have been absent from the airwaves of mainstream media and for 10 years now, since 9/11, and the media, corporate America, and our elected officials have been creating their own version of our story for us. And as a result, our narrative has become distorted and who we are as people faith has been lost.
Our narrative as Muslim Americans needs to be one that maintains our high moral ethics, upholds social justice in our communities and allows us to have American cultural relevance. Both the Islamic narrative and the American values in which this country was founded on are congruent with one another; they both share a common set of values; One Nation Under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.