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Can we put the post-9/11 stigma of Muslim Americans behind us?

ERIC DIOTTE/The Globe and Mail

I am a Muslim, though sometimes not a very good one. In some ways, I am worse now than when I was a child. Then, I understood that I was Muslim, but it never seemed to suggest anything different from being a Hindu, a Jew or a Christian.

When I was a child, being Muslim held somewhat fluid boundaries, and possessed a lightness that is perhaps only permitted among the very young. When my mother would send my sister and me to our room to pray one of the five daily prayers, the prayer often got lost in a game of tickling and giggling or various other distractions.

I remember my mother liked reciting a prayer of the Christian patron saint of hopeless cases, St. Jude, from a laminated card that had come in the mail. And I remember invoking him for some child-sized hopeless cases of my own.

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I remember falling asleep to my father reciting verses of the Koran as he paced our bedroom and asked us to repeat after him. And being coaxed to tell Santa what I wanted for Christmas, although, Muslim or not, sitting on the lap of a strange old man and whispering in his ear frightened me more than anything.

And I remember not lining up for the water fountain after gym class during Ramadan, being picked up at midnight from sleepovers, and refusing the body of Christ every week for a year at Catholic school.

I owned both a set of rosary beads and a tasbeeh. They hung on a hook by my bed, and looked just like each other. I sometimes questioned why they went by different names. I am endlessly grateful to my parents for allowing that question to hang there, for creating a space for the push and pull between unfaltering conviction and curious investigation. They helped me search for and find faith rather than handing it to me, neatly packaged and ready to inherit.

What I couldn't have realized back then was that something as private and individual as one's relationship with God was about to become public and collective. This once-fluid and boundless exploration would metamorphose into something hard and heavy.

I was in Grade 6 in suburban New Jersey when the Twin Towers went down. The two or three other Muslim students went home early. My mother refrained from pulling my sister and me out of school at midday, but she was there to pick us up as soon as the last class ended – wonderful when she left work early as a last-day-of-school tradition, but ominous when it happened on a random day in September.

For a few years after that, being Muslim meant something akin to being ashamed. It was something that required apology. It meant that when you were in an elevator with your mother, and someone politely asked where you were from, your mother would try to pass you off as Spanish, Italian or any ethnicity that didn't sound like a dirty word in the mouth of a newscaster.

It meant that when you took the last table at a coffee shop in the mall, and the next person who came along told you to go back to your country, you got up. If you were daring, you gave them a hostile stare as you walked away.

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In the years following that, being Muslim meant being a victim and a stereotype. It meant, paradoxically, blaming the West for blaming you, while trying to prove you were a good American. Sometimes, being a good American meant being the most enthusiastic in your celebration of July 4, or flying a U.S. flag on your front porch all year round, or not talking about your trips back to where you came from to visit your extended family.

But worst of all, living in a post-9/11 world meant being suspicious, not just of Muslim Americans, but of all Americans. Excessive suspicion is a kind of disease. Psychiatrists might call it paranoia.

People who were deeply hurt by the tragedies and crimes associated with Islam were driven by fear toward a kind of constant vigilance. Needing protection, and feeling defenceless, they built walls between themselves and anything or anyone that reminded them of Islam. They didn't sit next to bearded men on planes, or women in head scarves on trains; they taught their children which words and objects to be afraid of.

And Muslims, after enduring a wave of hatred and rejection, did the same. Every time they got a strange stare, or an old friend suddenly fell out of touch, or they didn't get a job, or security guards gave them a hard time, they had someone to blame, and they learned to be afraid. They, too, built a wall.

In Islam we have this saying: "Sometimes a victim of robbery will become so suspicious of everyone around him that he will become worse than the thief." The victim may be just as evil as the victimizer, in the end.

But this essay has been written predominantly in the past tense, and that attests to my supreme hope that this way of reacting to unthinkable violence is slowly becoming extinct.

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I use the past tense in the hope that when we put an individual on trial, it will be only the individual who is a suspect, and not an entire side of the wall. I use it in the hope that there are now chinks in the wall, letting a little light through, and that those chinks will remain unmended, so that one day soon all that is left is one big hole. But no one will see it as a hole because no one will remember the wall, and the space will be filled with an all-embracing light.

Sadaf Qureshi lives in Washington.

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