Constable: How suburban Muslim parents explain 9/11 to kids

Known simply as “September 11th,” the attacks on that day 15 years ago brought to our shores new levels of sorrow, fear, hate, patriotism, divisiveness, security and ignorance.

All of which will be news to Subhaan Khan, a third-grader at Ferson Creek Elementary School in St. Charles, whose parents, Farhan and Nida Khan, want to be certain that he is old enough to learn about Sept. 11.

“This may be a good year, because at 9 (years old), he will hear about it,” says Nida Khan, adding that she wants Subhaan and his brother, Jibraan, 6, to hear that history from loved ones. “They've heard the term '9/11,' but they don't really know much about it, even though my husband is a New Yorker, a die-hard Yankee.”

You can't always shield a child from news of terror, whether it concerns Sept. 11, gang shootings in Chicago, a lone gunman in a South Carolina church, a rampage in a Florida nightclub, or a suicide bomber in Baghdad.

“Who's ISIS?” Subhaan asked his mom one day, not believing the explanation he'd heard. “They're not Muslim, are they? Because Muslims don't do that.”

A registered nurse who works in the intensive care unit of a Chicago hospital, Oak Brook's Ranya Elkhatib, 33, takes a deep breath before explaining how she and her husband gave their 5-year-old twin sons, Taj and Siraj Dissi, the children's version of Sept. 11.

“A long time ago, when Mommy was in school, some Muslims did something very bad and flew an airplane into a building,” Elkhatib says.

Just as all Americans did that day, these young boys have difficulty grasping the reality.

“They were in shock,” the mom remembers. “They're very well-versed Islamically in good versus bad.”

Having heard their mom preach: “Hurting people is wrong. Doing good is what Allah likes,” the stunned boys asked her, “Why did Muslims do that?”

Days after the 2001 attack, George W. Bush answered that question.

“We respect your faith. Its teachings are good and peaceful, and those who commit evil in the name of Allah blaspheme the name of Allah,” the president told a worldwide TV audience. “The enemy of America is not our many Muslim friends. It is not our many Arab friends. Our enemy is a radical network of terrorists and every government that supports them.”

Bush spoke clearly then.

“That distinction is less defined today,” says Faisal Mohyuddin, 38, a published poet and English teacher at Highland Park High School. “I feel more anxious in the last year than I did after September 11th. There are people out there who think of us in this negative way.”

Hafsa Mahmood

Fifteen years ago, Naperville teen Hafsa Mahmood had the same reaction to the attacks as Americans of every faith. In her car on the way to class at the University of Illinois-Chicago, Mahmood was happily bobbing her head to music when she noticed odd looks from other drivers. She turned her radio to news and heard about “an act of Islamic terrorism,” she remembers.

A former Daily Herald reporter who now makes her living in marketing and public relations, Mahmood, 33, and her husband have been pondering how they'll explain that day to their 3-year-old son, Ayaan Sheikh, amid their messages about peace and helping others.

  A busy 3-year-old, Ayaan Sheikh reaches for his mother, Hafsa Mahmood, as they walk through the Oak Brook Public Library. Mahmood, who grew up in Naperville, says she tries to shield her son from all the violent images in today's world. A marketing and public relations professional, she says she's thinking of the best way to tell him about the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Daniel White/

“He's Muslim,” Mahmood says of her son. “And the people who did this are Muslim.”

Mohyuddin, who has worked to counteract stereotypes since he was a student at Fremd High School in Palatine, says every attack committed in the name of Islam makes his quest more difficult.

“Look, we're telling you this isn't us, but then the next day something happens and then people are not sure they believe us,” he says.

Growing frustration and fear have led to prejudice and even attacks on innocent Muslims. “It's horrible now. It's really horrific,” says Elkhatib, who has faithfully worn her hijab, the traditional Muslim head scarf, since she was 17, even though relatives begged her to take it off on Sept. 11, 2001.

“Part of the purpose of the hijab is to stand out as a Muslim,” Elkhatib says. But her hijab, her husband's beard, and even their names can cause problems.

  Hours after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, relatives worried about attacks against Muslims urged Ranya Elkhatib to take off her hijab. The registered nurse from Oak Brook has worn the traditional head covering since she was 17, and says she recently explained to her 5-year-old twin sons that violence displeases Allah . "I'm raising them to have a good, strong, Muslim character," she says. Daniel White/

“All these symbols of Muslims strike fear in people,” she says, noting that a Muslim family carrying a backpack into a park might be seen differently from other Americans.

“The Fourth of July hurts for sure. It's too awkward,” she says, explaining how her family avoided this year's public celebration. “There are a lot of people who think if you're Muslim, you can't be American. You never know who's in the parking lot. I know I'm an American. If I go to Palestine, they know, 'Oh, she's an American.'”

Mohyuddin lives in Chicago with his wife, Hina Sodha, a lawyer and senior counsel at Grant Thornton, and their 20-month-old son, Zayan.

“I'll put on my White Sox hat because I want people to know, 'Hey, I'm one of you,'” Mohyuddin says of riding the train in a city where divisions spill beyond race, religion, gender and social status. “At times, if I get a scowl, it's because of the White Sox hat.”

But his fellow teachers and students know that Islam is a major part of his life. “I want people to know who I am,” Mohyuddin says.

  Knowing that her sons will hear about Sept. 11 in school, St. Charles mother Nida Khan says Subhaan, 9, and Jibraan, 6, need to understand that the horrors of that day were committed "by a bunch of crazy people doing this in the name of religion." Daniel White/

Khan, who went to a Catholic elementary school, said she is more fearful now than she was in 2001 “with the way the rhetoric is going in this country.” Thinking of her older son, she said: “He's a very proud Muslim and talks about it openly. I hope that never changes. We're good. We're part of the social fabric of this country. I was born in this country. My children are second-generation. They're proud to be American. I don't want that to change.”

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