How 9/11 changed Muslim, immigrant communities forever

  • Noman Hussain was a teenager at the time of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. "The pressure of visibly looking Muslim ... was constantly a challenge," said Hussain, 33, formerly of Schaumburg, now the resident scholar and imam at Islamic Foundation of Villa Park.

    Noman Hussain was a teenager at the time of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. "The pressure of visibly looking Muslim ... was constantly a challenge," said Hussain, 33, formerly of Schaumburg, now the resident scholar and imam at Islamic Foundation of Villa Park. Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 9/10/2021 6:32 AM

Noman Hussain was studying Quran recitation at a Kankakee boys boarding school when news broke of the attack on the World Trade Center towers in New York City.

Hussain and his peers were pulled out of classes and told they were going home without any explanation or an idea of when they would return.

 

When parents picked them up, the boys were told to remove their thobes -- modest, ankle-length garments with long sleeves commonly worn by Muslim boys and men -- and topis, or head coverings, and change into something less conspicuous.

"Many of the parents who came already had American flags stuck on their cars ... trying to show that we are patriotic," said Hussain, whose family lived in Schaumburg at the time.

The horror of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks didn't hit Hussain right away.

Many immigrant families "didn't understand the consequences or severity" of what it meant for them going forward, said Hussain, now 33 and a resident scholar and imam at the Islamic Foundation of Villa Park.

But Muslims young and old across the suburbs, nation and world soon came to realize it would change their lives forever. Suddenly, their faith, cultures and customs were scrutinized in the media, at schools, in workplaces, on the street and in everyday interactions with neighbors, co-workers and strangers.

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Noman Hussain was a teenager studying Quran recitation at a Kankakee boys boarding school when the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks happened. The event shook Muslim communities to the core, says Hussain, 33, now the resident scholar and imam at the Islamic Foundation of Villa Park.
Noman Hussain was a teenager studying Quran recitation at a Kankakee boys boarding school when the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks happened. The event shook Muslim communities to the core, says Hussain, 33, now the resident scholar and imam at the Islamic Foundation of Villa Park. - Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

Muslim girls and women were confronted with a hard choice of taking off their hijabs -- Islamic head coverings -- as men contemplated shaving off their traditional beards to blend in.

"The pressure of visibly looking Muslim ... was constantly a challenge," said Hussain, of Lombard. "Before 9/11, the Muslim community was asleep."

Sept. 11 not only affected people's perceptions about Islam and Muslims, but it also sparked a rise in religious profiling, hate crimes and bullying in schools. It compelled once-insular immigrant communities to open up to outsiders.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

In the years since, suburban Muslims have become more vocal and involved in multicultural and interfaith initiatives and social activism, and have gained political clout to advocate for themselves and for civil rights.

"It forced us to get out of our bubble and engage with the community," said Omar Hedroug, 32, of Westmont, an imam who oversees the youth program and community education at the Islamic Center of Naperville.

Omar Hedroug, 33, of Westmont is the youth and community education director for the Islamic Center of Naperville.
Omar Hedroug, 33, of Westmont is the youth and community education director for the Islamic Center of Naperville. - Courtesy of Omar Hedroug

"(Now) there is definitely more of a culture of acceptance and being able to separate between what some people did and what Islam is."

Fitting in

For many, seeing friends, family and community members attacked for their Islamic faith in the aftermath of Sept. 11 brought home a painful realization that Muslim Americans now were viewed as "the other."

"We are still trying to fight bigotry and bring normalcy back," said Sharmin Shahjahan, 37, former Hanover Park village trustee. "What we had taken away was ... the sense of security in our own country as Muslim Americans. We have been 'other-ized' and vilified."

It motivated many Muslim millennials, like Shahjahan, to embrace social activism, beyond serving within mosque communities. Shahjahan purposefully joined groups without Muslim or Asian representation.

Sharmin Shahjahan
Sharmin Shahjahan -

A college freshman when Sept. 11 happened, she worked with campus sororities and fraternities and local TV stations to host forums about Islam and what it means to be Muslim. In 2012, she hosted a similar forum in Hanover Park.

Shahjahan's two daughters, like so many children born after Sept. 11, also have been burdened with having to defend their faith.

"Before 9/11, there was no distinction between your religion and your allegiance to your country," Shahjahan said. "We had to basically prove that we are the 'good Muslims.' This day is incredibly triggering because this was when the hate started. We just have to find a way to heal."

With every anniversary commemoration, those wounds are reopened.

Alya Patel, 18, of Arlington Heights said she felt apologetic when teachers would talk about Sept. 11 in school.

Alya Patel
Alya Patel

"It was always uncomfortable just knowing that even though people weren't saying it, they were thinking it ... that the perpetrators were Muslim," said Patel, a freshman political science major at the University of Illinois. "As a kid, it's hard to navigate. It just gave me a new sense of identity. Growing up in an all-white town, I kind of learned to just hide that (Muslim) part of myself."

Coming of age

Illinois has the highest per capita population of Muslims -- the total is estimated to be more than 400,000 of varying races, ethnicities and cultures -- in the nation.

In 20 years, the number of Islamic institutions across the suburbs have burgeoned, and so has members' political activism, social advocacy and work to build allies.

More Muslim Americans are running for political office now and dozens of them were elected to local boards last November.

Sadia Covert of Naperville was a college freshman at Benedictine University in Lisle when the Sept. 11 attacks happened.

Sadia Covert
Sadia Covert -

Covert later co-authored Illinois' law adopted in 2017 imposing harsher penalties for hate crimes. It thrust her into the political limelight, and she was tapped to run for DuPage County Board and elected to her first term in 2018.

"After I joined the county board, nobody called me a 'jihadi' or 'terrorist,'" Covert said. "It's about people getting to know each other."

Muslims played a key role in getting Illinois to adopt an anti-registry law in 2019. It bars law enforcement agencies from collecting and using personal demographic information, including race, color, gender identity, age, religion, disability and national origin to identify, track or find people.

Abdullah Mitchell
Abdullah Mitchell -

"It was a catalyst for change," said Abdullah Mitchell, executive director of the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago, speaking of Sept. 11. "A community, as it matures, it looks beyond its own individual interest and at what benefits society as a whole."

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