I try to remember what it was like to be a Muslim before 9/11. It is hard. It gets harder every year. I think I remember that being a Muslim didn’t mean much to others, and was mostly a private identity, one that different people wore in different ways.
I feel as if, before, there was a time when a Muslim was a much more complicated, much roomier thing to be – inflected with local culture and individual circumstances. Today, you can only be a good Muslim or a bad one. Either a “moderate” or a “radical”. Either a Muslim who needs to be saved or a Muslim you need to be saved from.
There was also a time when we could fight and resolve our issues as Muslims, whatever that categorisation meant at any given point, without the west gawping, judging us as messed up individuals or societies. On 9/11, many of us became distracted from that inner work, and lined up against a more urgent external, retributive threat. We couldn’t focus on keeping our own house in order because it was on fire, or about to be.
When I try to remember what it was like before, what I am really doing is attempting to piece together when Islam went from being a multidimensional, personal identity to a flat, political one, and 9/11 feels like the day it happened.
But I am sure it wasn’t that neat. My life was bisected by 9/11, which happened exactly halfway through it, and so there is a false symmetry to my recollections. If I reach back further, I am just able to recall Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses in 1988 and how the fuss seemed very far away, even though all the reports I saw and read were telling me it was about us and how we had reacted disgracefully. But I was a child then, and so that moment crystallises in my memory as history, rather than experience.
On 9/11 I was in Saudi Arabia, where al-Qaida and the majority of the hijackers were born. At the time the kingdom was in the grip of its hardline religious clergy, at once fostering and battling the same extremism that had reached all the way to New York. To me, 9/11 seemed like something the Saudis had failed to contain – Islamic terror as an epic industrial leak, a reactor meltdown, that meant thousands beyond its borders had perished. And now all of us were going to have to pay the price.
Yet there had been other attacks before 9/11, other retributions. There had already been a Gulf war that established US military in the Middle East permanently, and skirmishes between the US and Iran since the 1980s. American missiles had already been dispatched towards random targets in Muslim countries in response to al-Qaida bombings in east Africa. Things were already beginning to change. By the time the twin towers fell, we were on a war footing: everything just accelerated after that.
The world we live in now seems to have been forged in a day. Events and moments tumbled and settled into hard daily realities and attitudes that became impossible to undo.
A vast political, military and media machine mobilised to create favourable conditions for group punishment. First there were the invasions and occupations in Afghanistan and Iraq; then came surveillance and criminalisation by counter-terrorism schemes. The Muslim became a person to question, to doubt, to suspect and, sometimes, to frame.
Over the past decade, the energy we spent on the burqa, faith schools, halal meat and other cyclical moral outrages about Muslims all served to establish an Islamophobia that, as Sayeeda Warsi described, passed “the dinner table test”.
Perhaps these things had already been happening to some lesser degree, and I had been insulated from them by youth and innocence. But I remember it getting worse. The security screenings, the media savagings, the normalisation of attacking Muslims in the public eye by associating them with radicalism. The novelist Martin Amis said in a 2006 interview: “There’s a definite urge – don’t you have it? – to say, ‘The Muslim community will have to suffer until it gets its house in order.’ What sort of suffering? Not letting them travel. Deportation – further down the road. Curtailing of freedoms. Strip-searching people who look like they’re from the Middle East or from Pakistan.”
That definite urge spilled over into the hounding of women in hijabs, the rise in hate crime in Britain, the “Muslim ban” in the US, and in both countries the flourishing of a political right that exploited the fear of Muslims. Over the past two decades I witnessed what Edward Said called the turning of the Muslim into “this lesser breed”, a creature that only “understand the language of force … Unless you give them a bloody nose, they won’t understand.”
The result for me was a dissociation from Islam as a faith and rich cultural heritage, and in its place the forging of an iron solidarity with other Muslims. I regret the former and take comfort in the latter. But there is also a sort of defeat in that solidarity, an acceptance of being categorised as an outsider.
Toni Morrison said that the “function of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being.” The function of Islamophobia has worked in the same way. The Muslim diaspora in the west, and in Muslim countries at the sharp end of this new world, have for so long now been explaining their reasons for being. In so doing, they further reinforce the very dynamic that victimises them by becoming one bloc, defined only by the threat they are told they represent. Sometimes I pause and force myself to remember that it wasn’t always like this, and I find that the older I get, I can’t quite believe that it was never like this.
And maybe it wasn’t. Maybe the “war on terror” and the Islamophobia it established are just the latest assaults in a longer siege. Maybe it has long been the fate of Muslims to be born into a world that is all too ready to take the actions of the few to confirm the pathology of the many.
Maybe this is how it happens, how it becomes acceptable to dehumanise an entire group of people based on nothing other than a flimsy label. You keep it up for so long that they themselves don’t remember a time when it was any different.
Nesrine Malik is a Guardian columnist
Join Guardian journalist Johana Bhuiyan with a US panel, Moustafa Bayoumi, Naz Ahmad and Dr Debbie Almontaser, in a livestreamed discussion on how perceptions of Muslims in the US have shifted since 9/11. On Thursday 16 September, 8pm BST | 9pm CEST | 12pm PDT | 3pm EDT. Book tickets here