I’m excited to post the second story. This story is so insightful and really shows the extent to which judgement shapes the views of others.
It was August 2001. I was entering the fourth grade at my new school, Presbyterian Day School, in Memphis, TN. This fancy preparatory school, with its carpeted hallways and strict dress code, was definitely a big change for me. I was more than excited to start school and make new friends. When I walked into class my first day, I was slightly startled by the fact that I was the only non-whitechild in the classroom. However, my classmates, most of whom had been at PDS since kindergarten, welcomed me warmly, much to my relief. School days rolled by calmly; my classmates would be quite curious about my background, with many of them asking me where my parents were from. When I would answer Pakistan, almost all of them would give me a bewildered look, having no knowledge of the country. But aside from such a basic question, my classmates never asked much more, and my first month at PDS went by smoothly.
And then 9/11 happened. I remember the moment our math teacher walked into our English classroom and whispered something into my teacher’s ear, who then gasped and started to tear up. We all knew something was wrong, but I did not know what until I came home and saw the attack on the news. My parents were extremely upset, and I heard them tell each other that they hoped theattackers were not Muslim. When the attackers’ identities were revealed, I still recall my parents’ grave faces as they feared the implications such an attack would have on their daily lives. As a child, I knew I was Muslim and knew the basic tenets of my faith. But when this tragedy occurred, all I felt was that some ill-minded individuals carried out an atrocious attack on innocent people. I was puzzled by my parents’ concerns because I did not feel any identification with the attackers. I knew I was a Muslim, but I knew over a billion other people around the world were as well. But as I attended PDS after 9/11, I grew to realize their concerns. I was bombarded with crazy questions about my heritage: are you from Afghanistan, are you related to Osama, did you know this was going to happen, do Muslims like America, do YOU like America? I was shocked by the kinds of questions I was being asked, manyof which I had no idea how to answer. In one of my classes, the teacher decided to show the class a video about Islam. Unfortunately, the video took the angle of terrorism and Islam, showing examples of the reprehensible acts committed by Muslims in the past few decades and warning of future events in the wake of 9/11. I rememberseeing in my periphery my classmates’ many glances of concern towards me at every mention of the words “Muslim” or “Islam.” When I told my mom about this uncomfortable incident, she complained to the school and asked how such a video was relevant to a class called “OldTestament History.” Later in the year, I was called to the headmaster’s office, who informed me that I had been recommended and selected by my teachers, due to my academic success, to deliver a speech to the whole school. I was told the speech’s topic would be in the form of a letter to Bush about the bravery of America after 9/11. I was so excited that I had been chosen to write this speech by merit. That week, I worked hard on a thoughtful speech about the beauty of America and its unity after 9/11. I presented it in front of the whole school at Friday chapel and remember feeling proud of myself after the applause.
But as I grew older and less naïve, this speech and that year or so after 9/11 hurt more than they did back then; their memories still hurt. I meant everything about America in that speech, but I now know enough to know that I was not selected due to any academic merit. I was chosen because I was the only Muslim kid in the school, and they wanted me, as a sort of Muslim American poster boy for Islam, to present a patriotic speech to ease all thepost-9/11 tension. Although I understand the school had good intentions, I regret the abundance of such mentalities after 9/11. In a way, from the glares of my peers during the Islam video or from the cliché speech presentation after 9/11, I was forced to identify with and be associated with people that I myself never felt any identification or association with. I wish I could say these kinds of incidents slowly decreased with time, but they didn’t. Even at Dartmouth, during a Q&A session at an event last year, I recall the visiting speaker ask me “don’t you feel the need, the responsibility, to explain Islam and the controversial actions of Muslims to people after 9/11?”. That question brought back those memories of my experiences at PDS. While I am a Muslim, while I am more than happy to answer questions about my religion to the best of my knowledge, I do not feel the need or necessity to explain the actions of every bad seed in the world that calls him or her self a Muslim. Some people may disagree with my approach, and that’s okay. But I encourage everyone here to think about these questions of identity and faith: how much do you identify with your faith groups? Should you feel responsible in addressing the damage caused by those who misrepresent your faith? While I have certainly had many trying experiences since 9/11, I am grateful to have gone through them, for they solidified my identity today: as Amir, one Muslim out of a growing 1.6 billion, all of whom have different beliefs and different life experiences. And just as they do not need to explain my poor decisions, I should not have to explain theirs. Thank you!