Opinion: New York City must reckon with its treatment of Muslims after 9/11

A new exhibit at MoMA PS1 highlights the discrimination faced by Muslim immigrants in New York City and the community’s resilience.

Marissa Alper/MoMA PS1

Like most New Yorkers, my life changed forever on Sept. 11, 2001. I was at school in Astoria, where students began to get picked up by their parents, teachers looked frantic and we were all just confused kids until an older student told us to look through the bathroom window. All I could see was smoke.

But just as I was grieving this devastating attack on my city, the pride I had in so much of who I was – the people I loved, the way I prayed, the foods I ate, the clothes I wore, the languages I spoke – was replaced by shame as my community was villainized by politicians who capitalized on fear and distrust to further policing and militarization. 

I grew up in Astoria, Queens in an incredibly vibrant North African Muslim working class community. After 9/11, everything changed. Soon, Muslim men and women were being surveilled by the NYPD, rounded up, interrogated, and often deported. Of those who were able to stay in this country, many lost jobs, homes, and even friends, as people looked at our names and our places of birth and just saw “terrorist.” I felt it personally when, at age 16, a stranger attacked me while I was walking down the street in Queens and tried to rip off my hijab. In so many ways, my personal story had always felt overwhelmed by state-sanctioned violence in the aftermath of 9/11 and its consequences on my neighborhood.

Yet I have always felt like this part of NYC’s very recent history has always been overlooked and erased. We have yet to reckon with our country’s domestic reaction to that day – a day on which many American Muslims lost their lives, too. Even as police departments across the country illegally and unconstitutionally surveilled communities like mine; even as hate crimes against us spiked, and then kept rising; even as our families were separated under the guise of keeping the rest of the country safe – there has been no reckoning. But for me, this year finally felt different. 

On Monday, the 22nd anniversary of 9/11, I sat in MoMA PS1 surrounded by the stories of my community on full display at the “MALIKAH” exhibit that I co-curated. For the first time ever, I felt seen in a New York City institution as stories of elders and youth from my neighborhood filled the walls with video, photography and objects of our collective journeys. Co-creating this exhibit with an intergenerational group of Muslim North African women from Queens was not only my first art curation experience, but also it was a healing experience. Over the course of a year, we worked together through storytelling exercises to pull together a timeline of my community’s history in Queens. These were the same women who would watch me when I was growing up and my mom had to pick up extra shifts at work. And these were the same women who rallied around me after I experienced a hate-based attack in my neighborhood. 

In creating this art, I learned more and more about their collective vision to create a neighborhood community that was about safety for us as immigrant children, in a time that wasn’t safe for us at all. Where there was no mosque or halal meat shop, they created one. When people treated them with disdain over their hijabs and Arabic language, they still taught us to love our identities. In the face of so much discrimination and bias, they cultivated our neighborhood over three decades to become the place in NYC where, as Muslims and North Africans, we can be most unapologetically ourselves. 

On the wall and in the oral histories, you will hear about the impact of 9/11 on my neighborhood. But you will also learn stories about the halal food takeover of NYC, the first Muslim women’s center in Astoria and what it's like to give birth in a new country as an immigrant woman. You’ll also learn about how rising rents and the lack of affordable housing in Astoria keeps us all up at night and threatens our communities’ continued existence. 

Sitting here, listening to the breadth of our immigrant experiences as New Yorkers, helps me to both grieve the harms of 9/11’s aftermath and to recognize the resilience and power of the women who came before me – those whose experiences allowed us to build our own place here in Astoria, Queens. It gives me the motivation and confidence to internalize their self-love and confidence and to continue to organize for safety for our community by remaining as unapologetic as all of our immigrant elders.

Rana Abdelhamid is a Muslim human rights activist and creative who campaigns against gender-based violence and hate-based violence. She is a former Congressional candidate and the founder of Malikah, an organization that teaches self-defense to women and girls with a center in Astoria, Queens. The MALIKAH exhibit is on display at MoMA PS1 through Oct. 9.

NEXT STORY: Editor’s note: A much-needed hug on 9/11 that I’ll never forget