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This interview is part of the Young Muslim American Voices Project, a project launched in 2009 by the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative that seeks to strengthen the voices and visibility of young Muslim American leaders.
Eleni Towns: Mou, This Sunday, we will observe the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on 9/11. SAALT has been actively working not only with the South Asian community—but also with Muslim, interfaith, and civil rights communities to help frame and enhance the dialogue around the anniversary. Can you tell us a little bit more about your campaign? What messages do you hope to share?
Mou Khan: The campaign is called An America For All of Us, and it aims to document and elevate the voices and experiences of South Asians and other communities in the dialogue around 9/11. The campaign also works to hold policymakers accountable—to stand up against xenophobic language and to pursue policies that fight discrimination and profiling.
Throughout the campaign we have mobilized community members in a few ways. First and foremost, we have worked with groups around the country to organize events at the local level, where community members can learn about post-9/11 backlash and how it has impacted their region and our country. You can find a map of events on our website. We also have some e-advocacy tools to engage members of Congress.
The message the campaign really wants to share is that at its core September 11was a tragedy, resulting in a startling loss of life and a traumatic attack on our country. However, in the aftermath of that day, certain communities that had observed and mourned the tragedy became targets for harassment, hate crimes, and heightened, unwarranted scrutiny.
E: Faith groups played a prominent and important role in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. In what ways are they engaged in commemorating the 10th anniversary?
M: We are all impacted by the events of 9/11 regardless of our background. Faith backgrounds call upon us to look upon this time as a moment for us to come together and remember the unity that prevailed after 9/11.
Also, faith groups bring a strong lens to the concept of free exercise of faith. A lot of work has been done by faith groups to stand up for the right to have mosques in your locality, to be allowed to wear hijabs, to be allowed to wear your turban. Faith communities have stood up and said, Muslims have a right to do this. Sikhs have a right to do this.
E: Everyone has a story to tell about 9/11, and a big part of your campaign is storytelling. Can you share some of those stories with us? And especially, what are the unique experiences of the South Asian community and their stories in the post-9/11 America?
M: South Asians, like all Americans, experienced 9/11 primarily as the violent, tragic attack that it was. Our story since then is also in the distinct and different ways that our community—along with other communities like Muslims, Sikh, Arab Americans—has been targeted by a post-9/11 backlash.
In the week immediately following September 11, 2001, our organization documented 645 reported incidents targeting South Asians and Middle Easterners. There were also large scale roundups of Muslim Americans. In 2002 we saw the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System which began the mandatory registration and questioning of certain male nationals from a number of Muslim-majority countries including Bangladesh and Pakistan. While no national security threats were identified, more than 13,000 of these 84,000 men who registered were placed in deportation proceedings for minor immigration violations.
Another hallmark of the post-9/11 South Asian story has been school bullying and profiling at airports. Gurwinder Singh spoke at a briefing during a National South Asian Summit in April about his experiences of bullying at the hands of his classmates, ranging from verbal taunts to serious violent attacks on his person.
One particular moving story is that of Talat Hamdani who also spoke at the briefing in April. Her son, Salam, was an EMT in training, who—like so many courageous first responders—died while saving others in downtown Manhattan. As the dust settled, some questioned whether he was actually involved in the attack. These personal attacks on her son’s character hurt the family beyond measure and led her to become a vocal advocate for not just honoring the memory of her son and the other victims of the attack but to defend the core American values that stand against smearing someone based on their religion or ethnicity.
E: That is a powerful story of Talat’s family. How can these stories be shared with the larger public?
M: We are hoping to capture and document these stories as part of the campaign. We are not just talking about South Asians or other affected communities like Muslims, Sikhs, or Arab Americans. We are all part of this post-9/11 world and what we want to do as part of the An America For All Of Us campaign, is create a platform where all can document their own stories.
In terms of the dissemination, we have been convening what we call the allies call, which is a regular opportunity for faith and civil rights organization to talk about the work we are doing, to share some of the strategies and stories that are really important and specific to our community, and to also speak to broader experiences and realities of the post-9/11 world.
E: You talk about the broader post 9/11 experience. What are these commonalities? As you document these stories, are there some that do not fit the larger narratives and that are surprising to you?
M: There are many different elements to post-9/11 backlash. Part of the challenge is to explain what we mean by that term to people who are not as familiar with it. To really draw together the different phenomena that we are describing—school bullying, harassment in the work place, hate crimes, government policies—to see the disparate elements as part of this whole concept of post-9/11 backlash.
Also, post-9/11 backlash has really shifted in a lot of ways. It’s now about different things like protests against building mosques or anti-Sharia laws. We are seeing younger and younger people perpetrating—and being the victims of—bullying who are further and further away from the 9/11 moment. It is incumbent upon us to build a lens and a worldview that makes sense of all of this. That can show how these changes are part of the same essential backlash and how we need to understand these new developments and develop news tools and partnerships to combat it.
E: You mention young people—how are you seeing this generation impacted by 9/11? Do they have a unique experience? Throughout the campaign, have they shared the same stories or understandings as older generations?
M: Millennials have not only had a unique experience of post-9/11 backlash but also have a unique role to play in the movement building to combat it.
I was sixteen when 9/11 happened and I remember it so clearly. I might be on the older end of the generation in the sense that I remember what it was like to fly before 9/11. I remember what it was like to not have to go through security screening and to have my family waiting at the gate to greet me when I got off the plane.
However, if you have no memory of flying before 9/11 this is the normal for you—long security lines, being subject to very intrusive pat downs, naked body image scans. But I think it also gives you a different perspective.
Millennials are growing up in a very multicultural world and the concepts of multiculturalism are deeply engrained in their upbringing and their worldview. I have grown up with people of many different races, backgrounds, and national origins. Then I go out in the world and see that people are not being treated in this equal or egalitarian fashion. I think the role that millennials can play in creating innovative solutions that come from their sense of community and generation is unparalleled.
E: You spoke a little bit about your experience. But can you tell us more about your story and how you got involved in this work?
M: Like I said, I was in my senior year of high school when 9/11 happened and like so many people around the world, it was a formative event for me. My family had emigrated to the United States about five years before. I was actually in no way prepared for how fundamentally it would shift my world. I don’t think I understood what was happening as it was going on.
I think that sense of loss and sadness really motivated me to learn more about what was really happening to this place that I had moved to and loved so deeply. I wanted to understand who was putting out the rhetoric and the idea that who I am was a problem? Who was institutionalizing a concept of me as the enemy?
That helped me really seek some understanding and knowledge about the historical continuity of how communities of color are treated in the United States. In times of crisis we have seen communities of color become the scapegoat. Learning from the experiences of African Americans, Latinos, Japanese American internment, etc, helped me see the work that people have done before me to help build bridges and community.
I had a little bit of a hand in naming our campaign and I think that for me I really wanted to get to the heart of what America is. When I moved to this country it was an opportunity filled with so much hope and dreams for the future. At its heart I think America is this dream that is an America for all of us. It is a place that can be a home for such a wide array of people. I want that America. I believe in that America, and I have experienced that America. I want my work and my life to go towards building that—towards a country that I know we are capable of being.
E: That’s fantastic. Thank you so much, Mou, for speaking with us today. All the best in the work. It is really important for our country.
M: Thanks so much. It was a pleasure speaking with you.
Download this interview (mp3)
Mou Khan joined SAALT in 2008 as the Program and Communications Associate. She works on programs at SAALT including the National Coalition of South Asian Organizations, the Advocates for Community Empowerment program, community mobilization and civic engagement. Mou graduated cum laude from Carleton College with a degree in political science with international relations. She completed the Coro Fellows Program in Public Affairs in St. Louis in 2007.