Explaining 9/11 to a Muslim Child
By Moina Noor, The New York Times Magazine, September 11, 2009
Recently on the morning drive to school my 8-year-old son asked me a question I’ve been dreading since he was a baby, “Mom, what happened on 9/11?”
Mass murder is impossible to explain to yourself, let alone a child. But how do I, as a parent, explain the slaughter of innocent people in the name of a religion that I am trying to pass on to my boy?
Bilal was just 8 months old when September 11 happened. He was just starting to crawl and put everything in sight into his mouth, and I remember having to peel my gaze away from the television screen and remind myself to keep a watchful eye on where he lay nearby.
After Bilal was born I viewed everything — especially current events — through the lens of parenthood. I knew the world had changed irreparably on 9/11, and while I mourned the innocent and raged against my crazy coreligionists, my nagging anxiety was for my son.
Even in those early surreal hours after the attacks when images of towers falling and long-bearded men in caves flooded the television screen, I knew that Bilal’s childhood would not be like mine.
When I was growing up in suburban Connecticut few people knew much about Muslims, let alone cared. My parents and their friends would gather in community rooms or church basements for our version of Sunday school. They were devout but weren’t necessarily interested in teaching their neighbors about Islam. We were few in number and invisible.
After 9/11, the spotlight was aimed at Muslims everywhere, especially here in America. Like many Muslims, I felt the need to defend my religious identity. I threw myself into all things Muslim, and explained and explained: “We are like you. Islam is peaceful. Complex sociopolitical factors create lunatics who kill people. Please don’t judge a billion people by a few bad apples.”
I hung tightly to my spiritual rope. I could not let go of a faith has given me and my family comfort and solace for generations.
Since 9/11, I’ve worried how Bilal would feel about his identity as a Muslim living in America. A survey conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life appeared in 2007 stating that 35 percent of respondents had an unfavorable opinion about Islam. Could one of those 3 in 10 people be Bilal’s teacher or soccer coach?
Over the past eight years I’ve read about Muslims being deported and pulled off airplanes and mosques being vandalized. My sister, a former middle school teacher in Brooklyn, heard kids taunt a Muslim student on the playground, calling him a terrorist. And even though I fear the possibility of discrimination for Bilal, what I fear most of all is that the din of Islamophobia will rob my son of self-respect and confidence.
So just as I became an activist, I became a proactive Muslim mommy. When Bilal was a preschooler, I took him to Muslim playgroups, organized activities in Ramadan and bought him board books about the Prophet Muhammed. I pushed him in his stroller at peace walks and brought him to interfaith events. These days, I organize local Islamic school classes and give talks about the Hajj at his elementary school. My husband and I read him books about Islamic contributions to math and science.
Over the years, I’ve tried to protect my son from any negative associations made with Islam. I’ve developed lightening quick reflexes — the second I hear a story about suicide bombers or terrorists on the radio, I switch to a pop music station. I’ve made my husband limit his CNN time to after the kids go to sleep. I don’t want to have to answer the question, “Mom, what is the ‘threat of radical Islamic extremism?’ ”
For me, the thought of talking to Bilal about terrorism is a bit like talking about sex for the first time. It is awkward and difficult I’m just not sure how much a child his age is ready to hear.
This year 9/11 falls during Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of fasting. I made Bilal watch President Obama’s five minute long “Ramadan Message to Muslims” on the Internet. President Obama spoke with respect, knowledge and a sense optimism to Muslims around the world. He found the speech interesting but nothing out of the ordinary. For Bilal, who is just starting to become conscious of a world bigger than our front yard, there is no “clash of civilizations”.
Bilal is proud to tell others that he was named after “the Prophet’s best friend,” an African Muslim with a beautiful voice who gave the first call to prayer. He is also a Cub Scout who has learned how to fold the American flag.
I did try and answer Bilal’s question. I relayed the day’s events in broad cartoonish strokes: bad guys attack, buildings collapse. Don’t worry, I assured him, we’ll get the bad guys so they won’t do it again. As I looked at Bilal in the rearview mirror, I explained that good and bad exists in every group, even your own. I think he understands.