By killing Qassem Suleimani, Iran’s most powerful military figure, in an airstrike on January 3, the United States escalated tensions with Iran and pushed us closer to the possibility of another war in the Middle East. According to experts, the human cost in Iraq, Iran, and the greater Middle East if the violence continues will likely be devastating. In the U.S., some American Muslims fear the same increase in Islamophobia and xenophobia which began in the aftermath of the 2003 Iraq War.
The Iraq War had real repercussions for all American Muslims and how we were perceived by the media, our peers, the government, our neighbors, and law enforcement. Between 2004 and 2007, those perceived to be of Middle Eastern descent were faced with "historically high" rates of death threats, vandalism, violence, and murder, according to the American-Arab Anti Discrimination Committee. The first time someone told me to go back to my country—though I was born in the U.S.—was in 2004.
I asked seven other young American Muslims to describe an experience they had that illustrated most clearly to them how the perception of Muslim changed for Muslim people from the 2003 Iraq War onwards to help understand how war with Iran might usher in the next big spike of Islamophobia in the U.S.
Answers have been edited for length and clarity.
Amir Shirazi, 25, Fremont, CA
I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, a part of California known for liberalism. Born to a Lebanese mother and an Iranian father—both immigrants—I felt authentically American and unmistakably Muslim and Middle Eastern. I was nine when America went to war with Iraq. At first, the news on TV didn't seem to change anything for me—I was just a kid. When I entered fourth grade in 2004, George W. Bush’s re-election campaign was in full swing and the rhetoric had changed: America was threatened by Muslims. Nearly the entire class bullied me because of my religion. I’m not talking teasing and name-calling—I received death threats from other students. From other fourth graders. One student said, “My dad has a gun and lets me use it. I’m going to come to your house and shoot you in the night and people will celebrate that you’re dead.” By the time I was in fifth grade, I was barraged with hatred. Threats turned into acts—I was locked in bathrooms, thrown against walls, and kicked into the dirt. I developed acute anxiety and other medical issues. I missed four months of school because my body revolted at being there. When I brought it up to teachers, they told me, “This is the Bay Area. That just doesn’t happen here.”
Aman Agah, 37, Manassas, VA
Since childhood, I've experienced Islamophobia because Americans associate my religion with war. I was called “Saddam lover” and “terrorist” during the Persian Gulf War, despite being half Iranian and losing family in the Iran-Iraq War in the 80s. I cried as my second grade teacher stood in silence, watching my classmate tear at my scarf. Prior to the Iraq War, my parents encouraged us to defend ourselves and others against Islamophobia; to speak up, or even act up. The next time a boy tried to rip my scarf off, I punched him.
Before the Iraq War, I witnessed my parents get profiled by police more than once, but it hadn’t crushed their spirits. I knew things had changed in the summer of 2003, when I found out that my dad was scared. Before then, When Radiohead released Hail to the Thief, an album critical of Bush and the Iraq War, I slapped a sticker of the album's title on my car. When my father noticed, he begged me to remove it. He feared that a hijabi with a sticker declaring Bush a thief would be attacked. After the Iraq War began, my dad, who taught me to stand up to bigotry, now feared not just the police, but American strangers in general.
Nabeeha*, 25, Irvine, California
*Nabeeha requested her name be changed for reasons of privacy.
In fall of 2001, my second-grade class brought in photos of our families for show and tell. Mine was of my parents dressed in traditional shalwar kameez at their wedding reception in Pakistan. A boy stood up and pointed at the photo, yelling, "Those are bad people!" I froze—I didn't know what to do or say. My teacher managed to settle things down, but the damage had been done: My being Muslim and looking Muslim came with certain perceptions, all of which were meant to portray us as dangerous.
Sabreen Alikhan, 33, Washington, DC
At a picnic hosted by my company in 2012, I sat near a friend of the CEO. The older white man covered the routine small-talk bases—the exchange of names, job titles, etc.—before launching into a series of questions about my heritage. These were also routine to me, but unlike others who'd asked them, this man asked thoughtful follow-up questions demonstrating knowledge of the people, regions, and languages I described. With increasing detail, I chronicled my family’s migration from Iran to India to America, and the diaspora of Urdu-speaking Shiite Muslims to which we belong. Suddenly, as though he’d discovered a rare artifact, he asked, “Do you know how much the CIA would love to have you?” The questions I’d taken as sincere interest were posed, in fact, to strengthen his hypothesis that I would make a great asset to national security: “Seriously, I bet they don’t have anyone like you.” It reminded me how readily I could be reduced to my presumed proximity to enemies of the state after the Iraq War.
Yasmin Mohamed, 20, Vienna, VA
Out of the 600 kids in my grade school, there were very few Muslims and about 15 Black kids. About 10 of those came from my neighborhood and were Somali, like me. In 2006, when I was in first grade, one of my classmates' moms came to our class and told us she worked in counterterrorism for the FBI. Though she didn’t directly mention the war in Iraq, the class and I related her comment to the FBI's surveillance of Muslim people, given how often it was in the news. I was wearing a hijab that day, and a few kids stared at me; one even laughed. I was embarrassed. One of the first thoughts I told myself to feel better was, I was born here. Today, as a hijab-wearing Black woman, I still feel like I always have to prove my Americanness. I feel pressure to subdue my political stances—especially my disdain for the military—so that I don't come off as an America-hating Muslim.
Hera Ashraf, 27, Evansville, Indiana
Growing up, I saw my parents experience Islamophobic name-calling, but they did a good job of protecting me from it, and I had tons of Muslim friends. I didn’t experience Iraq War–based Islamophobia until August 2010, when I moved to a college whose students were largely from the rural Midwest. I was randomly assigned a roommate, and we got really close. One day, she confided that she'd been nervous to move in together before we met because I'm Muslim—her friends from home told her I’d probably have bombs in our dorm room. She asked if I would visit so she could introduce me to them and change their perceptions.
When I met her family and hometown friends, it was a wake-up call: I was probably the first Muslim most of them ever interacted with. From then on, I felt conscious of a responsibility to represent Islam to all my non-Muslim neighbors, coworkers, friends, etc. in a country where my religion is misinterpreted as extremist and violent. Though I am careful about what I say, it has also pushed me to be accountable about speaking out against human rights violations around the globe.
Shahbaz Ahmed Khan, 22, Mill Creek, WA
My middle brother and I were too young to remember 9/11 itself, but we learned about it in school. By 2014, we were aware of the association between the War on Terror and Islam that many Americans made. During Ramzan that year, it didn't shock my middle brother and me when two white dudes with a large bottle of vodka ran past our mosque, shouting, "Look out, there’s a bomb somewhere!” upon seeing a congregation of Muslims praying taraweeh in the front lawn.
My youngest brother was also there that night. He was born a few years after 9/11, and this was his first Ramzan at the mosque. After the men ran off cackling into the night, he asked my dad, "What did they mean? Why would they say that?" He genuinely didn't know that when many people thought of our religion, it was only in relation to terrorism. To those men—and to many Americans, especially white ones—it didn't matter that my brother wasn't even an idea in my parents’ head when the towers fell. As a Muslim, he still needed to be held accountable as an enemy, even years after the Iraq War officially ended.
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