On Sept. 11, 2001, Aymann Ismail was 11 years old. He remembers being evacuated from his school in New Jersey, getting into a school bus, going down a highway, seeing the smoke from the twin towers. He remembers going home, waiting to hear from his dad, who worked as a driver in lower Manhattan. He remembers watching the news on TV. It wasn’t until the next day that his father came home—he had walked all the way from New York City.
After that, Aymann’s school, a private Islamic school, didn’t reopen right away. There was a fear that it would be unsafe—a target for anti-Muslim sentiment in the wake of the attacks. So Aymann’s parents gave him an option to start going to his local public school in Newark, and he took it. He never set foot in his Muslim school again. When I ask him what he lost on 9/11, Aymann says, “Everything. The Muslim community that I was a part of. It was a community that I’d been a part of since I was born. And I would never see almost any of them ever again.” On Thursday’s episode of What Next, we talked about what it was like for him growing up in the shadow of 9/11, and the lasting scars of the attacks on Muslim American communities. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Mary Wilson: The Patriot Act passed within a couple months of the attacks on 9/11. It was meant to allow U.S. intelligence agencies to share information to prevent future acts of terrorism. But the law also made it easier for the government to surveil American citizens, and it relaxed the rules around federal law enforcement searching people’s homes.
Aymann Ismail: A year after 9/11, this was like 2002, a whole squad of FBI showed up to our door in Newark, New Jersey, with guns drawn and flashlights in the middle of the night, at like 4 a.m. My mother was already awake because it was the dawn prayer time, and this is the time that Muslims pray before the sun comes up. And so they must know, this must be part of their handbook, where if someone’s an immigrant, they’re going to pretend like they’re on your side and they’re just going to ask for permission very politely, can we come inside? Because they know they don’t have a warrant. And so my mom saw the guns, she saw the flashlights, she saw the jackets with FBI written on them. And she was like, yeah, we have nothing to hide, come on in. And as soon as she said that, they rushed past her and they start tearing the place apart.
Did you ever find out why they were there?
I don’t know. They told my mom that they were looking for someone named Mohammed Mohammed, which is like the most common name in the world, so even to us it’s cartoonish, like does this person exist? Who knows. But no, obviously they’re not going to find someone like that, especially if they’re digging through children’s clothes and taking my toys and dumping the box and going through the kitchen drawers. They went through everything. And then when they were done, they left, and didn’t really say anything.
So, I’m a little kid. I’m 12 at this point. I’m waking up in the middle of the night and people are shuffling through my room with guns. What am I supposed to think? How am I supposed to feel? Like, you tell me.
Did anybody in your family try to insist on getting an explanation for why this happened, or even in years after try to figure it out or bring it up, just to talk about it?
No, I don’t think so. I mean, you’ve got to remember, this is one of many different kinds of experiences. It happened so regularly. And it also happened to people that we knew, where it just felt like it was par for the course and part of the American experience. And so we just wanted to move past it. I wanted to move past it. And at a certain point, I almost thought it was cool—years later, bringing it up to my friends and being like, “Oh, yeah, you know what? My family’s more badass. Look at what the cops did to us.” I know it sounds stupid and silly, but I’m a teen, I’m a little kid at that point, so I’m just being real.
I think the hardest part was knowing as a young kid that you can’t trust the cops for anything and that you never called the cops because, as Muslims, they’re going to assume that we’re perpetrators and we’re dangerous regardless of what’s true. So every time that I was in some kind of situation where I needed to call the cops, I never would. And I don’t know any other Muslims that would either at that time.
There’s a ton of documentation about how mosque leaders felt they had to change after 9/11, they had to do more outreach to the non-Muslim community around them. Did you see that at your family’s mosque?
Oh, my God, yeah. In a very physical way afterwards. The mosque that I went to, they would do interfaith programming. They would ask some of the students at the school to go to the synagogue or the local church, just to meet other students, to do photo-ops and do outreach and teach them about Islam and learn about Judaism and Christianity. And so they were very interested in proving to the rest of the society that we were just like them and just as willing to build bridges and to build a better society.
Just after 9/11, they had brought a huge box of little American flags to hand out to everybody. I think the mosque was aware that some people might be afraid to be the only ones not showing their patriotism or how it would look if we were the mosque that didn’t have a flag. I thought it was a self-defense thing.
What was the fear that would be articulated in the mosque?
The fear was we have to protect ourselves and specifically Muslim women who wore hijab, because they were disproportionately being harassed and being physically assaulted in the streets. … And it happened on the mosque property. There was one woman who was going into her car in the parking lot, and a gang of people basically crept up behind her and punched her in the back of the head and then ran off like cowards. We all knew people that had their cars smashed or people throwing stuff at us, and even the mosque itself several times had bomb threats phoned in.
How did it change the way you practice your faith?
I mean, that’s a big question, right? Especially since I don’t know what life is like as an American teen outside of 9/11. So I almost wonder how different it would be, too.
One of the things that I think is a consequence of 9/11 was that it gave every pundit and every politician license to talk about Islam and Muslims as this theoretical thing. They can talk about Islam without actually talking to Muslims. And it wasn’t until years later, so many years later, where people were finally bringing Muslims to talk on their programs about Islam. So for that whole period after 9/11, Pamela Geller and Ayaan Hirsi Ali and all of these anti-Muslim activists just had free rein to make their case, basically, that Islam and America are at war with each other and that if we accept Muslims as regular Americans we’re signing our death warrant.
And so now, as a Muslim, I can’t just respond to my faith ordinarily. I need to first respond to how people will respond to me as a Muslim, before I can even get to how do I feel about this one verse or that verse. And doubly so for Muslim women who wear hijab—they’re not just responding to their faith anymore when they’re wearing a headscarf. Now they’re also responding to the ways that people observe their practice and what people might assume about them because of what they’re wearing. It’s a lot of work to get to the baseline where you can start responding to something on a spiritual level, because of how politically charged everything you do as a Muslim is in this country.
You refer to pundits a lot, and not just in this conversation, in your work. And I rarely think about pundits. To me they’re very easy to ignore. And it’s occurring to me that that’s a privilege, because usually the pundits are not talking about me and they’re not talking about my community. So I get to ignore them. And you probably felt like you had to keep tabs on what they were saying about you.
I mean, how many people do you think watch Tucker Carlson Tonight?
I have no idea. Millions.
Yeah, over 4 million, every night. He has that many people watching, and he’s conditioning these people to feel a certain way about me and my mom and my kid and everybody that I know in my community. So that matters, and that means something, because on a regular basis I interact with the people who watch that show.
I was at the Jan. 6 Capitol riot. I was there as a journalist. And there was one family that were there—they were from Greece, actually. And I approached them because they were doing a Mediterranean dance that was familiar to me because my family’s from Egypt. It almost looks like a dabke. And so I was like, oh, what’s their deal? So I started a conversation with them, and they basically engaged me with my identity because of that. They asked me if I was Muslim. I said yeah. And the response I got was, “Well, something we don’t really understand—could you please explain this to us?” I said sure. They said, “Why were you celebrating after 9/11?” And I was like, “Hmm, where did you hear that?” And they’re like, “Well, it happened, like Trump talked about it and Tucker Carlson said that it was true and Sean Hannity had video.” And I was like, “Hmm, OK, I was in Jersey City during that time. My whole family had tears in their eyes because we thought our father had died. And I could tell you for a fact that nobody in our community were celebrating. In fact, many people from our community had family who were first responders, and we weren’t clapping. We were looking for places to donate blood. We weren’t cheering. We were too busy trying to see how we can help our community that was under attack.”
And this is just a side of the story that they’ve never even once considered because they’ve been conditioned to think of the Muslim community as this organism that is feeding off of their society. So it matters to me, because I need to know how to argue against those points that are being made on this show, because that’s part of my lived reality as an American Muslim.
In the years after 9/11, you went to high school and then college and you started a career in journalism, and in those years you also kind of had a rebellious phase. You write about being really interested in pop culture and a more secular life. I’m thinking of the photography you did earlier in your career—it has this kind of rogue feel to it. And I was just curious why you felt safe enough to rebel.
Going to a private school and then going to a public school, all of that really had an effect on me, obviously. I couldn’t just be a kid in your class. I needed to also be ready to argue the tenets of Islam, because so many people had crazy ideas of what they were. You had 11-, 12-year-olds being like, “Aymann, what is jihad? And why does your family want to kill my family?” Questions like that. And you sort of need to be ready to answer those things. It’s a lot of responsibility. So all of that responsibility at a certain point gets really, really, really heavy, and when I got to college and I was just surrounded by all these really interesting opportunities to do all these new things that I’ve never tried before, I just wanted to dump all that weight off my back and just dive into something new.
And not be the Muslim ambassador anymore?
Yeah, I was tired of it. I just couldn’t care less at that point about being your Muslim.
But when you broke the rules, as a photographer and a journalist, you were singled out for harsher scrutiny. There was one story that landed you in especially hot water.
I was a journalist working at this graffiti culture magazine called Animal New York. So I met this kid who climbs bridges and I was like, yo, let me just shadow you for a night, show me how to climb this bridge, I’ll go with you and we’ll take pictures and we’ll do an interview along the way. And so that was that. I climb down, published the pictures, wrote the story. …
But then months later, a bunch of detectives showed up to my apartment. I wasn’t there, but my roommate called me in a panic, being like, “Yo, Aymann, there’s like four detectives here, they want to ask you questions.” I’m like, OK, that’s weird, but my whole life experience told me that for Muslims, this is normal. … I call the number that the detective left, gave it to a lawyer, talked to a lawyer. A lawyer was like, “There’s no way around it. They’re mad. You’ve got to turn yourself in.” So I do. I turn myself in that same night.
But then they start asking me questions about what mosque I pray at, and if I know such and such person with a Muslim name, or am I involved in whatever organization. And I’m thinking to myself, OK, they’re just really interested in the Muslim part of this, whatever is going on. And trespassing is a misdemeanor. So even if they had caught me in the act, they would have written me a ticket and given me a summons. I would show up to the court date. In this case, they had slapped cuffs on me and they wanted to hold me overnight. And I was like, whatever, one night. Maybe it’s because I turned myself in at night? No. It ended up being a 36-hour ordeal where they had kept me in the tombs.
I’m kind of stunned that you—after so much reason to think that the government would fuck you up if they caught you doing something, anything, remotely wrong—I’m surprised you did it. I don’t understand that impulse. Do you understand that impulse?
Yeah, I mean, it’s a push and pull, and every day it’s different. And this happens to any Muslim, and they’ll tell you this too, that sometimes you forget that you are some sort of pariah to the community, because you don’t see yourself as a pariah. And Muslims, especially in the tristate, do so much charity work, they do so much good for the community. And when you talk to normal people who know us, they love us, and it’s not a big deal. So you sometimes forget that there are bad cops out there and bad judges and bad COs who want to abuse you because they might have their own personal beef or who knows what’s in their heart. I was so wrapped up into this photographer community where the people who knew me had no problem with me, so I could sometimes forget that I’m this dangerous person or I’m supposed to be. My dad, right after, he called me an idiot. He was like, how could you let them catch you? Like, why would you think for a second that this wasn’t going to happen to you? And I was like, you’re right. It was my fault in the sense where I forgot, I let my guard down. …
We are inflicted with this weight, where we have to carry this around now, this trauma. But at the same time, in order to survive and move past it, we have to just manage and make do, because we can’t just sit around and think about how life sucks for us as Muslims. We’re not going to get anywhere. We all handle it in our own ways. My parents are at this point—they’re still just good people, they’re just so grateful to be in America, they love it here, they love the lives that they’ve made here. They love the lives that their kids have made here. And I don’t know any Muslim parents that resent the government or anything like that. They’re all just happy to be here.
It’s kind of an immigrant family cliché at this point that a lot of times the parents who immigrate are really happy to be here, quite patriotic about their adopted country, and then it’s the first-generation American kids who view the U.S. through more skeptical eyes. It sounds like that’s true in your family, too.
I think the reason why is because their mission was to plant roots here and to grow a family here. And by that measure, they succeeded. No matter what anybody says about them on TV, that doesn’t change the fact that they have a family here. But for us, for me and my siblings and for people who were born here, that’s not our goal. We’re already here. So we’re thirsting for something more. We want acceptance. We want truth. We want people to see through the bullshit in another way. You know, we want to help people who hate us to learn who we are. So we’re doing this for y’all, you know what I mean? We know that we’re not terrorists.