“Bin Laden’s girlfriend!”
The words came rocketing out of his mouth, each one purposefully sewn with the other, each one a stick of the pen-knife in my childish ego.
At first, I didn’t understand what he was trying to say. Try telling any ten year old Muslim girl that her boyfriend is a middle-aged, Saudi-Arabian man who looks a bit like her mosque teacher, and just so happens to be a mass murderer. It’s the last thing on earth she would want to hear, least of all from the mouth of the popular kid who dribbled footballs like David Beckham.
A swell of anger came surging up from the pit of my stomach. I stood there, shaking with rage, and I reached for the only thing that I knew otherised him.
“Well you’re… black!”
With a dramatic turn of my heels, I ran off before he could reply.
Up until September 11th, my Muslim identity was completely invisible. The only time I felt obviously brown was when instead of taking quintessentially British fish and chips for World Food Day, my mum would send me to school with freshly fried pakoras instead to the delight of my teachers.
But that day the super-power of invisibility I had wielded for so long vanished much like Bin Laden did.
As a naive ten year old, I couldn’t fully understand the repercussions of 9/11. But I knew the hijab I wrapped around my head “Mother Theresa-style” as my brothers liked to tease, had something to do with being called Bin Laden’s girlfriend.
As the stone-hewn eyes of Bin Laden peered out from the world’s television screens, a global audience stared back at a man who had overnight become the most reviled human being on earth since Adolf Hitler. It’s no surprise his face would be used as a template to screen other potential terrorists skulking in the shadows with their beards, their turbans, and their melanin-rich skin.
After 9/11, Osama Bin Laden and the Muslim community at large were no longer made up of individuals. Every Muslim was Bin Laden, and Bin Laden was every Muslim. It’s the kind of Kafkan metamorphosis made of the stuff of nightmares. Even the hijab of an unsuspecting ten year old obsessed with Pokèmon became a barometer of extremism, tying a young Muslim girl from London to a man who orchestrated the deaths of 2,996 people.
The end of the school day arrived, and kid Beckham’s mother had inevitably approached my mother to ask why I had called her son black. As the details unraveled, our mothers, both exceptionally sensible given the sensitivity of the situation, made us apologise to one another, and we both went on our way; a very amicable resolution if you know anything about how messy playground politics can get.
We didn’t know it then, but 9/11 marked a coming of age for many young British Muslims like myself. Life became less about obsessing over Aragorn or Final Fantasy, and more a defensive one where you would have to justify the theological, social and political underpinnings of your hijab, your faith, your very existence.
Not only do we straddle dual identities as British Muslims, Muslim Brits, whichever order you prefer. We straddle two time phases: pre 9/11 which we look back at almost nostalgically when Islamophobia hadn’t fully made its debut on the world stage, and a post 9/11 world in which we became perpetual defenders of Islam, whether we wanted to or not.
This was of course before ISIS materialised onto the global stage.
My younger sister’s generation, the millennial generation, are now living in a post-ISIS world. If this is our coming of age for young British Muslims, then we’ve got a lot to be worried about. Our youth should be worrying about acne, fleeting school crushes, or buying their next pair of Nike trainers. Instead, they’re having to think about Islamophobia, integration, extremism, Prevent and so on.
September 11th will always be a sombre day of reflection on the nightmarish events that unfurled that day fifteen years ago. The reverberations of 9/11 are still felt across the pond to this day.
But for me, as a British Muslim, it will always be a reminder of how Pandora’s box was opened for the Muslim community that day.
When the lid will be slammed shut to stem the Islamophobia that has been pouring out from it since, only time can tell.
“Bin Laden’s girlfriend!”