I remember sitting in front of the TV, the family gathered as we often did to watch movies on Friday evenings. An assortment of aunts and uncles stopping by was not uncommon, but the somber mood belied the turn of the evening. As we sat in front of the TV, it became clear that something important was happening, though I did not fully understand what it was.
The smell of my moms rice and lentils wafted over to us as the talking heads on the news explained the operation going down: it was the first day of the invasion of Iraq by American forces.
The war was on TV, and though we had seen plenty of war-like shows or movies, this was entirely different–a night-vision camera rendering the shadows of buildings, streaks of bombs in green.
I was in the third grade, and could not understand at the time why they were going to war.
As a child, I was enthralled by fantasy novels and science fiction–Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Dragon Ball Z, anything that burst with expansiveness and a sense of adventure. I read a lot at that age - at home, at the library, after school.
That night, when CNN was broadcasting the bombing of Iraq live, as it was happening, I remember thinking it almost looked like a video game.
While we watched Operation Shock and Awe unfold on our TV, streaks of missiles followed by honking car horns and other miscellaneous sounds, I asked my mom what was happening. She said, “they are bombing the Muslims.”
I was deeply confused by this statement — we were Muslims right here and there was nothing happening near us. In retrospect, there was some level of connection she was expressing with the people of Iraq, that in the time since 9/11 we were all suspect.
When 9/11 happened, my mother was at the airport in Karachi, Pakistan ready to board a return flight home to California. Without explanation, flights to the United States were grounded and for days, there was so much uncertainty about what a return would look like for her.
Until that moment, I hadn’t thought about being Muslim, or South Asian, or the ways that it was different. Living in Southern California, we were surrounded by diverse communities–Black, Latino, Asian, White. In elementary school, we played handball and freeze tag together. There was little that differentiated us outside of regular schoolyard drama.
In the days after 9/11 and up to the mobilization of Shock and Awe, things had suddenly changed.
Almost overnight it felt like a gulf had opened up between Muslim students and our peers. I came to school the next day and people were suddenly asking — where is your family from? Are you Muslim? Do you know Osama bin Laden? Not all of it was rooted in malice–though some of it definitely was–but a sense of curiosity and confusion as well.
I couldn’t help but feel responsible for something that I had no way to even comprehend. I had never heard of Osama Bin Laden or Al-Qaeda before, but somehow I had to answer for these things.
In the days after 9/11, my father refused to let my sister and I play outside with our neighbors, to ride our scooters in our cul de sac. As the other children continued to enjoy the cool fall evenings, my sister and I basically felt like we were grounded. Now, I realize that our father was trying to keep us safe as he navigated the complexities of bringing my mother home.
At that time, the Muslim community in Corona, where I grew up, did not have a specific house of worship. The community was small and not particularly connected.
Instead of spreading isolation, these traumatic events built spaces like mosques and community centers and organizations which, to this day, are the bedrock of our community. They resulted in the establishment of a new mosque in Corona, the Islamic Center of Corona-Norco.
Through those years, our mosque was a refuge. Here, I didn’t have to answer for people and groups on the other side of the world. I was safe from the confusion and hostility that had crept into our schools and neighborhoods.
At the mosque, we learned about our histories — the creation of borders between Pakistan and India by the British, the experiences of South Asians during the Partition of India, about al-Nakba, ‘the catastrophe’ which led to the displacement of millions of Palestineans from their homelands. Our histories spanned races and nationalities, languages and cuisines.
Building these connections drew us closer together, and that solidarity held our feelings of powerlessness at bay, even as Islamophobia took over airwaves and dinner table conversations.
Suddenly everyone was an expert on Islam, from talking heads on TV to the people standing in line at the grocery store. To them, we were especially violent, misogynistic, and prone to terrorism.
But in our mosques and community centers, young people were drawing the connections between Islamophobia, racism, and colonialism. With the scent of Iftar lingering during late Ramadan nights, we talked about our communities’ responsibility to stand against injustice.
We began attending protests against the war in Iraq. We petitioned our schools for Muslim students to have time and space for Friday Jummah prayers. These were formative moments that brought me into a life of organizing.
As I sit today, reflecting on the legacies of the war in its aftermath, it is too easy to reflect on the fear and terror of that moment, but the real trajectory for my community is one of resistance and resilience.
My community taught me that moments of turmoil can be occasions to build strength. In these times, we can come together to learn from our histories, deepen our connections, and fight for one another. Together, we can build the resistance and resilience our communities need to shape the future.
Faraz Rizvi is the Policy and Campaigns Manager at APEN. In his free time, you can find him reading poetry, watching basketball, and listening to records.