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Patriotic American, proud Muslim: After 9/11, terrorists put a bounty on my life

As seen from the New Jersey Turnpike near Kearny, N.J., smoke billows from the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York after airplanes crashed into both towers Tuesday, Sept.11, 2001. (AP Photo/Gene Boyars)

On September 11, 2001, I was a freshman in high school living in Lahore, Pakistan when 19 terrorists attacked my home country and took the lives of 2,978 of my fellow Americans. But in the days and years that followed, I discovered how much terrorists wanted me, a Muslim American, dead, too.

I watched the events unfold live sitting in my parents’ room, who had the only television with cable on it. The only cable news channel we had at the time was Fox News. Fox & Friends was on with Steve Doocy, Brian Kilmeade, and E.D. Hill. Lahore is nine hours ahead of New York, so everything happened right after school.

Doocy then notified the audience that a plane had flown into the World Trade Center. It honestly took me a second to realize he was talking about the Twin Towers in New York City. They were easily my favorite buildings in New York simply because of how intimidating they looked. Fox News then cut to a live feed of the north tower with black smoke billowing up.

After watching for a couple of minutes to try to comprehend what had just happened, I ran into the other room to tell my mother, Susan, that a plane had flown into the World Trade Center. She didn’t believe me.

She then joined me in front of the TV, and soon my three siblings followed. Everyone was shocked. We then saw only a minute or so after the second plane flying into the south tower. We knew right there and then that the U.S. was under attack.

Everything seemed like a blur after that. Hearing more reports of a plane flying into the Pentagon and then another crashing into Shanksville, PA, I thought to myself, “will this ever end?”

I couldn’t sleep well that night. The only two devastating terrorist attacks that happened during my lifetime that I remember were the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 and the U.S. Embassy bombings in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and Nairobi, Kenya. This was the first time that a terrorist attack felt real.

My aunt and uncle, who were expecting a child at the time, were both in the World Trade Center when the planes struck. Thankfully, they were in one of the smaller buildings and made it out of there safely.

Following the attacks, however, my family and I were in a precarious position. As details emerged that the terrorist group Al-Qaeda, situated in neighboring Afghanistan, were behind the attacks, tensions began to rise in the region.

My father, Fayyaz, is a well-known heart surgeon who brought us to Pakistan in 1995 with the intention of building two hospitals and bringing better health care solutions to his countrymen and women. Many of the people he operated on were so poor they could not afford a medical checkup, let alone bypass heart surgery. Still though, for all of my father’s good deeds, he couldn’t save my mother, my three siblings, and me from what was about to come.

Within 10 days after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Taliban had put a bounty on all American heads in Afghanistan and Pakistan. What was once a voluntary evacuation, soon became mandatory. It was time to go.

I found myself back in my hometown of West Hartford, Connecticut before October hit wondering what had happened over the last two weeks. It was a whirlwind that was difficult to process. My father had remained in Pakistan for another two years to wrap up his medical practice.

In my years living in Pakistan, I was very proud to be an American. It wasn’t until I learned recently from a friend of mine that my “patriotism” was one of the reasons I was bullied so much in middle school in Lahore. However, after 9/11, I never felt more proud to be an American, especially when I saw former President George W. Bush give his famous bullhorn speech at Ground Zero.

While September 11th changed millions of lives, for me, it was a turning point that helped me become more aware of the activities of our government. Even though my family and I watched the recovery efforts at Ground Zero every night, I also became attuned to how the Bush administration was responding through military force to invade Afghanistan, and then Iraq. Meanwhile, Congress had just passed the invasive Patriot Act, and it was signed into law.

Despite my views on how our government conducted themselves in the wake of such a tragedy and continue to, what continued to bother me was how the terrorists who killed so many people on that fateful day could possibly share the same faith as me. What would inspire them to do this? And why would they want to kill a Muslim like me?

16 years later, I’ve come to the conclusion that terrorists want me dead because being a Muslim AND an American are at odds with one another. How could an American in good conscience be a good Muslim? And how could a good Muslim be proudly American? In the eyes of terrorists, I am nothing but an apostate to Islam.

Oddly enough, it’s the type of mentality I see from a lot of critics of Islam as well as those who just hate Muslims. To them, being a Muslim and espousing western values are an oxymoron. There’s a lot of hysteria about Sharia Law supplanting the U.S. Constitution, and I understand the fears a lot of people have about an insurgency in this country from Muslim extremists.

September 11th is a constant reminder that you can be a proud American while being a Muslim and mourn the loss of the thousands of people who died that horrific day and every day that followed it. I am as proud as ever to be an American, and I am as proud as ever to be a Muslim.

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