September 11 attacks: How life for Muslims in Britain has changed in the 20 years since 9/11

Anjum Peerbacos

Anjum Peerbacos is a London-based teacher, writer and one-half of the Hijabi Half Hour podcast. She reflects on her experiences as a British Muslim in the 20 years since the September 11th attacks.

Twenty years ago today the world changed. The horrendous terrorist act where two planes were flown into the Twin Towers shocked the globe.

I remember watching it on television. As a young Muslim woman who chose to wear the hijab, I didn’t realise the impact this would have on my life at the time. I was in shock, like everyone else. Since that moment in history, I was made more aware of the differences between myself and others in the society that I live in, in London. Never before had these differences been made so apparent. I had always felt being born and raised in London, as a child of immigrant parents, that this was my home because I knew no other. However, after 9/11 that changed. I became a Muslim first and a British citizen second.

I remember the first time after 9/11 I was on the Tube in London and using a rucksack. I was stared at constantly; I also recall how incredibly silent the carriage was.

The War on Terror actually felt like a war on Muslims. As America and the UK went to war in Afghanistan, at home the UK went to war on Muslims; or at least that is how it often felt.

I stopped taking public transport for a long time, the animosity held by my fellow citizens towards me had become insurmountable. I remember a woman being pushed onto an oncoming train on the London underground, and I just did not want to take the risk for myself or my children.

The home, the only home I had ever known had suddenly turned its back on me. Years later and I’m still feeling the aftermath.

Smoke billows from the site of the World Trade Centers after they were hit by planes and collapsed. Credit: AP

I have been abused verbally, while sat stationary in traffic for no apparent reason other than being a visibly Muslim woman. I was terrified at the time. I was driving home from a day at work, sat in traffic when a van driver in the lane alongside me thought it would be acceptable to shout expletives at me while I was sat in my car alone. I was petrified. What did he think he was going to achieve? How did he want me to react? All I know is I felt very alone and scared.

Another time again in traffic, a woman leapt out of her car and came and started shouting expletives at me whilst simultaneously banging on the driver-side window of my car. This time unfortunately I was not alone. My two young children were in the car with me, as I was dropping them to school in the morning. I was absolutely shaken. I remember physically trembling and just holding back the tears, not knowing what to do while the children started crying. At the time I just did that very British thing of ‘keeping calm and carrying on’. However, years later as I reflect on that appalling incident, I recall that nobody did anything to support me at the time. There were other cars there, there were other people there, but nobody stopped their morning, nobody stopped their day to see if I was OK, if the children were OK or to say anything to that awful woman who was being so aggressive and abusive towards me and my young children. We had done nothing to warrant this behaviour. And again what was she hoping to achieve? What was going through her mind? Did she really hate us that much? Did I pose a threat to her as I did the school run?

People pay their respects at the Ground Zero memorial in New York. Credit: AP

Years later and even more recently I was called a "f****** terrorist", by a student at the school where I teach. The headteacher dealt with this incident in the best possible way and was incredibly sympathetic and supportive of me. The incident really upset me and her support at the time was really valued. The irony was that this student was not even alive during 9/11 yet the narrative he has absorbed has resulted in his impression of Muslims as "f****** terrorists". This alone speaks volumes about the way Muslims are and have been depicted in the media narrative and discourse.

One afternoon, whilst I was shopping for a card for a friend, I was called a "dog" in a supermarket. I was on my own. A woman thought that it would be appropriate and fitting to push past me in a supermarket aisle and call me a "dog". I was actually confused by this particular comment because I’m quite scared of dogs, and initially thought she was referring to a literal dog in the shop, and I couldn’t see any dogs around me. It was only when the realisation dawned, I couldn’t believe that this person was referring to me as one. My young daughter, has chosen to also wear a hijab. I actually did not want her to wear the hijab as I was worried about the abuse and hostility that she would receive. But she was resolute.

As Muslims we are treated differently, especially at airports, we are asked additional questions we are taken into separate rooms and questioned.

Sixty-seven Brits were killed in the 9/11 attacks. Credit: AP

My brother was recently detained overnight returning from a family holiday.

Our lives have changed beyond recognition since 9/11 and I don’t think people are aware of the far-reaching impact the aftermath of this terror attack has created. Most recently in these recollections I took my children to the British Museum just before we went into the first Covid lockdown to see the Troy exhibition, and here again we were targeted. My children and I were asked to join a different line unlike the other visitors; we were asked to empty our bags, unlike the other visitors; we were questioned about knives, scissors and other sharp implements; again unlike the other visitors. Unfortunately, I have come to expect this behaviour and this treatment, however my daughter has not. She was noticeably angry as an 11-year-old who had chosen to wear the hijab, and she could not reconcile my compliance in the situation against an apparent injustice and unfairness. How do I explain to her that this place we call home is also a place that will treat us like the enemy within?