In the 21 years since 9/11, a whole generation of Muslims has grown up under the dark cloud of the war on terror. At the time, I was growing up in a Muslim-majority country on the other side of the world, yet I felt the waves of the war of terror break through my identity as a Muslim youth.
My own behaviour changed over time as I unwittingly felt a larger burden of representation. It was as if the eyes of the entire non-Muslim world were on all Muslims, boring through our every move. What must it have been like at that time for Muslim youth growing up in North America? Jasmin Zine, professor at Wilfrid Laurier University (WLU), has helped me answer that question through her latest book, Under Siege Islamophobia and the 9/11 Generation.
She started the project about six years ago through a detailed study that involved extensive interviews with 130 youth, religious leaders, and youth workers across Canada.
In my interview with Zine, she explained that Islamophobia became institutionalized and far more normalized after 9/11. This drastically affected Muslim youth in particular ways.
“For example, we have Muslim youth associations on our campuses [who have] been approached by CSIS (Canadian Security Intelligence Service) and local counter-terrorism units, simply by virtue of the fact that they were Muslim organizations,” Zine said.
The everyday actions of the 9/11 generation of Muslim youth, as Zine calls them in the book, were intensely scrutinized. This surveillance was later internalized, she said. As a result, Muslim youth started self-monitoring and began taking a harder look at all events they organized. For instance, Zine said, Muslim youth in Canada began to be more careful about what they would pack if going across the border to the USA.
“I wanted to know how they were navigating that time in which their identity was transformed overnight from peaceful citizens to jihadists and terrorists,” she said, adding that was the narrative supported by politicians and security agencies of the time.
The book also examines different effects of Islamophobia and how it affects citizenship, belonging and identity. Zine said that some youth became more invested in their Muslim identities after 9/11. That was something I saw in my own behaviour—I became more invested in presenting Islam in a more positive light.
“And for others, because of the negative stereotypes, they became more estranged from their identities. They sometimes changed their names and avoided their Muslim identity altogether.” Zine found that Muslim youth reported feeling vilified because they bore the collective burden of guilt and responsibility for act carried out by a handful of people.
Muslim youth want to emphasize good conduct and behaviour, Zine said, because they realize their behaviour and actions aren’t just representative of them as individuals, but reflect negatively on the entire community. “What was very common was this idea of feeling the burden of representation and setting the record straight,” she said. “They would experience that in classrooms and workplaces.”
Zine said at that time, ideas about Muslims as radicals and jihadists began circulating in the public sphere, media, and popular culture. There were even references made in the polls in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 and the decades that followed. The book also looked at the phenomenon of radicalization and how it became a trope that youth had to deal with. Their actions, no matter how innocuous, were often considered to be extreme or motivated by extremist ideologies. That led to widespread and increased scrutiny by security organizations, leading to a fortification of the security state and draconian policies that targeted Muslims.
“They impacted those that visibly identify as Muslims, and of course the women that wear hijab are more visibly targeted,” Zine said, adding the book also looks at the roots of Islamophobia. “It’s all rooted in public policy, like Bill 21 in Quebec.” Further, Zine’s work looks at how Islamophobia shapes the way youth navigate the public and the decisions they make in life.
The book concludes with a look at various forms of resistance Muslim youth use to stand up to Islamophobic hate. “They’ve developed important strategies of resistance,” she said. “They have agency and they are using it to address political concerns and issues by creating their own knowledge and cultural production and content about who they are.”
Zine found that art came up as a prominent form of resistance. “I interviewed Muslim youth culture producers (film, spoken word, documentary), who are challenging the way their identities are scripted and create counter narratives and stories about their communities,” Zine said.
Zine said that while her study was a labour of emotion and love, the work was taxing. “It’s exhausting,” she admitted, but with a smile. “This is what we do as academics. It’s part of our job.”
The study was funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, a federal research funding agency that promotes and supports research and training in the humanities and social sciences.
“It took many years to do the field work,” Zine said. “It really is the largest study on Muslim youth, so it was important to me. I’m also a member of the Muslim community. As a stakeholder, as a parent, it was also personal to me.”
And that was another reason that prompted her to take on this project: her sons that grew up after 9/11. Zine’s older son, who was 13 at the time, was harassed because of his name. On the other hand, Her younger son, who was involved in acting, was repeatedly asked to read for stereotypical roles. He later went to WLU and was elected as the president of the Muslim association. He got a call from CSIS the very next day.
While she is the storyteller, she said the narrative belongs to the Muslim youth and she hopes she’s represented them truthfully.
“I hope the book does justice to the stories told to me,” Zine said, adding that she wants her work to “create more awareness about the different ways Islamophobia is manifested in Canada and how it is lived and experienced, in this case by this generation of Muslim youth.”
“I feel, in Canada, Islamophobia has reached deadly proportions with the attack in 2017 and last year,” Zine said, referring to the murder of the Afzal family in London, Ontario in 2021. “My book is timely in that it is able to take stock of the aftermath. I think it’s important to do that in Canada because it’s always seen as a multicultural utopia, but Islamophobia has deep roots here and it’s also not given as much attention.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misattributed the rise of Islamophobic rhetoric and policies to former prime minster Jean Chretien. The book does not reference him, but rather his successor Stephen Harper. We regret this error.