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Ahmed Twaij The 9/11 attacks, 20 years on: An Arab doctor reflects on flying while Muslim

The events of Sept. 11 exacerbated the identity crisis I had been experiencing my whole life. I was caught between two worlds that were clashing.
Image: Illustration of Ahmed Twaij as a boy in London in 1998, and smoke billows from the wreckage of ground zero after the 9/11 terror attacks in New York.
For most, taking off shoes at security is not a major inconvenience. For me, the experience is far worse.Courtesy of Ahmed Tawij; Getty Images; NBC News

Sept. 11, 2001. A day that began like any other, but drastically altered the course of the world, my life and that of other Arabs everywhere. Twenty years on, and I still experience the consequences of the horrific events.

I can remember that afternoon in London better than I can remember what I did yesterday.

I can remember that afternoon in London better than I can remember what I did yesterday. I was on my way back from a high school soccer match. As my friend and I got into his mom’s car, the radio was bellowing. A moment of suspenseful silence passed before a timorous newscaster deafeningly announced, “There are reports of two planes crashing into the World Trade Center in New York.”

“Ha!” my friend, who is white, inappropriately smirked. I was shocked into silence, paralyzed by the sorrow of innocent lives lost and the inevitable consequences I’d face. Words like “Arab,” “Islam” and “terrorism” echoing across the news report made me worry about the indolent connection the public would draw. The radio suddenly sounded like it was on mute.

The events of 9/11 exacerbated the identity crisis I had been experiencing my whole life. My parents had fled Iraq in the early 1980s to escape a brutal dictatorship that provided no future for a young family. Born in England and growing up in a Muslim household, I struggled to find my place in society — being not British enough for the white kids in school, and not Arab enough for my parents.

Now, my life was caught between two worlds that were clashing. After hours glued to the television on 9/11, my father sat me down. Clearly worried, he explained that things would be different, that I would need to be more vigilant whenever I left the house. He was concerned that my siblings and I, being visibly Arab, would become targets as people sought revenge.

The necessity of his warning was soon borne out by my mother’s experience. My mom, who wears a headscarf, was left shivering one day after being spat on and berated by a bigot while grocery shopping. We’ve worried about her leaving home alone since.

And I’ve experienced harassment and scorn myself. On one occasion, while discussing global crises with leading academics at a “Health Through Peace” conference in London, I was verbally chastised by a stranger, who called me a “terrorist” accompanied by various expletives. Similarly, at the British Embassy in Baghdad, my mother’s birthplace, a private security officer (a white man recently arrived in Iraq) brazenly referred to me as the “Taliban.”

Another time, as I nervously made my way to my medical school exams in London, police officers decided to search my backpack. And even in remote Wagga Wagga, Australia, two officers approached me at a gas station and searched my car.

And “flying while Muslim” almost always involves being subject to indignities and racism. After the events of 9/11, airport security tightened worldwide. For most, taking off shoes at security is not a major inconvenience. For me, the experience is far worse.

The process begins before entering an airport. I have to arrive a couple of hours early, anticipating the additional security checks needed. While flying to the United States, I’m confronted by the dreaded four S’s at the bottom of the boarding pass at check-in — The letters indicating I have been chosen for “secondary security screening selection.” In other words, an interrogation will be required before flying and upon arrival to the United States, as well as various additional bag checks and swabbings.

On one occasion, upon landing at the Los Angeles airport after a flight on which I, by then a doctor, had treated a passenger who fell sick, I was confronted by two heavily armed Homeland Security employees and taken into a holding room. Although I knew my innocence, it was difficult not to feel fear as I sat alone while the officials towering over me asked personal questions, including the cellphone number and address of my aunt in Baghdad.

At home, I converse in Arabic with my parents, but in airports, I speak to them in English. I especially avoid one of the most oft-spoken Arabic phrases (even though President Joe Biden can say it at a presidential debate) — “inshallah,” meaning “God willing” — for fear prying ears will report me, as has happened to others. Riz Ahmed, an Oscar-nominated actor, spoke of his experience being patted down and searched before boarding only to find himself celebrated on the front cover of the in-flight magazine.

Recently, on a flight from Miami to Los Angeles, I wasn’t permitted to go through the security process alone. I was escorted by airport security, who shut down an entire security lane for me. I could feel other passengers’ eyes piercing me with daggers of embarrassment. I felt I was being treated like a criminal.

The same week, a white suicide bomber blew up his recreational vehicle in Nashville, Tennessee. With the rise of right-wing extremism, Homeland Security declared that white supremacists are behind most terror attacks in the U.S. Yet it continues to be Arabs who are profiled at airports and elsewhere. Seeing police on the street, I rarely feel “protected and served,” and instead worry what excuse will be used to stop me.

These incidents have forced me into a life of political awareness. I’m often asked why I’m passionate about social justice, and the honest reason is, it was never a choice. Within hours of the twin towers collapsing, then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld pushed to invade my parents’ birthplace. A war in which my relatives would suffer, while I felt powerless to do anything. President George W. Bush made it clear at the time: “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.” I was already being profiled as a threat, and to oppose America’s imperialist crusade would only further those misperceptions.

From understanding history and studying the civil rights movement, I came to realize that nobody grants justice or equality. I now feel it’s vital to stand up and speak out, especially when so many voices are conveniently unheard.

Reflecting on 9/11, we must consider how the world changed and the destruction that happened in the name of its victims. When remembering the 2,977 who died on U.S. soil, we must also remember the hundreds of thousands killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. It was not only the planes crashing into the twin towers that changed the world, but also America’s reaction.

I still remember my friend’s inappropriate response in the car on that fateful day. Being white, he didn’t face any consequences. Being Arab, I still do. Twenty years on, we should end this ethnic and religious profiling, and promote an inclusive society.