On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Amani Al-Khatahtbeh was sitting in her fourth-grade classroom in New Jersey, unaware that her life was about to change. The first indication of a problem was when she heard teachers running and crying in the hallway. Her own teacher decided not to tell the 9- and 10-year-olds what happened, instead waiting for their parents to deliver the news individually.
She spent the day in fear, not understanding what was happening, but knowing she and her fellow fourth-graders could not leave the building for recess as scheduled. When her mother, usually rushing from work to pick her daughter up, arrived right on time that day, it was obvious something was wrong, Al-Khatahtbeh recalled. In the weeks and years that followed, she often felt other students and teachers discriminated against her because of her Muslim faith.
“Those moments for me -- I was 9 years old -- they turned my life upside down,” Al-Khatahtbeh said. “Those were the most intense moments of my life because of the discrimination, the backlash that we received.”
Al-Khatahtbeh and other Muslims in New Jersey this week recounted their experiences after Sept. 11, 2001, as ones of loss and fear. Their memories stand in stark contrast to rhetoric Saturday from Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump, who said he saw “thousands and thousands” of Arab Americans in New Jersey “cheering as the World Trade Center came down” on 9/11.
There is no evidence that any Muslims in New Jersey cheered in support of the terrorist attacks, and police have debunked the idea, although it has persisted as an Internet rumor in the years since 2001. Instead, Muslims in New Jersey remembered losing friends, fearing for their community and learning to fight discrimination in the aftermath of the terrorist attack that changed the nation.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 23, 2015
Trump's remarks came after supporters of the Islamic State group killed and wounded hundreds of people in a series of coordinated attacks across Paris earlier this month, sparking national security fears and an anti-Muslim backlash across the U.S. While Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson agreed with Trump on Monday and said he also saw Muslims cheering on 9/11, other politicians have spoken out to condemn the theory.
“Trump is plain wrong, and he is shamefully politicizing an emotionally charged issue,” Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop, who is a Democrat, wrote Sunday on Facebook. “No one in Jersey City cheered on September 11th. We were actually among the first to provide responders to help in lower Manhattan. Trump needs to understand that Jersey City will not be part of his hate campaign, which is really the foundation for his candidacy.”
Either @realDonaldTrump has memory issues or willfully distorts the truth, either of which should be concerning for the Republican Party
— Steven Fulop (@StevenFulop) November 22, 2015
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who is also running for the Republican nomination for president, said he did not recall Muslims cheering on 9/11, and the fact-checking website PolitiFact rated Trump’s claim as “pants on fire.” Still, these kinds of comments from a prominent politician like Trump have some Muslims worried that others will follow suit.
“The fact that this can be perpetuated by someone who is in the running to be president, it’s scary,” said Al-Khatahtbeh, the founder of MuslimGirl.net, an online publication that aims to combat misconceptions about Islam. “The fact that he’s able to say what he does about Muslims and about Mexicans and other minorities is scary. He says these things not to criticism, but to applause.”
Other Muslims from New Jersey described the terror they felt on 9/11 after two planes flew into the twin towers in lower Manhattan. Abdul Mubarak-Rowe's first memory of the tragic day as a journalist at CNN during the attacks was a producer screaming, “Get the shot! Hold the shot steady,” along with a number of other exclamations. Mubarak-Rowe rushed into the room and saw footage of smoke billowing from the north tower of the World Trade Center.
“We had a terrace in the back that faced south, and we could look at the towers. We went back there and looked at the tower that was in flames, and then I saw the second plane hit the second tower,” Mubarak-Rowe recalled. “When I personally saw that second tower get hit, I knew it was no accident.”
Mubarak-Rowe, who is now the communications director for the New Jersey chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, an Islamic civil liberties and advocacy group, said that soon after the plane hijackings he spoke to his daughter and wife on the phone. Once he was certain they were safe, he and other prominent Muslims began reaching out to civic and political leaders on the day of the terrorist attacks. They knew they needed to be on the lookout for anti-Muslim sentiment, and Mubarak-Rowe said New Jersey leaders were eager to help.
Similar fears have surfaced since the Paris terror attacks, he said. “Muslims are very troubled. We have to worry about safety for our places of worship,” Mubarak-Rowe said. “We have been issuing warnings and guidelines for mosques in the area to increase security.”
In recent weeks, the FBI reported that the number of hate crimes in the U.S. decreased in 2014, while anti-Muslim crimes actually rose last year. Since the attacks in Paris, governors and lawmakers around the country have objected to taking in Syrian refugees, the majority of whom are Muslim. While Al-Khatahtbeh said she hasn’t yet noticed a direct rise in Islamophobia due to Trump’s comments, mosques in Texas, Florida and Ontario were threatened last week.
“It really makes way for a heightened environment for hate crimes,” Al-Khatahtbeh said. “For American Muslim women who wear headscarves, it makes it even harder for them to step out of the house because they’re easily identifiable. ... These comments don’t happen in a vacuum. They have real life-or-death consequences for American Muslims.”
The Muslim community in New Jersey has come together in recent days to condemn the Paris attacks and support each other, Mubarak-Rowe said. Muslims feel supported by their neighbors there, he noted.
“Muslims are very involved in the civic engagement of the cities we live in, so our non-Muslim neighbors know us. So we have not experienced the kind of backlash that other communities around the country have,” Mubarak-Rowe said. “Part of having neighbors is building relationships. That is a tenet of Islam to build relationships with people and to be kind to your neighbors. Whenever you build relationships, your concern is for neighbors and for the city where you live.”
Ahmed Shedeed, president and head of the school at the Islamic Center of Jersey City, said relationships are vital to the Muslim community’s position in New Jersey. While Muslim communities have grown in areas like New Jersey and Michigan, they still make up just 0.9 percent of the U.S. population, according to the Pew Research Center.
“When somebody is discriminating against one community, you are actually discriminating against everybody. When you hurt one community, you hurt everybody,” Shedeed said.
On the day of the Sept. 11 attacks, Shedeed said he saw the twin towers on TV, and then immediately ran to check on his school. “My family was scared to death, I was scared,” he said. “I was worried about the safety of the children.”
But while he worried about his community's safety in the immediate aftermath of the attacks, he now sees the Islamophobia the Muslim community is facing as an obstacle he hopes they will overcome. Shedeed likened the Muslim experience to the discrimination other minorities have seen throughout American history, emphasizing that groups such as Jewish and Irish immigrants survived discrimination.
“This is one reason I appreciate being here and being American -- everybody has come from somewhere,” Shedeed said. “Donald Trump assumes that the more he’s against Muslims he will gain supporters, but I think it’s the opposite. ... We need America to be America, not to be anywhere else.”