This Saturday marks two decades since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, on the United States that left nearly 3,000 people dead in New York, Washington DC, and Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
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The events of 9/11 touched the lives of just about everyone in the US — but especially for American Muslims, from discrimination to extra surveillance.
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Twenty years ago, Khalid Latif was a sophomore at New York University. He's now the executive director and chaplain for the Islamic Center at NYU. He joined The World's host Marco Werman from New York City to discuss his experiences and the work he's done to bring communities together.
Marco Werman: Khalid Latif, you and other NYU students saw the second plane go into the tower. Where were you on Sept. 11, 2001? And what are your strongest memories from that day?
Khalid Latif: You know, I was actually on my way to a class that starts pretty early in the morning. As I walked into the building, a security guard came to the doorway saying, "We have to evacuate the building. A plane has flown into the World Trade Center." Moments before, I was cutting through Washington Square Park, which is at the center of NYU's campus, and it was pretty much empty. And now, I walked into a gathering of about 10 or 12,000 of my fellow NYU students, and we were all standing, looking downtown as the second plane flew into the towers. I returned back to my dorm and I overheard people who lived on the floor with me saying things to the effect of, "We should get all of the Muslims together and send them out of this country so that things like this don't happen."
So, people were saying that already on Sept. 11?
Yeah. We had media from all over the world that was engaging us, wanting to know, "What do Muslims think?" And we now became representative of all Muslims from all backgrounds around the world. And there were just a lot of precautions that we had to take as students at that time. We created a buddy system so that no one would have to walk around on their own who was a Muslim student.
As a Muslim American, though, as you said, you began feeling the blowback immediately and you've worked basically since that time building bridges between Muslim Americans and other groups. How did your experiences post-9/11 inspire that work?
You know, I've had a lot of different experiences attached to the tragedies of 9/11, I think, that made it very evident that even this construct of a Muslim American was something now that was coming to the surface that I think exists within this kind of good-bad-type framework, good Muslim, bad Muslim, moderate, extremist. There are very few people who are able to just call themselves American without a hyphen of some kind or a dash that prequalifies their American-ness. And now there became a deep dive into Muslims having to identify just how American they actually were. It became something that was evident, especially within immigrant Muslim communities. I've had many members of my community who are from all walks of life tell me that federal law enforcement visits them and their office, has come to their house, they don't know how to respond. Members of our community who dealt with their homes being raided and family members being tied up for really no reason given to them.
These are realities that have been visited upon you, Khalid. When you were just 24, you became the chaplain for the New York Police Department. I know you shared a lot of stories about being surveilled and profiled as a Muslim man, some of them painful, some kind of absurd. But you have a particular account of being profiled while in uniform. Can you tell us about that?
Yeah. So, on the ninth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, it was in 2010, as a chaplain for the police department and participating in the 9/11 memorial service, we would start out the day by having breakfast with family members who lost loved ones on that day. And we'd then take a bus down to the Ground Zero site. And I'm in my police uniform and inspector's uniform, but I still have a beard, I have my head covered. Three men approached me wearing suits saying that, "Secret Service has spotted you from the top of a building. They want us to check your credentials just in case." And I said, "Just in case what?" And they said, "We're sorry that we're doing this to you." And I said, "Then why are you doing it?" And you know, to understand what they're questioning in that moment is not just my physical presence at this location, but the entire validity of my emotion attached to this space, right? Where, I was a student at New York University on Sept. 11 in 2001. I did watch the second plane fly into the towers. I stood at funerals for people of my faith and other walks of life who died on that day. And in that moment, these men are questioning the validity of all of it.
When the feds pulled you aside, did you get any support from your fellow NYPD colleagues?
Well, who I got support from was a mother who had lost her son on Sept. 11. She intervened and said to these men that, "What you are doing right now is more dishonorable to the memory of our loved ones that we lost on that day than anything else. That here this young man is standing with us in our moment of need and you're making it seem as if he's doing something wrong just because he's Muslim." And as easily as they had taken the validation away, she brought it right back.
So, that was the ninth anniversary of 9/11 when you were a chaplain with the NYPD. The country then saw a rise in anti-Muslim, really, extremism before and during the Trump presidency. How would you characterize things today, generally, for Muslim American communities?
I think the Muslim community in the United States is a multifaceted community, and the direct engagement that we have with most forms of government tend to put us in a security box or an immigration box, and those boxes alone. I do think that they are still, on an individual level, realities that people face. I think there's definitely a lot more that can be done to ensure that civil rights, basic human rights, of Muslims in the United States are not things that get curtailed anymore. And not in a place for myself, personally, where I'm worried, for example, that anyone's going to take my 6-year-old son or my 8-year-old daughter away from me. But I walk out of my house with an understanding that, on any given day, someone might take me away from my family.
Khalid, what, for you, feels different about this 20th anniversary of 9/11, if anything?
You know, we're coming out of a pandemic, global realities that are geopolitical or things that the world is more aware of now because of social media. There's opportunity for us to see just how deeply connected and linked we are. And that interdependence is going to be a key factor in us being able to overcome any challenge. But it's going to take a lot of people being willing to just listen to the lived experiences of those who are different from them, and in a true pursuit of empathy. And I think there are more people who are getting to that place.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.