Chicago Tribune: Muslim teens grow up in shadow of terrorist attacks

Dina Abdalla tries to laugh when her friends poke fun, asking if she’s a terrorist plotting an attack on Waubonsie Valley High School in Aurora. She tries to have a sense of humor. At the same time, she doesn’t find it funny.

When asked about the real terrorists who attacked the United States on September 11, 2001, Abdalla responds without hesitation.

“I hate them,” she said. “They ruined so much. They destroyed the name of Muslims everywhere.”

A typical overbooked teenager, Abdalla, 15, spent the summer before her sophomore year juggling an internship, lacrosse training and Ramadan. Her fellow lacrosse players knew she was Muslim, so she was surprised to overhear a teammate one day equate Islam with terrorism.

Curious about the views her teammates held, she invited them to fill out anonymous surveys as part of her internship for the Council on American-Islamic Relations. Though some responses shed a positive light on Islam, the vitriol — much of it based on misconceptions — surprised her.

Abdalla hadn’t even made it through the first week of classes before an argument erupted about the Islamic community center proposed a few blocks from ground zero. Abdalla respected her classmate’s right to an opinion, but it was his tone of voice that burned.

“I was flabbergasted (by) the way he said it, as if it was the most disgusting thing ever,” said Abdalla. “It hurt.”

Abdalla barely remembers the catalyst for the contempt — the terrorist attacks carried out nine years ago by Muslim extremists led by Osama bin Laden. Abdalla was a first-grader at the time, and recalls what was most important to her that day: Her father came home early from work. She also remembers her mother wouldn’t leave the house.

In third grade, when it came time for her to be wished happy birthday over the school loudspeaker, the announcement included her middle name: Osama. By then, she understood why fellow students stared.

Growing up with those stares was part of what inspired her to seek her Council on American-Islamic Relations internship, serve as vice president of her school’s Muslim Student Association and pursue Model United Nations.

As many Muslim families this weekend carefully balance the solemn anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon and the celebration of Eid al-Fitr, the three-day festival that marks the end of Ramadan, they must do so in the shadow of verbal attacks on their faith.

Politicians and protesters have denounced the idea of an Islamic community center in Lower Manhattan. Earlier this summer, a group called Stop the Islamization of America placed ads on Chicago taxis implying that women who want to leave Islam faced violence from their families. The pastor of a Florida church has threatened to hold an event on Saturday to burn copies of the Quran, Islam’s holy book.

The rhetoric against Islam reflects what many Muslim teenagers say they have heard in the hallways, field houses, school buses and classrooms for the past nine years. Though many were too young to remember the attacks, they have faced bullying and blame.

Each slur leaves a scar. But thanks to the optimism of youth, the assaults also have inspired career goals, fueled their faith and put more typical adolescent pressures in perspective.

“I flaunt it proudly,” says Abdalla, an Egyptian-American who one day hopes to become a television anchor for the Fox News Network to repair the tarnished image of Islam.

Some teens have opted to attend Islamic schools where they don’t confront the same pressures they would in public education. Other youths have sought refuge in their schools’ Muslim student organizations.

Dana Jabri, 16, a senior at the Universal School, a Muslim school in Bridgeview, took the private-school route to avoid explaining herself every day.

“I felt like there was a little bit of pressure going on between … my Muslim life and my American life,” she said.

The safety of a parochial environment enabled her to see how she could combine patriotism with her faith to serve God and her country, Jabri said.

Without constantly explaining herself, she has been able to tune into herself and the woman she wants to become, she said. But Jabri still finds herself occasionally envying women who aren’t restricted by Muslim rules of modesty.

“Definitely there are those times I wish I was in her shoes,” she said. “Then again, you really go back to why you’re doing it. What’s the purpose. We know that we are wearing this scarf, this hijab as we call it, because it was also prescribed that we would be rewarded in the hereafter.”

Secure in her own religious tradition, she has stepped out to make interfaith connections, participate in model United Nations and pursue a path into politics, interning this summer with state Sen. Mattie Hunter, D-Chicago. She wants to study international law and Middle Eastern studies, with hopes of healing U.S. relations with her parents’ homeland of Syria.

Arsal Shareef, 17, a senior at Glenbard South High School and a cross-country star, jumps at every opportunity to explain himself and Islam. That’s why he and friends revived a defunct Muslim Student Association his sophomore year.

“I remember hearing the word ‘terrorist’ whenever we walked by,” said Shareef, who is of Pakistani descent. “I felt more satisfied when people asked me more questions about my religion or about myself. I felt like those people were trying to get to know me.”

More frustrating was not knowing as a child why strangers glared at his family in public, especially when his mother wore a headscarf. Like Abdalla, Shareef barely remembers the terrorist attacks in 2001.

“You grew up and you realized, ‘That’s why that person looked at me funny.’ It kind of made me feel better that I knew why those things happened,” he said.

“I told myself these people are confused,” Shareef said. “They don’t know what really happened. I had nothing to do with it. None of my friends had nothing to do with it. Not every Muslim had something to do with it. Whatever comments they made you just ignored it … went on with your life and enjoyed it as much as possible.”