For the twentieth anniversary of 9/11, we asked Zainab Zeb Khan to reflect on her role and work in the Muslim American community over the last two decades.
Khan is the founder, chair, and executive director of the Muslim American Leadership Alliance (MALA). Born in Chicago to immigrants from Pakistan and Afghanistan, she became a community activist after counseling survivors of domestic violence and organizing exhibitions for international female artists facing repression. She also has served as a United Nations Delegate on the Commission on the Status of Women since 2013.
Our interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. The views and opinions expressed are those of the author.
Where were you on 9/11/2001? What do you remember about that day?
I was a college student at Loyola University. At that time, I never even heard of Al Qaeda; what terrorism was; or who Islamists were. I grew up in a bubble. My father left Afghanistan in the late 1950s/early 60s and never looked back. He wanted us to have the life he never had.
Was that day a turning point for you in any way?
I would like to think that I am wiser now. I think about how much my Dad has suffered; how brave he was to stand up against ideologies that damage humanity; how forward thinking he was without a community to support him. My father was a proud American. When 9/11 occurred, he was devastated. He did everything in his capacity to speak out against hate and extremism.
I’m proud to carry on his legacy. I have a son now, and I named him after my beloved Dad. I’ll carry on what he started so that my son can have a future here in America where he is proud of his heritage, but even prouder to be an American.
“Muslim Americans were either categorized into a political or theological box.”
When did you found the Muslim American Leadership Alliance (MALA)? What was your motivation?
I founded MALA in 2015 with a group of young professionals and friends of Muslim heritage. We wanted to start a community organization committed to promoting individual freedom and diversity, and to celebrating Muslim American heritage. There were various organizations representing Muslim Americans when MALA was formed. Yet we sensed that more or less all of them had various shortcomings. A number of groups have alleged ties to questionable organizations overseas, which we do not believe is necessary for us. It’s actually harmful for Muslim Americans. We also felt that various groups were organized around individuals who were not necessarily representatives of their communities. The overwhelming proposition endorsed by these groups was one of grievance-a sense of a minority having been marginalized, even feared, by the majority of the society. Muslim Americans were either categorized into a political or theological box.
This is not the perspective we sensed as we interacted with our members on an individual basis. We felt that as a successful and engaged minority, American Muslims deserved an alternative.
How does your work address hatred and stereotypes?
We challenge stereotypes by focusing on the positive, not the negative. For every single story of stereotypes and discrimination, we come up with hundreds of stories of achievements. Attitudes about Muslims cannot be changed by projecting an image of a minority obsessed with being downtrodden and persecuted, but rather by one that can be proud of its contributions.
However, there is also hate within our community that needs to be addressed.
I strongly stand against BDS and anti-Zionist movements. To me, those are clear reflections of subliminal hate and discrimination. The cycle needs to stop.
It’s a shame that there are elected Muslim American officials who use antisemitic tropes and have a clear agenda against Israelis and Jews or even Muslims that want a new generation of peace.
I’m proud that MALA has partnered with Israeli, Jewish, Hindu, Baha’i, LGBTQ and Sikh organizations. That’s the true definition of pluralism and freedom of choice and creed — the cornerstones that define America.
MALA has collected more than 1,000 Muslim American oral histories over the last few years. How did that project start?
Our flagship partnership began with the National Library of Congress, where we have archived almost 850 stories of Muslim Americans to humanize their personal experiences.
What have the interviews revealed?
The level of diversity within the US Muslim population is tremendous. We have stories spanning from 5th generation Americans, orthodox, secular, converts and amplified voices from African American and LGBTQ communities. We have met a wonderful array of viewpoints, and an overwhelming sense of success and optimism. Muslim Americans are not a monolith. In fact, they are the most diverse demographic in our nation.
“America is the greatest country of opportunities and freedoms. I’d like to remind that to anyone who hasn’t traveled or lived elsewhere abroad. We should count our blessings. People fought for our freedoms we enjoy now- we must deeply respect this.”
You recently were personally targeted by hatred. What happened? How do you process this experience?
I’ve realized that hate doesn’t discriminate. Recently, I had my car vandalized and was called “you people” by previous neighbors. Hate is hate. Our education, socioeconomic status, or locations do not act as shields to protect any of us from toxic hate.
However, I reject the victimhood narrative. Many different ethno-religious minorities in the US, be it the Irish, the Italians, the Japanese, the Jews and other were met with everything from legal discrimination to open hostility and violence. I believe that all these groups ultimately earning acceptance means that America is, after all, accommodating to people with different cultures and backgrounds. If they managed to survive hardships and prosper, so can we.
What do you think about on this anniversary?
The events of September 11, 2001, led to a sense of collective guilt and responsibility, of people being blamed for actions of others. We reject the idea that anyone should be responsible for actions of another person. The Koran tells us no one will be responsible for sins of others (6:164).
I mourn not just the victims, but the unity of the nation after 9/11, for which such a heavy price was paid. We have seen a tremendous cultural shift during the years since 9/11, and not necessarily for the better. We have seen opportunists and charlatans destroying our hard won sense of unity in the face of adversity, to enrich themselves at the expense of the nation as a whole.
But regardless of what “we” may think on the anniversary of 9/11 – to different Islamist militant and terrorist groups, the 20th anniversary of 9/11 could not have been a happier moment. Twenty years later, the World Trade Center towers are no longer there, but the Taliban still are.
Afghanistan may be, sadly, a lost cause, but we cannot afford to let the unity of the nation be lost as well. We need to win the battle of ideas. Because a house divided against itself cannot stand.
What kind of future are you working towards for the next generation?
A future in which individuals are seen as individuals, not as members of collectives. As Dr. Martin Luther King said, people should be judged not based on the color of their skin, but on the content of their character. We would like to broaden that to include not just the color of their skin, but all prejudices based on ethnic or religious background.
America is the greatest country of opportunities and freedoms. I’d like to remind that to anyone who hasn’t traveled or lived elsewhere abroad. We should count our blessings. People fought for our freedoms we enjoy now- we must deeply respect this.
Today in History, a series from Exploring Hate, features articles about known — and less well-known — events from the past and their continued resonance today.
Zainab Zeb Khan is a member of the Exploring Hate advisory committee.