My personal jihad: Defending Islam after 9/11

September 10, 2011

Editor’s Note: Maham Khan was a freshman at William Rainey Harper College in Palatine on September 11, 2001. As president of the Muslim Student Association on campus, she became part of an integral movement to educate Harper students and faculty about Islam.  This year, to commemorate 9/11’s tenth anniversary, Harper College hosted a memorial program and invited back Maham Khan to speak about - and reflect on - the Muslim-American experience since.  Here are her remarks:


Good Afternoon, Asalamo –Walaikum: Peace be unto you.

When Harper asked me to speak a few months ago, my first thought was: do we really still need to talk about Islam on 9/11's anniversary? I thought, Americans get it; they know they can’t blame an entire religion for the actions of a few mad men. And yet, the answer to my question became clear when I chose a title for my speech. I had wanted to call it 10 Years and Counting: My Jihad against Ignorance. But this title was met with concern by a few involved parties. They felt it was “insensitive,” so they changed it.  I understood where they were coming from, but that's also when I realized we still have a lot to talk about – and a lot  to understand about Islam and about jihad.

Merriam-webster.com defines jihad:

1.  A holy war waged on behalf of Islam as a religious duty; also: a personal struggle in devotion to Islam especially involving spiritual discipline.  2.  A crusade for a principle or belief

Perhaps I should have used the word crusade instead.  Might have been less, well, insensitive.

But for the record, I wasn't trying to be insensitive or controversial - especially not today. I merely wanted to point out the full context of the word jihad. You see, for the last 10 years, I and millions of other Muslims have been fighting the actual jihad that Islam prescribes for the modern day we live in. It's the jihad of self-improvement through the actions I take to better my community.  It’s a jihad against misconceptions and hatred and injustice. It's jihad against the adulteration of my beautiful faith. Every time I stand up here to reiterate that Islam does not condone murder, destruction or suicide--I am a jihadist. And I'm fighting with my heart, words and actions standing before you today. Just like Merriam-Webster says, it is my religious duty as a Muslim to defend my faith.  And it’s my duty to defend it, most importantly, against the perpetrators who attacked my faith – indeed, every faith - and my country on 9/11/2001.

It’s a day none of us will ever forget.

Strangely, I remember almost everything leading up to the towers crashing. The day was absolutely beautiful, sunny with clear skies. I wore a red shirt and black pants. I had a bagel and cream cheese while driving because I was running late for my 9:20 public speaking class, right here at Harper. I ran up the stairs of Building L thinking of an excuse, because I knew my teacher would ask why I was late before marking me down a letter grade. But when I reached my classroom, everyone was crammed into the corner around the TV, fixated on the images we all wish we could forget.  Then the hallways filled with confusion and fear. Campus security officers worked their way through the hallways informing us that there was a bomb threat.  Then in an eerie, silent chaos we all rushed to go home to our families.

In the weeks following 9/11, once it became clear that the villains in this story had an identity defined solely by the same religion as mine, I knew my life was going to change-and not necessarily for the better.  I had a feeling that now people, including myself, would want to know everything about Islam. I was right.

My friends and I brought the Muslim Student Association on campus back to life (which had been in hibernation for some time). Every Thursday we held an hour-long meeting and open discussion.  Almost every week, dozens of non-Muslims showed up. They wanted to know what was the meaning of all this? What role did Islam play? 

As we clarified Islam’s stance, I realized how lucky we were to be in an environment that was conducive to learning and discussion.  My time at Harper College was truly enlightening because I learned a lot about the nature of people in the wake of tragedy. I saw the power of compassion and cooperation rise above the destruction that happened on 9/11.

Even so, the last decade has been filled with incidents of “Islamaphobia,” city-wide Quran burnings, and misleading debates over the so-called  Ground Zero Mosque. And when I hear and see these things, I think: they're winning. The bad guys are winning. Because this is exactly what they want to happen. They want Americans to be divided, fighting against each other and against their Muslim countrymen and women, so that they can undermine our ideals of freedom and equality for all.

I am also hurt and disappointed with the conditions of the world around us. It's disappointing that while Facebook and Twitter have reminded us that the world is really very small, a great disconnect between the East and the West still remains.  It hurts to see legally proven innocent Muslims—fathers and sons-come out of Guantanamo Bay after being tortured for years. And it hurts even more when people continue to die in the name of Islam or jihad.  Ten years after 9/11, it's safe to say it's not easy being Muslim anywhere in the world today.

But despite this I am optimistic about the future, because  I have so much faith in the American people. I love this country - because this country gives me the freedom to be who I am: a proud Muslim American. This country fights for my freedoms. This country is fighting a constant jihad to better the lives of its people.

Ten years from today, I hope and pray that on 9/11’s 20th anniversary, we will look back and be relieved, celebrating a world without fear of terror. We will look back and be proud of how far we have come—how truly united we stand. 

I believe that is the best way to honor all the lives that were lost on September 11th.

Thank you.

Maham Khan is a Production Assistant for WBEZ's Front and Center.