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Islamophobia Continues To Follow Him In The Years Since 9/11

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

As we continue to remember the events of September 11, we're going to hear from two people whose lives were changed by that day in profound ways. The first is Imam Khalid Latif. He was an undergraduate at New York University on 9/11. He and his classmates ran out of class in time to see the second plane fly into the World Trade Center. Almost immediately, he says, he could sense people treating him differently. A few days later, when he went home to New Jersey, his father tried to prepare him for what came next.

KHALID LATIF: My father, he said to me, you know, when you go back to school eventually, we would be more comfortable if you didn't cover your head anymore with the skullcap that I'd normally wear. We'd be more comfortable if no one could recognize that you were Muslim. To me, it was a little confusing. I'm only 18 years old. I'm trying to understand how to make sense of all of this. In retrospect, I think what was beginning to happen was the creation of now this idea of what it means to be a Muslim-American but in a very reactionary way as to we had to prove and validate our presence here.

Eventually, when I did come back to New York and school had reopened, classmates of mine that, you know, prior to, had long beards and were covering their heads as young men had now either trimmed or shaved off their beards completely. And women who wore headscarves, the hijab, some were now wearing hoodies, sweatshirts. Others had just removed all of it altogether. And here I was, just kind of blending in, and no one could tell whether I was Muslim or not.

MARTIN: I - forgive me. It's such a banal question. But how did that make you feel - I mean, on the one hand, to be told to take off a symbol of your faith, to remove it for your own protection? I mean, that must have felt, in a way, like being undressed.

LATIF: It felt terrible. It was the beginning of many things. Federal law enforcement started to blatantly show up to things that we were doing - as well as - not so subtly, in my opinion, but still under kind of a subtlety that they were seeking to employ.

MARTIN: What do you mean show up to things? Do you mind? Tell me what you mean. Like, would they show up and interview you at your dorm or something like that?

LATIF: In those days, immediately after, we started our Friday - we have a major prayer service in the week that's on Friday afternoons. It's called the jumah prayer. And when we came back to classes, there were federal law enforcement officers, FBI that showed up saying, we just want you to know that we're here. And there wasn't really too much conversation after that.

MARTIN: I think I remember that the then Homeland Security adviser - I think it was John Brennan - met at NYU, at the Islamic Center. And later at a public remarks, he mentioned that you'd written a letter to the Obama administration. And then - do I have this right, that it was, like, a week or two later, the FBI visited you?

LATIF: So we - in 2010, our Islamic Center at NYU hosted an event in conjunction with the White House Office of Public Engagement. John Brennan then gave public remarks. Within those remarks, he alluded to a letter that I had written to the president. And in response to it, he said that the president has read your letter. He considers you to be, you know, a model American citizen. And probably a week and a half later was the first time the FBI visited me in my house, and I said to them, you know, what is it that you really want for me? And they said, you're just too good to be true. Know that we're watching you. And I don't think they had a basis to anything, but fundamentally, the fact that I was Muslim and gaining recognition, the default assumption is that there's something that's a problem.

MARTIN: So before we let you go, this weekend, the country and parts of the world are acknowledging the 20th anniversary of the September 11 attacks. What are you going to be thinking about?

LATIF: You know, a lot of my thoughts right now are with different demographics of people throughout the world, whether that's the situation that we've left Afghanistan in, whether that's people dealing with ever-increasing rates of COVID, individuals facing potential evictions from homes. There's no shortage of opportunities that one could go out and be a source of hope for others at this time. And in the midst of a lot of the remembrances, I think - being as present as I possibly can to continue to share my story in the stories of others and to show solidarity with other people.

MARTIN: That was Imam Khalid Latif. He was an undergraduate at New York University during the 9/11 attacks. He's now the executive director of the Islamic Center at NYU. Imam, thank you so much for talking with us today, and thank you for your reflections.

LATIF: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.