Mansoor Shams served as a US Marine when the 9/11 attacks shook the world. In an exclusive interview with TRT World, he talks about his experiences of discrimination after the US declared war on terror.
Many people somehow may remember where they were, what they were doing, and how they felt when 19 Al Qaeda-affiliated terrorists crashed into the Twin Towers with their hijacked planes on September 11, 2001.
Like most Americans, the event remained deeply etched in Shams' memory. But in the following years, he had to pay a bigger price: his Muslim faith exposed him to discrimination and racism.
"Like most Americans, I was outraged. I was upset. America is my home. When your country gets attacked, it's painful. And I happened to be a Marine. I happened to be born in a country that has a border with Afghanistan," Shams said.
Born in Pakistan, Shams came to the US at the age of six. He grew up in Maryland and spent his teenage years espousing American patriotism. His attachment toward the idea of America led him to make a tough decision at the age of 18, one year before 9/11. He chose to serve as a US Marine.
He served for four years in the Marine Corps and obtained the rank of corporal.
After the attacks, Shams promptly decided to use the qualities that distinguish him as a Muslim Marine for the sake of his country.
"I decided to go to find my command to be helpful with my unique abilities of language, culture, religion and to let them use me as they see appropriate to help and bring the people who attacked our country to justice."
However, after 9/11, he began to realize that some Marines did not like his presence around them.
"I did face certain racial discrimination from some Marines who didn't see me fully as a Marine I guess. I've been called Taliban, terrorist, Usama bin Laden and so on. It was sometimes in a joking style but still, it was inappropriate and wrong."
"And then there were some changes considering body language and behaviour."
Shams was not alone in witnessing such anti-Muslim discrimination. According to an FBI report, anti-Muslim hate crime incidents rose from 28 to 481 in 2001 and the number did not decrease in the following years.
Shams does not remember facing hostility because of his faith before 9/11.
"My memories from my high school, middle school years and onwards don't have anything to do with hate for me because of my Muslim faith. I can't think of any real situation except for 9/11. I think that 9/11 was a big sort of drifting in a very different direction. Some people were othered. 9/11 has shifted the thinking of Americans in many respects."
Despite this drastic change in the post 9/11 era, according to Shams, there are many Americans who are welcoming towards Muslims and adds that anti-Muslim sentiment in the US should not be overhyped as the country is full of many well-meaning people, too. He believes poor education and understanding is the reason behind this bias and bigotry.
"I think it [has largely] to do with lack of information, education and lots of misinformation. 9 out of 10, we read history with an anti-Muslim sentiment. There are words like Muslim terrorist and radical Islam. Things reinforced in a very negative narrative regarding the Islamic faith. And the population of 3 hundred million people are largely uneducated. Their only understanding of Islam is those 19 hijackers."
He points out the prominent role of politicians, mainstream media and the entertainment industry that shape the mindset of the American public against Muslim perception.
"Politicians create terrorism sometimes by dropping bombs on countries. And they expect that there is never gonna be any retaliation. We create discrimination through media and Hollywood. Anytime you turn on a movie, you can probably see a bad guy that looks like me or some other diverse identity. When you keep watching these movies for decades on end, I guess some people start to believe the things that they see."
As the 20th anniversary of 9/11 approaches, the hashtag 'Never Forget' has popped up on social media, as usual, to keep its memory alive. It largely signifies commemorating victims, but it could also mean something entirely different for many Americans.
"For some people, that hashtag means never forget Muslims and never forget the people that look like me. So they reinforce this negative mindset. I would be curious to know what that never forget hashtag would mean to people. Because I'm telling for some people it means Muslims, not those victims who died during the 9/11 attacks," Shams said.
While this perception increases the anti-Muslim sentiments in the US, it also reveals the disparity that exists in the United States over Islam, according to Shams.
"There are 1.8 billion-plus Muslims in the world. If Islam was a terrorist religion then there would be a lot of bombs going on every day. Unfortunately, the so-called 19 Muslims hijacking the entire faith of 1.8 billion-plus people is completely unjust and wrong. If you look at mass shootings in America, they are conducted by young white males. This is a fact recorded by the FBI. But I don't look at every young white male as a terrorist or a mass shooter. I'm not sure exactly why the same level of compassion and understanding hasn't been given to someone who may look like me."
Then what should be done to eliminate these varying approaches that lead to such polarisation? According to Shams, the awareness is not going to spread instantly overnight. Yet, he is making great efforts to bridge the gap through his platform called MuslimMarine.com.
He delivers speeches, carries out projects like the 29/29 Ramadan Initiative, where he tried to bring non-Muslims and Muslims together for one-on-one dialogue throughout the fasting period in 2019.
"I do believe that dialogue and engagement are the keys," said Shams.
As a Veteran Muslim US Marine, he goes to many cities across America and engages in conversations with people about his faith, which is a mystery for many.
"It is not easy to do. I don't wish that on anyone. Why should someone have to go out there and hold a big poster that says 'hey this who I am. Accept me' It shouldn't be like that. But I do it with the intent of being out there amongst the people to engage and have a conversation with them. Because I think at the end of the day, that also is something that changes hearts and minds. I think over 60 per cent of America, they say they have never met a Muslim. And all you hear is constantly 9/11 that is linked with Muslims. Then your perspective is quite limited."
For Shams, unity requires sincerity and self-reflection. He refers to the US foreign policy by indicating that although America draws the impression of a beautiful country full of opportunities, this image does not coincide with its foreign policy that is conducted overseas.
"If your purpose of going to Afghanistan or another country was about unity, well you just failed big time. In fact, you created enemies. Now, as the US pulls out of Afghanistan, it has to think about what we have been doing and how are we gonna conduct ourselves moving forward? I mean if we have to apologize, then apologize. I think an apology can be very powerful," said Shams while discussing the US withdrawal policy and the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan.
"There are a lot of people that are overwhelmingly upset with the way that the US conducted its exit."
"The people that you wanted there to be removed are the same people you say ‘hey we're on the 20th anniversary of 9/11, here is a great present for you, welcome back."