By Jisha Joseph
Nineteen years after the most devastating terrorist attack in American history, a US Marine Veteran is opening up about how the events of 9/11 have impacted his life as a Muslim in the country. Mansoor T Shams — who served four years in the US Marine Corps where he attained the rank of corporal and received several honors — recently shared his experience in an eye-opening op-ed for CNN. "Like many of us, I vividly remember where I was and what I was doing on 9/11. Nearly one year earlier, I had made one of the toughest decisions any young 18-year-old American could ever make -- I raised my hand to 'support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies foreign and domestic' and became part of America's finest. I became a United States Marine," he began.
Shams recounted how he — like his fellow Marines — felt horrified, confused, and frustrated as he watched footage of the hijacked aircrafts crashing into the Twin Towers. "As the days went on, we would come to find out the attacks originated from Afghanistan, which borders Pakistan, the country I was born in. It was heart wrenching, painful to say the least. Deep down I began wondering why did it have to be the people with whom I shared a heritage, and, worse, the same faith. Why not someone else? Why not some other group? Why did the terrorists have to be people who claimed to follow my beautiful Islam? In hindsight it probably wasn't the right sort of thinking," he mused.
The veteran, who is today a public speaker and the founder of MuslimMarine.org — a platform he uses "to counter hate, bigotry, and Islamophobia through education, conversation, and dialogue" — went on to reveal how he began to experience some level of discrimination in the Marine Corps following the attack. "I remember certain Marines giving me weird looks while some others, half-jokingly and openly, even called me things like Taliban, terrorist, and Osama bin Laden. In the beginning, I'd either try to ignore it or just laugh it off -- but as time went on, I could feel things starting to get to me. I made complaints to my leadership, but they did little to intervene. Sadly, sometimes they were part of the problem," he wrote.
"Adjusting to the Marine Corps way of life up until that point had been hard enough. Now, I was dealing with a new environment that was more intimidating. Months later, I was moved to a different unit on base and able to start over, earning a Marine of the Quarter award and later a meritorious promotion to Corporal," Shams continued. "To be absolutely clear, I'm not saying the Marine Corps is full of racists and bigots. I'm just saying, unfortunately, racism, and bigotry also exists within the armed forces," he clarified. Despite the discrimination he faced, Shams revealed that he was determined to fulfill the oath he had taken as a US Marine.
"I reached out to my leadership to make them aware of my unique background: my ability to speak the languages of Urdu, Punjabi, Hindi, my familiarity with cultures and traditions in that part of the world, and even my Muslim faith since Afghanistan is a Muslim majority country. In short, I was asking my leadership to use me in any way that could be helpful, even if that meant sending me into the heat of battle. I was ready to die for my country. This was my mindset. This was the level of love and dedication I had for America. In many ways, what I was doing was Islam in action, because love and service to [the] country of residence is part of my Islamic faith as taught by the founder of Islam, Prophet Muhammad," he wrote.
Nearly two decades later, Shams notes that "if you aren't tanned skinned, don't don a black beard like I do or wear a hijab as many of my sisters in the Muslim community do, you likely won't understand the Muslim experience." He explained how using 9/11 to justify the constant villainizing of the Muslim faith has resulted in some Muslims feeling "as if we aren't even allowed to grieve or honor those innocent lives lost." Shams referred to the backlash against Democratic Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar last year when she spoke out about the rampant Islamophobia in the country.
"For far too long (almost two decades now), Muslims have had to bear dreadful discrimination, persecution, hate, and bigotry because of the actions of 19 terrorists who claimed the peaceful religion of Islam. So yes, "some people did something" and it's unfair to associate all Muslims with the atrocity," Shams wrote. "I'm asking my fellow Americans who may still hold some sort of anti-Muslim discrimination in their hearts because of 9/11 to take a moment to think and to understand that Muslims were also among the victims of the attack. Muslims have served and died for this nation since the days of George Washington."
"In fact, there has never been an America without Muslims. So as you commemorate 9/11 this year, let's honor those innocent lives lost, together, hand in hand, in solidarity as Americans. But whatever you do, please don't bring our Muslim faith into it," he continued. "Because if you do, you are not only disrespecting my honorable service to this nation but every Muslim American living or dead who has given their all (whether in uniform or without) to this America. I'm not asking for a special favor. All I'm asking is see us Muslims as humans, as your fellow Americans without prejudice. That's all."/ newsbreak