Book Excerpt: How September 11 Led To the Awakening of a Muslim Boy in Aligarh

‘Why are all Muslims terrorists?’ a few Hindu classmates asked me after 9/11.

5 min read
Hindi Female

(Extracted with permission from 'City on Fire: A Boyhood in Aligarh' by journalist Zeyad Masroor Khan, published by HarperCollins. Paragraph breaks have been added for readers’ convenience).

The evening of 11 September 2001 was slow and sunny like most autumn evenings in Aligarh. I was studying while watching Cartoon Network (my parents didn’t interfere with how I studied).

The most precious instrument in our home, our landline phone, rang in the lobby at around 6.30 pm. Aamir Hasan, the only other boy in my class as interested in politics and world affairs as me, was on the other end.  

‘Turn on the news. Something big has happened!’ he said.  

‘What is it?’  

‘Two planes have crashed into the Twin Towers at the World Trade Centre one after the other.’ I had heard about those buildings – in a fourth standard General Knowledge exam, there had been a question about the world’s second-tallest building and at the height of 1,368 feet, the North Tower was the correct answer.  

‘Damn, was it an accident? Were the planes flying too low?’  

‘I heard that it might be a terrorist attack.’  


I knew what a ‘terrorist’ was, but I didn’t know they existed in the real world. They were nameless, bad people whose evil plans were regularly defeated by superheroes like Dhruva or Doga.  

The Imposed & Perceived Guilt

I turned on Aaj Tak, the new Hindi news channel everyone was watching.

My first reaction was shock and then sympathy for the families of the victims. But deep down, I felt the first stirring of a strange excitement.

It was like a Hollywood movie coming to life. Well, supervillains have arrived. Superheroes might arrive soon, I thought. But that didn’t happen. The news later revealed that two planes had been hijacked by terrorists and deliberately crashed into the buildings.

Everyone was now glued to the news channels. All the flights over American airspace were immediately grounded, and all tall skyscrapers were evacuated. 

As the details of the attack emerged, I began to respect these supervillains. Whoever they are, they’ve planned it well, I thought. All the kids I knew were also in awe. The loss of human life was an afterthought, somewhat like what would happen after violence in Upar Kot.

I was more interested in the details of how it had been carried out. If someone could do this in the US, the world’s most powerful and secure nation, anything could happen anywhere.

I had watched enough TV shows and movies to know America was the land of Arnold Schwarzenegger, the very zenith of wealth, scientific advancement and military prowess.

A land where the roads didn’t have potholes, there were no power cuts and no garbage was strewn in public spaces. Who had the audacity to carry out such an attack there?  

Of course, it was planned by the Israelis, that cunning, barbaric nation with a mad leader. ‘When Ariel Sharon dies, even maggots won’t eat his body for the sin of killing children,’ Badi Ammi had once told Papa during their regular morning discussions as he ate his staple breakfast of ghee–roti and green chilli chutney. Even though she was in her eighties, she was acutely aware of politics.  

A few days later, I found who the supervillains were. It was us, the Muslims.  

‘Muslims couldn’t have done this!’ we cried in shock.  

When Osama Bin Laden, a gaunt-looking Arab man with a long beard, the leader of Al-Qaeda, a terrorist organization not many had heard of before, was held responsible for the attacks, he became the most talked-about person in the world.


I Was Asked — 'Why Are All Muslims Terrorists?'

Editorials in The Hindu raised questions about how he went from being a ‘prime suspect’ to the ‘mastermind’ in no time. Letters to the editor talked about America as a state that initiated wars for their benefits. 

New York is thousands and thousands of kilometres away from Aligarh but 9/11 led me to wonder if I, a Muslim, was somehow responsible for all this death. Were Muslims a danger to others for the crime of existing?  

Every time I heard of a terror attack, I’d pray for the attackers to not be Muslim. If they weren’t, it was a great relief. If they were, it was a burden on my soul. Now it wasn’t just the people of Kanwari Ganj who hated us – the entire world had joined them.  

‘Why are all Muslims terrorists?’ a few Hindu classmates asked me after 9/11. And even though some Muslims agreed with this new labelling of their people, most were ashamed of it.  

Like insecure lovers trying to hold on to a failing relationship, my fellow Muslim classmates began to act extra patriotic so that the others would not be afraid of them. ‘Islam has always been a religion of peace,’ they’d tell everyone, but that didn’t help.

I, on the other hand, spent my days reading more deeply about international affairs and responding by talking of atrocities committed on Muslims in Afghanistan, Iraq and Palestine. But it didn’t cut any ice.

Muslim lives were, seemingly, not as important as American lives – sort of like the lives of young men of Upar Kot.  

The Sides We Choose in a Political Conflict

Along with terrorism, another word became a part of our lexicon – jihad. It was the subject of every TV debate and column. Hindu boys asked us when we were going for jihad.

Some Muslim boys, mostly those who had no idea what it meant, thought it was a cool thing to do. ‘Only the noblest and bravest have the courage to go for jihad,’ they’d say with pride.  

It’s interesting how people choose sides in a political conflict. Instead of going with a side that appeals to their morals, they were likely to go with the one that claimed to fight for them.

Herd mentality, which came into existence when humans began to form tribes, grew when they migrated in groups, and solidified when they began to farm, became the driving force again. In the old days, at least, people didn’t have much of a choice.

Modern life brought with it the burden of choosing our identity, a complex permutation of our upbringing, nation, ideology, gender, caste and religion.  

When George W Bush threatened the Taliban and demanded they hand over Bin Laden, most Muslims made fun of him. Compared to Laden who looked like a strong man in a beard, with dark intense eyes on a mission, Bush looked like a chimp in a suit.

When Bush threatened to attack Afghanistan, they said, ‘They’d never dare attack.’ And when they did, some Muslims said, ‘They can never win. Nobody has managed to conquer the rough Afghan terrain.’

When the Taliban began losing to the rebel Afghan alliance supported by America, they prophesied, ‘It won’t last.’  

On the day America attacked Afghanistan, a Hindu classmate celebrated like she had won a lottery. ‘It’s about time,’ she said, amid cheers from the others. I was disgusted. How could anyone support the beginning of a war? 

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