What is the legacy of October 7 for today's young Muslims?

My public 'coming of age' happened in the shadow of 9/11 and the War on Terror. Now, I see a generation of young people having a similar cataclysmic reaction

For many young Muslims today, the war on Gaza is becoming a defining moment, just as 9/11 was for an earlier generation. Getty
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I remember the days immediately after the September 11 attacks. A group of Muslim women, we met in a coffee shop, to the backdrop of an eerily empty London. We wondered if we would be safe, but we also did not want to be cowed as Muslims by the threats in the air. In fact, we faced double threats: from the same people who perpetrated the attack, as well as those who now openly exhibited a menacing Islamophobia. That time is a collection of vignettes in my memory: my dad being jostled for being Muslim, a friend wearing a hijab having her nose broken while sitting on the train, Muslim friends and colleagues with “Muslim” names having their bank accounts frozen.

My public “coming of age” happened in the shadow of 9/11, as it did for a generation of Muslims. Before I felt more like a private individual minding my own business and getting on with living my life. Then, the post 9/11 world co-opted my whole identity. The choice was to disengage from everything I was and hide, or to step up and own my “Muslimness”, and challenge the horrible prejudice, discriminations and restrictions that loomed around us all.

In fact, my whole identity and activist work was shaped by the spotlight on Muslims at that time and the public discourse about Muslims. The declared War on Terror often felt like a euphemism for war on Muslims. Actual war ensued, with hundreds of thousands of deaths, including occupation and atrocities. I learnt a lot going through that phase about engagement with society, with business, culture, narratives, stereotypes, politics and the building of a global Muslim ummah through emergent internet technologies. I even wrote a book and coined an industry-defining phrase – Generation M: Young Muslims Changing the World – about those who were bringing faith and modernity together, proud of being Muslim and embracing new tech and societal changes.

Skip forward a generation, 22 years, to October 2023 and there feels like an echo. I see a generation of young people having a similar cataclysmic reaction to the events and public mood are unfolding after October 7. For these young people – not even born in 2001, or too young to remember it – the events of 9/11 and its aftermath for Muslims domestically and globally are not well known, or perhaps even something to read about in past history, something potentially irrelevant to them.

But what now I see are many similarities of the “wake up”: the anger, the protests, the scales falling from the eyes, the disappointment and the mobilisation. But the world is different, and I also see those differences playing out. After 9/11, as a generation of young Muslims reinterpreting the world, we were forced into a narrative against our will of “clash of civilisations”. Whereas now there are terms and intellectual frameworks to help us contextualise it more – post-colonialism, discussions of racism, imperialism as well as alignment of different justice-seeking groups. For younger people today, having their own framework brings power rather than forcing them onto the back foot.

I see many similarities of the 'wake up': the anger, the protests, the scales falling from the eyes, the disappointment and the mobilisation

The media and public discourse also ran differently before. After 9/11 there was control of the mainstream narrative by a small number of media and political gatekeepers, which is why so many of us, including me, started speaking up. Whereas now that flow of information and conversation is to a great extent in the hands of social media and “ordinary” people or experts. But in a further twist, the network distribution of conversation and influence has also allowed misinformation, disinformation and fake news to be woven copiously into those conversations.

Perhaps the biggest change is a coalition of young people extending beyond just Muslims. As Generation M Muslims emerged, my prediction was always an extension into the language and actions of “universal values”, and we have seen exactly that happen in this new generational reaction to October 7. It has embraced Gen Z, young Muslims and beyond, coalescing around these shared markers of equality, injustice and new forms of colonialism which have reinvented themselves from old forms. After September 11, these identities were forged in the newly emerging internet space. In today’s context, that is happening on social media.

Now, consumer power is being wielded for boycotts, as ordinary people feel governments are not doing enough and they should take things into their own hands. But more than that – individuals working collectively are achieving systemic change. And again, it’s not just Muslims. This new wave is engaging in this behaviour on universal values that don’t necessarily use Muslim language, but in a broader vocabulary of humanity.

However, as they say, plus ca change. And what is most depressing is how Islamophobic tropes about Muslims are emerging with their chest filled up once again now, just as they took hold after 9/11.

But what seems the most potent echo are the feelings that things have forever changed, that after the pivotal event and its immediate aftermath, the new perspectives are now the “new normal” with no return to how things ever were.

Published: April 19, 2024, 7:00 AM