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Wednesday, August 31st, 2011

Teaching my Muslim Son about 9/11

Talking-about-9/11/ © elisabetta figus -

My eldest is fascinated by comparisons of the largest tsunamis or most populated cities in the world. One night at the dinner table, he asks, “Mama, what is the tallest building in New York City?”

I look at him and hesitate, “Well, umm, it used to be these two buildings called the Twin Towers…” I can see his eyes transfixed on me as he sees the caveat coming. “But it’s now the Empire State Building.” And now he’s stopped eating and has asked the inevitable, “What happened?” I stare at him for a good, long moment. How and what do I tell a five-year-old about September 11th?

I decide not to shy away from the moment. “Something terrible happened almost 10 years ago,” and I briefly, in about three sentences, tell him what happened. I leave out the part about the perpetrators of this crime. He prods on with a few more questions and then begins narrating his own made-up version of something that occurred in his imaginary country of Carolina (he has an imaginary country, off the coast of Madagascar no less). And I know this to be his way of understanding and assimilating what he learns about the world.

And then, I am immediately saddened for my son. How will I one day tell him that 9/11 was perpetrated by so-called Muslims, people belonging to his faith? How will I tell him that some segments of the larger society blame his religion for this tragedy? How will this innocent boy of mine take in the language, images, rhetoric and people of anti-Islamic sentiment? How will I assure and teach him that while there is much that is wrong with the world, there is a role for him to play to make it better?

While he has moved on to talking about other things, so many thoughts continue to cross my mind when I look at him. I think of the many struggles that lie ahead as he will have to carve out an identity that is, insha’Allah (God willing), strong in faith but not removed from a larger society that will be at odds with his values. I experienced the same challenge growing up in the U.S. as the first generation of immigrant parents from Bangladesh, but his upbringing will be different in so many ways. He’s growing up in a household where English is his primary language, but he is also exposed to Arabic and Bengali. He is blessed to be living near two sets of grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. This extended family includes members who are of Pakistani, African-American and European-American origin. His world is multicultural and multilingual; how could it be anything else? I know he doesn’t yet have a notion of being “different,” a refreshing lens for a child. I wonder how he will make sense of his dual-ethnic background, an upbringing that prioritizes Islam as the defining force in his life (God willing), and numerous cultural sways.

I catch myself. It will be a struggle, no doubt. There will be internal turmoil, outward changes and tears. And we will go through it together. His father and I will help him.

The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said, “Islam began as something strange, and it shall return to being something strange, so give glad tidings to the strangers.” I hope these words can be a comfort to my children as they form their identity in a complex world, and that they can feel comfortable to be who they are in their own unique way.

A version of this article first appeared at and was reprinted with permission.

© 2011 – 2013, Fariha Khan. All rights reserved.

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Fariha is mommy to three children (5 1/2, 3 1/2, and 1) and lives in Maryland. She loves the outdoors, reading and spending time with family and friends

Leave us a comment!

  1. CommentsCordelia Newlin de Rojas   |  Friday, 02 September 2011 at 7:13 am

    Fariha, this is a beautiful and moving piece. Thank you.

  2. CommentsJustine Ickes   |  Friday, 02 September 2011 at 9:14 am

    As mom to two Turkish-American boys, I have some of the some worries and questions, Fariha. Did you catch the Nickelodeon special, “”Nick News with Linda Ellerbee: What Happened? The Story of September 11, 2001″ last night? I tried but couldn’t find it on tv. Anyway, they partnered with American Psychological Association to create a discussion guide for parents, educators, and caregivers to address the events of 9/11 with kids. I haven’t had a chance yet to see how it addresses all the issues.

  3. CommentsMikki   |  Wednesday, 11 September 2013 at 2:30 pm

    Beautiful post. I have the same worries and concerns with my daughter.

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