Aftershock and Awe

Two British Muslims discuss how their lives were affected - in unforeseen ways - by that fateful day in 2001.

LONDON - Usama Hasan, a devout Muslim of Pakistani origin , who grew up in Britain and was known to be active in radical circles, was at work in his Oxfordshire office on the day of the attacks on the World Trade Center.

muslims - AFP - September 9 2011

Hicham Yezza, an Algerian Muslim who came to England on a scholarship to study computing and management, was at home in Nottingham, getting ready to go to class.

Two Muslims - out of an estimated 2.8 million living in Britain, and an estimated 53 million spread around Europe - from different backgrounds, who had very different reactions toward 9/11. What they do have in common is that they both have been greatly affected by that fateful day as Muslims, each in ways they could never have predicted 10 years ago.

'Bin Laden's call'

"My first reaction was to celebrate," admits Hasan, a 39-year-old Cambridge University graduate and an astronomer by profession, who also served for over two decades as an imam at the Masjid al-Tawhid mosque in Leyton, preaching to crowds of thousands every Friday. "I had sympathy with the Jihadists, and was very anti-American and anti-Semitic ... and I thought, after all that support of Israel, after all [the Americans] had done in Lebanon and after they bombed Libya - this was coming [to them]. A lot of us celebrated. It was a strike against America."

Yezza, in turn, was appalled. "Like almost everyone else, I was shocked and outraged at the senseless loss of life," he remembers. "I watched the pictures with my housemates, who were all English, and there was not much to say or think. But, of course, very early, it was obvious that being a Muslim was going to get a lot harder."

He was right, he now realizes. "The attacks on the Twin Towers proved to be a pivotal moment," Yezza says. What were once "subtle signs of suspicion and unease" turned into what he describes as "full-blown Islamophobia." People changed seats on the bus when they saw him; taunted him on the street.

"It became acceptable to publicly express suspicion of Muslims and to make demands and accusations against the Muslim community, as if all Muslims were responsible for 9/11," he explains.

hasan - News Agencies - September 9 2011
News Agencies

But, whereas many of his Muslim friends felt they needed to adapt to the new climate by either underplaying any outward signs of their faith and keeping a low profile, or alternately, by re-engaging with their faith to be better able to defend and protect it - Yezza made a conscious choice to just go on living as normally as possible.

"My own attitude was to simply continue as always. I felt giving in to victimization would only make things worse," he says.

And so, life went on: Yezza, now 33, finished his master's, completed his Ph.D. in mechanical engineering, and by 2008 was working at Nottingham University as an IT technician, editing a political journal and becoming increasingly active in campus politics - when, one fine day in May, the after-effects of 9/11 caught up with him.

"I heard that security was in my office, so I went to campus to find out what happened, thinking I had been the victim of a burglary," he recounts. "Instead, I was taken into police custody."

Yezza was arrested under section No. 41 of the Terrorism Act - on suspicion of the "instigation, preparation and commission of acts of terrorism" - after a colleague who was using his computer discovered a document called the "Al-Qaida Training Manual" and alerted the authorities. The declassified open-source document had been sent to Yezza by a friend doing Ph.D. research on radical Islam, who had downloaded it from the website of the U.S. Justice Department.

Yezza was thrown in a cell, interrogated for hours on end and prohibited from calling his family. After his release without charge six days later, he was immediately rearrested on immigration charges, slapped with a deportation order to Algeria, and sentenced to nine months' imprisonment for "securing avoidance of enforcement action by deceptive means."

After a massive campaign on his behalf, both within the university and beyond, the expulsion order was postponed, and finally, two years later, canceled. No one ever apologized.

"It is not exactly that I am angry," he says today. "But there was a lot of disappointment. To see myself suspected of terrorism by people who should have known better, simply for my ethnic and religious background, was deeply dispiriting. If this is the sort of prejudice that one can find in universities, what hope do others have?"

yezza - Haaretz - September 9 2011
'I was furious'

During this same period, Usama Hasan - who might have seemed like a more likely candidate for an investigation - was having an altogether different experience.

"The U.S. invasion of Afghanistan made me very angry. It is a very special place for me on a spiritual level, as I had done my Islamic and military training there," he says, recounting how, years earlier, he had spent several months fighting with the Mujahedeen during the Soviet occupation of the country. "I was furious."

From his offices in Oxfordshire, Hasan could hear the British fighter jets taking off and landing at a nearby military base. He says he felt alienated, that he needed to get away, to do something. In 2003, he packed up.

"If I had been 10 years younger I would have listened to bin Laden's call and gone to fight the fight in Afghanistan," says Hasan, who at the time was 30 and had two children. "But as it was, I decided to go do some soul-searching back in Pakistan."

He took a job at a local university in Islamabad, spent time with his grandmother and uncles, studied Koran, made a new crowd of friends, among them several extremists, and thought about where he fit into the picture. Which is when something unexpected happened: "I realized in Pakistan how British I was. Socially, I could not really envision a life for myself there. And then there was all the corruption. You had to pay bribes to get anything done."

More significantly, he adds, "I started having second thoughts about all the rejoicing about killing people. I began to feel sorry, not only for the victims in Afghanistan, but for the 9/11 victims, too. I began to wonder if confrontation and violence were really the only options."

A year later, he returned to London with a more conciliatory agenda: "I saw too many people turning to terrorism, and too many British Muslims who had gone off to fight with the Taliban ending up in Guantanamo. I felt I could no longer give sermons condoning any of this. The community was looking for leadership and I knew I needed to position myself differently."

Since then, Hasan's alienation from his previous path has grown. Today he says his years as a student were "wasted" by his extremist involvement, and admits he is "embarrassed" by some of his earlier positions. He is active in various interfaith groups, a patron to charities working with Jewish and Christian communities in Britain, and a vocal voice of moderation in the press. "I knew we Muslims had to find a way to protect our religious way of life - but also to integrate at the same time," he says now.

But the story is not all rosy, for even as a certain part of the British establishment has embraced Hasan's newly moderate path, many of his previous colleagues and supporters have turned on him. Last month, after he preached that Islam and the theory of evolution are compatible, he became the object of a hate campaign: His family received death threats, he was asked to stop leading Friday prayers at the mosque and is fighting efforts to have him thrown out of the mosque altogether.

"No, it is not a simple path to navigate," he says. "Things are complicated."