Pre-Teen, Post-9/11: A Brief Reflection on Millennials, Muslims, and Mosque Alert

by Ethan Grant, Grant Writer at Silk Road Rising

Despite having worked at Silk Road Rising for over two years, it only recently struck me how incredible an opportunity this has been. I was born in Texas, raised in Indiana, and I identify as white, straight, male, and (begrudgingly) “millennial”—that ill-defined yet universally recognized strata of the young American populace. Silk Road Rising’s mission is devoted to the representation of Middle Eastern and Asian Americans, which, clearly, I am not. Whether you call it privilege or ignorance, a person in my position isn’t typically exposed to the narratives of the Silk Road. But thanks to my good fortune, mine has not been the typical experience, and so I find it worthwhile at this long-awaited premiere of Mosque Alert to reflect on my growth as a majority millennial through Silk Road Rising.

Both Silk Road Rising and Mosque Alert trace their defining moments back to the events of Tuesday, September 11, 2001; in many ways, so do millennials. We’re among the youngest to clearly recall the confused horrors of that morning. Walnut Elementary, c. 9:30 AM: having finished a rousing game of capture-the-flag in P.E., we were slowly trickling back into our 6th-grade classroom, believing the most stimulating part of the day to have already passed. But then, the news broadcasts, smoke columns, chaos, destruction, shell-shocked crowds and ill-at-ease teachers, eleven-year-old classmates whispering of wars to come. Even then, we knew that our world (though still imbued with its new-car smell) had taken an irreversible turn. Where had once been the joys of Beanie Babies, boy bands, the X-rated opacity of the Clinton scandal, and absurd Y2K concerns, there would now be a climate of al Qaeda, anthrax, beheadings, wars-on-terror, and everywhere a vague awareness of America’s latest post–Cold War enemy: Muslims.

Throughout these formative years, Muslims became a sort of background villain, as ubiquitous as the stormtroopers of Star Wars or the Monstars of Space Jam. The first boiling point I can recall came in August 2010 when protests broke out in Lower Manhattan over a newly  proposed Islamic community center a few blocks from Ground Zero. Right away, the protesters’ logic appeared asinine: (a) Extremists associated with a religion commit an atrocity; (b) nine years later, adherents of said religion wish to build a community center focused on religious coexistence in relative proximity to said atrocity; (c) said community center is dubbed a “victory mosque” for said adherents to honor said atrocity. Thus, constitutional rights must be revoked. Q.E.D.

Every generation believes itself somehow wiser, more open-minded and informed than its intolerant, atavistic ancestors. While I dislike this mindset, it indeed seemed that a generation gap was revealing itself. After all, few millennials were taking up arms against those perceived as Muslim, Arab, or in any way non-Hispanic Brown. And yet, while we weren’t offenders per se, we felt little urgency toward helping to dispel the gross generalizations at fault. Perhaps we fell back on the catch-all comfort of knowing that some minds will never change, that no matter how destructive and unshakeable their beliefs, death and time will erode them all away: a relatively lazy (and rather pessimistic) perspective, certainly—barely a notch above apathy.

And this is where I found myself: vaguely aware of injustice but oblivious to its impact on the ground. This would change, however. Flash forward three years, two jobs, and one undergraduate degree, and I was beginning work at Silk Road Rising in Chicago, a metropolis unlike anyplace I’d lived before. In both Chicago and Silk Road Rising I found true diversity—not diversity as cast through the soft-focus cheesecloth lens of a liberal arts education, but actual people whose stories differed from my own, who yet shared my hopes, my dreams, my ambitions. And through Mosque Alert I found the issues and struggles facing contemporary Muslim and Arab Americans (two groups consistently conflated and equally demonized) vividly expressed.

Inspired by the “Ground Zero Mosque” controversy, Mosque Alert imagines a proposed Islamic community center in suburban Naperville and the reactions it evokes in members of three local families (of Anglo, Syrian, and Egyptian backgrounds, respectively, and running the spectrum from devout imam to twenty-something slacker). In viewing the play over its many iterations, from video series to completed script, I’ve been exposed to all manner of insights surrounding issues of discrimination, religious pluralism, and representation. Mosque Alert offers a fly-on-the-wall perspective to conversations and debates within and between Arab and Muslim communities. If I had been aware of these perspectives before, I was so only obliquely. Living with Mosque Alert has galvanized me with the knowledge, vocabulary and empathy needed to become a better ally to my Arab and Muslim friends and neighbors.

While still resonant in the collective consciousness, the events of 9/11 have lost something of the initial fervor they’ve inspired since that tragic day. Already death and time have taken their toll, and new generations can barely recall the pre-9/11 world we lost. Nevertheless, tensions in this country have only worsened, and with ISIS committing atrocities on a daily basis, anti-Muslim hatred is at an all time high. Within all generations are those who stand on the right and wrong sides of history, but I believe millennials, as a whole, are the group best poised to tip the scale toward the side of justice. We will never forget 9/11, nor will we ignore the devastation that national hysteria and willful ignorance have wrought on our fellow human beings. I view it as a personal challenge to be a force for light and good in the dark times ahead. If Mosque Alert has taught me anything, it’s that no mind is impervious to change—and that friends and allies go a long way toward helping to build a more just America for us all.