This story is part of a Patch series examining the Muslim experience 10 years after the Sept. 11 attacks. Read other stories in the series .
Like most 9-year-olds, Aatifa Shareef didn’t really understand what was happening when terrorists attacked on Sept. 11, 2001.
But as the country reeled from the destruction of the World Trade Center, Shareef, then a fifth grader in Columbus, Ohio, began to experience treatment she had never encountered before.
“This one girl in my class … asked me, ‘Oh, is [Osama Bin Laden] your relative or something?’” said Shareef, who is of Indian descent. “I was so taken aback.”
Muslim at Northwestern
Shareef, 19, is now the co-president of the Muslim-cultural Students Association (McSA) at and is on track to graduate at the end of this school year, though it’s just her third. The psychology major is planning to take a year off before heading to graduate school.
Though Shareef describes the campus as tolerant, Northwestern is not without its lapses. Last year, the Secular Humanists for Inquiry and Free Thought (SHIFT) drew stick figures on the sidewalks around campus and labeled them with the Prophet Muhammad’s name.
Though Shareef said the figures were condemned by the school, McSA didn't take issue with SHIFTs freedom of speech. Instead, McSA organized a program to teach more about Muhammad and Islamic beliefs that consider the drawing of the prophet as idolatry.
“The point is to explain the life, and explain who the person is, who the prophet is,” she said, “and why drawing stick figures on the ground where people walk is disrespectful.”
The group, which Shareef says stays involved with campus life, held a barbecue last week on Lake Michigan behind Norris University Center on a chilly, overcast day. Many non-Muslim students, as well as some new freshman, came to talk with group members or hang out with friends.
Students don’t have to be Muslim to be in the McSA, since one of the group’s goals is awareness.
Shareef has had practice answering questions about her faith, which is useful now that people approach her to talk about McSA.
She explained that after 9/11 people began to wonder about Islam out of curiosity. Starting in seventh grade, Shareef was fielding questions about her hijab, the head-covering traditionally worn by Muslim women.
While she was happy to teach people about her religion, she was less thrilled with her post-9/11 treatment at airports.
“There’s no such thing as random screening,” Shareef said. “It’s not random.”
Even if she doesn't trigger the metal detector, Shareef says she typically undergoes extra security checks. Agents will pat down her head.
“As if I can hide something in here,” she said, gesturing to her hijab.
Now, Shareef says she's only surprised when doesn’t have a pat-down or get picked to go through a full-body scanner.
Junior journalism major Heba Hasan said that the looks people give eventually become expected.
“Every minority goes through that,” she said. “You just kind of take it in stride and represent yourself the best way because getting angry isn’t going to solve problems.”
Learning to deal
Back at the barbecue, a volleyball net got hammered into the ground with a softball bat, while a few others passed around a football parallel to a wavy lake. Others munched on chips and drank soda while talking to the new freshman.
Meanwhile, Shareef happily went from group to person to group, chatting.
“Over the years we’ve built a lot of connections and respect within the Northwestern community,” she said. “More than anything, we’ve gotten support.”