Do you know what happened on 9/11? Muslims who were coming of age ten years ago are well aware and have inevitably learned of the events of 9/11 and how to cope with the ramifications of that fateful day. Yet, the children who were barely infants in our tender arms on 9/11 have entered this world with no understanding of the historical context of 9/11.
My son was nine months old when the tragedy of September 11th unfolded and his views of terrorism and Muslims have been filled with naiveté. He did not know anything about 9/11 until he was 8 years old when I began explaining the significance of 9/11. The conversations over the years have evolved into helping him understand what terrorism is, why Muslims were involved and what Islam teaches. He does not hold the same anxiety and preoccupation with the events of 9/11 because he has not personally experienced or felt the social and political impact. Yet, as he gets older he will be exposed to more ideas through his school environment and will eventually witness racial and/or religious profiling and expressions of hate in the current social climate of the U.S.
Many non-Muslim children are able to understand the events of 9/11 as terrorism “by some bad people” who don’t look like them or share a belief system with them. However, for Muslim children the events of 9/11 are a little more perplexing because they were perpetuated by violent Muslims. This can cause confusion in Muslim children because the people who did something so horrible attribute themselves to the same religion. Terrorism in general is very difficult to understand in the first place, but terrorism perpetuated by Muslims is even more difficult to comprehend.
Sadly for many Muslim children, their first experience understanding 9/11 occurs at school on the playground, often when a classmate accuses them of being a terrorist. These children usually come home utterly confused with lots of questions. Therefore, Muslim parents must reduce their personal anxiety and begin to discuss the events of 9/11 before their children come home confused. Creating a safe and nurturing environment at home where difficult topics can be discussed is important for our children. Empowering children with knowledge will help them understand the difference between their religion and the acts of these terrorists.
1. Ask If (or where) they heard information about 9/11. Then you can follow their lead and continue the discussion based on what they know, what they heard, what they ask, and what you think they really are asking.
2. Listen more, speak less. Listen beyond their questions to understand how they are feeling about what they are learning. Acknowledge their thoughts, feelings and reactions and assure them that their questions and concerns are important to you.
3. Be brief. Children don’t want to hear a lecture. They just want a simplified version of the event and then they want to ask questions. Keep your language simple and only use concepts they can understand.
4. Cater information to the child’s age. It is not beneficial to expose young children to the scary events of 9/11 because it will shake their sense of safety and they could confuse their own fears with the facts. Most children after the age of seven can begin to understand the significance of 9/11 and parents can give them a general idea of what happened. Let children take the lead in how much information you share. Older children can handle more information than younger children, and parents should allow children to ask questions and not give them more information than they are asking.
You can begin with your 8 and 9 year old by saying something like: “Ten years ago something very sad happened in New York on September 11th. Some bad people took over planes and chose to crash them into buildings causing a lot of people to die. Everyone was shocked and scared when it happened. Today, we are safe and people work hard to protect us so that it will never happen again. It was such an unusual and sad event that happened, that people always remember it.”
For children 10 years old and older who may ask more “Why?” questions such as “Why did this happen? “Why did Muslims do this?” “Why do people hate Muslims?” You could respond with something like: “These people were angry with how the government was treating people in the Middle East so they chose to express their feelings in a very inappropriate way, by hurting and scaring people here. They are called terrorists because they tried to scare people so they can feel more powerful; kind of like a bully. The sad part is that these people said they were Muslims, but we know that Muslims should not hurt or scare other people, even if they are angry. They did something that is against what Allah teaches us and against the way we are supposed to solve problems. So, how do you think a Muslim is supposed to solve problems when they are frustrated? (let your child answer and help them with examples of proper behavior). The horrible way this small group of Muslims behaved was not what Allah teaches us. But the people who don’t know anything about Islam don’t realize that this is not what Muslims believe so because they are scared they sometimes say hateful things about all Muslims. Muslims want to live in peace and safety like everyone else and we have to be good to one another no matter what because we are all Allah’s creation.”
5. Reassure them they are safe. Children are egocentric by nature and will want to understand how the events relate to their lives and safety. Reassure them that they are safe and remind them that people like firefighters and police officers work hard to keep us safe. Encourage them also to pray to Allah to keep us all safe and healthy.
6. Turn off the T.V. Younger children should not be exposed to violent images and news stories on the T.V. because it can be scary and overwhelming for them and it is developmentally inappropriate. With older children, if you allow them to watch the news with you, be sure to discuss the images they see and allow them to ask questions. However, exposing our children, especially younger children, to excessive violence and disturbing images can be psychologically damaging for them because they have more difficulty processing the images they see and ultimately are not able to move on as quickly as adults.
7. Be prepared for several conversations. Children often ask the same questions over again. This is not because they are forgetful or because they are trying to frustrate you. This is the way younger children seek reassurance. As they process the information they learn from you and hear more information from their friends and classmates, they will develop new thoughts and questions that may cause insecurities about their identity or even general safety. Be open, so that your child can revisit the topic when they want to. Conversations don’t need to be serious “sit-down” moments. In fact, they are most effective when you allow them to flow naturally during everyday situations, whenever the child expresses curiosity. Having “the talk” (whatever the topic may be) with our children is not an effective way of addressing their curiosities or building an open and comfortable space for communication. Discussing difficult topics in general, such as terrorism, must become an ongoing process as your child gets older.
Discussing the events of 9/11 will help your children understand the world they live in and reconcile the bad actions of some with the teachings of Islam. They will also not feel apologetic or blameworthy because they understand the true teachings of their faith. Once a child is old enough to understand the concept, there is nothing gained by hiding the fact that there are some Muslims who make really bad choices. The events of 9/11 and acts of terrorism in general are difficult enough for most adults to comprehend and even more difficult for children. Parents must help their children make sense of terrorism by listening and responding to their children honestly and supporting their need for safety. Creating an open and honest environment to discuss difficult topics will help children develop a stronger bond with their parents and feel comfortable talking to them about anything. Remember that children will learn about the events of 9/11 one way or another, either through playground conversations or by trying to listen in on adult conversations. More often than not, information gained in these ways is inaccurate and not consistent with the understanding we want our children to get. As the wise saying of Jafar As-sadiq goes: “endeavor to converse with your children, in case others who transgress and disobey get to them before you.” In other words, speak to your children before someone else does. Parents must be proactive and supportive teachers to their children by sharing with them the world in which they live and by developing open communication about difficult topics like terrorism and world events.