But his victims also include millions of American Muslims — or Americans suspected of being Muslims — for whom the al-Qaeda leader’s death means something different: the chance to finally reclaim our faith and our identity.
In the fall of 2001, shortly before the terrorist attacks, I left New York City to attend business school at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. As a 25-year-old Muslim man with a dark complexion, I fit the stereotypical terrorist profile perfectly — and after al-Qaeda struck, the world never let me forget it. On Sept. 12, my new roommate asked me what my religion was. He moved out the next day. A week later, a menacing mob of men chased me and two female Hindu classmates of mine for three city blocks, yelling that we were “Taliban.” And the week after that, my parked motorbike was smashed by a car that, according to a witness, drove over it again and again.
The harassment would soon get worse. At San Francisco International Airport in October 2001, a Northwest Airlines pilot refused to let me board his plane; according to Northwest’s gate agents, he thought my name sounded suspicious. Even after the police, airport security and the FBI verified that I posed no threat, the pilot still refused to let me on the plane, and Northwest Airlines added me to a no-fly list. From then on, every time I tried to fly, the FBI was contacted. My arrival at an airport triggered such an extensive security rigmarole that I didn’t fly for more than a year. I decided not to visit relatives in Bangladesh. I missed my parents’ 30th wedding anniversary. And I logged many, many miles on Amtrak and in my Subaru.
I could not understand this. I was born in the United States and had worked as an investment banker in the very buildings that were destroyed on 9/11 — the World Trade Center and the Deutsche Bank building next door. New York was full of my friends, family and co-workers. I am Muslim, but beyond that I have nothing in common with the psychopaths who flew planes into buildings.
So I did what any American would do when faced with injustice: I sued.
With the help of the American Civil Liberties Union and the D.C.-based law firm Relman, Dane & Colfax, I filed a claim against Northwest for violating my civil rights. The lawsuit lasted three years and was brought before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit — one step below the Supreme Court. The case was stymied when, in 2005, the Justice Department decided that my questions about watchlists ventured too close to sensitive security information and that no evidence supporting my complaint would be shared in court. Though in late 2002 my name was removed from the no-fly list and I could board planes again, I was denied a full hearing.