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The Big Question: Photojournalist Robert Azzi Reflects On 9/11

Peter Biello
"When we see our country stepping away from its values, when we see it pursuing special interests, it's our obligation to speak out," Azzi told NHPR.

For our new project, The Big Question, we asked you to reflect on the 20th anniversary of 9/11. And so many of you got in touch with us.

We heard many distinct memories of the moment you found out. Most of you had to change your plans completely that day. And some of you turned to your faith.

I remember getting up. I remember it was an absolutely gorgeous day. I had the TV on in the background and there was smoke and fire and horror. And I thought that the TV station actually changed to some type of movie.
-Listener Deb from Weare

The Big Question team also talked with Robert Azzi, a photojournalist, columnist and public speaker, about what he remembered that day and what's happened since.

He's been outspoken about his experience as a Muslim and Islamophobia in the United States, which became rampant in the wake of 9/11.


Peter Biello: I want to start by asking you our big question this month, which is where were you on 9/11? And how did it change your perspective?

Robert Azzi: I was at Logan Airport picking up a student from Palestine who was coming to start school at Phillips Exeter. And we left Logan around eight o'clock. And because we hadn't seen each other for a while, we never turned on the car radio. And he was describing flying from Amman to Newark and then Newark to Boston. And in that flight, he described how the pilot had banked the aircraft so the people in the plane could see the World Trade Center with the early morning light on it. And it wasn't until we got to Exeter and I was helping him move the stuff into the dorm that we realized what had happened. And it wasn't until I left him rather hurriedly and went home where my daughter was, that I witnessed the towers fall.

And within three days as the school was doing an interfaith service and there were students, reciting the prayers in different religions. As the Muslim students are reciting a prayer from the Quran, there was a young woman who spoke, sort of sotto voce, from the audience. "First, they blow up our buildings and now we have to listen to them pray." And that was sort of the marker for what was to come.

You know, it's sort of this tension. But in some ways, I also thank 9/11 for making me recognize that I wasn't white. I had always passed as white, but in fact, I'm an Arab, I'm a Semite. I'm not part of the sort of privileged identification of this country. And I realized on 9/11, and shortly after that, I had a choice to stand either with the people who were being oppressed and the ones who were being rounded up, even American citizens and not according to due process, or I could stand with the people that were oppressing them and rounding them up. And so my reading list changed. My demeanor changed, it was more, you know, I'm part of this group.

Peter Biello: Robert, what were the days and weeks immediately after 9/11, like for you?

Robert Azzi: Oh, they were horrible. I experienced people saying things and doing things and acting in ways that I never — even people whom I knew — sort of making outrageous kinds of comments about what Islam was, who Muslims were or how America should respond to this kind of attack.

And I sort of saw a country that I loved, and love still, acting in ways that were contrary to what I thought, not only were its interests but its principles and values.
-Robert Azzi

Peter Biello: And after the first days and weeks after 9/11 were behind you. What about those following years? How did life change for you in the years following 9/11?

Robert Azzi: I think it's been sort of an ugly 20 years. We've seen, I've called it sort of three stages of Islamophobia in this country since 9/11. The first was an Islamophobia of being attacked by someone we don't know, speaking a language we don't understand, presumably adhering to an ideology that's contrary to our so-called Judeo-Christian tradition. And as that quieted down, Barack Obama ran for office and they didn't know how to deal with a person of color running for office. So one of the things that they did was they made him into a foreign person, the other, a Muslim from Kenya, and that sort of drove Islamophobia up again. And then in 2016, again, we saw it, you know, Donald Trump targeting Muslims, making Muslim lists and saying, he's going to have a registry.

So it's been sort of this unrelenting litany of pressure, I guess. It's been this unrelenting pressure against Muslims in the country to sort of prove that they're more American than the Americans. And somehow we have to earn, we have to have gratitude for where we are.

Peter Biello: A lot of media organizations have been covering the 20th anniversary of the September 11th attacks. And I'm wondering if, when you hear any of that coverage and when you read any of it, you see that there is something missing. And if so, what is that missing thing?

Robert Azzi: Humility. A recognition that we never really recognized who had attacked us and for the reasons they attacked us.

And we fed into the narrative that the terrorists had of us, rather than going out to show the world that we're something other than what the terrorists said we were.
-Robert Azzi

A reporter for NBC, who I admire a lot, Richard Engle, you always see him on the front lines of every war zone. And yet there he was, right after the fall of Kabul saying, this is the collapse of Western civilization. The West has lost the battle basically to bring civilization to the world.

Well, the world never wanted Western civilization. The world had its own civilization and their civilization predated ours. You know, we failed because we had a bad plan and we didn't understand who the enemy was. And we had a real enemy and it was Al-Qaida, and we never understood it.

Peter Biello: Well, is there anything else that you think we should be considering or keeping in mind as, as we approach the 20th anniversary tomorrow,

I love this country more than any other country in the world, and that gives me the right to criticize it.
-Robert Azzi

Robert Azzi: We need to remember that we're really a great country, and there's a lot here to love. And one of the things to love is the aspirational nature of this country. So, I like to sort of fall back on James Baldwin.

When we see our country stepping away from its values, when we see it pursuing special interests, it's our obligation to speak out because we have a path, however challenged, we have a path before us that's been laid out by, by our Constitution, by our Declaration of Independence, we know what we're supposed to be, and we need, and we need to pursue this. And the more we love it, the more we need to pursue it.

Robert Azzi is hosting an event with the Nashua Public Library on September 11, called Ask a Muslim Anything, one of several such events he's held across New Hampshire and Massachusetts. Find out more here.

Music credit: Taoudella

We want you to participate in the next edition of The Big Question! Follow the series here and we'll share the next question soon.

Julia Furukawa is the host of All Things Considered at NHPR. She joined the NHPR team in 2021 as a fellow producing ATC after working as a reporter and editor for The Paris News in Texas and a freelancer for KNKX Public Radio in Seattle.
Peter Biello is the host of All Things Considered and Writers on a New England Stage at New Hampshire Public Radio. He has served as a producer/announcer/host of Weekend Edition Saturday at Vermont Public Radio and as a reporter/host of Morning Edition at WHQR in Wilmington, North Carolina.

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