“I am a New York City firefighter, and I responded to 9/11,” says a man’s voice, calmly and quietly, before the video cuts back to his face as he looks straight into the camera and says, “And I am a Muslim.”
The sixty-second spot is part of a set of three public service announcements released on September 1 by the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the national Muslim civil liberties and advocacy group. Another spot highlights a range of faith leaders who share the overlapping and often identical values of different religions. A third PSA shares the story of another Sept. 11 first responder who is Muslim.
“The intention was to show that American Muslims were impacted by 9/11 like all Americans,” said Ibrahim Hooper, CAIR’s Communications Director. “We wanted to challenge the unfortunately rising levels of anti-Muslim sentiment in our society, particularly based on the whole manufactured controversy of the Islamic community center in New York.”
Hooper is referring, of course, to the vitriolic debate surrounding the proposed Park51 community center in New York City, the construction and location of which is being hotly argued around the country. The debate has ensnared the entire country in a screaming match; talk is not merely about a proposed community center that would also happen to offer a prayer space. The debate has devolved to arguments about whether or not Muslims are even full human beings and deserve the rights and freedoms that accompany such a status.
CAIR released the PSAs in New York and Florida markets and according to Hooper, the initial results show that more than 12 million people have seen them so far.
“We’ve had a tremendous response,” said Hooper. “Many people have told us this is the best thing they’ve seen in terms of portraying the Muslim American community in relation to the whole 9/11 situation.”
The video that has captured most people’s hearts is the first, featuring New York City firefighter Hisham Tawfiq as he remembers the scene at the World Trade Center on September 11. On YouTube, the PSA has more than 25,000 views.
“I had a very good friend of mine. His name was Shawn Powell. And he worked in my firehouse for a while,” Tawfiq says, tears sliding down his face as he looks straight into the camera. “When my friend came up to me and told me that Shawn Powell was on the list, I was like, ‘No, he’s not.’ And I took out my phone and I called him. That’s really when it hit me and I was like, ‘Okay, this is real.’”
It speaks to the power of misinformation and the current decibels of ear-splitting hysteria that this new public service announcement is singularly exceptional because of its quiet and direct tone. Tawfiq tells his story and challenges the conflation of Islam with terror. He represents a duality that’s often ignored in the popular discourse: there are Muslims in America who condemn terrorism. And there are Muslims in America who still grieve for loved ones lost on Sept. 11.
Hooper said CAIR doesn’t currently have plans for more videos, but they’ve taken note of the emotional reactions this series has elicited.