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How Post-9/11 Activism Changed A Muslim American Family

How Post-9/11 Activism Changed A Muslim American Family

A woman wearing a beige and light brown hijab and a beige tunic stands embracing and looking up at man who is bald and wears a dark blue sweater with green, red, and yellow stripes. His hand is on the woman's shoulder as he smiles at her.

Saira Sayeed and Shakeel Syed embrace in the front yard of their home.

(Samanta Helou Hernandez/LAist)

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The terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, brought a host of policy changes and everyday discrimination that targeted Muslim Americans, and anyone perceived as Muslim.

In the decades that followed, Shakeel Syed fought for the civil liberties of Muslims who were unfairly targeted by the FBI and the Los Angeles Police Department. But his activism had a personal cost. He was away from home on nights and weekends, leaving behind his wife, Saira Sayeed, and their four kids. Sayeed took on the work of raising the kids to be strong Muslims in a post-9/11 world. But she was often isolated and the couple never really talked about how Syed's activism affected their relationship.

On Episode 6 of Inheriting, Syed and Sayeed open up to each other about the roles they played after 9/11 and the future they want to build together.

What is "Inheriting"?

  • Inheriting is a show about Asian American and Pacific Islander families, which explores how one event in history can ripple through generations. In doing so, the show seeks to break apart the AAPI monolith and tell a fuller story of these communities. Learn more at

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Meet Saira Sayeed and Shakeel Syed: The couple first met in 1990. Saira Sayeed was 24, Shakeel Syed was 30. They lived in separate parts of the country, so their relationship blossomed through long distance courtship: long phone calls, love letters, lots of flowers. They also connected over their Muslim faith.

“(Shakeel) was a very kind, loving, gentle soul, who was grounded in his religion,” Sayeed says. “And just grounded in, you know, trying to make this world a better place.”

They got married two years later and quickly became pregnant with their first child, Khadija. Around this time, Syed was raising humanitarian aid for the Bosnian War. Seeing images of Muslims being targeted and killed, he made the decision to go to Bosnia to further support relief efforts.

“I did ask (Saira)’s permission, ‘can I go?’ And Khadija was three months old,” he says. “I was pretty much decided that I am going, even if (Saira) says ‘no.’”

Ultimately, Sayeed supported her husband’s decision. But neither could have predicted the long term effect of his activism on their family and marriage, until much later, in the years that followed Sept. 11, 2001.

A brief history on Shakeel Syed’s activism and the Patriot Act post-9/11:

Shakeel Syed’s experience in Bosnia changed him. He wanted to get more involved in justice and nonprofit work supporting Muslims. That work became amplified following 9/11. The Patriot Act, passed weeks after the terrorist attack, expanded the government’s authority to surveil anyone in the country in the name of national security. It also allowed for indefinite detention of immigrants without a trial. Muslim American families all over the country say they found themselves under scrutiny.

A photo of a woman wearing a black hijab sitting on a bed embracing three small children next to a photo of a woman in a white hijab and sunglasses standing next to a man with beige pants and shirt and a hat. They appear to be in a cave.

(L) Saira Sayeed with three of their four children, Khadija, Mujahid, and Aasiya. (R) Saira Sayeed and Shakeel Syed on vacation in Maui.

(Photos courtesy of Saira Sayeed)

Syed says his mission became clear — he wanted to stand up for Muslim civil liberties. After 9/11, he started working with an organization called IslamiCity, collaborated with the ACLU, and began traveling nationwide to give talks about Islam.

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“I went on a speaking tour,” Syed says. “Four or five presentations a day … to an audience of 10, (sometimes) 500 people.”

But his work, then and in the decade that followed, kept him from being at home for long stretches of time. Sayeed and their four kids felt the impact of his choices for years. Sayeed became the primary caretaker, even homeschooling the children.

Additional Reporting

“I can't be out there like Shakeel, but I can do this. I can bring up children who are going to be productive, honest citizens of this country,” Sayeed says. “But … you don't get recognized as the person who is home with the kids.”

The couple now lives in Corona, California. Their four kids are all adults, and Sayeed and Syed are about to be empty nesters. And Sayeed is finally ready to talk to her husband about the toll his work took on their lives after 9/11.

How can I listen to more of this story?

Hear Episode 6 of Inheriting:

New episodes of Inheriting publish every Thursday wherever you get your podcasts and on

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Published: Thu, Jun 27, 2024 8:26 pm    Link