The way we talk about Islamophobia every 9/11 anniversary is maddeningly oversimplified
by Jenée Desmond-Harris
Sunday marks the 15-year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on the United States. Because the terrorists responsible were linked to groups that claimed allegiance to their version of Islam, the tragedy launched the religion — which until then had been a little-understood minority faith in the US — abruptly into the national dialogue, where it was often lazily linked to violence and anti-Western sentiment.
As a result, the date of the attacks has become widely understood as a catalyst for the rapid deepening of Islamophobia in America.
In some ways, that’s true: A 2015 YouGov poll found that 55 percent of Americans had an “unfavorable” opinion of Islam. It’s easy to loosely link the attacks, in that view, to Donald Trump’s recent statements about bans and increased scrutiny, which, while inconsistent in their specific recommendations, have reliably stoked fear of Muslims and people from “Muslim countries.”
Muslim Americans have long been aware of these post-9/11 sentiments, even before Trump hit the campaign trail. A 2011 Pew Research Center survey pegged to the 10th anniversary of the attacks concluded that “life for Muslim-Americans in post-9/11 America is difficult in a number of ways.” Twenty-eight percent said they’d been looked at with suspicion, 21 percent said they’d been singled out by airport security, and 52 percent felt that government anti-terrorism policies put Muslims under increased surveillance.
It’s not just a matter of microaggressions or the perception of mistreatment, although these can take a serious toll — hate crimes against Muslims are at an alarming high.
But a closer look reveals more detail. The idea that the 9/11 attacks inspired widespread, ongoing animosity directed at an entire religious group is too simple of a story. It’s important to remember that anti-Islam beliefs have been fueled by more forces than terrorist attacks alone, and that Muslim Americans are a diverse group, whose experiences with victimization are often determined by aspects of their identity other than religion. Moreover, oppression and marginalization aren’t the only forces defining life for them when it comes to post-9/11 America.
As the 9/11 anniversary approaches and brings with it inevitable assessments about the state of Islamophobia, these are five insights into the under discussed, complex ways anti-Islam attitudes have impacted the lives of Muslim Americans in the past decade and a half.
The widespread use of the term “Islamophobia” was born out of 9/11, but the concept is nothing new
As Gallup wrote about the 2015 survey’s results, “Islamophobia existed in premise before the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, but it increased in frequency and notoriety during the past decade.”
The uptick in the term’s use was partially because so much of the scholarship on Islamophobia pre-9/11 wasn’t labeled as such, says Khaled Beydoun, a law professor at the University of Detroit who also works with University of California Berkeley’s Islamophobia Research and Documentation Project.
“Pre-9/11 the predecessor of Islamophobia was called Orientalism. That was the system that mothered Islamophobia; it feeds and provides many of the same stereotypes, systems of fear, and caricatures,” he explained. “People tend to think about Islamophobia or anti-Muslim hatred or animus as a new phenomenon, but it’s essentially an extension of the fear and vilification of not only Muslims but everyone perceived to be Muslim that’s been taking place for centuries.”
Even though many American Muslims are black or of South Asian descent and wouldn’t be classified as Arab or directly subjected to Orientalism, bigotry doesn’t always pay attention to these details. That means old, pre-9/11 anti-Arab biases haven’t had to change much to evolve into today’s anti-Muslim attitudes.
“When you’re Arab and Muslim, the categories can get conflated,” says Maytha Alhassen, a doctoral candidate in the department of American studies and ethnicity at the University of Southern California whose has family roots in Syria and Lebanon. “When I’ve spoken to media, there’s been a distinct interest in looking at Islam as ‘those brown people from over there.’”
That’s a mindset she says is fueled by the kinds of attitudes that precede the brand of Islamophobia that’s most often discussed as a consequence of 9/11.
It’s hard to overstate the real harm caused by individual expressions of Islamophobia, especially when they involve violence. A May 2016 report by Georgetown’s Bridge Initiative counted approximately 174 reported incidents of anti-Muslim violence and vandalism during 2015. These included 12 murders, 29 physical assaults, 50 threats against persons or institutions, 54 acts of vandalism or destruction of property, eight acts of arson, and nine shootings or bombings.
That’s 154 more anti-Muslim hate crimes than were reported in 2014, and a huge increase since before 9/11: American Muslims are now approximately six to nine times more likely to suffer these kinds of attacks.
It’s no wonder these horrific attacks make headlines and that many Muslim Americans work hard to personally dispel the ignorance and fear that fuel them.
But there’s only so much one-on-one interactions can do. Beydoun emphasizes, “It’s key to distinguish Islamophobia coming from private individuals from Islamophobia coming from the state.” An example of what he would consider state-sponsored Islamophobia: the expanded surveillance of Muslims under the Obama administration’s Countering Violent Extremism program.
The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law agrees, writing in recent report that the program further stigmatizes Muslim people, “reinforcing Islamophobic stereotypes, facilitating covert intelligence-gathering, suppressing dissent against government policies, and sowing discord in targeted communities.”
Islamophobia “is one of the remaining bastions of acceptable hatred and racism partly because of the way the state and the media have constructed this fear [of terrorism] to be so imminent, especially with the idea of radicalization and the fear of this homegrown terrorism,” Beydoun said.
He adds that calls for individual peaceful Muslims to address radicalization can serve to reinforce the myth that radicalization is exceptional to Muslims and not other groups, when in fact only a small percentage of terrorist attacks in the United States are committed by Muslims. (An FBI study of acts of terrorism committed between 1980 and 2005 concluded that 94 percent were carried out by non-Muslims.)
There’s a lot of variety in the Muslim experience and, as a result, in experiences with Islamophobia
Muslim Americans aren’t a monolithic group. Like any other subset of citizens, they have differences in racial identity, geography, gender, and how visibly they choose to express their faith. While Islamophobia is often discussed in general terms, it’s worth noting that these intersecting identities can do a lot to determine a person’s experience — and, thus, that there’s no one story about the effects of anti-Muslim attitudes.
Georgetown’s Bridge Project found, for example, that gender can make a difference when it comes to who becomes the victim of a violent attack. Since the start of the presidential election cycle, researchers found that American Muslim men have been twice as likely to be victims of physical assaults as American Muslim women and about 11 times more likely to be the victims of murder than their female counterparts.
That said, a woman who chooses to cover her hair or face in a way that creates a visual association with Islam can have a completely different day-to-day experience than one who does not. Wardah Khalid, a Middle East policy analyst who most recently worked for the Friends Committee on National Legislation Education Fund, says things changed for her when she began doing this.
“Now that I wear the headscarf, it’s more of an issue for me as a visible Muslim,” she said. “Living in Washington, DC, after the San Bernardino attacks, I was a little afraid, so if I was going out at night I’d put the hood over my scarf. And I wouldn’t stand close to the Metro platform in case someone would push me in.”
Khalid says she feels more exposed in cities like Washington, which require public transportation, than in Houston, where she currently lives and does most of her commuting in the safety of her own car.
N. Jerin Arifa, conversely, says she doesn’t feel safe outside of New York City, where she lives.
“Most recently, we were in Texas for a road trip, and my husband was like, ‘This is your country, don’t let them take that away from you,’ but we were stopped by immigration officials. He was driving the car, but I was asked to show my papers. I was not driving. That unsafe feeling outside of NYC is just tangible. I would not go again without my white husband with me,” she said.
In 2011, the Pew Research Center reported that 30 percent of Muslim Americans identify as white, 23 percent as black, 21 percent as Asian, and 6 percent as Hispanic. Nineteen percent report their race as “other” or “mixed.” There’s no question that being a member of a racial minority group can complicate interpersonal interactions and experiences with discrimination.
That’s to say nothing of how Islamophobia and ignorance combine to affect people who are seen by the public as “Muslim-y,” as Wajahat Ali, a journalist and frequent speaker on the Muslim American experience, puts it. Indians, Sikhs, Persian Jews, Arab-American Christians, and nontheists who are perceived as Muslims have all been the victims of anti-Muslim attacks and discrimination.
Focusing on how 9/11 impacted Islamophobia obscures the fact that there are a lot of moving parts keeping anti-Muslim hate going — namely, politics
Nina Daoud, a PhD candidate at the University of Maryland College Park who is writing a dissertation on the intersections between race, religion, and gender for black Muslim women in college, says “9/11 is “a significant marker” for comparing levels of Islamophobia in America, but that it is more revealing to look at more incremental developments in Islamophobia over smaller blocks of time.
After all, she says, “if we’re talking about US black/white race relations, we wouldn’t just talk about before and after 1965.”
Forces other than 9/11 backlash that she believes may contribute to shaping levels and expressions of Islamophobia today include the increase in use of social media, the election of the first black president, the increased scrutiny of racialized police brutality — and of course, the rhetoric of the current presidential campaign.
“You can see [Islamophobia] ramping up again with the 2016 election. Every time there is an election, it will ramp up and then it will disappear — it’s just proof that it’s very political,” said Khalid. “September 11 is a convenient excuse for people to talk to as a reason for this anti-Muslim rhetoric. But if you look at the stats, anti-Muslim hate actually decreased after September 11, 2001, because of President Bush’s statements.”
Bush emphasized that Islam was a peaceful religion, saying in a statement in the wake of the attacks on September 20, 2001:
I also want to speak tonight directly to Muslims throughout the world. We respect your faith. It’s practiced freely by many millions of Americans and by millions more in countries that America counts as friends. Its teachings are good and peaceful, and those who commit evil in the name of Allah blaspheme the name of Allah. The terrorists are traitors to their own faith, trying, in effect, to hijack Islam itself. The enemy of America is not our many Muslim friends. It is not our many Arab friends. Our enemy is a radical network of terrorists and every government that supports them.
In Khalid’s view, Islamophobia should be analyzed less as a result of the lasting effects of 9/11] than as a result of “politics and opportunism.”
The Georgetown Bridge project’s findings seem to support the idea of a link between this election cycle and expressions of Islamophobia. The more recent surge in Islamophobia began as a reaction to the Syrian refugee crisis last September. That month, there were about 10 reported incidents or threats of violence, including three murders. Compare that with the month before, where there was only one such recorded incident.
What came soon after, though, was political rhetoric and posturing within the Republican presidential race. According to the report:
Donald Trump, the GOP presidential front-runner at the time of publication, escalated anti-Muslim vitriol in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris, France in November 2015 rather than urge calm or international unity. The attacks signify an international event that triggered a second surge in Islamophobic rhetoric in addition to the uptick in bias attacks.
Trump made many anti-Muslim statements during televised appearances on mainstream news media outlets, impacting millions of viewers across the U.S. and around the world.
As Mr. Trump called for shutting down mosques in the wake of the Paris terrorist attacks and the mass shootings in San Bernardino, California in December 2015, anti-Muslim attacks initially tripled with nearly half of those attacks directed against mosques.
Anti-Muslim attacks surged once more in December 2015. There were 53 total attacks that month, 17 of which targeted mosques and Islamic schools and 5 of which targeted Muslim homes. By comparison, when the presidential election season began just 9 months earlier, there were only 2 anti-Muslim attacks. Attacks on Muslims during this month constitute approximately 1/3 of all attacks last year. In fact, in December 2015, anti-Muslim attacks occurred almost daily and often multiple times a day.
At least three separate incidents of violence involved perpetrators who were public supporters of presidential candidate Donald Trump. There was otherwise a strong perception among American Muslim leaders that political rhetoric created fertile ground for threats and acts of anti-Muslim violence.
Post-9/11 Muslim American life is not all gloom and doom. Many have found opportunities for resilience.
Experts are clear that the impact of post-9/11 Islamophobia on Muslim Americans is not solely about victimization. The climate over the past 15 years has also led to increased political and social engagement for some Muslims who did not already consider themselves people of color, as a sense of connection to racial minority communities.
“What Islamophobia in post 9/11 America has done to younger Americans [is] given them a greater minority and person-of-color consciousness — especially Arabs who are still classified as whites by the US Census,” Beydoun said. “One consequence of being targeted has been an expanded minority consciousness, which has allowed Muslims to build greater coalitions with other communities of color, all spawned by marginalization post-9/11.”
“It has forced them to connect with other marginalized communities — encouraged Muslims to bust out of their cocoon and ally over shared values, and that’s a good thing,” said Ali. “As a direct result of this sort of hazing, Muslims have been inspired to engage more with American society — more of us have become journalists, comedians, members of Congress. … This response represents a type of American Muslim resilience.”