Twenty Years After 9/11: A Reckoning for Anti-Muslim Hostility in the United States

In his human rights speech at the University of Connecticut in October, President Joe Biden argued that the best way for the United States to fight for global human rights is to lead by example at home. To that end, and if he is serious about including human rights as a centerpiece of his flagship policies, Biden must address and abolish the legal, political, and social structures of anti-Muslim hostility in the United States. Indeed, a white supremacist worldview that, among other things, falsely links terrorism with Muslim communities has guided US counterterrorism policies, and this became even more entrenched since the September 11, 2001 attacks. Further, it should not be the responsibility of American Muslim communities to fight terrorism and to correct the systemic racism against Muslims in the United States, an approach that previous administrations have promoted and institutionalized.

Racism and White Supremacy

The pillar of anti-Muslim hostility in the United States is structural and institutionalized racism against Muslims. Although Muslims do not constitute a racial group, Muslim identities have undergone a process of racialization as a reaction to discrimination and prejudice. Islamophobia and structural racism against Muslims peaked with the beginning of European colonialism in the 1900s. According to the late Edward Said, Orientalist scholars constructed the Muslim world as the backward, dangerous Other in opposition to the allegedly developed, civilized West. After World War II, the United States replaced European states as a superpower in the Middle East and North Africa. From this time on, the scholar Deepa Kumar sees “a process by which, first, Arab Americans are created as terrorist threats, and then Iranians after the Iranian Revolution, and then South Asians.”

Racism alone does not sufficiently explain the roots of anti-Muslim hostility in the United States. Another problem is the strongly held white supremacist belief that being American means being Christian.

But racism alone does not sufficiently explain the roots of anti-Muslim hostility in the United States. Another problem is the strongly held white supremacist belief that being American means being Christian. Professor Ebrahim Moosa of the University of Notre Dame concludes that “white ethnographic-nationalism, mixed with strains of extremist, white Christian nationalism in the U.S.A.,” is at the heart of Islamophobia.

Discriminatory Legacies Across Administrations

The George W. Bush Administration heavily boosted the narrative of Muslims-as-terrorists to justify the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to the American public. In the name of counterterrorism, Bush passed the USA PATRIOT Act which the government used (and abused) to suspect, arrest, and spy on innocent Muslims, thus violating their right to privacy. Moreover, the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) entrapment policies lured Muslims, particularly those who were mentally ill, into fake terrorist plots, as in the case of the Newburgh Four.

In Guantánamo prison, which became “a haunting symbol of Islamophobia,” all of the approximately 780 detainees, including 22 who were children when first detained, have been Muslims. Built on foreign soil, the detention center allows the use of so-called enhanced interrogation techniques or, more accurately, torture measures that many consider “the product of systematic U.S. government abuse.” Human Rights Watch reports FBI torture methods that specifically offend Muslim detainees, such as throwing the Qur’an in a toilet. The exclusive imprisonment of Muslims, often without charges and solely based on their religious identity, is sidelined in debates on closing Guantánamo, which “only amplifies the dehumanisation that renders their detention an acceptable measure.”

Despite good intentions, this program has proven to be discriminatory, ineffective, and based on empirically unverified assumptions.

In 2011, President Barack Obama, supported by Vice President Joe Biden, introduced the Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) program, a community outreach initiative whose aim was to prevent terrorist attacks and to boost resilience against extremism. Despite good intentions, this program has proven to be discriminatory, ineffective, and based on empirically unverified assumptions. It also violates the human right to privacy and creates distrust among Muslim communities toward law enforcement agencies. The underlying anti-Muslim racism in the CVE program becomes even more apparent when considering that no such surveillance policies target white communities after a white supremacist terrorist attack.

In 2017, former President Donald Trump issued the commonly known Muslim Ban, which had a severe impact on Muslims across the world. Further, Trump’s hostility included using anti-Muslim rhetoric, appointing Islamophobic staff members, employing extreme review processes for immigrants and visitors, and displaying insufficient reactions to anti-Muslim hate crimes. A recent study confirms Muslims’ experiences of persecution by showing a clear correlation between Trump’s anti-Muslim tweets and hate crimes against Muslims.

By now, President Joe Biden has repealed the Muslim Ban and instead signed the congressional NO BAN Act. This legislation prevents future presidents from blocking people from entering the United States because of their religious affiliation, and it was widely welcomed by civil society groups. However, simply reversing Trump’s racist Muslim Ban should not be the yardstick for progress; this act can hardly be considered an achievement for Biden, as centering human rights issues and leading by example require deeper civil rights reforms.

Similarly, Biden’s appointment of 20 Arab Americans to his administration is a positive individual policy step but it does not tackle the root causes of anti-Muslim hostility. A more fundamental approach aiming at “a world where anti-Arab and anti-Muslim racism become unimaginable” would need to abolish the so-called “war on terror” against Muslims abroad as well as within the United States. Besides, an ethnically diverse staff does not mean these individuals are immune to anti-Muslim hostility or discriminatory worldviews, as in the case of the two Indian-Americans, Sonal Shah and Amit Jani, who were not hired as staff after working on Biden’s election campaign.

Regarding Guantánamo, Biden has followed through on Obama’s plan to transfer the detainee Abdul Latif Nasser back to Morocco. Nasser had been in Guantánamo’s prison for nearly 20 years with no charges or trial. Two more detainees will be repatriated once security agreements have been reached with the receiving states. While freeing innocent Muslims from Guantánamo “is a human rights obligation and a national security necessity,” according to the American Civil Liberties Union, Biden has not announced a final date for closing the detention camp.

On the anniversary of the UN Convention Against Torture, Biden reaffirmed that any captured person has basic human rights under US and international law, which prohibit the use of torture. But in the case of Guantánamo prisoners, such as Abd Al-Rahim Hussein Al-Nashiri, the United States continues to use evidence obtained through torture against defendants.

The Illusion of Collective Responsibility

The US counterterrorism agenda constructed the idea that terrorism is a Muslim community problem and thus assumes that Muslims carry a collective responsibility to prevent terrorist attacks. This idea becomes particularly evident after any terrorist act by a Muslim perpetrator. Then, the wider Muslim community is asked to condemn or even apologize for the attacks as if they were responsible for the act simply because they share the same religion. This thinking implies that all Muslims are generally guilty unless proven innocent, and one way they can prove their innocence is by condemning an attack. At the same time, it shows the double standard in the public discourse about terrorism. Even though white supremacists are a greater threat than so-called “Islamic terrorists” to US security, no one expects white Americans or Christians to condemn the attacks of white supremacist terrorists. Whatever constitutes terrorism is “a matter of who committed the crime”: that is, if it is a Muslim, the act is generally called terrorism; but if the perpetrator is a Christian or non-Muslim, the act is often regarded as a hate crime.

The US counterterrorism agenda constructed the idea that terrorism is a Muslim community problem and thus assumes that Muslims carry a collective responsibility to prevent terrorist attacks.

The attacks of 9/11 caused the death of 2,977 people in the United States and, if the number of deaths from attributed illnesses is added, the total would be much higher. One should not forget, however, that Muslim communities worldwide are themselves the main victims of extremist terror groups. A report by the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq estimates that in the first eight months of 2014, at least 24,015 civilians were killed or injured in Iraq. Approximately 1.8 million Iraqis were displaced while the large number of people who died due to secondary effects of violence remains unknown. This report, which has not received a lot of media attention, proves that Muslims in the Middle East and North Africa—and not civilians in the West—are the main victims of the so-called Islamic State (IS). Asking or expecting these victims to condemn terrorist acts becomes profoundly hypocritical.

Moreover, the UN report shows that many Iraqis are killed because they fight and/or resist IS. For example, the Islamic State executed three women on September 5, 2014 “allegedly for refusing to treat ISIL fighters.” The illusion that Muslims are collectively responsible for extremists’ terror ignores that Muslims across the world actually resist IS on the ground, thus depriving them of their political agency. The post-9/11 counterterrorism policies implying that terrorism is a Muslim phenomenon make these victims responsible for their victimhood. In doing so, anti-radicalization projects, such as CVE, that focus on Muslims twist the roles of perpetrators and victims.

The Impact of Post-9/11 Policies: A Time for Reckoning

In 2002, Lila Abu-Lughod asked “how we, living in this privileged and powerful part of the world, might examine our own responsibilities for the situations in which others in distant places have found themselves.” And Biden suggested in a recent speech that “strong nations [that] speak honestly about the past and uphold the truth, strive to improve.”

The post-9/11 wars in which the United States has been engaged have caused at least 1.3 million deaths of Iraqis, Afghans, and Pakistanis, and most of them were Muslim. It is important to note that this number is a conservative one, and it does not offer a full picture of the devastation as military operations have secondary effects such as starvation and displacement. The US military does not even count or investigate unintended deaths of civilians in the name of the so-called war on terror.

Unsurprisingly, the rise of anti-Muslim hostility within the United States as a consequence of the Muslim-as-terrorist narrative remains equally absent in coverage by mainstream media.

Unsurprisingly, the rise of anti-Muslim hostility within the United States as a consequence of the Muslim-as-terrorist narrative remains equally absent in coverage by mainstream media. In the first half of 2021, the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) showed a 57 percent increase in attacks against Muslims in the United States. These include hate crimes, hate speech, harassment, discrimination, and anti-Mosque incidents. Examples of these hate crimes range from vandalizing Muslim-owned businesses to assaults on Muslim women wearing hijab. For example, after the Capitol riots on January 6, 2021, a man with Molotov cocktails, guns, and ammunition sent Rep. André Carson (D-Indiana), a convert to Islam, an alarming handwritten note. In May in Virginia, a man attempted to stab an Islamic center security guard. On November 18, a Muslim-owned business in Long Island, New York, was vandalized with a graffiti saying “terorist” (sic). And as recently as November 26, far-right Republican Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colorado) made up a highly Islamophobic story as a joke; she used dangerous tropes about Muslims to imply that Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minnesota) was a suicide bomber.

A UC Berkeley report released the results of a survey of American Muslims conducted in 2020 that showed that two-thirds of the participants had personally experienced Islamophobia. Muslim women were specifically more targeted than men, as their clothes often make their religious identity more visible. This report also found that anti-Muslim animosity affects the mental health of 93.7 percent of respondents. Twenty years after the September 2001 attacks, these findings overlap shockingly with the experiences of Muslims and Arabs at that volatile time. In 2002, Human Rights Watch reported that anti-Muslim hostility “included murder, beatings, arson, attacks on mosques, shootings, vehicular assaults and verbal threats.”

Particularly since 9/11, previous administrations have labeled whole Muslim communities and Islam as fertile ground for violent extremism and terrorism. This racist and supremacist view has created and fueled anti-Muslim hostility in the United States across four administrations. Until today, little has been done to deconstruct the false narrative of Muslims as terrorists.

Acknowledgment, Accountability, and Abolishment of Anti-Muslim Hostility

Twenty years after September 11, Americans remember heroism and resilience and pledge to never forget what happened on that day. The impact of surveillance policies, immigration restrictions, torture programs, or endless wars on Muslims in the United States and worldwide, however, are not part of the commemoration. As novelist Laila Lalami writes in The New York Times, “There are no ceremonies to honor the foreigners who died in U.S. wars, no memorials to victims of torture, no museums to house artifacts from hollowed-out buildings or bombed funeral processions, no exhibits on the lessons that ought to be drawn from such spectacular failures.” In order to deconstruct the narrative of Muslims as terrorists on a social level, the US government and the wider media should decolonize museums and include Muslim victims in their culture of remembrance. The 9/11 memorial museum in New York City has been criticized for concealing the anti-Muslim US policies and wars following the terrorist attacks.

It is past time for the Biden Administration and the US public to take responsibility by acknowledging and abolishing anti-Muslim hostility in the United States. Previously established surveillance programs, such as CVE or the rebranded Targeted Violence and Terrorism Prevention Grant Program, must be defunded and wholly reconstructed. As long as counterterrorism strategies focus on Muslim communities, these measures will remain ineffective and perpetuate the trope that all Muslims are potential terrorists.

As Ilhan Omar and 80 Muslim organizations demand, President Biden should appoint a US special envoy to better understand and combat anti-Muslim hostility. This office should be well-funded to avoid being purely symbolic. Biden should also listen to Muslim American communities that have responded to his inclusive government initiatives. They are not responsible for the racist narratives the United States has created for them in the name of national security. For their part, Muslim advocacy groups, such as MAPS (Muslim Americans in Public Service) and CAIR, offer many insightful recommendations on how to erase anti-Muslim hostility and challenge white supremacy.

Moreover, the FBI must be accountable for wrongly monitoring Muslims and violating their human right to privacy over the years. The ongoing lawsuit from 2011 alleging that the FBI targeted people based on religion, which has now reached the US Supreme Court, is one salient example of how long Muslims in America have been fighting for justice.

Simultaneously, there must be restitution to address the severe human rights violations in Guantánamo prison, and perpetrators of torture must be prosecuted and held accountable. If Biden’s condemnation of using torture is more than just lip service, then he should reject the use of torture-derived evidence in US courts by supporting, for example, Al-Nashiri’s petition to end such a policy. The US government should also decide on a date to close Guantánamo prison, thus finally ending two decades of ineffective secret detention centers. Moreover, as the recent withdrawal from Afghanistan showed, Biden so far has failed to acknowledge 20 years of atrocities that the United States has committed in the name of the so-called war on terror. To lead by example on a global scale also means to honestly discuss 20 years of surveilling, arresting, imprisoning, and torturing Muslims both in the United States and abroad.