American Muslims ‘reclaiming’ narratives
Twenty years ago, the Sept. 11 attacks profoundly affected and shaped our country. Every faith community lost someone — Muslim, Jewish, Christian — and every community felt the fear of what could follow. We mourned and grieved together as Americans.
But Muslim communities have continued to pay a high price in the aftermath of the attacks, which marked a turning point in our government’s foreign and domestic policies, particularly on issues such as immigration, national security, privacy and civil rights.
Sept. 11 ushered in an era of scrutiny for Muslims, who now are viewed almost exclusively through a lens of suspicion and fear, and prompted warrantless surveillance of mosques and Muslim organizations, businesses and institutions.
It precipitated a global war on terror that, according to a new report from the Costs of War project at Brown University, has killed some 900,000 people around the world — predominantly Muslims — and cost the United States $8 trillion to date.
And it forced Arabs, Muslims, and South Asian communities to reckon with a swift backlash of unprecedented hate.
Days after the attacks, former President George W. Bush visited a mosque and stood alongside Muslim leaders to address the nation, in the hopes it would ease tensions and help offset the staggering spike in intolerance.
“The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam. That’s not what Islam is all about. Islam is peace. These terrorists don’t represent peace. They represent evil and war,” he said.
This message was crucial in that moment as many Muslims, drowning in the deluge of hostility, battled to reclaim their faith and assert their patriotism. But while this speech tempered the backlash, hate crimes and bias attacks continued.
The FBI documented a 1,600% increase in anti-Muslim incidents in 2001 as compared with 2000. In the year following 9/11, my organization, CAIR, America’s largest Muslim civil rights and advocacy organization, reported over 1,700 anti-Muslim incidents largely comprised of hate messaging and harassment.
These challenging times evoked a range of reactions. Some Muslims removed their hijabs, shaved their beards and changed their names out of safety concerns. Others defiantly resisted the fearmongering and held fast to a more visible Muslim identity.
Each September, civil rights groups receive complaints from students and families about anti-Muslim bullying and Islamophobic rhetoric in schools tied to classroom lessons on 9/11. That’s why CAIR released a resource guide last month with tips to help educators bridge the gap and craft culturally competent lessons around the 9/11 anniversary while avoiding anti-Muslim or anti-Arab tropes.
According to a 2020 poll conducted by the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, 51% of American Muslim families reported that their children have experienced faith-based bullying in schools. This figure is nearly twice the rate reported by parents among the general public, with 30% of the incidents reportedly involving a teacher or school official in a position of authority.
Still, youth empowerment programs and initiatives are also more readily available now to help Muslim children take on bigotry in constructive ways and develop their own authentic identity.
And a growing number of young adult Muslims are pursuing leadership roles on school boards of education, volunteering for election campaigns, and even running for public office. Issues such as climate change, gun violence and Eid equality are inspiring their generation to become politically and civically engaged by launching petitions, organizing public actions and lobbying lawmakers to seek change on issues they care about.
American Muslims today recognize that their voice is instrumental in making a positive impact in our society. It helps that, despite rampant Islamophobia in post9/11 America — or perhaps partly because of it — this demographic is witnessing a historic representation of Muslims in government, pop culture, sports, Hollywood, media and other public stages.
They are growing up not only reclaiming, but also rewriting, adapting, and fine-tuning their own narratives, which will not be defined by events beyond their control, and that their faith never condoned.
Just as Islam has always been part of America’s story, so too will their contributions be part of her legacy.
As our nation collectively reflects, remembers, and honors all those who perished, let’s not forget that this legacy too deserves to be protected.