20 years ago, following the September 11 terrorist attacks, the United States was brought together in shared solidarity and grief for the nearly 3,000 civilians killed that day. However, the fear that arose from the 9/11 tragedy produced intense bigotry towards Muslim Americans which still continues to this day.
Background of Anti-Muslim Bias in the United States
Xenophobia is not new to the U.S.; there is a long history of intolerance of non-white immigrants and discrimination against people from non-Christian religious faiths. Additionally, American identity has often been strengthened by the exclusion of those perceived as threats to national security or to the existing power structure.
The rise of Islamic terrorist groups in the Middle East and South Asia from the 1970s through the 1990s, combined with complicated U.S. foreign policy in those regions, created a fear that terrorism might spread onto western soil. The World Trade Center bombing by Al Qaeda in 1993 made these fears into reality, and led to heightened suspicion of those who came from Arab or Muslim backgrounds.
How the 9/11 Attacks Led to Increase in Islamophobia
On September 11, 2001, Al Qaeda launched the deadliest-ever attack on American soil, killing 2,977 people in the Twin Towers, the Pentagon, and Shanksville, Pennsylvania. Shortly after, the U.S. Military invaded Afghanistan to take down the Taliban government, which was harboring Al Qaeda and imposing an oppressive regime on its own people, women in particular.
As a result, Islam and its traditions, laws, and culture were put under a microscope. The attacks led many to believe that Islam and all its adherents were inherently opposed to core American values, such as democracy, freedom of religion, and Judeo-Christian principles. Many prominent public figures promoted accusations that Muslim communities in the U.S. defend and harbor terrorists, that Muslim men physically abuse women, and that anyone associated with Islam could be a national security threat.
481 hate crimes against Muslims were reported in 2001 alone, and over 100 are reported every year since. Mosques have been defaced and shot at, women and girls have had hijabs ripped off their heads, and ordinary people who happened to be Muslim have been harassed, attacked, and even killed while walking down the street. In addition, non-Muslims who might be perceived as Muslim, such as Arab Christians and Sikhs, have frequently been victims of violence directed at Muslims.
Anti-Muslim bigotry has continued years after 9/11: in 2010, a proposed Islamic cultural center to be built near the former World Trade Center site was met with intense backlash from all around the country; Pastor Terry Jones hosted a Quran burning in Florida; and rumors that then-President Barack Obama was secretly Muslim continued to spread in right-wing circles.
Islamophobia has been present in recent years as well; the 2017 Travel Ban prohibited immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries in order to prevent terrorists from entering the U.S., but members of religious minorities from these countries were exempt from this rule. This exception was later struck down by the Supreme Court as being unconstitutional.
The 2018 election of the first two Muslim women of Congress, Somali American Ilhan Omar and Palestinian American Rashida Tlaib, generated accusations of disloyalty, conspiracy theories about their personal lives, and numerous death threats.
While President Biden's decision to take in refugees from Afghanistan following the recent Taliban takeover there has been met with broad support, including more support than usual from Republicans, there are still concerns that an influx of Muslims to the U.S. will give rise to an increase in bigotry and discrimination.
Although bigotry towards Muslim immigrants is a big part of Islamophobia, many of its targets are natural-born Americans, including Representative Tlaib. Nevertheless, they are frequently told to “go back home” and made to feel that they are second-class citizens in the country in which they were born and raised.
How Immigrant Communities Have Responded
The isolation that many Muslim Americans experienced following 9/11 created a gap in services geared towards immigrants from Muslim-majority countries. A common narrative was that Muslims purposely did not assimilate, but rather isolated themselves from non-Muslims. Many Muslims, in turn, were hesitant to ask for help because few people were willing to assist them. As a result, they could not properly acclimate to American society.
CIANA was founded in 2006 to break this cycle, and to ensure that new immigrants from the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia could properly integrate into American culture by learning English, accessing social services, and becoming citizens, without having to give up their culture and traditions, and without having to fear for their safety or wellbeing.
For Emira Habiby Browne, CIANA’s Founder and CEO, CIANA’s founding mission “to be a bridge to success for immigrants” still applies to the work CIANA does in serving immigrants of all backgrounds as they navigate an ever-changing political climate, the COVID-19 pandemic, and similar marginalization and fears that many Muslim Americans felt after September 11.
“Twenty years after 9/11, a global pandemic has accentuated the inequities that immigrants and people of color continue to face daily,” Habiby Browne explains. Yet despite the challenges, she remains hopeful that organizations like CIANA, New York City, and the community at large will create a more welcoming space for immigrants.
“Fortunately, NYC has acknowledged these disparities and is working to create a social structure that ensures that all communities are treated equitably.”
Read Emira Habiby Browne’s full statement on the 20th anniversary of 9/11 here.