More than two decades after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, discrimination and hatred of Muslims in the US still exist to the ire of America’s largest Muslim civil rights advocacy group.
“After 22 years, unfortunately, Islamophobia has taken root and become part of the structure of racism that exists in parts of our country,” said Hussam Ayloush, chief executive officer of the California chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-CA).
Ayloush told Anadolu that nearly one million of the estimated five million Muslims living in the US reside in the state of California and pointed out that harassment and prejudice against the Muslim community remain prevalent decades after 9/11.
“More than 50% of Muslim students in California face some form of verbal and physical bullying at public schools just for being Muslim,” said Ayloush.
“In addition, there are still government watchlists for nearly 1.6 million people, almost all of whom are Muslim, who have their names on the travel watchlist or they have Muslim-sounding names.
“The types of abuses that came out of 9/11 that the government took part in became a part of how Islamophobia evolved,” he continued.
“Muslims being harassed at airports, having the FBI conduct searches as well as plant informants at mosques and giving federal agencies like the FBI and CIA the green light to track Muslims from other countries such as Syria, Libya and Sudan.”
Hate crimes against Muslims skyrocketed immediately after the 9/11 attacks, rising 1,617% from 2000 to 2001, according to statistics from the FBI. That severe spike marked some of the highest numbers of hate crimes against the Muslim community in US history.
“The US government under the George W. Bush administration needed an enemy that would allow the new conservatives to launch their campaign and 9/11 created a perfect pretext to make Muslims the enemy,” Ayloush explained, saying that every stereotype of the Muslim community was used to harass, mistreat and detain anyone fitting that mold.
“How we ate, how we dressed, how we spoke became suspicious,” he said about the discrimination Muslims faced after 9/11.
“If they rented a truck to move their furniture, the FBI would be called on them. If a Muslim traveled too many times out of the country or they withdrew a lot of cash for their business, they were perceived as doing something wrong and the FBI would be called to investigate.
“9/11 created momentum to build and shift the bigotry and xenophobia in America to justify discrimination against Muslims. It allowed them to say ‘I don’t hate all Muslims, just the ones who do x, y or z,’ only to justify their hate,” said Ayloush.
“Islamophobia was already strong prior to 9/11,” said Louise Cainkar, a professor of sociology at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin who specializes in Arab and Muslim American Studies.
“The immediate backlash against all perceived Muslims proved that to be the case,” Cainkar told Anadolu. “That relies on the perception that all are the same. Such perceptions are never applied to whites or Christians. Of course, the framing that 9/11 was a ‘Muslim thing’ — something inherent in being Muslim — just made it worse.”
With many Muslims being labeled terrorists and being referenced to al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, Cainkar said the Muslim community in America seemed to fade into the shadows immediately following the 9/11 attacks.
“At first, they somewhat ‘went into hiding,’ meaning they conducted their lives very quietly,” said Cainkar. “Then, they built organizations to fight for their rights, built solidarity with other groups and eventually became strong components of US civil society.”
The Muslim empowerment and equality movement in the United States has taken more than two decades of struggle and persistence to evolve to where it is now. But even after 22 years, the same factors from 9/11 and pre-9/11 continue to stoke fears in some Americans.
“The same stereotypes may be used: violent, terrorist, oppressive to women,” said Cainkar. “Their use for political gain rises at election times and war times.”
The bottom line is that Islamophobia exists in the present, even though 9/11 has faded into the past.
“Studies have shown that it increases not only in connection to real-world events but at times of US elections. Thus I expect that if Muslims again become a target of campaign rhetoric this year, (we) will see an increase,” Cainkar continued, making reference to former President Donald Trump, who is currently campaigning for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination.
“So far, I know Trump says he is going to expand ‘the ban,’ but he did not use the word ‘Muslim’ in the quote I saw. But people know what it means.”
She was referring to the Trump administration’s restrictions which barred nearly all travelers from five mainly Muslim countries — Syria, Iran, Yemen, Libya, Somalia — from entering the United States. Chad, North Korea and Venezuela were later added.
Ayloush concurred with that notion, saying the correlation of 9/11 to Islamophobia transformed into a much deeper form of discrimination during Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and after he was voted into office.
“When Trump came into the picture, he reignited and popularized being racist in America with his base espousing the belief that ‘I’m not the only one who thinks that way’ and condoning racism towards Mexicans, Blacks, Asians, Jews and Muslims.
“Believe it or not, we saw another wave of Islamophobia that was more vicious and more intense than what we saw after 9/11,” Ayloush continued. “Trump launched a campaign that entailed fear of Muslims and fear of Islam and revived Muslims as a threat. That’s when we began seeing new acts of Islamophobia including school bullying, discrimination against Muslims and targeting of mosques with vandalism and hate speech which became much greater in scope than we saw after 9/11.”
Ayloush said that type of extreme Islamophobia is prominent today.