‘Under the prism’: Muslim Americans reflect on life post-9/11
The attacks fuelled racism and increased US government surveillance, altering the lives of countless Muslim Americans.
Washington, DC – Hassan Sheikh was in his high school world studies class in Detroit, Michigan, on the morning of the 9/11 attacks.
Instead of taking the test that was scheduled, he watched the second plane crash into the World Trade Center in New York City after his teacher hastily wheeled a television into the classroom.
“We were all just watching in shock,” Sheikh, now 34, recalls. “We couldn’t grasp the gravity of the situation at that point.”
By the following day, Sheikh, who is Muslim and the son of Pakistani immigrants, says it became clear to him that the events of September 11, 2001, would radically alter his experience as a Muslim in the United States.
He says he lost friends, faced bullying, and became a target of overtly racist comments. Once while playing in a basketball game, a player from the opposite team called him “a raghead terrorist Arab”, Sheikh told Al Jazeera. The referee, he says, heard the comment but did nothing.
Then, a year after the attacks, while on a family trip to Washington, DC, his mother, who wears a hijab, was accosted by a man who called her a terrorist and asked her why she was wearing “that on her head”.
Sheikh says he and his family have a long list of such incidents – and they are not the only ones. “A lot has been lost since 9/11,” he said. “A lot of wars have been perpetuated and a lot of negative impact has been made.”
In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, hate crimes against Muslims in the US spiked, going from 28 such incidents nationwide in 2000 to 481 in 2001, according to FBI statistics. Anti-Muslim hate crimes have remained high ever since, with the FBI recording 219 incidents in 2019.
“After 9/11 hate and discrimination was amplified,” said Sumayyah Waheed, a policy consultant working with Muslim Advocates, a civil rights group based in Washington, DC.
“Suddenly, day-to-day life for American Muslims became a subject for broad public consumption, their faith was racialised, and all communities faced intense scrutiny from American society like never before.”
After the attacks on the Twin Towers in New York City and on the Pentagon, which killed nearly 3,000 people, the US government swiftly stepped up security at airports and government buildings.
Then, just 45 days later, Congress passed the Patriot Act, a law that made it easier for US law enforcement agencies to track the activities as well as monitor the online and phone communications of Americans suspected of terrorism.
Although key elements of the legislation expired in March 2020, civil rights organisations say it left a lasting impact on Muslim Americans, who were disproportionately targeted. The groups have argued in court that the law violated Americans’ civil and constitutional rights.
In 2003, the administration of then-President George W Bush created the so-called “Watchlist”, also known as the Terrorist Screening Database (TSDB). In 2016, it included the names of some 5,000 US citizens and permanent residents out of approximately one million people on the list, according to the FBI.
Muslim American civil rights groups sued the US government, arguing it is unconstitutional. An appeals court ruled against them in March, however, allowing the TSDB system to continue to operate in the same way.
“Immediately after 9/11 all Muslims residing in the US were placed under the prism of being a threat to national security,” said Robert McCaw, director of the government affairs department at the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR).
“The places of worship, civil societies, student groups, and even businesses were surveilled by the federal government,” McCaw told Al Jazeera. The FBI also deployed thousands of informants, McCaw said, eroding the trust people had in each other – and in their government.
“To this day, American Muslims second guess themselves as to whether they are being spied on by the government,” he said.
Mental health toll
Faris Ibrahim, 28, an author and host of the podcast The Faris of Them All that often features Muslim American guests, said after 9/11 he remembers school friends treating him differently and teachers asking him “inappropriate” questions about his parents’ religion and political beliefs.
“There was this idea that Muslims have this hidden agenda, this suspicion that Muslims weren’t on the same page as everybody else,” Ibrahim told Al Jazeera. “That we were saying things outwardly but saying something different in our mosques, and we had to be spied on.”
Waheed at Muslim Advocates says the increase in anti-Muslim sentiment after the attacks fuelled nativist, white nationalist groups in the country.
She said it also paved the way for the 2016 election of former President Donald Trump, who campaigned on a promise to block all Muslims from coming into the US and during his time office passed three travel ban iterations that focused on several Muslim-majority countries.
Trump also infamously said he saw Muslim Americans in New Jersey celebrating the 9/11 attacks, a claim that has since been widely debunked.
Waheed noted that an increase in violence against Muslims was documented in 2015 and 2016, even surpassing the rate after the 9/11 attacks. “That is not an accident,” she said, explaining that the spikes coincided with Trump’s presidential campaign. “His anti-Muslim politics led to real violence and hate towards Muslims.”
Living under the weight of law enforcement scrutiny and everyday acts of discrimination for the past 20 years has enacted a heavy toll on the mental health of Muslim Americans, experts say.
According to a study published in July in Jama Psychiatry, nearly eight percent of Muslim respondents said they had attempted suicide during their lifetime, compared with 6 percent of Catholics, 5 percent of Protestants and 3.6 percent of Jews.
“When we compare how Muslim communities are doing compared to other communities – including other marginalised communities – the mental health levels have taken a hit,” said Rania Awaad, a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at Stanford University and a researcher on the study.
“What the literature is showing is racial and religious discrimination as well as Islamophobia is definitely a factor,” Awaad told Al Jazeera.
‘Just like everybody else’
The US Census does not collect information on religion, but the Pew Research Center found in a 2018 study that approximately 3.45 million Muslims lived in the US, making up a little more than 1 percent of the total population.
Meanwhile, another Pew survey in 2019 said 82 percent of Americans believed that Muslims are subject to at least some discrimination in the US, while 56 percent said Muslims are discriminated against “a lot”.
Asad Butt, 41, the founder of a media company and a podcast producer in Portland, Oregon, said he has dedicated his career to addressing Muslim-American issues and trying to “build bridges” with mainstream American society.
He recalled how right after the 9/11 attacks, his father, who immigrated from Pakistan in the 1970s, put an American flag outside their house, hoping it would protect them from possible attacks.
“All of us who were Muslims in the country at the time had a target on our backs and we were vilified,” Butt told Al Jazeera, adding that Muslim Americans have suffered greatly from “small acts” of Islamophobia and racism, as well as government spying, over the past 20 years.
“There is this idea that we are not as American as the next person and we have to continually prove that we are as American as our neighbours,” Butt said. “When the truth is, we are just like everybody else.”