20 years after 9/11, Islamophobia continues to haunt Muslims

Sept. 11, 2001, marked the start of a new era for Muslims in the United States.

Shortly after al-Qaida terrorists attacked the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, many Muslims, as well as other Arab Americans, became the targets of anger and racism.

Mosques were burned or destroyed and death threats and harassment followed many Muslims in the weeks following the attacks, according to congressional testimony from the Southern Poverty Law Center in 2011. Some victims were beaten, attacked or held at gunpoint for merely being perceived as Muslim, the organization said.

Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., who is Muslim, reflected on 9/11 and the discrimination that followed in an interview with ABC News. "As Americans, as people who are living here, we were also attacked," she said. "This is our community, this is our country, and there were Muslims who lost their lives in those towers, who were Muslim firefighters, who lost their lives."

She added, "There is a desire by many to use our faith and our identity as a weapon against us and to 'other' us. That has been really harmful in so many ways."

Hate crimes against Muslims rose 1617% from 2000 to 2001, according to the FBI marking some of the highest numbers of Islamophobic hate crimes ever in the U.S.

But even as the country moved further from the attacks and the Muslim American population in the country grew, discrimination against this community has not waned, Pew Research Center reports.

After the 9/11 attacks

On Sept. 17, 2001, then-President George W. Bush spoke at the Islamic Center of Washington, D.C., to denounce hatred against Muslims amid his vows to "win the war against terrorism" in the Middle East.

"​​The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam," Bush said. "That's not what Islam is all about. Islam is peace. These terrorists don't represent peace. They represent evil and war."

And for the most part, the public agreed with the president -- the Pew Research Center found that 59% of people had favorable views of Muslim-Americans following the attacks, although 40% of the public believe that the terrorists were motivated at least in part by religion.

However, those who didn't view Muslims favorably went on the offense. Across the country, reports of bomb threats, arson and assaults against Muslims made headlines.

"In the post-9/11 period, there was a lot of fear about Muslims and terrorism in the United States and so we created all these new opportunities to surveil citizens and harass citizens and even entrap citizens in our desire to fight terrorism," said Sally Howell, director of the Center for Arab American Studies at the University of Michigan-Dearborn.

As years passed, the number of hate crimes dropped (and then rose again in recent years), according to the FBI, but the damage was done. For years, Muslims in the United States felt unsure about their place in American society, according to the research initiative by the University of California, Berkeley called Islamophobia Research and Documentation Project.

"This for me is one of the saddest pieces in the survey -- we asked people, as a Muslim living in the West, if 'I feel more strongly insecure and afraid for my family and kids,'" Hatem Bazian, a lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley and leader of the college's Islamophobia Research and Documentation Project.

He said that of the people surveyed, almost 80% said they feel at least somewhat worried about the safety of their family in the U.S.

And each election cycle, that uncertainty about their role in American society was exacerbated. Islamophobia became a political tool, with some public figures, like former President Donald Trump and media commentators using the fear against Muslims and Arab Americans to rile up their bases.

Islamophobia as a political tool

Anti-Muslim rhetoric was used against former President Barack Obama during both of his presidential campaigns, despite the fact that Obama is a Christian. Racist and xenophobic rumors about his religion and about his birthplace were used to stoke outrage and mistrust against Obama, weaponizing pre-existing fear about Muslims.

Opponents doubled down on conspiracy theories about Obama concerning his nationality and religion -- falsely claiming that he was ineligible to become the president because he was not born in the U.S., or that he secretly practiced Islam, which would not make him ineligible for the presidency.

"Islamophobia was monetized into votes at the ballot box by projecting Obama as a closet Muslim," Bazian said.

Anti-Muslim sentiment continued during the 2016 election cycle, during which Islamophobic hate crimes surged again. According to the FBI, there were 481 incidents in 2001, followed by a significant decline in incidents the next year -- 155. In 2015, there were 257 hate crimes against Muslims and 307 in 2016. The number of incidents has declined since then through 2019, the latest year for which data is available. Experts link the rise in hate to the anti-Muslim rhetoric being espoused on the political stage. then-candidate Trump made the Islamic faith and Muslims targets of criticism throughout his presidential campaign including proposing a ban on Muslims entering the country.

Most Americans don't know a Muslim, or admit to not knowing anything about Muslims, according to a Pew Research Center survey.

"The public has fairly limited sort of direct knowledge or interaction with Muslims," said Dr. Besheer Mohamed, a senior researcher at Pew Research Center. "People who say they personally know someone who's Muslim, then they have more positive views toward Islam and toward Muslims than people who don't."

This invisibility, Howell said, is what is giving Islamophobia its power.

"It's important that we understand that because we need to know that Muslims are not outsiders, they're not strangers," Howell said. "When Muslims are visible to non-Muslims through their institutions, through their names, through their headscarves, through the Halal signs on their restaurants, then people would know their co-workers, their neighbors, as Muslims, and this helps overcome whatever you know prejudice or concern they might have."

(Courtesy abcnews)