MANY PEOLE feared that American Muslims would suffer from a fierce backlash after the attacks of September 11th. The worries were justified. Prejudice against American Muslims had occurred at the time of the Iran hostage crisis in 1979, when television screens were filled with images of American flags being burned and chants of “Death to America” by people with brown skin, robes and turbans. After the release of “Satanic Verses” by Salman Rushdie in 1988, Islam was again portrayed as barbaric: a “fatwa” was declared by clerics, who called for the author’s death for having insulted Islam.
The American media’s message was that Muslims were savages, rejected American values and wanted them dead. In the minds of many non-Muslim Americans, Islam was strange and dangerous, practised by people who looked different and prayed in an odd way. For American Muslims it was a period of fear, bigotry and name-calling.
This was the foundation of most Americans’ perception of Islam leading up to 9/11. Yet immediately after the attacks, there was a concerted, bipartisan political effort to ensure that American Muslims, who make up 1% of the population, were seen as a respected part of America. And looking at the past 20 years, one could argue it has been a success. American Muslims today have several high-profile elected leaders at national and local levels. They serve on school boards, work in the military, police and fire departments, and are a part of public service as diplomats and government officials.
But be cautious about this rosy assessment: scars and emotional damage run deep for those who experienced the anger, prejudice, isolation, violence and societal unease following 9/11. It has been a hard 20 years. American Muslims have had to fortify their psyche and develop emotional tools to navigate the fears that others have of them. Although on the surface, American Muslims have fared well since 9/11, below the successes and behind the smiles is something else.
American Muslims suffer. Reported hate incidents increased after 9/11 and remain high. Recent research in JAMA Psychiatry outlines how their mental health has deteriorated over the years, with high rates of suicide attempts. They feel under surveillance at work, mosques and in daily life. Dozens of charities exist to help Muslims get support for mental health, discrimination and hate, and knowledge of their legal rights. These new efforts came about because of the growing need to support American Muslims. The emotional and psychological experience of living as a Muslim in America is difficult. Living with the feeling that you don’t belong to the country that you call home and that you love is painful.
Following the attacks, elected officials knew that the public narrative had to be that Islam was not responsible for them. The separation of Islam the religion from terrorists claiming to speak on behalf of all Muslims was treated as a national-security concern both domestically and internationally. Messaging had to be swift. Terrorists claimed to be real Muslims. America had to show that we knew that this was not true; we had to send a message that we respected people of all faiths, including American Muslims.
As an official in the administrations of both George W. Bush and Barack Obama, debunking faulty narratives, building trust and engaging with Muslims was a central part of my work. There was a barrage of speeches, events and photo-ops to signal to the American public, but also the world, that Americans understood that al-Qaeda did not represent the vast majority of Muslims. For their part, American Muslims felt required to publicly demonstrate that they were against the attacks lest anyone think they approved of what happened. (Other religious groups generally don’t need to make such public remonstrations when an adherent commits a vile act). Efforts were made to make American Muslims feel safe.
Though the initial efforts were successful, they had only a limited impact on the collective narrative. Muslims remained the “other”, even if violence against them was not always acute. People were suspicious and afraid of people that “looked Muslim”. It fundamentally changed the emotional, psychological and intellectual atmosphere within America. This played out in all kinds of ways.
Before 9/11 you could go about your life as an American Muslim and no one asked questions about how you prayed, how often you prayed and how religious you were. It was hard to imagine that a colleague at work would ask, “Are you a practising Muslim?”, or that a stranger would remark upon hearing your name, “Are you a Muslim?”
But the world after 9/11 meant that American Muslims were careful in ways they had not needed to be before. Some changed the way they dressed so they were not targeted. Others tried not to mention their religion. Identity and belonging became a central aspect of daily life. American Muslims continue to this day to think about who they are, how they belong to the whole, how to raise their kids and what they can do to make sure they are safe. Whereas before, American Muslims were not forced to consider those aspects of identity, in post 9/11 America they had to.
One of the hardest aspects of life after 9/11 is that there is always the question of loyalty to America, asked by non-Muslims and, worse, by political leaders. President Donald Trump’s rhetoric was hurtful and brought back narratives that had waned.
The atmosphere after the attacks pushed American Muslims, who were initially on the defensive, to become more engaged in public life. They created new organisations and built new alliances with other minority groups that faced similar challenges. American Muslims became more politically active and began to carve out a new narrative around being Muslim in America. The old narrative was one of questionable loyalty or insignificance; the new narrative was of involvement, action and pride.
They re-examined their past and sought to include the history of Islam in America as part of the national conversation. (By one estimate, as many as 30% of enslaved people who arrived in North America were Muslim.) They are making films and television shows about their experiences, and launching podcasts to discuss identity and belonging. American Muslims—in particular Millennials and Gen Zs—are now in fields that had not been part of their traditional, cultural professional paths, such journalism, comedy and fashion.
A narrative of one’s own
After 9/11, American Muslims could have decided to do nothing and let others continue to define them. But they did not. Despite what these two decades have wrought, despite the continual anxiety in a myriad of settings, despite the hate crimes, despite the prejudice of the far right that stokes the fires of fear— despite it all, American Muslims have reshaped their impact on the American lived experience. They have built new narratives about the diversity of Islam in America and why it matters.
Yet despite the transformation, all is not well. And one cannot dismiss the difficulties by saying that American Muslims are more engaged in American life than ever. Being clear-eyed about why the change happened is crucial: a survival mechanism to resist pain and isolation. And hate is on the rise in America; it is a growth industry. Even if more American Muslims are woven into mainstream society, there are still fears about safety and still questions about belonging.
The news of the Taliban reasserting control in Afghanistan once again brings images of brutality and hatred of America to the national conversation. A burden on American Muslims to explain events and prove one’s loyalty again presents itself, though differently. For those who grew up as American Muslims after 9/11, they never knew a time when they were not questioned about their faith, culture or heritage. In ways large and small, the idea that you do not belong is a part of our American way of life.
Farah Pandith was an official in the administrations of presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. She was the director for Middle East regional initiatives at the National Security Council in 2004-07, and in 2009 was named special representative to Muslim communities by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. She served on the Homeland Security Advisory Council in 2015-17, chairing the subcommittee on countering violent extremism. She is the author of “How We Win: How Cutting-Edge Entrepreneurs, Political Visionaries, Enlightened Business Leaders and Social Media Mavens Can Defeat the Extremist Threat” (HarperCollins, 2019).