9/11 and the Rise of Islamophobia


As we pass the 21st anniversary of 9/11, we must remember to not only reflect on the lives lost within the towers and airplanes, but also the millions of Muslims, Arabs, and South Asian individuals living in the United States whose lives were forever altered as they became the targets of hate crimes, government surveillance, and were painted as the new face of terrorism. 9/11 not only changed the country, but brought us into a bloody war that perpetuated long standing conflicts in the Middle East. 


Americans watched in shock as they turned on their televisions to see the world trade center, the two iconic “twin towers”,  being engulfed in flames after two planes crashed into the buildings. The towers were a center of American commerce and the office spaces of around 50,000 individuals. The third plane crashed into the Pentagon, and the fourth into a field in Pennsylvania as passengers took back control of the aircraft, but it is assumed that it was headed towards the White House. New York went into a state of panic as emergency responders worked rapidly to recover those on the upper stories and put out the fire, as the city watched smoke from their balconies. Nearly 3,000 people were killed, the largest terrorist attack on American soil since Pearl Harbor. 


Most 9/11 anniversaries focus on those in the towers and airplanes; however it is entirely impossible to tell the story of that day without shedding light on the AMEMSA (Arab, Middle Eastern, Muslim, and South Asian) community and how they too were victims of the attack. 


In the months following 9/11, xenophobic bigots used fear as a tool for their their anti-Muslim agenda. A a result of this rhetoric, mosques were burned down or received bomb threats, Muslims and Sikhs were attacked in the streets, sometimes at gunpoint, and faced countless verbal assaults. On the 11th alone, a Muslim man was held at gunpoint and an Islamic Center received a threatening phone call, two of twelve reported incidents in the month of September. A list compiled by the Southern Poverty Law Center documents countless instances of vandalism and attacks on Arab owned businesses; a molotov cocktail was thrown at an Arab convenience store, multiple store owners were killed outside their own businesses, and a swastika was found spray painted along with the phrase “Go home Arab”. An incident was reported of a man smashing the windows of a bar after just seeing Middle Eastern men. Two young teens harassed an 8 year old Muslim child, yelling for him to “go back to Iraq”. The attacks didn’t stop at businesses or in public- families were targeted in their own homes; a family found a bomb outside of their house. Additionally, it is critical to note that Sikhs and South Asians were also the targets of white supremacist attacks after being mistaken to be Muslim or of Middle Eastern descent. Individuals were harassed in the streets, students in their schools, and mosques & temples were burglarized.  These are just a few of hundreds of incidents that would be impossible to list here. Experiences also differed for each person. The AMEMSA community is not a monolith, and there are multiple intersections with identity, such as gender and race, that contribute to experience. However, to get an idea of just how intense the Islamophobia was, according to the FBI, between 2000-2001, anti-Muslim attacks rose a staggering 1617%.  However, these are just reported incidents. It is more than reasonable to assume that the number is much higher because many people were afraid to speak out. Especially, considering the government surveillance and policies directed at Muslims in the United States.  


Islamophobia didn’t stop at the American public- it was running wild in the American government as well.  Starting with the New York Police Department. The Associated Press in 2012 reported that the NYPD had established the “Demographics Unit” and placed undercover officers in predominantly Muslim neighborhoods in New York and instituted “mosque crawlers” to report on mosque activity. Neighborhoods had become infiltrated with officers secretly listening on everyday life, a policy that is extremely unconstitutional. This placed an immense amount of fear in these communities, especially surrounding deportation. And, unsurprisingly, in six years of surveillance, not a single connection or lead to terrorism was found.


Further surveillance arose on the national level. In 2002, the “Special Registration” program was rolled out. This program, put forward by Attorney General John Ashcroft, required a list of all men from a list of predominantly Muslim countries, to report to federal offices to be fingerprinted. Oftentimes, this would entail encounters with immigration officers, heightening fears regarding deportation, a valid fear that turned into a terrifying reality. Men were quite literally disappearing from their communities and their families had no idea where they went. Individuals were detained or “held until cleared”, a policy that unlawfully detained men, primarily, for months on end where they endured physical and verbal abuses at the Metropolitan Detention Center, with zero ties to terrorism. One Pakistani family recalls returning home to find their father, as well as their computers, vanished; they had no idea where he was for three months. Arrests were based on insufficient and fabricated “evidence”, including blueprints that were simply for a school construction project. After being pulled into detention, officers would file deportations on the basis of overstayed visas, destroying families who are still in a state of panic as their loved ones are vanishing.

Islamophobia has persisted, and even grown over the years. According to this graph compiled by the Pew Research Center using FBI data, anti-Muslim attacks were at an all time high in 2016. Not so coincidentally aligning with the dawn of the Trump administration, that frequently spewed rhetoric that normalized Islamophobia. In November 2015, Trump stated on national television that following 9/11, “there were people over in New Jersey that were watching it, a heavy Arab population, that were cheering as the buildings came down. Not good.”. He stated the next year on CNN that there was a “tremendous hatred” associated with Islam. This culminated with one of the first actions of his presidency being the Muslim ban that barred immigrants from a list of  seven majority Muslim countries from entering the country, including Syrian refugees.


Protests erupted across the country in response to the 2016 Muslim ban

9/11 forever changed the face of terrorism. It created no basis for the definition of what terrorism is, except your heritage, the color of your skin, and the religion you practice. Terrorism is not, “violent acts or acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or of any State…”- terrorism is a Muslim. Terrrorism is now the Muslim family boarding their flight, and not neo-Nazis organizing a violent “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville. Terrorism is Muslims praying in public, and not white supremacists performing massacres in schools, churches and grocery stores. Terrorism is a hijabi woman, and not “protestors” staging an insurrection on the capital. Terrorism is a Muslim representative in the House, and not the Ku Klux Klan terrorizing communities for generations. Additionally, xenophobic groups argue the entirety of Islam is “radical”. Why is Christian extremism not discussed? Why is it only the Koran that supposedly “condones” violence and inspires groups such as Al-Qaeda and ISIS,  and not the “Army of God”that encourages violence against healthcare providers that perform abortions- one of their members refers to his murders as a “righteous crusade”.  Or the KKK and their “Kloran” or the “Phineas Priesthood” that considers themselves martyrs for the white race. These radical terrorists frequently use religious imagery and biblical references to “justify” their violence. However, Christianity is not tainted in the public eye because of these groups, rather labeling them as “bad apples” or downright denying their religious ties. So, even though 1.8 billion people around the world are Muslim, the actions of a minority of radicals define the entire religion in the United States. Also note that according to the FBI, 94% of terrorist attacks were organized by non-Muslims between 1980-2005.


9/11 has an enduring legacy that reminds America of unity in times of crisis and tragedy, but its legacy of Islamophobia and xenophobia that rose as a result of the attack cannot be ignored. Additionally, it must be understood that Islamophobia wasn’t created after 9/11; it was always there and not just in the United States. Islamophobia is a new word, but it mirrors the concept of Orientalism (for further understanding of this theory, Orientalism by Edward Said is astounding). Rather, according to Hussam Ayloush, director of the Council of American-Islam relations, 9/11 was, “a perfect storm of the American people and its government needing a common ‘enemy’”. Furthermore, as we remember the resilience of the country in the aftermath of the attacks, remember the resilience and perseverance of the AMEMSA community.



ABC News

Associated Press News 

American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)

ACLU Washington 



Equal Justice Initiative 


NYCLU: ACLU of New York

PBS News

Pew Research Center


Southern Poverty Law Center


Watson Institute of International and Public Affairs at Brown University