How the War on Terror Created the “Muslim American”

Before 9/11, Muslims were just another of this country’s many religious groups. After, they became a targeted, racialized minority.

On September 12, 2001, the day after horrific terrorist attacks shook the country, The New York Times published an editorial titled “The National Defense.” In it, the paper focused on “the urgent work of determining how an open and democratic society can better defend itself” against terrorism. Sandwiched between several security-related policy suggestions, the Times sounded this note of caution:

“President Bush and Congress must carefully balance the need for heightened security with the need to protect the constitutional rights of Americans. That includes Americans of Islamic descent, who could now easily become the target for another period of American xenophobia and ethnic discrimination.”

The warning was prescient, and we Muslims have indeed been living with dangerous xenophobia and discrimination these past 20 years. But, to be honest, the Times chose a weird way to describe us: “Americans of Islamic descent.” Nor was this odd phrasing unique to the paper. Near the beginning of the Patriot Act, the key piece of legislation passed in the wake of 9/11, is this sentence: “When American citizens commit acts of violence against those who are, or are perceived to be, of Arab or Muslim descent, they should be punished to the full extent of the law.”

What should we make of this peculiar emphasis on “Muslim descent”? “Descent,” after all, refers to something that is inherited, but Islam is a universal religion. Its message is directed to everyone, and anyone can be or become Muslim. In fact, the latest data from the Pew Research Center indicates that about one in five Muslims in the United States is a convert to the faith. The idea of “Muslim descent” presumably wouldn’t apply to these new Muslims. Yet the phrase is clearly signifying something, so what exactly does it mean?

I would argue that it means race, that most American way of organizing the world, and Muslims have become the latest hue added to the 21st century’s color line. It doesn’t matter that Islam is more properly considered a religion or that Muslims come in every shade and tone. Race thinking has never truly been about the fine points of scientific precision; it has always been about the brute facts of domination.

And domination has been what we’ve faced for 20 years now. Since 9/11, Muslims in the United States have been formed into what the political theorist Mahmood Mamdani, in another context, calls a “permanent minority.” Our differences from the majority have been used as techniques of rule, as ways of consolidating the majority’s opinion and power.

Overnight, we “Muslim Americans” went from being just another of the United States’ multitudinous religious groups to occupying a new and highly targeted administrative category—one in which we are now collectively seen as a threat, regardless of our individual actions or beliefs, as if danger is a dominant gene passed down to us by our Muslim ancestors. We are a group to be spied on, infiltrated, managed, excluded, expelled, surveyed, studied, interrogated, and subjected not only to populist wrath but also, though less often, to popular sympathy. And all of this occurs simply because of our presumed Muslimness.

In fact, Muslim Americans were not just racialized after 9/11; we were invented. The term barely existed in the popular imagination before 2001. A Nexis database search of “Muslim American” in news sources prior to September 10, 2001 (going back to a start date of January 1, 1986), reveals a scant 437 mentions. Since September 11, there have been more than 10,000, the upper limit of the database. Put another way, almost no one talked about Muslim Americans before 9/11. Then everyone did.

This is not to say that Muslims didn’t exist in the United States before that terrible day two decades ago. Muslims were in the Americas before Protestantism even emerged in Europe. First shipped from Africa as enslaved laborers, Muslims have a long and storied history in the United States, one that predates the founding of the republic. Historians have documented Muslims who fought in the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Civil War, and every other major conflict fought by the United States. Muslims in America have fashioned the American landscape by engineering new modes of building skyscrapers. They have made Nobel Prize–winning discoveries in chemistry and have changed the soundscapes of American music forever. Some, like Muhammad Ali, are remembered among our most treasured athletes, and some, like Malcolm X, are revered (though once hated) for their fight for civil rights. They were all Muslims in America, but none was Muslim American. That came later, after September 11, 2001.

The creation of the Muslim American, and the category’s simultaneous placement on the color line, has had several consequences. For one thing, it has largely severed the history of Islam in America from its African roots, turning it, in American popular discourse, into the nearly exclusive domain of contemporary brown-skinned immigrant populations. The Muslim American threat has fed the image that Muslims are forever outsiders to the country as well as a monolith of potential danger, ready to erupt at any time if the government does not act to protect the nation. By painting us with broad brushstrokes of generalized fear and suspicion, the racialization of Muslim Americans has by now produced its own political legacy, one that has structured the thinking of each post-9/11 president, from George W. Bush to Barack Obama to Donald Trump.

In late 2002, the Bush administration rolled out the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System, which required all nonimmigrant males who were 16 years of age or older and from one of 24 Muslim-majority countries (or North Korea) to register with the government. (The program was directed at Muslim men and boys without a green card or citizenship, such as international students or visitors.) What appeared as a country-specific policy was really an administrative sleight of hand. As David Harris, a law professor and national expert on racial profiling, told a Senate hearing about NSEERS in 2012, “Muslims were targeted by using a convenient proxy characteristic: national origin.”

NSEERS led to an emptying of Muslims from America, as thousands of men and boys were placed in deportation proceedings and many more left of their own volition. Brooklyn’s Pakistani community was reported to have lost more than 20,000 people at the time. Under NSEERS, thousands of people were detained, often wrongfully, for possible visa violations, and the program broke apart families, causing untold trauma across the country. Not a single terrorism conviction ever resulted from the program.

And it was humiliating. Those registering with NSEERS, whether already in the country or just entering it, were treated like criminals: fingerprinted, photographed, and aggressively interrogated. At the time, secularly minded Muslim friends told me they had never felt more singled out for being Muslim, a new experience for them. Unsurprisingly, they also deeply resented having to prove that they were not terrorists during their interviews. My Egyptian-born father, a Canadian citizen nearing 70 at the time, told me in no uncertain terms that he would not suffer the indignity: If I wanted to see him, I would have to go to Canada. Even though the program was suspended in late 2003 (and eventually, if belatedly, rescinded in 2016), he has never been back to the United States.

NSEERS was not the only program that cast a broad net over Muslim Americans, as if we were not people with rights but fish to be trawled. For years, the New York Police Department, in East German Stasi-like fashion, kept secret files on Muslim Americans, using what it called “mosque crawlers” (paid informants) and “mosque rakers” (plainclothes officers) to collect information on which Muslims in the tristate area were praying at which mosques, which television channels were being watched in cafes frequented by Muslims, where Muslims went for haircuts, and much more. The police infiltrated student groups and community organizations, attempting to goad Muslims into uttering incriminating statements about jihad and terrorism. After the Associated Press exposed the program, the NYPD had to account for its practices. And guess what? The program never produced a single lead or generated even one terrorism investigation.

Then, in 2011, the Obama administration inaugurated its Countering Violent Extremism program, which again largely stigmatized Muslim communities while achieving next to nothing beyond making Muslims look even more suspicious. A major component of CVE was to recruit social workers, community leaders, religious figures, and others to help the government identify people who were “at risk” of becoming terrorists. But as Brennan Center fellow Emmanuel Mauleón put it in the online journal Just Security, CVE “relies on the disproven assumption that we can prevent terrorism by monitoring people who express ‘bad ideas.’”

The mindset behind CVE, however, wasn’t just about such idea patrolling, a clear violation of the First Amendment. Virtually anything could invite scrutiny. Back in 2014, an attorney in Minneapolis told me the story of a potential client of hers, a young Somali student at the University of Minnesota who needed to earn some extra income. He was hoping to become a taxi driver in Chicago. One day, during a class break, his professor saw the young man assiduously studying a list of addresses (which he needed to know for the taxi exam). Alarmed, she called the police, who called the FBI, which came and took the young man away for questioning. He was furious, the attorney told me, but didn’t want to proceed with a lawsuit, afraid that if he made a fuss, the FBI would open a file on him.

All of these examples occurred before Donald Trump formally entered national politics. Then, in December 2015, Trump began demanding “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States,” as we all remember. Within months, anti-Muslim hate crimes rose, reaching new heights in both 2016 and 2017, surpassing the previous record from 2001. Even then, Trump continued to spout and spew and share outrageously anti-Muslim tweets, instrumentalizing Islamophobic sentiment in his political discourse.

But Trump’s signal achievement in the annals of Muslim American life didn’t come from him directly. That feat was accomplished when the Supreme Court upheld his Muslim ban on June 26, 2018, continuing a legacy of American racism in the court’s decisions that goes back to its support for Japanese internment (1944), Chinese exclusion (1888), and Black enslavement (1856, in the Dred Scott case, when the court ruled that Black people, after having literally helped build this nation with their unpaid labor, should not be considered citizens).

This American desire to withhold citizenship from the marginalized and the vulnerable never seems to fade away. A 2018 survey by the nonpartisan Democracy Fund found that one in six Americans would deny Muslim citizens the right to vote.

What has the racialization of Muslim Americans accomplished over these years? For one thing, it has enabled the dramatic expansion of our post-9/11 national security state. After the terrorist attacks, the FBI fundamentally restructured its operations, prioritizing counterterrorism, and Muslim communities across the country had to respond by holding regular “know your rights” workshops, often addressing the question of what to do when you think someone in your mosque is an informant. That was the new reality. And yet the rationale for this degree of law enforcement infiltration was always questionable. Since 9/11, the US government has arrested and prosecuted 972 people, mostly Muslims, on terrorism charges. But according to The Intercept, which keeps a comprehensive database on these cases, the vast majority of those prosecuted were nowhere near committing a violent act.

Of course, terrorism is a serious problem, and as a society we should always be working toward the eradication of political violence. But if you see only terrorism lurking behind Muslim Americans, not only are you painting your world with a wide (and, ultimately, racist) brush, but you will also miss all the other acts of terrorism happening in front of your eyes.

For 20 years now, we Muslim Americans have individually and collectively had to repudiate acts that we had nothing to do with while simultaneously proving our patriotism, seemingly ad nauseam. And still, it was never enough. Remember Pastor Terry Jones and his Burn the Quran Day? Or the frenzy around the proposed Islamic Center in downtown Manhattan (the so-called Ground Zero mosque)? Or, similar to today’s conservative hallucination that critical race theory is hastening the demise of America, all the useless anti-Sharia bills introduced in over 40 states?

Nor has this level of scrutiny been confined to some loony right-wing fringe. Who remembers Bill Clinton’s speech at the 2016 Democratic National Convention? In it, he said: “If you’re a Muslim and you love America and freedom and you hate terror, stay here and help us win and make a future together. We want you.” Well, you know something? Bill Clinton’s citizenship isn’t contingent on my opinion of his beliefs. Mine shouldn’t be on his, either.

But more than all of the above, the racialization of Muslims at home has rationalized the expansion of the War on Terror abroad, just as the War on Terror abroad fuels the racialization of Muslims at home. Each feeds the other in a dismal process of mutual dependency, though the sides are hardly equivalent. The destruction wrought by 20 years of war-making has been infinitely worse for those overseas than for us Muslim Americans. The statistics make for grim reading. According to Brown University’s Costs of War Project, the United States’ post-9/11 wars have killed over 800,000 people. At least 37 million people have been displaced, and a whopping 85 countries now have US anti-terror operations going on within them. The wars will end up costing the US taxpayer an obscene $8 trillion. To the people of Afghanistan and Iraq, the losses are, of course, incalculable.

Muslim Americans understand that we sit at this key juncture of US domestic politics and foreign policy. Our fight against Islamophobia at home is a way to oppose these wars abroad, just as our opposition to the War on Terror overseas is a way of fighting Islamophobia at home. And while it’s true that we are a complex and multifaceted community—some segments of which even supported Trump, just as religiously conservative Muslims sometimes disagree with politically liberal ones—we continue to lean left in the aftermath of 2001. More Muslim Americans support Black Lives Matter than any other faith group. Among America’s religious communities, only Jewish Americans are more willing to support building coalitions with LGBTQ activists. And when compared with the other faith communities and the general public, Muslim Americans are the most likely group to reject military attacks on civilians.

One of the most underappreciated results of the September 11 attacks is not the manufacture of a racialized Muslim American but the formation of an active and progressive Muslim American community. We have taken an identity foisted on us and have put it to good oppositional use. And we will continue to do so. It’s high time that we push hard on the current American president to end these forever wars and to dismantle the structures that buttress Islamophobic policies wherever they are. These actions are not only worth believing in but also offer a profound way to honor every innocent life lost on 9/11 and after. Forget the myths about our Muslim descent. Twenty years after 9/11, what really matters—and what will continue to matter—is something else: our Muslim dissent.

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