American Muslims recall how hate and scrutiny after 9-11 changed their lives

Mohamad Nasser, center bottom, and wife, Sara, third from left, top row, raised eight children, some pictured, through and after 9/11 at their Riverside home on Wednesday, Sept. 1, 2021. Mohamad, an electrical engineer, was asked by human resources to speak to colleagues about his culture and religion which was well received. Sara recalls how total strangers would approach her in the grocery store and express empathy for her during the time. (Photo by Cindy Yamanaka, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)
Mohamad Nasser, center bottom, and wife, Sara, third from left, top row, raised eight children, some pictured, through and after 9/11 at their Riverside home on Wednesday, Sept. 1, 2021. Mohamad, an electrical engineer, was asked by human resources to speak to colleagues about his culture and religion which was well received. Sara recalls how total strangers would approach her in the grocery store and express empathy for her during the time. (Photo by Cindy Yamanaka, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)

By DEEPA BHARATH | | Orange County RegisterPUBLISHED: September 8, 2021 at 2:40 p.m. | UPDATED: September 8, 2021 at 3:13 p.m.

Jihad Turk is the founding president and Dean of Bayan Islamic Graduate School. (Photo by Jeff Gritchen, Orange County Register/SCNG)

Jihad Turk gets emotional thinking about his hijab-wearing wife who stayed home for several weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks.

Twenty years later, Turk, the founding president and dean of the Bayan Islamic Graduate School in Orange, says the hate against Muslims immediately after 9/11, largely fueled by fear and ignorance, still stings.ADVERTISING

Eventually, when his wife ventured out again, Turk said, she was met with two distinct reactions.

“You had those who made snide comments. Those were the few,” he recalled. “And then you had others who would go out of their way to make her feel welcome in America.”

In the aftermath of 9/11, two Americas were exposed, Turk said, one that spews hateful rhetoric and acts violently against Muslims or those perceived to be Muslim, and the other, which represents the majority, that showed up to mosques in support of the community and were curious and eager to learn about Islam.

In the past two decades, the Muslim community has launched a significant, multi-pronged response to confront misunderstandings about their faith and culture. Imams and community leaders became much more active in interfaith programs. Mosques opened their doors to all, welcoming their neighbors on special holidays such as during the month of Ramadan — sharing meals, stories and knowledge.

Meanwhile, Muslim organizations have ramped up advocacy efforts in Washington, D.C., and at the state and local level to counter a host of issues ranging from scrutiny of Muslim travelers to battling discrimination and harassment at the workplace to bullying on school campuses.

Islamophobia takes root

Despite work on many fronts to address Islamophobia in the U.S., anti-Muslim hate crimes that surged to record highs after 9/11 never returned to “pre-attack levels,” said Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at Cal State San Bernardino.

According to Levin, hate crimes against Muslims, Arabs and others, such as members of the Sikh community who were perceived as Muslims or as bearing resemblance to the 9/11 attackers, combined to make 2001 the worst year for overall hate crime since the FBI began to record such activity in 1992.

Since 2001, the FBI reports, Muslims have been the second-most targeted group for hate crimes motivated by religion following Jews, who in 2018 accounted for 12% of all hate crime.

Levin said over the past 20 years, spikes in hate crimes against Muslims appeared to correspond not just to terror attacks involving individuals with Muslim names, but also to derisive statements made by politicians and media references tied to those events.

He pointed out some of the events that led to surges in hate crimes against Muslims including the December 2015 terror attack in San Bernardino, the Pulse night club shooting in June 2016, then-presidential candidate Donald Trump’s rhetoric leading up to the November 2016 election, and former President Trump’s proposed Muslim travel ban in 2017.

Before 9/11, many were simply curious about Islam and Muslims, Levin said.

“After 9/11, everyone became an expert on Islam,” he said. “We had a feedback loop, which involves an unfortunate and lucrative Islamophobia industry.”

Groups such as Act for America, which is listed by the Southern Poverty Law Center as an anti-Muslim hate group, saw significant growth, Levin said.

“These groups’ existence became dependent on finding the worst people who call themselves Muslim and equating their actions to the remaining 1.5 billion Muslims in the world,” he said.

Los Angeles County saw one of its sharpest spikes in hate crimes after 9/11, said Robin S. Toma, executive director of the Los Angeles County Human Relations Commission. Toma, whose parents are Americans of Japanese and Okinawan ancestry, said 9/11 stoked fear and suspicion against a community whose members were already viewed as outsiders.

“It was similar to the fear and suspicion of Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor,” said Toma, whose mother and her family were imprisoned in U.S. internment camps solely because of their Japanese ancestry.

The level of ignorance and fear is “on a different level” with Muslims, he said.

“We don’t start on a level playing field,” Toma said. “There is inequity in the respect and understanding of different religions. We need to broaden that sense of family or community. The resurgence of interfaith solidarity after 9/11 helped greatly and we’ve built on that with programs like LA vs. Hate to unify, resist against and report hate.”

Muslims marginalized

Organizations such as the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) and the Muslim Public Affairs Council stepped up to advocate for the community. CAIR in particular has, over the past two decades, moved to include a variety of programs targeting discrimination, bullying on campuses, scrutiny of Muslims at airports and immigration-related issues.

“9/11 forced us to get deeper into the work, but it also added areas of work we hadn’t done before,” said Hussam Ayloush, executive director of the CAIR’s Los Angeles chapter, which is based in Anaheim. “The deliberate attempt to create fear of Islam and marginalize Muslims has thrived because it played into the public’s fear and their lack of understanding of Islam. 9/11 made Islamophobia an industry.”

That prompted his organization to grow and hire more people to address a growing number of cases involving discrimination, harassment and school bullying.

“We started to document not just hate crimes and incidents, but also other abuses,” Ayloush said. “We started working with allies, academia and government agencies to make sure these issues are being addressed.”

Another negative that was born out of 9/11, one Ayloush says American Muslims may have to deal with for a long time to come, is the way law enforcement officials view the community.

“We’re constantly seen from the prism of national security,” he said. “The surveillance of mosques, the watchlists we have to endure at the border, the closing down of Muslim-owned bank accounts, visa processing delays, the Muslim bans — these are all manifestations of that.”

Muslims in America live under the weight of a binary cultural perception, Ayloush said.

“Either you’re a terrorist or you help catch a terrorist,” he said. “But we’re neither terrorists nor do we have any idea where to find terrorists. We’re seen as Muslims first and as human beings later. And that’s something we’ll have to live with for a long time to come.”

While mosques and Muslims have become more engaged in their communities in the past two decades, Ayloush said, the post-9/11 era has led to the demonization of political activism, causing spiritual leaders or imams to self-censor.

“If you’re a vocal imam who addresses social justice and political issues, it’s very likely you won’t be hired by your mosque’s board,” he said. “American Muslims are no longer allowed to have dissenting political views and if you do that, you are deemed un-American. A Muslim might say the exact same thing as a White American, but it comes off differently when a Muslim says it. We are held to a different standard.”

Defending the faith

When the hijacked planes hit the twin towers Mohamad Nasser was an electrical engineer and father of five, living what he calls a “normal” life in San Diego. His daughter, Amber, was born in August 2001.

“I was a Boy Scout leader and heavily involved in the community,” he said. “But suddenly after 9/11, I got bombarded by media outlets.”

Nasser, 52, of Riverside, was a native of Lebanon who immigrated to the U.S. as a 15-year-old after civil war erupted in his home country. Soon after 9/11, he found he’d become a spokesperson for Muslims, a role he never thought he would assume.

“I found myself at the forefront of trying to explain Islam people,” he said. “The local paper wrote a story about me with the title ‘Defender of the faith.’ That’s how I felt. I found myself constantly trying to explain my faith to people.”

Nasser and his wife, Sara, raised eight children in a post-9/11 world and that came with its own set of challenges, he said. For the most part, his neighbors and community members have been supportive of his family, Nasser said.

“But if there was a silver lining (from 9/11) I think it was all the open houses at mosques and people wanting to learn and improve their understanding about Islam,” he said. “People fear what they don’t know.”

Hannah Nasser, 20, remembers on 9/11 how all classmates eyes were on her and her hijab (head scarf) at her Riverside home on Wednesday, Sept. 1, 2021. Her older sister had her hijab forcibly pulled off by a male student who the high school swiftly expelled. (Photo by Cindy Yamanaka, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)

Education and service

Imam Muzammil Siddiqi, who heads the Islamic Society of Orange County, one of the largest, oldest and most diverse mosques in Southern California, said his goal as a spiritual leader after 9/11 has been to educate the larger community about Islam.

“When 9/11 happened, people thought that Islam had done that,” he said. “There was so much propaganda against Islam. Islamophobia increased. Mosques were attacked, vandalized and even burned. We were very thankful that a lot of Americans — peace- and justice-loving people — stood with us and supported us.”

Siddiqi said some of his congregants also lost family members in the 9/11 terror attacks.

“It’s important to remember that many of those killed were Muslims,” he said.

The imam said, over the years, his participation in interfaith activities has helped bring different faith leaders to the mosque.

“They visited our mosque and we visited their places of worship,” he said. “That helped build better understanding between our communities.”

Other Muslim groups have engaged in educational efforts as well.

The Ahmadiyya Muslim community, whose Southern California chapter is headquartered in Chino, played a deliberate and prominent role in educating Americans about Islam. The Ahmadis, a minority group who see themselves as an Islamic sect, revere their founder, Mirza Ghulam Ahmed, as a prophet. This view was controversial in their native Pakistan, which led many, including the sect’s current leader, to flee.

“As a minority community that fled persecution, we felt we were ideally positioned to educate folks about Islam,” said Amjad Mahmood Khan, the group’s national director of public affairs. “Our goal initially was to explain to people how Islam is completely different from the ideology of the 9/11 hijackers. It’s been a slow-burning task.”

The Ahmadiyya community also launched a long-standing campaign called “Muslims for Loyalty,” built on the premise that one of the basic principles of Islam is to be loyal to the country one calls home.

“There is no division of loyalty between being a Muslim and being an American,” Khan said. “We sent a clear message that we have an obligation to protect our country even if it means opposing those who claim to be Muslim and peddle hate against America.”

The community also launched a blood-drive campaign called Muslims for Life on the 10th anniversary of 9/11, which continues today each year to commemorate the day, he said. Khan said his community firmly believes that the way to fight hate is through education and courage.

“The worst thing you can do in the face of hate is to cower in silence,” he said. “If there is any time to show the courage of your conviction, it is during a time of heightened Islamophobia. I believe that people of faith, the interfaith community, are first responders against hate.”

Deepa Bharath | Reporter

Deepa Bharath covers religion for The Orange County Register and the Southern California Newspaper Group. Her work is focused on how religion, race and ethnicity shape our understanding of what it is to be American and how religion in particular helps influence public policies, laws and a region’s culture. Deepa also writes about race, cultures and social justice issues. She has covered a number of other beats ranging from city government to breaking news for the Register since May 2006. She has received fellowships from the International Women’s Media Foundation and the International Center for Journalists to report stories about reconciliation, counter-extremism and peace-building efforts around the world. When she is not working, she loves listening to Indian classical music and traveling with her husband and Follow Deepa Bharath @reporterdeepa


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