Twenty years later, the memory of being in class on September 11, 2001, when two planes hit the Twin Towers in New York City, remains vivid in Mona Amer’s mind. Then a Toledo, Ohio, graduate student, Amer gathered around a television in a common room with fellow classmates and professors.
“I remember feeling the shock, fear, confusion and despair of watching the towers crashing to the ground, and the reports of firefighters and police scrambling to save lives,” she recalls. “When the news channels started speculating on the Muslim and Arab background of those steering the planes, I started to feel the world closing in on me. I felt separated from everyone else who was watching the news and instantly knew that my life would change after that.”
The September 11 attacks were a series of four coordinated events. Hijackers steered two passenger planes into the Twin Towers in New York, while another plane dived into the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia. The fourth — possibly bound for the U.S. Capitol or the White House — crashed in a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, after passengers fought the hijackers for control of the plane. Almost 3,000 people were killed in the attacks. The 19 hijackers, primarily from Saudi Arabia, were later revealed to be affiliated with al-Qaida’s Osama bin Laden.
As a Muslim woman who wears a headscarf, Amer says she experienced discrimination prior to 9/11, “such as apartment communities claiming they no longer had empty apartments after they saw me.” Yet now she felt the relentless stares of strangers everywhere she went. She started to monitor her behavior in public spaces, even going so far as to temporarily abandon her research project.
“I was studying acculturation and mental health of Arab Americans at the time, and I was advised by my faculty supervisors to temporarily put my research on hold to not attract surveillance of authorities,” she says. “After I later returned to the research and publicized some of the results in the media, I received horrid emails, including death threats.”
Amer was among the many Arab Americans and Muslim Americans who were triply traumatized by the terror attacks, says Wahiba Abu-Ras, a professor in the School of Social Work at Adelphi University in Garden City, New York.
“First, they were affected by the trauma itself, as it was a horrifying attack,” says Abu-Ras, who is also associate editor of the Journal of Muslim Mental Health. “Second, they were traumatized by the attacks and the backlash they received from their counterparts … the American population. And third, by the policies created by the government that really scrutinized Arab Americans, and they put them as targets for discrimination and for harassment.”
U.S. government "anti-terrorism" policies and initiatives launched after the terrorist attacks indiscriminately targeted Arabs and Muslims in the United States. Of the 20 or so policies and initiatives implemented in the first 12 months after 9/11, 15 explicitly targeted Arabs and Muslims.
For example, in November 2001, the Justice Department said it planned to interview 5,000 people from Arab and Muslim countries who were in the United States on nonimmigrant visas. These people would be questioned about their knowledge of terrorist activity.
And in June 2002, all men from certain Arab and Muslim countries were required to report to the government to register and be fingerprinted. In May 2011, the administration of President Barack Obama indefinitely suspended the program. Tens of thousands of people registered, but no terrorism-related conviction was ever made as a result of the program, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.
Meanwhile, the New York Police Department was busy infiltrating Muslim student groups, and putting Muslim-owned businesses, restaurants, and community organizations under surveillance. The NYPD even sponsored youth soccer and cricket teams to spy on the young people who played on them. The spying program, which lasted from 2002 until 2014, extended to Pennsylvania, Connecticut, New Jersey and beyond. The NYPD later acknowledged that the program led to no leads or arrests.
The increased surveillance shined a spotlight on Arab Americans and Muslim Americans, who had long been somewhat invisible to a government that still does not recognize Arab Americans as a minority group. The government defined racial minorities in the 1970s as only certain groups.
“Invisible in so many ways. Invisible in the organization of civil rights groups protesting discrimination. Invisible in textbooks on racial and ethnic groups in the United States. Invisible in trainings on diversity and inclusion, and this remains the case today,” says Louise Cainkar, a professor of social and cultural sciences at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. “So, this is how they're invisible. It's like they're widely discriminated against, and pretty much everybody knows it. And yet, they're not sitting at the table of those groups.”
Even today, there is no category for Arab Americans in the U.S. Census.
“They went from invisibility prior to 9/11 to this hypervisibility, where all of them became suspects,” Cainkar says. “It's like under the radar of federal government, state and local government data collection because of this definition that was put out in the 1970s of who suffers discrimination in this country. So, Arab Americans are counted as whites in the census, for example, even though they do not have the white experience.”
Feeling the hate
Arabs and Muslims in the United States also contended with an increase in hate crimes. The period around 9/11 was the worst time for hate crimes against Arabs and Muslims, according to Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino.
“Anti-Muslim hate crime really had a surge that we hadn't seen before,” says Levin. “So, we went from seeing 30 or less in any given year, give or take, to 481 in 2001, most of them clustered around the two weeks of the World Trade Center and Pentagon (attacks).”
Since then, hate crimes against Arabs and Muslims tend to spike whenever there is an extremist attack overseas, according to Levin, while Muslim achievement often goes unnoticed.
“What's happened is that anti-Muslim hate and Arabophobic prejudice has been normalized,” he says. “We will see hate crimes rise against various communities, including Muslim Americans and Arab Americans, when there is a significant event going on that in some way casts them in a negative light. … You're not seeing wall-to-wall specials about how we wouldn't have this (COVID-19) vaccine if a Muslim Ph.D. didn't pioneer it. I wonder if we’d see a change in attitudes if we got similar wall-to-wall coverage about Muslim lifesaving.”
Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine was developed by Dr. Ugur Sahin and his wife, Dr. Özlem Türeci, German Muslims of Turkish descent.
The Council on American Islamic Relations, a Muslim civil rights and advocacy group, documented more than 10,000 anti-Muslim bias incidents from 2014-2019, and another 6,000 in 2020. The incidents included anti-Muslim hate crimes, discrimination, immigration, travel issues and school bullying.
A way forward
Amer says studies conducted in the aftermath of 9/11 showed being viewed with suspicion by some of their fellow citizens and government had a profound psychological impact on Muslim and Arab Americans.
“Muslims in the U.S. had higher rates of depression, anxiety, fear,” says Amer, who is now a professor of clinical and community psychology at The American University in Cairo. “Arab Americans in the U.S. reported feeling more sadness, depression, anxiety, a sense of lack of security, feeling unsafe. But also at the same time, finding sources of resilience and trying to find ways to gain strength from the experience. And try to build community around what had happened on 9/11.”
The attacks triggered a wave of reflection about religious identity in the Muslim American community, including among Arab Americans, African Americans and Americans of South Asian descent, according to Amer.
“People start thinking, ‘What does my religion say? And how important is my religion to me?’" she says. “And do I want to represent my religion? Do I want to present it publicly? Or do I want to keep my religion hidden? After 911, there were reports in the media of Muslim women removing their headscarves and people shedding visible signs of religiosity. And on the other hand, many Muslims went the other way in terms of trying to represent their faith and trying to get more engagement, more involved in interfaith dialogue.”
And that might be the defining positive legacy of 9/11 for Arab and Muslim Americans. Once they no longer felt invisible, once they felt the weight of government surveillance and suspicion, they recognized the need to build coalitions with other marginalized communities.
“They want to really fight the fear, and so, in order to fight their fear, they have to mobilize themselves and others to support them,” says Abu-Ras. “I see a new, educated, aware, cohort of Muslims who really try to use advocacy, who really try to use volunteerism. … They were more motivated by a newfound identity and desire to engage in the overall American civic life, and to take part in the community activities, and to present Arab- and Muslim-based organizations.”
Arabs and Muslims in the United States realized that if they wanted to get support from other Americans in defense of their civil rights, they needed to build stronger ties, says Cainkar, who adds that U.S. Arabs and Muslims have been very active in building ties with Black, Latino, Jewish and LGBTQ communities.
“On the positive side, I would say that after September 11, Arab and Muslim Americans really stood almost alone. They had very few people defending them against all the civil rights violations they were facing,” Cainkar says. “And slowly over time, a lot of communities in the United States, communities of people of color, began rallying in defense and support of Arab and Muslim Americans ... an increase in civil rights solidarity with Arab and Muslim Americans that didn't occur before.”