The Effect of 9/11 on Islam in America | Shaykh Husayn El-Mekki
By: Shaykh Husayn El-Mekki Abdullah-Aziz
The United States of America is well known for its culturally diverse setting. The original nationalities and religions of United States citizens are significantly varied. In order to examine the social and political impact of the tragic event of September 11th, it is imperative to illustrate the historic situation of Islam in the United States prior to this event and to then delve into the significant changes which became evident afterwards.
Contrary to most mainstream information, Islam did not only recently find its way into the America. Some sources show that Native Americans had made early contact with Muslims. In his book Saga America, Barry Fell reports several signs of Islam in pre-European America – for example, a rock carving in Inyo County, California, which states in ancient Kufi Arabic script: ‘Yasus bin Maria’ (‘Jesus, Son of Mary’). What Islamic and Native American culture appear to have been fused together in some fashion. An independent study has suggested that approximately 500 names of places in the United States may have been derived from Islamic and Arabic roots. Examples include Mecca, Indiana; Medina, New York, Mahomet (a derivative of Muhammad, common in Turkish), Illinois; and Islamorada, Florida. Mahir Abdal-Razzaaq El, a Cherokee Blackfoot American, even suggests that ‘Tallahassee’ (the capital city of Florida), literally means ‘God will deliver you soon’. While some such claims are still subject to further investigation and verification, the etymological and cultural Islamic influences cannot be denied.
The Slave Trade
Over six hundred years before Christopher Columbus became the known face of the ‘discovery’ of America, West African ships had established a connection with the natives of the New World. There is also evidence that many of these individuals were of an Islamic background. Eventually many European immigrants settled in America. During this time, through the enslavement of Africans, the slave trade of 1530-1850 was established as a very lucrative commercial industry. Many of these Africans who were forced into slavery were in fact Muslim.
Although many of the signs of historic Islam were eradicated with the continuation of slavery and the genocidal extermination of Native Americans and their rich heritage, the immigration of Muslims from the Arab world increased significantly post World War II came for trade or education.
The Resurgence of Islam – the Nation of Islam
Although industrial slavery was abolished, it proved to be nearly impossible to socially restore the situation of the African American people, and the social and economic changes greatly affected them. At that time a voice of justice appeared on the scene advocating self- empowerment, dignity, and integrity for African-Americans. This black nationalist organization was known as the Nation of Islam. Although this group was arguably not in line with orthodox Islamic beliefs, it did offer many Islamic principles of merit and morality. Malcolm X was the official spokesman for the organization.
Malcolm X’s Role in the Spread of Islam and the Moderation of Ethnocentrism
Malcolm Little changed his name to Malcolm X to signify the disregard for the last name given to his family by a slave-owner. His passionate speech and charismatic demeanor led the resurgence of Islam with his phenomenal presence. He was considered by many to be the single most influential reason for the rapid growth of Muslims in America. Millions flocked to hear his words on black nationalism, anti-racism and anti-oppression in the name of Islam. Eventually after stumbling upon untruths and corruption within the organization, he broke away from that movement and sought to travel and learn about true Islam. His journey to hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca) proved to be an eye-opener for him and his many followers. His letters and experiences of an Islam without racial boundaries or cultural bias gave Islam a new meaning for the Muslims of America. This era marked tolerance, a significant reduction in ethnocentrism and a new cultural diversity for Islam in America.
The Influence of the Islamic Revolution of Iran
The Islamic Republic of Iran would become the only Islamic state declared completely independent from Western or other control, ties, or stipulations. Ironically, it would also become one of the first countries to recognize the efforts of Malcolm X to end oppressive racial and discriminatory sentiment by honoring him on the face of a national stamp.
American Muslims, especially the minority population, took interest in this newfound state as it seemingly empathized with their plight and struggles. Upon the seizure of the United States embassy in Tehran and the accusation that the United States had been engaging in espionage, Ayatollah Khomeini (the leader of the revolution) ordered several of the women and African- Americans to be released stating that they had already suffered ‘the oppression of American society’. This statement played a role in the spread of Shi‘ism as many Muslims began to research this lesser known segment of Muslims. This also led to a spread in the development of Islamic Shi‘a centers, organizations, establishments, seminars and conferences. Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life estimates the Shi‘a population to have reached roughly 15% of the total Muslim population in the United States in 2009.
Advent of Wahhabism
During this era the advent of Wahhabism also became more evident in America. Many Islamic centers and mosques became more influenced by this rigid, extreme and stringent version of Islam and while it did appeal to some who sought a strict lifestyle of discipline from indecent social freedoms, it became a tool for anti-Islamic propaganda.
The Journey of Islam
Considering that Islam had thus far journeyed far and long with much trial and tribulation throughout the United States, its mark was molded into the cultural framework of American citizens. This would affect not only their reaction to Islam but also their disposition regarding Muslims.
Political Statements Prior to September 11th
Prior to September 11th the blossoming of Islam was observed and scrutinized carefully. Islam was seen as a threat according to many government advisors and politicians for years; however this view was not broadcasted as openly prior to the incident of September 11th. One instance was then New York Mayor, Rudolph Giuliani’s politically correct response to the World Trade Center bombing: ‘He declared that the verdict “demonstrates that New Yorkers won’t meet violence with violence, but with a far greater weapon – the law.”’
Media Portrayal and General Public Opinion
Mainstream media portrayal of Islam has never been very positive or accurate. Criticism from Muslim communities has always surrounded media and journalists who have often made a point to mention the faith of a culprit only if he were Muslim or even remotely affiliated with Islam. However the lack of balance and honest portrayal became more evident with events such as the Columbine High massacre. Although in this tragic incident many were killed and more injured and 2 shooters committed suicide, the media did not wreak any havoc over their religious beliefs or affiliation. Some stereotyped and categorized all Muslims in a negative light, and others, sometimes due to affiliation with a Muslim, had a tendency to use a more conventional approach.
Census statistics have been greatly disputed by some researchers who believe that the number of Muslims is generally downplayed by the United States government in efforts to ‘marginalize Islam’ or by other researchers who claim that Muslims overstate their population to gain political clout. In 1995 the ambiguous number of the Muslim population was estimated to have been between approximately 1 to 5 million. While these statistics leave major room for debate, the UN has estimated the growth rate of Islam to have been the highest globally, at 6.40% in 1994-1995.
The official timeline of the tragic event of September 11 was released by CNN the following day, titled ‘Chronology of Terror’. This was dubbed an ‘act of war’. White House statements were delivered by then President George W. Bush where he focused on reassuring the American people that the September 11 attacks would not impede justice and that the War on Terror would be ‘handled’.
Conspiracy Theory and Skepticism
The 9/11 Truth Movement is amongst the many groups who believed that there was either a full- fledged conspiracy on hand or, at the least, there were truths which they had been denied access to. Skepticism grew to an all-time high as the motives for war which followed the incident shortly after were questioned. The President’s approval rating dropped to unthinkable 18%. Analysts and journalists asked many questions, which they felt did not receive adequate response.
Amongst the many sceptics is Dylan Avery who sought to make a movie about a group of friends who discover that 9/11 was an inside job. In the process of doing his research, he became convinced that the conspiracy theory was true and produced the documentary Loose Change. Michael Moore was another doubter who regularly spoke out against mainstream views. His movie and book Fahrenheit 9/11 gave the sceptics’ view even more publicity. Guillietto Chisea, a journalist and member of European parliament wrote about his views and – like the many other sceptics – asked questions which seemed very logical. How could all the recorded tapings of the incident surrounding the Pentagon be seized all at once and no one be allowed to view them? How could buildings built as strong as the Twin Towers collapse due to the airplane crash as this was against the laws of physics? Why did Building Seven mysteriously collapse? How could amateur pilots gain access to and control such a complicated aircraft? Why did CIA officials have previous ties with al-Qaida?
But while the questions were many, the answers were not. And the enemy became, in the eyes of the American people, Islam. Many began questioning Islamic principles and Muslims altogether. Such a cruel act could only be the work of terrorists. The peaceful nature of Muslims and Islam truly became a debatable topic.
Mainstream Media Reaction
Every channel interrupted its regularly scheduled programs as more and more coverage of post 9/11 anti-Islamic sentiments devoured the media. Much focus was put on the terrorists and the fact that they were ‘Muslims’ or affiliated with Islam. The immediate reaction of the media was that ‘Muslim terrorists’ had attacked the free world and the freedoms and liberties which the great United States had been built upon. Seemingly, politicians had found a new scapegoat. Muslims were placed under high scrutiny.
The natural reaction for anyone who is told that they have been savagely attacked and waged war on is panic, and retaliation against terrorism spawned in the communities of America. Many citizens took out their frustrations on Muslims and Muslim establishments.
Social Difficulties for Muslim Women
Muslim women are considered in some ways to be the flag of Islam, as their outward appearance usually illustrates and represents Islam. But from those women brave enough to maintain their Islamic identity, many paid the price. They became an easy target for cowards who had grown hateful of all Muslims. Vicious incidents of attacks upon Muslim women put Muslims to great grief.
Retaliation Against Muslims
Incidents of attacks on Muslim places of worship also were very shocking. Hate messages were written by some extremists on the walls and doors of peaceful homes and places of worship. Arson was even attempted upon other Muslim establishments.
Reaction from Muslim Citizens
The ‘land of the free’ had transmogrified into the land of disarray, utter chaos and mayhem. The constitutional rights of freedom of religion and freedom of speech and the pursuit of happiness became an elusive hope for American Muslims who found themselves victims of September 11th. Many Muslims felt obligated to buy American flags and boast their patriotic views. Some Muslim women opted to take off their hijab out of fear of being a walking target for this newfound discrimination, which was analogous to the sentiment of the Nazis to the Jewish people.
Although law-abiding Muslim citizens were not even remotely involved, it offered some peace of mind to those who were now against Islam to hear the many Muslim leaders and organizations come forth and offer their condolences to the families of those who were innocent victims as they condemned such terroristic acts.
Celina Childs mentions in ‘Breaking the Stereotype of Islam’ that ‘when the word “Muslim” is mentioned, some people automatically think of the word “terrorist”.’ News coverage rarely mentioned a Muslim perpetrator without mentioning his faith. This had a great impact on public opinion. The biased slant of media coverage, although evident to many, did not change the disposition of those who had grown to become passionately in opposition of Muslims and Islam.
In ‘Stereotypes of Muslims, Their Causes and Their Consequence’, John Sides states:
We investigate the stereotypes that Americans posses of both Muslims and Muslim- Americans. We find that negative stereotypes relating to violence ad trustworthiness are remarkably commonplace and that little distinguishes Muslims from Muslim-Americans in the public’s mind. These stereotypes are underpinned by a similar set of factors that underpin stereotypes of blacks, Hispanics and Asians – notably authoritarian values. Furthermore, these stereotypes have consequences; those with less favorable views of Muslims are more likely to support several measures that are part of the broader War on Terror. One could argue that even in this attempt to vocalize and break down such stereotypes, the writer by categorization, has alluded to and constructed yet another stereotype in the process with the distinction between “Muslims” and “Muslim- Americans”.
The event was regarded as the ‘advent of World War III’. Policies became a tool for targeting Muslims. The United States government has stated that they have no war against Islam itself and only have a war against extremists and terrorists. However, the disturbing Islamophobic actions and statements made by prominent politicians and government officials differ greatly. United States Representatives such as Virgil H. Goode, Jr. (Republican-Virginia) was quoted as saying, ‘I fear that in the next century we will have many more Muslims in the United States if we do not adopt the strict immigration policies that I believe are necessary to preserve the values and beliefs traditional to the United States of America’. And even more anti-Islamic sentiment is plain as day what United States attorney General John Ashcroft publicly stated: ‘Islam is a religion in which God requires you to send your son to die for him. Christianity is a faith in which God sends his son to die for you.’
The Press Coverage of Islam, Exposure and Globalization
Although the press coverage of the 9/11 attacks did not favour Muslims as they had all been placed in a single category as one single entity, it did cause Islam to become the ‘hot topic’ of journalism and media. In remote very rural regions of America where contact with Muslims was less likely, this incident had caused everyone in every place to be, at the minimum, aware that Islam existed. The positivity of this is certainly debatable, as many would argue that only negative talk was aroused.
Fields of study such as Islamic studies, Middle Eastern studies and studies of Middle Eastern languages such as Arabic, Urdu, Pashto and Farsi increased to an all time high as the demand increased, not only in academia but in the government as well. Conferences and seminars were attended throughout the country and various universities. Even some public schools were given budgets to acquire Middle Eastern and Asian language courses. An unprecedented demand for awareness and knowledge of Islamic civilization, culture, language and religion grew in academic domains.
Organizations, Muslim and non-Muslim, sought to bring a balance to the media portrayal of Muslims. Countless websites were launched, and several free air satellite TV stations, radio stations, newspapers, short films, and other media coverage put great focus on showing what true Islam represented and who true Muslims were. Some Muslim organizations claim that the word ‘Islam’ and its variations (‘Muslim’, ‘Islamic’, etc.) were amongst the top words searched on the Internet. Innumerable amounts of media were constructed condemning the atrocities of 9/11.
Increase in Awareness and Interest in Islam
Controversy always stirs curiosity, and for many non-Muslims this tragic event led to research. For many, the result was learning the truth of Islam. A new respect and edification emerged. They became able to differentiate between an individual and a group of people’s actions as opposed to the true beliefs themselves. The reality is that ‘Islam’ and ‘Muslim’ are not synonymous. Islam itself is a religion, and a Muslim is someone who makes a verbal claim to adhere to the principles of the religion or perhaps is just born into the religion. But the nature of human beings is that they possess free will and are not bound or forced to hold fast to even the most ethical or well reasoned of views. Therefore in many cases ‘Muslim’ is just a label like any other adjective such as ‘doctor’, ‘student’, or ‘Christian’; and while the principles of being a doctor and healing the sick are admirable, it is safe to say that every doctor is not a good or upright doctor. This obviously does not represent any flaw in the field of medicine, and the same analogy can be made for Muslims in America. This realization has become somewhat evident for some non-Muslims in America, as displayed in the study of post 9/11 reactions of non-Muslims towards Muslims done by ABC (the American Broadcasting Channel).
For many who did not embrace Islam, understanding more about the peaceful nature of the religion helped them to gain a more objective and balanced disposition.52 Even military soldiers like Chris Irwin who were part of the United States defence embraced Islam.53 The effect of 9/11 was clearly not limited to non-Muslims and many Muslims, especially second and third generation Muslims, found themselves with a need to fulfil their own identities as Muslims and as Westerners and to give substance to their previous acculturation of Islam.54 This urged the many college and university MSA (Muslim Student Association) groups to become more active and for youth to re-establish their own identity representing both the future of the West and the future of Islam.
Word association would be redefined to an extent as scholars began to question terminologies that had become normalized, such as ‘fundamentalist’, and discover its true Christian related origin and more correct usage.56 Some intellectuals have concluded that even the election of President Barak Obama is a result of September 11th, the political circumstances of the time, and the readiness for change. Also, it signified the American people’s willingness to embrace a president with a name rooted in Arabic and born to a Muslim father and blatantly different from the traditional United States presidents in appearance. This all was a testament to a newfound religious and social tolerance which had surfaced.
A Nation at War
The dissatisfaction of the American public with the wars abroad resulted in public support of Muslim regions. Following September 11th was the explicit War on Terror, which resulted in the American presence in the Middle East, namely in Iraq and Afghanistan. In the early stages, when many Americans found themselves still very hostile towards Islam and Muslims, it was easy to support such wars. However, after countless expensive years and a rising death toll of United States troops and an alarming increase in troops gone AWOL (absent without leave), the public opinion changed significantly. Non-Muslim Americans began regular anti-war protests. This became a basis for mending a torn relationship.
This common ground of anti-war protests and views helped bridge a gap between Muslim and non-Muslims in America and even globally. This made it easier for alliances to be formed and for interfaith networking to take place. Muslims and non-Muslims alike were welcomed by a multitude of organizations unifying and denouncing the wars which resulted from 9/11. Muslim, Jewish, Christian, and religiously non-affiliated scholars and leaders alike worked together to speak out.
Reassessment of Judgments
The standard for measuring Muslims in a just and democratic society should be the same standard used for followers of any other religion. Essentially justice would advocate that an individual is judged on his or her own merit and actions, and a verbal claim of religious affiliation cannot be used as a means or basis for passing rational judgment.
Boomerang Effect of Anti-Islamic Propaganda
Much propaganda has been channelled through media illustrations of a very dangerous and dreadful Islam. Each major news agency can be found to have been guilty of unbalanced media coverage, and this is evident still. Some debate that this was a carefully calculated attack against Islam to justify the War on Terror. Nonetheless, what did emerge from the dusty shadows of the devastating event of September 11th was the need to comprehend Muslims and Islam. Years later, Islam has risen in America; drawing in more converts than ever before.
Growth of Islam
It is impossible to say that 9/11 did not affect Muslims in America as many suffered unique forms of discrimination. As the media sensationalization drew global and national interest, ironically the peaceful truths of Islam were unveiled for many who sought to understand them, and a conscious differentiation was made between ‘Muslim’, ‘Islam’, and ‘terror’. Today an estimated 6.4 to nearly 8 million Muslims reside in the United States. The Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life shows the United States Muslim population in 2007 at over 3 million. And the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace shows the 2008 estimated Muslim population of America to be at nearly 6.5 million. The American Religious Identification Survey (A.R.I.S.) indicated there were approximately 500,000 United States Muslims in 1990 and double that number (over 1 million) in 2001. And while these statistics will always be debated due to inconsistent methods of measure, what can be certain is that Islam remains consistently the fastest growing religion in the United States. This is evidence of the reported 25% increase of Muslim from 1989-1998 in North America. American Muslims, wanted or unwanted, have become an established and ingrained part of society. Arguably the greatest impact of 9/11 on Islam was the rise of Islam and the unification of American citizens. A country assembled upon the infrastructure of diversity has thrived through trying times and adversity only to overcome the 9/11 ruination and calamity and show resilience in face of loss of life and loss of tranquillity, but in the aftermath, Americans would need to garner understanding and neutrality to re-embrace the composition of tolerance of difference and diversification which is the fabric of the liberty and unity of a great nation.