Islamophobia - is the US better now?
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Alia Malek remembers the day she had a book signing at a Muslim cultural centre. Sitting in the audience, listening to her speak about her personal history of Arab-Americans called A Country Called Amreeka, the Federal Bureau of Investigation was watching...and listening.
Malek, a Syrian-American, and a lawyer, who once worked for the US Department of Defence in Washington D.C., admits that her personal tale of Islamophobia is quite mild in comparison to the oral histories she documented for her book Patriot Acts: Narratives of Post 9-11 Injustice.
The 18 people interviewed for the book experienced everything from being pulled-off a plane for wearing a t-shirt that had “menacing” Arabic characters printed on it, to a 16-year-old girl targeted by an FBI operative for attending a 'terrorist' speech at a mosque, to stories of rendition.
The majority of the 19 al-Qaeda terrorists who planned and carried out the 9/11 terrorist attacks were from Saudi Arabia; one was from the United Arab Emirates. They had distinct ties to Pakistan. Al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden, also a Saudi national, had been hiding in Pakistan.
In New York, the makeup of the Pakistani community in Queens’ Jackson Heights neighbourhood changed forever as many people left after the attacks of 11 September, 2001, according to Masood Haider, United Nations correspondent for The Daily Dawn, Pakistan’s largest newspaper. Those who left were replaced by the Bangladeshi community, he says.
Haider says Pakistanis were blamed for the attacks by many: “Some had overstayed their visas, so they thought it was wise to go back, but others truly felt unwelcome.”
High school students at the al Noor Muslim school in Brooklyn ask: “why do they feel that they are occasionally being targeted?”, says assistant principal Ahmad Hamid. “They don’t understand. And they cannot connect this to 9/11,” he says. “But truth of fact is we are still affected by 9/11.”
Americans banded together in grief, in a unity that many say has not been seen since World War II. But Islamophobic attacks were on the rise. Balbir Singh Sodhi, a Sikh, not a Muslim, was shot four days after the 11 September terrorist attacks, making him the first fatality in a nationwide wave of hate crimes that targeted minorities.
The blame game continues to explain how something like this could have happened in the US. The Council on American-Islamic Relations reports that there have been 1,714 cases of hate crimes in the US New York after the World Trade Center attacks.
“We saw Americans risk their lives to save people, who were going to be victims of hate crimes, and we saw Americans perpetrating hate crimes, so there’s no homogeneity in the American reaction,” says Malek.
Although Arabs and Muslims have been coming to the US since the late 1800s, with Russians, and Italians and the Irish, Malek says that Islamophobia started to become an issue with the founding of the state of Israel in 1948.
“The American identification of the Israeli narrative is when you see the development of this really racialized and not particularly flattering understanding of Arabs in the American imagination,” she says.
In the aftermath of 9/11, the George W. Bush administration clamped down on civil liberties with the Patriot Act.
“It’s been quite a 10-year period,” says Vincent Warren, executive director for the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York. “In the United States context, it’s meant essentially one of the biggest blows to US democratic principals since they put Japanese in internment camps in the 1940s.”
Warren says that the George W. Bush administration took more power than any other presidency: “They acted as if they were above the law, throwing people in jail without trials, sending people to different countries to be tortured. It’s phenomenally changed with the US respect to human rights.”
Malek agrees. “The (US) government spoke for all of us,” she says. “It’s one thing when individuals commit evil. I think when the state does it, we should hold them to a higher standard.”
If any positives can be taken from this dark decade after 9/11, it’s an overall greater awareness Americans have of the Muslim religion, says Haider. And vice-versa. “Pakistanis who are here have become very aware of their civil rights.”
As to whether Islamophobia will continue remains to be seen. Haider thinks that the atmosphere will not get better than it is today. Malek, on the other hand, is more positive.
“If Americans think these are all foreign and new groups, and there is something so foreign and new about them that they can’t be absorbed, I find that the best remedy for that can be history,” she says.
“When people were chanting Islam, it can never be American, the reality is they said the same thing about Catholicism 100 years ago in this country.”
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