One of the enduring tragedies of the September 11th attacks is the surge of anti-Muslim and anti-Arab bigotry they left in their wake. In the first ten years after 9/11, over 150 incidents of anti-Muslim hate crimes and harassment were reported, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. South Asian, Muslim, Sikh and Arab Americans were unjustly detained at airports, children were bullied by classmates repeating the prejudices of their parents, and Muslim workers faced discrimination in the form of racial slurs and restriction of religious clothing. Not to mention the vitriolic backlash against a planned Islamic community center and mosque near ground zero (the center, which is open to all-faiths and includes a 9/11 memorial, won a legal challenge for the right to continue construction, and has been open since 2011).
Well over a decade after 9/11, we are in many ways no closer to healing these wounds. A summary of public opinion surveys compiled earlier this year at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill found that unfavorable views of Muslim Americans are more common today than they were immediately following 9/11. In part, media coverage of last year's Boston Marathon bombing and of the reprehensible acts of ISIS radicals in recent months has contributed to the ignorant villainization of all Muslims (President Obama deserves credit for drawing a clear distinction in his speech yesterday between terrorist groups and the Islam faith). But a number of conservative legislators are actively fanning the flames of prejudice by sponsoring anti-Sharia laws, which are on the books in seven states and have been proposed in over two dozen others since 2010. There are virtually no instances of any American court actually upholding Sharia law over constitutional freedoms - these legislative actions are simply designed to spread anti-Muslim fear (when asked why he was proposing legislation to address a non-existent legal problem, Florida Senator Alan Hays called Sharia law a “deadly disease” requiring “preemptive” legal “vaccination”).
On today’s anniversary, we want to not only honor the lives that were lost on 9/11, but also amplify the work of those who refuse to accept that hatred must breed hatred. Here are just a few of the leaders working to promote tolerance and challenge discrimination towards South Asian, Muslim, Sikh and Arab Americans citizens in post 9/11 America:
1. The Muslim Youth Voice Project is offering week-long filmmaking workshops for 12- to 18-year-olds across the country. Organizers hope that by creating a space for self-discovery and exploration and providing students with filmmaking tools and skills, they can enable young Muslim Americans to counter the negative and biased portrayals of their culture through the telling of their own stories.
2. In 2011, Remziya Suleyman rallied against a proposed Tennessee bill that would have essentially made the practice of Muslim religion a terrorist act. She met with lawmakers across the state, helping them see the dehumanizing nature of the bill, and gathered with over 500 other Muslim citizens outside the Tennessee capitol to protest the bill. The law was significantly amended into a standard anti-terrorism bill with no constraints on the Islam faith. Afterwards, Remziya went on to form the American Center for Outreach (ACO), in order to connect Muslim Americans with the resources they need to become agents of positive change.
3. Palestinian American spoken word artist Suheir Ammad, signed to HBO’s Def Poetry Jam at a young age, refuses to be defined by the expectations and bias of others. Her poems unflinchingly merge the personal and the political, exploring the intersections of race, sexism and identity in America. Listen below to hear “First Writing Since,” capturing her experience of 9/11 and its aftermath as an Arab American woman and calling out the hypocrisy of American attitudes towards Arab people at home and abroad (the poem contains some explicit language).
4. Rep. Keith Ellison, the first Muslim elected to congress, is an important voice for Muslims in government. When a Republican colleague held hearings before the House Homeland Security Committee to link Muslim Americans with “radicalization” and terrorism, Ellison tearfully testified on behalf of his community, sharing the story of a young first responder who lost his life on September 11th, only to be accused after his death of collaborating with the hijackers. When it was discovered earlier this year that the NSA had targeted Muslim Americans for surveillance with no evidence of wrong-doing, Ellison voiced his dismay in no uncertain terms, saying “an American’s faith does not give law enforcement reasonable suspicion to violate their constitutional rights.”