September 11, 2001 – the deadliest attack on the United States of America in the nation’s history. Four planes, hijacked by 19 people, caused $10 billion worth of damage, took the lives of almost 3,000 people, and injured more than 6,000. That tragic day, the lives of every single Muslim person around the world changed drastically. At the time, I was just a young five year old boy, too naïve to notice the consequences of what had happened – but to this day, more than fourteen years later, Muslims like myself are still suffering through the consequences of the tragic events of 9/11. But why are events that occurred over a decade ago still affecting the way we live, the way the media works, and what the government does?
Terrorism is an inexpensive and efficient device, which uses fear to convey a political message. What makes it effective is the way in which we react to it – terrorists act in order to gain individual and collective responses from the people, and it is the nature of the response that determines how successful an attack is. After 9/11, the world stood behind the United States of America – leaders around the world condemned the attacks; The Star-Spangled Banner played at Buckingham Palace, in Berlin and on the streets of Paris; hundreds and thousands of peopled gathered to pray for the victims and held moments of silence around the world in memory of those who lost. A sense of cohesion grew in America as blacks and whites, Muslims and Christians, men and women gathered to fight the dastardly effects of the attacks on their nation. Religious leaders from an Imam in Queens to Reverend Billy Graham prayed for the victims and encouraged love and unity at the time of tragedy. Police and rescue workers from around the country took leaves of absence, traveling to New York City to help in the rescue efforts. People raised over $3 million for the Red Cross in just two days, and nearly 36,000 units of blood were donated to the New York Blood Center. America truly felt and looked like ‘one nation’ as people flew the flag high on their front porches and gathered in Chicago’s Daley Plaza and New York’s Union Square Park to grieve and commemorate with fellow Americans. President George W. Bush stood in front of a joint session of Congress and united Americans in his declaration of ‘War on Terror’. In his speech, the President addressed me, as a Muslim, and stated, ‘We respect your faith’ as he assured Muslims around the world that ‘the enemy of America is not our many Muslim friends. It is not our many Arab friends. Our enemy is a radical network of terrorists…’ and to top it all off, he promised to ‘meet violence with patient justice,’ As a Muslim and an American, I would happily have stood with Congress on that day and applauded the words that the President said, as a Muslim and an American, I could not agree with them more.
However, not all responses to the terrorist attacks were as positive; the reality of the supposed war was very different to the one the President had promised. Within a couple years of Bush’s statement and the attacks, the US government enacted the USA PATRIOT Act, had troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, and had detained around 500 people in Guantanamo Bay without trial – not what I pictured to be patient justice.
The USA PATRIOT Act allowed for the indefinite detainment of Americans and immigrants suspected of terrorist activities; it gave the government the ability to secretly search and seize Americans’ papers and effects without probable cause to assist in terror investigations; and it allowed the government to monitor political and religious institutions without suspecting criminal activity in order to help in terror enquiries – all violations to the first and fourth amendments of the US Constitution. In Guantanamo Bay, the US government has detained innocent people and tortured them in the most inhumane ways from force-feeding to public humiliation and horrendous conditions. One of the many examples is Mohammed al Qahtani who for 48 days was subjected to intense sleep deprivation, allowed to sleep for no more than four hours a day. When he did manage to sleep, he was often awoken with water being poured repeatedly on his head. He was subjected to forced nudity and sexual and religious humiliation. He was compared to a pig and rat and dogs were used to induce fear in him. Qahtani, and many others who suffered similar or worse conditions are testament to the fact that the government didn’t respond to the violent attacks with ‘patient justice’ rather with injustice and more violence.
But it wasn’t only the government who acted in this way, the media and even some people took it upon themselves to attack Islam, Arabs and people of South Asian descent. In the ten days that followed the attacks, there were almost 600 incidents of abuse and attacks on Muslims and Arabs. In Chicago, 500 people attacked a mosque and refused to leave, while in Texas a Pakistani man was shot in a grocery store and in Arizona a Sikh gas station owner – mistaken for a Muslim – was shot dead by a man on an ‘anti-Arab’ riot. The media further alienated groups; Jerry Falwell publically blamed ‘pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians’ for aiding the tragic event; Bill O’Reilly stated ‘Muslims killed us on 9/11’, and religious figureheads like Jimmy Swaggart commented, ‘we ought to take every single Muslim student in every single college in this nation and ship them back to where they came from.’ The media, the government and some of the people decided to alienate certain groups of society, causing hatred and violence whilst increasing the sense of fear and division in the nation.
As I grew older, I started to realize the impact that the attacks had on my life. As an American who lived abroad, I used to return every summer to Los Angeles to visit my family. On these journeys I noticed that my family was put aside for extra screenings and that we faced hostility and rude questioning when flying through major airports in the US like New York’s JFK airport and LAX. I was constantly fearful when traveling. Other American Muslims feared getting pulled over and abused by the police, whilst some were fearful of the hostility they would face at work or school – and the rest of the nation feared another attack. This sense of fear is exactly what terrorists aim to induce. They use their violence and killing to create a sense of distress amongst the people, increasing disorder and carnage. They use the media and the freedom of the press in Western democracies to spread their message far and wide. By reacting in these divisive ways – isolating certain parts of society and increasing the sense fear and hatred – we are simply feeding into the hands of the terrorists.
We now fast forward over a decade after 9/11 and terrorism still plays a major role in our lives. Following the recent Charlie Hebdo attacks, more than three million people participated in marches in France and in cities across the world – a positive and uniting response in the face of tragedy. However, history repeated itself and yet again the media started alienating groups of society. From Bill Maher’s Muslim bashing on Real Time to Fox News’ Lisa Kennedy Montgomery calling for Americans to arm themselves, the US media encouraged divisions in society and a hatred towards Muslims. The people followed suit, deciding to use violence as retaliation to the attacks – in the week after the shooting, 54 anti-Muslim incidents were reported in France including 21 reports of shootings and grenade throwing at mosques and other Islamic centers and 33 cases of threats and insults.
I had a sickening feeling after the shootings – a feeling of nervous anticipation for what was to come for Muslims around the world. I hoped against hope that somehow it was a mistake – that the terrorists weren’t using the shield of Islam to kill innocent people – but it now appears as though I (along with Muslims around the world) will have to live with the difficult consequences of the blasphemous acts of groups like Al-Qaeda and ISIS. As the US government tries to introduce programs like CVE – an initiative that singles out Muslim communities in the US in an attempt to ‘Counter Violent Extremism’ – it seems that life as a Muslim in the West is not likely to get any easier, and it is clear that the governments around the world are continuing to alienate sectors of society. For decades, we have been responding to terrorism in a divisive and negative manor. We spread fear and hatred throughout the world and give terrorists the victory they are looking for. It is time for us to change; governments, the media and the people need to learn to respond to terrorism with unity and cohesion, not with fear and hatred.
Follow Kaamil – @KaamilHussain